Where Neil Finn's at

BRIDGET JONES
Last updated 05:00 02/02/2014
Neil Finn
MICHAEL BRADLEY/Fairfax NZ

NEIL FINN: "I Like the idea that you can create a version of yourself - that it could be a little subversive."

Crowded House
FIONA GOODALL/Fairfax NZ
A DAY ON THE GREEN: Crowded House plays at Villa Maria Estate in Auckland, 2011.
Neil Finn
IN THE DAY: Singing with Crowded House again at the Wellington Town Hall in 1987.

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"I don't think I'm going to venture into rap," decides Neil Finn in between sips of a takeaway coffee.

"DLT tried to convince me once. He said, 'Come on man, you've just got to sound like you're telling a child off.' And when you hear rapping, that kind of makes sense. But you also have to be able to free-form. It's not easy. I could rap all my tweets, maybe - they'd almost suit."

Neil Finn: singer, songwriter, national treasure and, yes, notable Tweeter. Above an Auckland city street heaving with traffic, he's in his sanctuary; his studio.

It's where he created some of his new album, Dizzy Heights, and where various friends and family have recorded parts of theirs.

Crowded House files bulk out the bookcase, alongside a modest CD collection featuring WOMAD collections and something threatening to contain Australia's Ultimate Songs.

There are instruments, too - drums and an R Lipp & Sohn piano sit at opposite ends of the room, with a mixing desk lining the wall in between. A bass amp doubles as a coffee table.

The half-made bed underneath the window is where EJ, Jimmy Barnes' daughter (and long-time collaborator with Finn's eldest son, Liam) is staying at the moment, and there's every chance Kim Dotcom is working on his new album downstairs.

Roundhead Studios is buzzing.

And yet, Dizzy Heights - surprisingly only Finn's third solo album - begins with the line: "I've got no plans for the future; I'm not looking for a change."

The 55-year-old describes it as "the angst of waking up and thinking, 'Well, who am I today? What impression am I going to give to the world?' It doesn't really matter to me if the impression you're giving is the truth, or a whim, or a fancy or a flight - if it's in the moment; if it's happening today."

After you've been in the business for nearly 40 years, you tend to be afforded quite a bit of it. And right now, the man who's already fronted Split Enz and Crowded House, who has recorded albums with his brother, his wife and on his own, is finding new ways to seize the reins with both hands.

From self-directed webcasts beamed across the world from this very room, to spur-of-the-moment shows like the one he threw together at the end of last year to celebrate the festive season.

"In a way, I crave more of that control," he says.

"Not because I'm a control freak - though I'm sure I am in the broad definition of the word - but I like the idea of direct communication. That's what appeals to me about Twitter. I'm weary of it, and I don't want to spend my life on it, but it appeals to me that a whim can be entertaining and you don't have to consider it."

Finn has become something of a revelation online.

His tweets sway between the absurd:

the playful:

and the poignant:


As an X Factor New Zealand armchair critic, his wry quips were no less amusing ("I think it wouldbe grand if the judges could be voted off").

No one is pulling the strings here, except for Finn - who might occasionally be pulling a leg, though it can be hard to tell.

"I like the idea that you can create a version of yourself; that it could be a little subversive," he says. "That [it might] provide a laugh, a small grin for somebody."

But then he changes the subject. The idea of talking about his online persona seems weird to him: people are actually listening to what he says, and that can freak him out.

"I don't really like talking about Twitter in the real word - it's nice to leave it there. The minute somebody comes up to me and says, 'Oh, I read what you said about... ' it makes me think differently next time. I don't really want to think too much about who might be reading."

This niggle of fear has never scared him off music, though. He's never come close to wanting to stop. But, even for the man touted as New Zealand's greatest songwriter, it has got harder to achieve the perfection he craves, and easier to chastise himself for "being useless" and incapable.

"You have your go-to positions and your stock phrases and chord changes that you always find satisfying, and your wistful melancholy that's always going to be appealing. So you have to push yourself to get some new angles and reflect where you're at.

"I do get myself a bit wound up about it sometimes. But it's slightly reassuring to hear people say [of other artists], 'Oh he was a right mess when he made that record.' Or, 'He was no good to anybody; a ball of angst and self-doubt.' You think, 'Okay - maybe I'm not alone.'"

Being adored for your art can intoxicate. A sniff of recognition and it's only human to get excited, to expect more and start pushing the boundaries.

But success can be a vicious beast. "Loving the process and act of making something just blows your mind," Finn starts, eyes shining beneath shaggy mop, despite claims he is feeling "delicate" (overworked? Hungover? He doesn't say).

"Then you take it to an audience and they go crazy. You think, 'What a great feeling. How can this be bad?' You walk off stage thinking, 'I'm really good at this,' and then you believe you're the greatest band on earth, that every other band sucks, and that surely people are going to see how great this is.

"At some point, you realise you aren't kicking goals the whole time any more, and you think: 'Wait, that was pretty shit actually,' because you weren't concentrating for a second. You let your guard down and started thinking it was okay just to turn up. But it wasn't. Then you get a bad manager or something, and you end up on a really daggy TV show, and you realise, 'Oh, we can actually be presented as something quite ordinary.'"

Self-awareness aside, he still battles to avoid these same, destructive drives for success. He knows striving for greatness can be a less-than-noble pursuit.

"I have no illusions. There are vanities involved, and competitiveness, and a lot of self absorption and egocentricity - all those traps. But you have to have a degree of all that to will yourself to do things. Dizzy Heights has led me to think about people's motivation.

"The desire for fame isn't a modern phenomenon. I'm sure people wanted to be famous 500 years ago, probably for winning battles. Now you can just take your clothes off, sit on a wrecking ball, and you'll get there quite quickly."

Finn's had a bit of time to consider all of this since joining big brother Tim's band, Split Enz, in the late 1970s.

Over the past few years, various milestones have  cropped up for the ground-breaking band. But those commemorations have meant very little to them.

"We didn't choose to make much of our 40th anniversary, which in some ways is probably surprising. It kind of passed without notice. And that's totally fine. The work we did matters to us, and we respect the legacy of the band. Treating it with a degree of reverence matters - anniversaries don't."

The lasting impact of spending time in "the gang" is what matters to Finn.

"Talk to anybody who's been in a band that's had a degree of success - and even sometimes when it hasn't. That age between 19 and 30 are formative years. Those relationships endure for the rest of your life. You'll always feel bound to those people: there are intense sensitivities and pride attached. Misunderstandings, and weird communication. Bands are complex beasts."

That might be why Finn hasn't written with a band for a while now. The last Crowded House album was released seven years ago, though only a few years have passed since Pyjama Club, the band he started withwife Sharon.

He says there is no such thing as a "solo", solo album - each has collaboration at its core. On Dizzy Heights, Finn's two sons Liam and Elroy lent a hand.

Liam, who has released three solo albums of his own, says that while Neil makes for lively company at the dinner table ("Usually we end up in crass conversations trying to throw food into each others mouths"), working alongside his father is a relaxed, albeit somewhat quirky, affair.

"When he's writing, Dad enjoys creating a vibe and enjoying it along the way - letting performances happen naturally after a few wines. He seems to have an endless energy for making music. But you can also find him napping on the studio couch, which quite often leads to his freshest ideas.

"Sometimes we get worried he's lost his mind, butthen it all makes sense eventually. Once he made us eat only carrots for two days to see what effect it might have on this really 'orange' song he'd written. It didn't make the record and I hate carrots now."

Methodology aside, Finn Snr says he won't know the true worth of Dizzy Heights for a while yet.

"I have no idea - and never do - how it stacks up in my overall canon of work. You don't know that for years, in a strange way. I don't listen to my old records, but the other day - because I was trying to put together a list of songs I might do on a tour - I listened to all my solo albums, and some of the early Finn brothers. And I was pleasantly surprised overall with the way they sounded. You're always kind of blown away. You forget the process, so it's like, 'Shit, how did I do that? That's really good. Why haven't I tried to do that again?'

"I'd like to get really good at making records. It sounds funny saying that - you'd think after 40 years I'd know how. But sometimes I think I'm just scratching the surface." 

Dizzy Heights is released on Friday

- Sunday Magazine

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