Craig Finn boasts nearly two decades of experience between his former and current bands, Lifter Puller and The Hold Steady, respectively. The idea for a solo project came about when The Hold Steady decided to take a five-month hiatus, leaving the frontman the opportunity to strike out on his own.
“I didn’t have anything else to do,” he said.
Of taking on a more assertive role creatively, Finn said: “I think there is a little different pressure when you’re a solo artist because I’m not just playing by myself. I’m playing with musicians backing me up. With a band it’s kind of, ‘All for one and one for all.’ Where I have a little different relationship with the musicians, I get along with them and all that, I’m certainly the leader in this situation.”
AudioFile recently sat down with the songwriter in New York City at the Aussie-owned Sunburnt Calf. Incidentally, Finn cites the city of Melbourne, Australia, as his favorite international place to play.
But the transplanted Brooklynite, with roots in Minneapolis and New England, can’t seem to get away from his fascination with America and its themes. Geographic locations and varying subcultures of America seep into his lyrics. The stories Finn explores on “Clear Heart Full Eyes” often fall on the moodier side of the spectrum.
“Sometimes, when people get to the dark place, it’s only through a few decisions,” Finn said.
Touching upon the subject of depression in the song “Jackson,” Finn has a penchant for embracing seemingly troubled souls.
“It’s sort of a fascinating thing to me just because it’s hard to empathize sometimes with people who have mental health problems,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Why don’t you just act normal? Why don’t you just do this?’ So it’s a topic that I keep going into. And it affects so many people to different degrees. It kind of continues to be a well of creative thought for me.”
But perhaps one of the most well-known casts of characters that Finn draws upon for inspiration is none other than television’s all-American football team, the Dillon Panthers. It’s no secret that Finn is a huge “Friday Night Lights” fan. Juxtaposing the Panthers’ pre-game mantra – “Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t lose.” – Finn came up with a battle cry of his own.
The result particularly appealed to him because the words “clear” and “full” mirror the initials in his name. But more important for Finn, who recently turned 40, was the message.
“The title kind of meant to me, ‘clear heart,’ meaning honesty, transparency, and ‘full eyes,’ meaning experience,” he said. “The idea of keeping optimism, keeping hope alive, even with ongoing experience was part of what I thought the record was about.”
Finn also drew inspiration from literary sources. Growing up, he said, he was always writing songs, in large part, because he loved reading fiction. His latest must-read: The 2011 Man Booker Prize winner, “The Sense of Ending” by Julian Barnes.
“It was really good,” Finn said. “It had to deal with memory, which is kind of a fascinating topic to me, about how our memories build things. And maybe you don’t always get it quite right. Our perceived memory for something 20 years from now isn’t exactly what it is, but we kind of build on it. We build our lives and our opinions and our expectations on this.”
While the songwriter has completed a screenplay (an adaptation of Chuck Klosterman‘s “Fargo Rock City” with David Letterman writer and friend, Tom Ruprecht), Finn is not quite ready to become a novelist, believing it to be too solitary of a profession.
“And there’s a lot of room for self-doubt to creep in and tell you what you’re doing is terrible,” he said. “I’d have to overcome that before I get anywhere further on a book.”
Perhaps the critical success of “Clear Heart Full Eyes” will give him a little more self-assurance in the future.
Offering some final thoughts on his solo venture, Finn concluded, “You know, everything you do, every time you complete something to your liking that’s successful to you gives you confidence, and I think that confidence will stay with me for sure.”