With an empty house and some much deserved peace and quiet, what's an empty-nester to do after the kids are no longer running around the house? Some want to travel the world. Others want to just enjoy the domestic tranquility.
This is not what Neil and Sharon Finn did. In fact, they did the opposite.
Instead of globetrotting or listening to the sounds of silence, they made more noise. To be sure: when it comes from the voice or the pen of Neil Finn, it's never noise. You can dispute the talents of many people in music, but of this fact there is no arguing: Finn is one of the most talented songwriters ever (listen to any Crowded House album and you'll see what I mean). The Finns' new project, Pajama Club, is the result of red wine and lots of time. With the kids gone, Neil and Sharon needed something to do. Maybe the house was too quiet. So Neil picked up the drums and Sharon the bass--instruments out of their comfort zone--and began jamming. Playing the rhythm section is an odd way to start an album, but if anyone can pull that off, it's Finn.
This is precisely why Neil Finn is so good: it's tempting to see a quiet, empty house as a place to relax, but to him, it's a space to create. And that's one of the reasons why he's been such a fantastic songwriter for over 30 years.
Pajama Club's album comes out in September. They are embarking on a short tour of the US and UK, beginning June 23 in the Washington DC area. Read my interview with Neil Finn after the video.
Not on a permanent basis. I've enjoyed and spent time painting and writing journals, but not for public consumption. I try to put the same level of concentration into anything artistic that I'm trying to do. I think it's the same part of the brain that you exercise with songwriting, and those outlets are glorious changes from the discipline of making a song.
Do some of your songs start as visual images?
For me, sense of place is a common starting point. I'll get a few lines that suggest a place and a time. That's a great starting point for me, because I might not need to know what's actually happening in specific narrative terms. In that sense, it is visual.
How do you get inspired to write?
I find that I need to create the time and the daily ritual. There is the odd time when I sit down at the piano or with a guitar and something flies out, but if I sat around and waited for that all the time, it would be too sporadic. I like to create space and make sure I've tidied the room and paid all the bills. Then I get inside the music for days and days on end. It often starts off rather uninspiring or uninteresting, but through the process I work my way into a good place.
You sound like a novelist who imposes discipline on the writing process. Are you a disciplined songwriter?
Not as much as I'd like to be. I've got a lot going on in my life. In some ways it's almost tempting to create distractions, because songwriting is a very confrontational process and until you've got something, you've got nothing. That can make me feel a bit worthless. If I can work for a few days on end in a reasonably uncluttered space, mentally and physically, I'll come up with something that fires up my imagination. Somebody said once that inspiration is what happens when you start working, and I believe that.
Do you like to create a certain block of time in your day to write?
I like to, though it's hard to achieve that in big chunks of time. But if I'm between album cycles and I have a few months, I do try to do that on a daily basis.
How does your songwriting process start?
It's always a case of just dreaming away and drifting away until something happens. I tape everything I do and play along with a drum machine or some kind of loop that gets me into a creative atmosphere. If I introduce a random element, it keeps me going. If I find a good loop or drum part, it keeps me working the feel of the song. The key is filling up the blank page with a few lines. Once that happens, things start to flow. Because I tape everything, I listen back and find the twenty seconds or so that had something to it. Then I make another quick demo, using that short part as the foundation. Often I make up to five instant demos, even overdubbing them, just to sell myself on that sense of atmosphere.
How often do you decide to write a song about a certain topic?
Almost never. I may have done it a couple of times, but that's rare. I normally allow the subconscious to dish up something, then I have a look and see what the hell it's describing. After that, I fill in the blanks, or not. Songs usually don't get completed in one go. It's great when that happens, but it's not too often.
What's the benefit of writing a song in one sitting?
I would like to write them all in one go, but it's easy to look up from what you're doing, congratulate yourself on what you have, then go grab a cup of tea for a little reward. You move away from it. Then when you come back, you're not in the same frame of mind. It's hard to pick it up again later.
My songwriting process is often in a nebulous state, where the songs are not defined. I'll happily change them all the way down to the wire, down to the last day of recording. I'm happy for a song to suddenly become vastly transformed from what I thought it was. It feels good not to set them in stone. That way, every day there's a potential for transformation. And that keeps me energized.
Do you have an ideal writing environment?
Yeah, but nothing is crucial. It's great to have a little space of my own. I have that, but I've also written down by the beach. Like I said, I think an uncluttered physical environment is good. But more important is the uncluttered brain. When things are competing for attention in your brain, it's hard to concentrate. When you write, you are fully conscious, but somewhere deep.
What happens when you get writer's block?
I mope around for a while and feel useless. But there's a force of will involved. Most of the people I know who are songwriters are very hard workers. There's flashes of inspiration, sure, but with most of them there's a force of will. Which is probably the reason why most people don't write songs. I would suggest that more people would be good at writing songs than realize it, but they haven't had the force of will to keep doing it and not give up.
The songwriters who have been around for a while seem to recognize that you have to work at it. It's not about waiting around for the perfect moment.
It's a cart before the horse thing, isn't it? I have no way of knowing how it is for anyone else, but I suspect that the purple patches that happen in writers' lives, where it feels effortless, happen because they are living life at an intense pace that's dishing out quite a bit of inspiration. Inevitably, if you draw the curtains on your life and close yourself off, that's the point where you can apply discipline to your work and write in a focused way.
What's your ideal emotion in which to create?
Empathy. You hit upon something that makes you feel a certain way because you know someone else can relate. In some cases, it might be my wife or someone close to me, where there's a feeling between us that we both recognize. But that's the mark of a great song: you feel a sense of empathy with the songwriter and singer that touches something universal yet intensely personal. That's what I look for in a song.
How does the writing process work with you and Sharon with your new project Pajama Party?
The whole thing started with the two of us jamming on drums and bass. We found that we had some time at night to play together. We realized we could play together on instruments that were not familiar to either of us. We were evenly matched, and we could make a really good sound. We took these early jams that were charming and muscular, and it inspired the process of making songs. It was a different process in that we were starting the songwriting process with the rhythm tracks already done and we had to figure out what the rest of the record sounded like.
When the two of you collaborate, how are the songs actually written?
Once the fields were there, we gravitated towards those with the most potential. We made them into song-like structures, and to a large degree I tried to impose some kind of design on what was a simple architecture with chords, a riff here and there, maybe a vocal refrain. Then we just started singing over them. They came about in an unusual way, though some of the songs were transformed by one idea very quickly. We had the help of our collaborator Sean Donnelly, who was very good at skewing the perspective a little on a few occasions and introducing some new angles.
Working with Sharon, what have you learned about yourself as a songwriter that you didn't know before?
Sharon's ability to see the woods from the trees: affection, nuance, and sophistication are not required. There's an element of all of those on the record because we couldn't help ourselves, but she teaches me to get to the point and to make sure that the listener can follow it.
How much revision do you do to your lyrics?
Tons. The odd one that's written in its entirety from the beginning is often the best one, but I struggle and work things out to the last minute.
Are you motivated to work on songs that are a struggle to finish?
I've got pretty good endurance. I can spend three days in a row trying to find an idea for the verse of a song, and have no luck for two and a half of them. I'm resilient. Laughs. I've had some great success those times, thinking that something is a lost cause and then pushing, pushing, pushing. Sometimes at that moment, when you're at the deepest level of frustration and you do throw it out, there's a great liberation. You find some great ideas can come from casting something aside, destroying it, then rebuilding it into something new.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I don't read as much as I should. I fell off the pace for a while, simply because my eyesight got bad and I was in denial for a long time. Reading was a real struggle. My favorite popular novelist is Ian McEwan. But I've read everyone from Mark Twain to Oscar Wilde. Dylan Thomas is one of my favorites. I've got a record of Under Milk Wood read by Richard Burton. It's a very inspiring work. As far as language goes, it's extraordinary.
When it comes to songwriting, is there any downside to using all the technology available to you?
I don't think so. The only downside is the overwhelming amount of choice. And that can mean a lot of second-guessing when it comes to making music. I was reminded of that last night when I was listening to the McCartney album which was just re-released. One thing that impressed me was the fact that he recorded the whole thing himself, with just a tape recorder and mics. With Pro Tools, it's easy to get microsurgical with songs, and that can make for a sanitized experience, both for the songwriter and the listener.
Common Ground: also read my interviews with:
- Chris Difford (Squeeze)
- David Kilgour (The Clean, David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights)
- Colin Newman (Wire)