Fragments of fiction
TIM FINN was born in Te Awamutu on June 25, 1952. Ten pounds of boy. His mother and father's pride and joy. We know this, because he wrote it. An arrival announcement, back at the beginning, on the Split Enz song "Haul Away".
Finn's new album, North, South, East, West, will be released tomorrow. It's an anthology, but could also be an autobiography. More than three decades of music across two CDs and 34 songs old, new, reworked, every one with a story behind the story.
Finn sat in his Auckland home last week, his hair gone the obligatorily mentionable grey, a piano behind him, his daughter's drum kit in front of him, and declared John Lennon his hero, his role model.
"He was the master of confessional writing."
Can you know a singer through their songs?
"You can't know everything," says Finn, 57, in love with his wife Marie, his two kids and the lemon tree and swimming pool out the back.
"Because a lot of the things that are very day-to-day and humdrum are what makes us who we are. But you can get a sense. Short of writing a memoir which I don't want to do, I've always baulked at, because I feel, you know, enough! I put out enough in the songs, and to go any deeper ... I guess songwriting is my form that I like to work within."
And so to the songs. Ladies and gentlemen, Tim Finn with the words behind the words.
Squeezed me out of your life, down the drain like molten toothpaste ... I see red, I see red, I see red Frenzy, 1979
"I was in a relationship with somebody who was pretty emotionally damaged. I felt very trapped. I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling, where you know something is over but you're too scared to walk out the door because of what might happen to that person.
"We've lost contact, but a lot of songs came out of that period. She was hilariously funny, and very streetwise in a way that I was never. I was very attracted to her for some of those qualities... and the damaged part of her. Any writer, you sometimes get drawn to the flame and then you get burnt, but you're interested in that, in a voyeuristic way, and it's terrible. You're two humans still living together, cooking meals, going out together, but the writer in you is kind of feeding off the drama.
"I was living in London in an upstairs flat. Palmer's Green, a very anonymous suburb. It was pretty grotty, no one had any money and the band was going through real strife. When the song came out, some people may have related it directly to the experience of the band, seething with frustration at not having broken through to a mainstream audience. We took our template from the Beatles and it seemed like that was your path, to become the biggest band in the world
"I remember writing it, on a piano, and it wasn't particularly urgent or angry. We tried rehearsing it. It was a hot summer in England, an unusual hot summer, we were bored and hot and playing this bloody song and it was boring, and I think out of that frustration I said, `let's play it really fast, as fast as you can'. And immediately `I See Red' was born. It just came alive."
So, in a sense, was Split Enz. "I See Red" became the show-stopper at the end of every set. Once, in the band's we're-not-going-to-accept-what-you-expect fashion, they tried playing it first. "It was kind of a disaster. The crowd went insane and then it was all downhill, a real struggle to get through the night."
Finn claims to not think too much about the past. The anthology was John O'Donnell's idea. The managing director of EMI Music Australia pulled together a draft song list. "It gave me something to react too." Finn only listened to the entirety, post-mastering.
"I was pleased with the flow, but I was also remembering where I was when I wrote the songs. It was the writing that was coming back to me, rather than the recording or the touring."
Don't believe in opposing factions, what we need is some positive action, there's a fraction too much friction Escapade, 1983
"Split Enz tried it in rehearsal and it hadn't gelled and I hadn't finished the lyric anyway, so it was just sort of a notion. A title and a bit of a feel. I finally got in a room with Ricky Fataar on drums who just nailed that feel so beautifully.
"I think it's a trait of mine, when you've got a very buoyant tune, but you're actually describing tough times. The tune pulls it up, the lyrics weight it down.
"That period, when I was writing for Escapade, was very playful, very innocent. I was living in this house in Caulfield, Melbourne. It's a very Jewish area and I was only in this house for about two days, and this what would you call him Hasidic scholar came to the door and spoke to me in Yiddish, assuming I would be Jewish.
"I had this beautiful old iron-frame upright piano. It was lent to me by this guy who worked for a radio station. I think he kind of liked the idea that it was being used to write songs. Later, Neil wrote Don't Dream it's Over on it."
Neil Finn, younger brother, once a member of Split Enz, then frontman of Crowded House, which Tim performed with on Woodface. The siblings went on to make two albums together.
"It is interesting, the very thing that drives people apart in songwriting partnerships is what makes them so brilliant, so they can never last."
But: "We're brothers. We're going to see each other at family occasions, there's no possibility of there ever being a permanent split. We divide off, and then we intercept."
He says there's an "excitement and a telepathy" to their writing.
"But we're also figuring out how to be, as two adults. We've never had that easy, bantering humour. That sarcasm, where you just say anything, put shit on each other. We're quite formal in some ways. It's partly how our family is, but we're also doing exactly the same work, so we tread respectfully and warily around each other. We cancel each other out sometimes, in a funny sort of way. But essentially, it's creative and harmonious and nothing would ever break that."
I can always make a start on something new, and I'll always be a man who's open to persuasion
Before and After, 1993
"Split Enz was still winding down. I was still in that theatricalising mode. `Persuasion' is a much more traditional singer-songwriter song. It was a co-write with Richard Thompson, he'd written a guitar melody for a film soundtrack, and I really loved this particular tune. We faxed each other a couple of times and ...
"It sort of sums me up, in at least my romantic soul. I'd had a few bruisings, but I was open to persuasion. It got a lot of radio play and it was that side of me that people found easy to get into. There were some of the other sides of me that were almost a bit confusing, or needed more time and distance. With `Persuasion' people could just tell that's somebody who still has an open heart. Marie wasn't a particular Split Enz fan, she didn't dislike us, but she was much more into 60s' bands or mod. She didn't quite get us, but when she heard that song, that's when she really liked Tim Finn.
"It was years later when we met, but she was predisposed slightly because of that song. It went out there like a lure. A sort of long-distance lure."
She arrives on cue. Marie Azcona, songwriter and former MTV presenter, a pocket-sized blast of energy, offering lemon sponge cake made from the fruit of the tree out the back.
Tim: "It's delicious."
Marie: "I was rushed ... it's not pretty to look at, but it's good."
And then she's out the door. Kids to pick up from school, beaches to visit on a brilliant North Shore Wednesday. Finn looks content.
It's all me that you see, I was ready for another try, but I needed you to set me free, must be the luckiest man alive Everyone is Here, 2004
"I wrote that the night our daughter was born. We already had Harper, our son, to get a little girl was really a gift from the gods. I still remember the midwife who delivered her, holding her up towards me and saying `look what you got'.
"After a few hours at the hospital, I wandered off home to catch up on sleep and wrote that song, that night. After a couple of Jamiesons ... let's just say I was feeling pretty damn good to be alive and to be a dad and to be in love with my wife and to see how brave and wonderful she was. That song came out of very rich and raw emotion. Sometimes songs come much later when you've distilled it, but that was an outpouring.
"My daughter knows it's her song, and she gets me to tell the story sometimes. But it's as much about my wife... about love really and how lucky I am to have found it because I did everything but find it for so many years.
"So yeah, I'm pretty lucky to be there, and to become a dad. My first child was born when I was 46, which is getting up there. It's not as bad as Jack [Nicholson] and Warren [Beattie]!"
It's a blatant kind of song, agrees Finn. In his songwriting, "of course I'm finding my own images, my own metaphors, but really I'm talking about stuff that we think about all the time. Life, death, family, love, loss, desire. They're on our minds all the time".
This is not false modesty. "Because a great song, if you can manage to write one, is a kind of exalted way of saying these things, as is any piece of art.
"Some people might think I'd be embarrassed, or that I'd ripped my soul out in front of everybody. I don't know. I guess I relate back to Lennon, who did write in that way."
For Finn, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. He believes in karma.
"Every minute of your life, you're creating karma. So you better make sure it's good."
Of course, he says: "The good thing about karma is you can change it. It's not immutable."
A man will lose his head, not measuring his words, the story goes from bad to worse and I'm sorry if I hurt you like a saw cuts the tree The Conversation, 2008
"We were on a family road trip up north, with the kids. I'd never really stood in a grove of kauri before, it was like being in a cathedral and you felt the sadness, in a way, of what had happened although here I am living in a kauri villa and I thought what a great idea for a song, having this saw apologising to the tree.
"Sad to report, but we had a row. It was really horrible and we don't fight much, so it was unlikely and it was sad. I felt like I should apologise because I had spoken clumsily and suddenly the whole thing came together, because it was an apology song. Everybody's got at least one of those in them.
"I played an early form of it almost the next day. I was kind of tremulous, and hoping. And yeah, it brought a little half smile."
Count Finn's years by the content of his music room. An old set of baker's drawers stuffed with lyrics sung and yet to be sung. On the wall, an enormous painting by Phil Judd Split Enz co-founder, who came and went from the band twice, whose friendship with Finn was once described as "complicated".
The painting sits over the piano. A cautionary tale?
"It's a looming presence," says Finn. "I will always owe him a great debt, because he lit my fuse. My creative fuse, and made me believe. It worked both ways. I would never have perhaps made that leap of going across to being a musician fulltime, believing Split Enz could do it and we had something to offer.
"It's gone a little bit pear-shaped. Which is sad. But anything's possible. Plenty of time for two old curmudgeons to bury the hatchet."
The ends come apart and you're back at the start and somebody opens your heart, it's nothing unusual to sing you a song, every time something goes right or goes wrong North, South, East, West Anthology, 2009
"The song has little signposts in it. References. There's another one to Malmsbury Villa, where we started the band back in '73. The crowd, the audience.
"Partly, the song for me was an attempt to say we all make it up as we go along. We all try to give some poetic cohesion to our lives, instead of literal, actual memories. Half the time we kind of shape it and remake it and change it in our heads and minds and even in our storytelling to each other. A songwriter is really no different. It just becomes musical. Which gives it wings."
North, South, East, West Anthology Tim Finn, released tomorrow by Capitol Music.
iTunes launch party, September 25, 4.30pm, Windsor Castle, Parnell, Auckland free tickets to the first people in line.
Sunday Star Times