The Art Of Storytelling: Clash Meets Craig Finn
Very few things have transcended the ages like stories. They’ve been around for as long as humans have been able to talk, allowing us to share experiences, anecdotes and even just thoughts that we can compile into fiction.
In comparison, music is positively one of life’s most celebrated modern escape mechanisms. For centuries composers have crafted the sonic equivalent to those stories for the ages, but it’s only recently (veritably fresh compared to some of music's earliest incarnations) that the two have entwined on such a widespread level.
Songwriters have come and gone, with some of the original modernistic wordsmiths still purposefully doing their things, such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, but for the newer generation of beatnik writers, Craig Finn stands defiant above the rest.
Finding his beginnings in his first band Lifter Puller, it was The Hold Steady that offered Finn a wider audience, and the chance to develop his penchant for story-based music - with the New York outfit still being lauded, and their first new music of 2019 being released last month.
But with Finn branching out firmly with his fourth solo outing, not only is he a master of diction, with the ability to create a scene so lusciously vibrant with atmosphere, he’ll transport you to a world that most would never otherwise inhabit. He can craft this reality, making it all the more conscious, pushing himself high above any other peers.
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For Finn, this love affair with the format stems from his understanding, and of course the usual suspects. “I think that I’ve always liked songs that told a story,” he begins over the phone, his Boston accent holding the same focused drive as on his records.
“Going back, when I was young, there was a Paul Simon song called 'Duncan', that my parents had that told a story. [And] this is not everyone's favourite band, but even the Billie Joel records my parents had, they told a story."
"Things like Bob Dylan obviously, and Bruce Springsteen. You know I think about ‘Meeting Across The River’, the Springsteen song was really influential. It’s almost a spoken piece, and it’s not very long, but it tells a very vivid story and gets you very involved and connected to his characters.”
It's these building blocks that you can hear all across Finn's creative output — meticulously crafting tales that are as cinematic as they are musical, an art within itself, as he says: “I think that the story in a song is its own thing. To me, they relate to short stories in that it’s both about the details you use and the details you leave out - it’s almost like finding this balance where you pull people in because there’s a sense of mystery to it."
"You don’t give away too much, but you need to move the story forward the same," he continues. "And make them interested in the story, to keep them listening and engaged. I think…that’s sort of the trick and I almost feel like the first few lines in a song that’s going to be a story really have to grab you, and to pull you in.”
Evoking emotion, sourcing every ounce of human familiarity from his word choice, Finn is a creator of characters who can convey the darker sides to life by going through turbulent and traumatic times for us.
Across his back catalogue you’ll find yourself jumping into the shoes of a person you’ve never met, nor indeed actually exists, and going through heartbreak or pain with them. You can feasibly picture the universe that Finn is slowly building up through his many releases as one that we all know exists, yet we look on as voyeurs. Everything stands so real you feel yourself upon the tarmac he sings of, in the smell of the rooms and parties he vividly describes, fully encompassed by his craft.
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While his debut solo effort was 'Clear Heart Full Eye's (2012), some of Finn's finest moments appear on this accidental trilogy. With the DNA of all three emerging from the recording process, the first moment came from 2015 'Faith In The Future', followed by 'We All Want The Same Thing' in 2017, and the final chapter, this year's 'I Need A New War. (“It’s almost like we’ve just kept recording since that first session that launched the first record.”)
"I sort of look at this [I Need A New War] like the third of a trilogy, they all seem to relate to each other in some way at least. These last three records have been somewhat about me trying to make sense of what’s happening around me in this city, in this country, in this world, in these modern times," he says musing on the purpose behind his process.
"The problems these characters face are not my own exactly, but often the things I see people around me struggling with, etc. It’s therapeutic in that it allows me to examine these issues and come up with a greater understanding and empathy. Trying to find empathy in all these situations has been a connective tissue between these three records.”
It’s on this accidental trilogy that Finn dives into some of the more hopeless characters that still follow him, particularly from ‘We All Want The Same Things’. “I think some of the characters on these last three albums are the ones that stay with me the most because they seem the most real, and the most like people I know."
"The pair in 'God in Chicago' are close to my heart because I really am not sure what happened to them when they got back to St. Paul. It seemed wide open and unresolved, even though I wrote the song. There’s a B-side called 'Dennis & Billy' that have a pair of guys that I think about a lot, again because they seem like people I might know. Obviously, the big trinity from Separation Sunday: Charlemagne, Gideon and Holly are important to me too, as their story became the start of something that people connected with.”
Characters are an essential part of the craft, but within every written figure comes the essence of the writer, be it personality or experience. For Finn, he's quick to offer a sage quote to explain his perspective.
“There’s a quote from John Gregory Dunne, he said that the first character in every book is the author, and I sort of believe that,” he says. “These stories that I tell are not all things that have happened to me obviously - far from it - but they do involve my perception, and often it involves stories that I’ve heard or things I know, or I’ve read about…and in some cases, they are very personal - or very baked in my own experiences with things changed around or I’ll commit to making the story more dramatic, or something to make it a bit more universal.”
While mentioning that most of his subject matter stems from an observational standpoint, the occasional piece of Finn's reality will appear, with the appropriate artistic license of course. “I want to make it a little more dramatic," he mentions. "And I’m always trying to make something that’s cinematic, to do that you have to pull at certain details, or make things happen a little quicker."
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Across his solo output, Finn has honed deeply in on this aspect, mostly thanks to the helping ideas from producer Josh Kaufman. “Often when I brought him new songs, he urged me to drop the first verse…and he’d start in the middle of the story, almost like he parachuted into the story," he recalls. "You know, not to set it up too much. I think that that’s been really useful and I think you almost have to start with a song, which is short, compared to a novel, or even compared to a short story…there’s only so many lines in the song. You have to jump in the middle and get to the action a little bit and try to pull people in right there.”
"I think there’s a real art to telling a story through a song and that’s what I’m continually trying to do and hone in on," he continues. "It’s disappearing in this world, and what I think is interesting about songs that are stories. because they’re not overly descriptive, or they can’t be because they have limited, there’s an economy of words.”
It's this economy that opens the realms for us to pour in our perspective, relationships and, to a certain degree, faults, as listeners. We all have that penchant of relating to a song, and often it's moulded through our personal experiences, to the point where one person's lifesaver is another person's throwaway track.
“That’s one of the things that makes song stories unique, versus written fiction stories, because there tends to be more space for you to put your own world into it and your own person.”
The close relationship between literature as an art and music is tangible — the two borrow from each other in the form of references and inspiration. For Finn, it's one of the key players on his descriptive quest to build his darkened universe.
“While looking for creativity, novels excite me the most," he explains. "The way the story is told, the way the characters interact, the situations that arise, etc. I read mostly modern novels, but I have a hard time with anything that is set too far in the past or the future. I like things that are a bit funny."
"I'm currently reading Hark by Sam Lipsyte and really enjoying it. Unfortunately, on tour, I have a hard time concentrating on anything that requires much, so I tend to gravitate to rock bios while I’m on tour. Jeff Tweedy’s book is the best of the ones I’ve read recently, and I liked a lot of what he had to say about creativity and his process. There’s a lot to look up to there.”
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His inspirations and creative catalysts may be venerable, but what exactly does it take to craft these songs? How does Finn go about setting light to these pieces of musical prose firewood? “I have these little ideas that are a roundabout story and scraps of…just lines," he says. "Often the song will start with just the first line, and I’ll have to say ‘well, what’s the second line?’," with an audible shrug he continues.
"If I have the first line, then all I have to do is the second line, and keep going until the story is done. But I’m always kind of thinking about ideas and stories, and the big picture, they come often."
"I don’t really keep a traditional journal, but I keep notebooks, and I’m always writing and keeping scraps of things, and the two things that really spark ideas are travel and motion - just walking around, and looking. I like when I’m on tour, to get out and walk around, and even walking the neighbourhood, and looking at peoples houses and thinking about happens in there.”
Stories aside, without the accompanying music, it would just be spoken-word which, in the right hands, can create a similar atmosphere, but for Finn, the musical DNA that spreads across his trilogy is part and parcel as to why it's just so immeasurable.
“We’re trying not to overwhelm the story but trying to make it still a song, right?" He reasons. "Trying to make it worthy of being a song otherwise we’d just read it on the page, it could just be something you read - I could email it to someone! It’s an idea of trying to turn it into a musical event, a musical piece…but still keeping the story at the centre.”
With The Hold Steady, the rock/indie elements took hold, experimentation in sound creeping through the further you delve into their back catalogue. But on his solo efforts, the variations in sound play out like the acts of a film, similarly to the albums themselves.
'Faith In The Future' holds promise and hope, 'We All Want The Same Things' is the revelatory second act, while 'I Want A New War' is the fight to the end, with a protagonist clawing out from the dirt for victory, all soundtracked by an explorative musical web.
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Building to this point has been a simple process. “When we get in the room [as] we’ve been making these records, Josh (Kaufman) [will] play something [on] a guitar or a piano. Then there’s a drummer that plays with us too, but basically, when we start the songs, it’s a vocal, one other instrument and then a percussion, so they’re almost playing to the story."
“We’re trying to catch something that’s pretty unadorned at first, and then filling it in from there. So it’s almost like a rhythm track that goes with the voice and then we," Finn pauses, before crafting some festive allegory. "Like a Christmas tree, we add ornaments on it, around it, to fill out, both the sound but also to support the story.”
There is the question of if the music ends up influencing the story as it goes, even if the words are penned before recording. Referring back to 'God In Chicago' - a Finn classic in the making - he explores its creation.
“[That] was just something I wrote and [as] I was saying it out loud it felt like the music followed. I was trying to push the vocals, and letting the music come and tell the story. I think even when making these records, the big thing for me was to always have the vocals up front telling the story, with music supporting. 'God In Chicago' and 'Magic Marker' on the last one, these are stories first that turned into songs, but I do believe it’s crucial they are songs as well.”
With Finn's triple magnum-opus effort finally at its end, and his storyteller status beyond cemented, his closing sentiments echo back to the place in our society that his two core elements consist; reflection and documenting, while in turn being always inspired by the reality around. And more importantly, the ethereal aspect of the circumstances arising.
“As I look back on it, here are three albums in five years, and that’ll probably be a good document of where my head was at during those fives years, and the things I was thinking about - I think they’re affected by things going on in our world," he considers.
"I didn’t realise when we wrote the first record that I’d be releasing it is a trilogy, I just was inspired by the people I was working with, and inspired by the things I was writing about to keep going and keep making songs and keep releasing the records. They all sort of made sense to me next to each other and I felt like I was tapped into something, and with me saying something.”
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PLUS! Check out this Craig Finn live clip before anyone else...
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Words: Steven Loftin
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez
'I Need A New War' is out now. Catch Craig Finn at the following shows:
11 Bristol Exchange
12 Nottingham Bodega
13 Glasgow King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut
15 Leeds Brudenell Social Club
16 Manchester Deaf Institute
17 London Oslo
20 Dublin Sugar Club
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