Neil Finn: why I'm livestreaming my new album

It is Neil Finn's earliest memory. The family was out for a drive and pulled into a little pet animal farm outside Karapiro. He saw a rabbit hutch on the ground, climbed in and got stuck.

The resident rabbit was not chuffed. It came over and eyeballed him, its little pink nose inches from his own. The boy started to feel fear, trapped there under the wire netting, then the cavalry appeared on the horizon in the shape of his mum.

"She was wearing a dress with a chain pattern on it," he remembers. "And she lifted me up out of there and made me feel safe. I started bawling, then I saw her dress above me and knew I was gonna be alright. I still remember that chain pattern really vividly."

Neil Finn and his son Elroy play in the studio in front of an old home movie of Neil and his brother Tim.
Darryl Ward

Neil Finn and his son Elroy play in the studio in front of an old home movie of Neil and his brother Tim.

It's a story of danger and rescue, family, nostalgia, love. It's a tale with an unreliable nipper narrator and strong visual images attached.

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"I was about two years old when that happened," recalls Finn as old Super 8 home movies flicker on a screen behind him. "It was quite traumatic, really."

Brothers in arms: Neil Finn on guitar and Tim Finn on piano.
Darryl Ward

Brothers in arms: Neil Finn on guitar and Tim Finn on piano.

His brother Tim sits across from him, cradling an acoustic guitar. He can't resist a joke. "Yes, and that incident has informed every song you've written ever since."

It's a nice line, and a lovely dynamic: one brother getting poetic and piling on the pathos, the other ready with a sly barb.

The feeling is relaxed and intimate, though we are in the midst of a huge crowd.

The main room at Auckland's Roundhead Studio.
Darryl Ward

The main room at Auckland's Roundhead Studio.

Neil Finn is telling this story at his Roundhead Studio in Auckland, and it is streaming out live to a couple of hundred thousand people around the world via YouTube and Facebook.

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Just over his shoulder through some big glass doors, a brass section awaits its cue. Behind the screen where the movies are being shown, ready for their big reveal, sits a 20 piece orchestra.

I'm in the studio control room alongside a scrum of other journalists who've blagged their way in the door, 

A section of the live choir.
Darryl Ward

A section of the live choir.

getting in the road of engineers who are mixing this live performance for broadcast, and also attempting to capture one song with sufficient clarity that it can be released as a single the following day.

I sit with my back wedged against a 1974 Neve mixing desk with a noble history. Before being imported to New Zealand in 2003, this desk was used to record Jeff Buckley's Grace, REM's Automatic for the People, assorted albums by The Pretenders, The Band, Simple Minds.

The Smiths' Johnny Marr has played guitar through this desk, and Pete Townsend overloaded its input channels on many occasions; beneath a strip of sticky tape reading "guitar one/ guitar two/ vox/ piano" is a little burnt crater where Who drummer Keith Moon once stubbed out his cigarette.

“It’s a challenge getting a record made while you’re doing it live and all these people are listening in."
Darryl Ward

“It’s a challenge getting a record made while you’re doing it live and all these people are listening in."

Gigantic studio monitors loom above us. Music pours forth and we sit in rapt attention. First, a few duets between Tim and Neil, accompanied by their own acoustic guitars, loose and lovely like a fireside singalong.

Their voices hug tightly together on the harmonies, and it really is something to behold, the sound becoming even more magical once the brothers begin to tag-team on the piano and Neil's son Elroy joins them on tea-chest bass.

"It's lovely," says Finn, "to be here playing for you all with my brother and my son."

Neil Finn: "I've found this whole process tremendously exciting."
Darryl Ward

Neil Finn: "I've found this whole process tremendously exciting."

Half an hour into the live stream, Neil decides to call up a few of his international mates for a quick chinwag, and we cross live to the London kitchen of Times columnist Caitlin Moran and her husband, music writer Peter Paphides

"I was supposed to be going for my cervical smear this morning," reveals Moran between bites of breakfast. "But I decided to watch your live stream instead."

Much laughter echoes down the line as she remembers the conversation is being broadcast to Finn fans around the globe. "My cervix has gone international. Hurrah!"

Finn and 20 piece orchestra with conductor, Victoria Kelly.
Darryl Ward

Finn and 20 piece orchestra with conductor, Victoria Kelly.

There's a few more songs, a few more home movies. "Look there we are on a picnic," says Neil. "There's Tim passing me a rugby ball…".

But he's really just drawing our attention to the screen before it gets taken away. The gauzy curtains slide back to reveal the orchestra, and all around the world, I picture people gasping in front of their computer monitors as Finn sings Four Seasons In One Day from the piano stool, the gorgeous melodies borne aloft on a warm updraft of strings.

A choir files in – SJD, Tiny Ruins, Sandy Mill, Tama Waipara, Jimmy Barnes' daughter EJ Barnes and others - to fill out the chorus, and it's lights out for even the most cynical of listeners.

I feel a big lump rise in my throat, and I'm not the only one. By the time tonight's recording session is done, I will have witnessed at least one of these battle-hardened journalists having a little weep in the half-light.

After a couple more songs, there's another international live cross, this time to Finn's other son Liam in LA, where he sits in a darkened room with assorted musical mates, including ex-pat Te Awanga psych-pop hero, Connan Mockasin.

"I was gonna go and have my smear, too," deadpans Liam. "But I decided to do this instead."

And then they're off, into a wildly eccentric international jam session covering Mockasin's aquatic perv-pop anthem, Forever Dolphin Love, with guitar, percussion and - I kid you not- a whistling solo beaming down the line from the LA contingent while Neil Finn tried to give it all some sort of melodic structure at the piano in Auckland.

It's a winningly weird performance, and you have to admire Finn's courage, boldly attacking something so heavily improvised while a couple of hundred thousand people eavesdrop around the globe.

Soon after, the main recording of the night unfolds. Finn has written a song called Second Nature, inspired by a young couple he saw speeding through some European city street on a scooter..

The idea is to have several runs at the song live in the studio with full horn section, choir and orchestra, then choose the best recording for release as a single. Once the session is over, Finn and his engineers will work through the night on the mix-down, then the files will be emailed to LA for mastering, and the song will be released as a radio single the following morning.

The song's much faster than expected, with a big, meaty bass line from Elroy and some gospel-house piano chords from Finn. It careers along full of power and purpose, just like that Vespa, and after four or five run-throughs, it's in the bag. The cameras fade to black and the live-stream comes to a close.

Afterwards the studio kitchen is rammed. The live-stream team pull apart camera gear, string players clip violas and cellos into flight cases, beer and wine and conversation are flowing freely.

Finn is knackered but jubilant after a great session, but his night is just beginning. He'll be downstairs mixing the new single until around 4am, so we arrange to meet again after he'd caught a few hour's sleep.

When I show up the next day, a worrying sight assails me at the studio door: Finn, fresh out of bed, his hair a twisted grey nest, his thin frame clad in a bottle green corduroy shirt, pyjama pants and sheepskin slippers.

"I made a little bit of effort," he says, "as you can see. I got half-dressed."

Finn had a very good time last night, he says. The arrangements sounded good, the overseas hook-ups worked well, the songs he sang with brother Tim were well received.

"Also, live streaming like this is a great way to get your music out to a lot of people at once," he tells me as he sips the day's first coffee.

"The previous live stream from last Friday was seen by about 300,000 people! Isn't that fantastic? You'd have to travel for three months for that many people to see you play live shows, but here we were, doing a live show right here in the studio."

He is thrilled with how the new single Second Nature came together.

"It's a challenge getting an elaborate, well-constructed record made while you're doing it live and all these people are listening in. But we did it, and it blew my mind, really, especially when you consider that we only decided late yesterday that that song should be the single."

The song itself is "completely different" from anyone he's ever done before, and yet there it is, out in the world less than 12 hours after it was recorded. Jack Tame had debuted the finished single on his radio show that very morning.

"That song really was inspired by seeing a couple in Europe, hooning along on a Vespa. There was this girl on the back, and she looked like she was just so in love with him, and the guy on the front was riding along with a hairnet on, looking like some sort of Greek god, fallen to Earth."

Sitting there in the morning sun, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Finn looks like a man in need of a decent rest, but these Friday webcasts aren't over yet.

The next session will feature a more traditional live band, with a hundred or so people crammed into the studio as a live audience. And after that, the big one: the final live recording on August 25 will be an entire top-to-bottom recording of his next album, Out Of Silence.

"That'll be a long one," he says as he drains his coffee, yawns, scratches his mop of bed-hair.

"We'll be trying to get really good recordings of all eleven songs, so we'll run through each song about three times. Anyone who tunes into that week's live stream will hear the entire album coming together right in front of them."

After that final session, there will be a few hectic days of mixing, then the album will be mastered and released a week later, on September 1st.

"I've found this whole process tremendously exciting. Any artist knows there are times when you feel blessed, when things seem to beam in from somewhere else and you feel lucky to experience that. I wanted the audience to see a little of that live, on-line, as it happened."

It is, admits the man in his pyjamas, also a bit of a risk to make yourself so naked, artistically.

"Sometimes things fall flat. During some recording sessions, you're in danger of sounding all too fallibly human. But I was hopeful people would get to see and hear the trajectory of a song being built right in front of them. Usually with albums, I get obsessed with the endless tinkering that a studio makes possible.

"I have a tendency to over-polish the work I do, because I want it all to fit together perfectly, like the intricate insides of a clock. But that can sometimes drain away a song's energy. Doing it this way means you do all that planning beforehand, during the rehearsals, then it's show time, and there's nowhere to hide. You're relying on your skill and your instincts and going with the best vibe you can muster on the night."

This week's final Friday live stream will be accessible via the Neil Finn Facebook page from 7pm NZ time. Out of Silence is due for release on Friday, September 1.

 - Stuff

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