Craig Finn is the lead singer and lyricist for The Hold Steady. The Brooklyn-based band released their first album, Almost Killed Me, in 2004; their third album, Boys and Girls in America (2006), was named the album of the year by the A.V. Club. Last year they put out album number five, Heaven Is Whenever.
In January, Finn will release his first solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes. The album was recorded in Austin, and on February 1, Finn will kick off a short solo tour of the west and Midwest with a show in Dallas.
Slate spoke to Finn by phone earlier this week about the new record, the TV show that inspired its title, and what Finn has been reading and listening to as The Hold Steady begin writing the songs for their sixth album.
Craig Finn: I am a huge Friday Night Lights fan. I watched every episode.
Slate: There was an episode with a song of yours in it, right?
Finn: Yeah! And that wasn’t anything we pushed for—that was just a nice surprise. “Stay Positive.” It was a practice scene in season three, I think.
Slate: So, you were already watching the show at that point?
Finn: Oh yeah. I think season one was done before I started watching it, and I quickly got hooked, my girlfriend and I. I mean, that and The Wire are probably my two favorite shows of all time. I think it kind of plays into something: I’m forty years old, and there’s this youth—you see these kids at this age where they’re bound to make mistakes. And that’s part of being a kid, but you still think, “Oh, don’t do that.”
What I love about the show is how the kids sort of come and go—it’s not like 90210 where they all go to college and move the whole show to another city or something. And that’s part of being an educator: These kids move up, they get older and they move through, and you’re dealing with a new bunch of kids next year.
Slate: When I heard about the title of your upcoming album, it seemed very appropriate, because in your songs you often write about high school kids, kids in not totally dissimilar situations.
Finn: Yeah, I suppose my own songs are about people who are younger. It’s often said you can see what’s funny and amusing and weird about being 19 easier when you’re 35 than when you’re 19. When you’re mired in the middle of it, it’s all kind of terrifying. Nothing seems funny, it all seems really important. So yeah, there is that.
That said, the only thing that has to do with Friday Night Lights about my new record is the title. I’ve seen a couple things on Twitter or wherever saying it’s a Friday Night Lights-influenced record, and that’s really overstating it. There aren’t any songs about anyone in Friday Night Lights. But the title is obviously a nod and a wink and a lift to it. And I always loved that part, when they would say, “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.” I thought that was really poetic, you know, for a high school football team. So I was just playing around with that.
I was also influenced by the fact that I went down to Austin to make it, which is close enough to where the fictitious Dillon is that a couple of times [characters on the show] went into Austin to see bands or something. Also, playing with the words on paper, “clear” and “full” begin with a C and an F like Craig Finn. So that was just sort of playing around with words on a piece of paper.
Slate: As a songwriter, you’ve often drawn on a very specific sense of place, which is something I imagine you responded to on Friday Night Lights—and The Wire, too, for that matter. Both are very much rooted in a specific locale.
Slate: In the new album, did you write at all about Texas?
Finn: No, the songs were all written when I got down there. But we hired musicians deliberately from there and I just kind of immersed myself… So, I don’t think the songs really reflect Texas… but maybe the sound, you know? There’s a lot of pedal steel on it, and the production is kind of wide open—and Texas is nothing if not wide open.
Slate: How does all this play into your work with The Hold Steady? How do the rest of the guys feel about it?
Finn: Oh, everyone’s pretty cool with it. We took a break from The Hold Steady, because everyone needed a little rest. We’d made, like, five records in seven years, so we were pretty fried. I just wanted to keep busy, so I did this. We’ve made five records as The Hold Steady, and we’re actually currently—as in, today—writing for record number six. So it was a way to step outside and get some experience doing things differently, communicating with different people and just kind of brushing out ideas in a different way. And hopefully bring some new ways of looking at things back to The Hold Steady when we do record number six.
Slate: Are there specific themes that emerged for you putting these songs together? Did you notice certain subjects you were coming back to again and again?
Finn: It’s funny, a lot of it is about being alone and/or being displaced. Which is interesting in that going down to Austin and plugging in with a group of musicians—I mean, I met them the morning we started recording. It was really about going somewhere and plugging into something and forcing yourself to be alone—and maybe a little uncomfortable. The first song on the record is called “Apollo Bay.” The Hold Steady went to Australia last March, and I stayed on by myself for a while, for another week or so, and just got a car and drove down to some really remote places by myself and did some writing.
Slate: And are the songs character-driven in the way that your Hold Steady writing has been?
Finn: Yeah. I always kind of write in a non-confessional style, meaning, it’s largely not me I’m talking about. There’s one in particular that’s about a couple—the working title was “Sean and Shannon,” they’re two characters in the song, but we ended up calling it “Terrified Eyes.” I always say if I wrote about my own life, it’d be a much more boring record.
Slate: That’s one of the things that stands out about your songwriting—that it’s so narrative. I wonder if that’s partly why you seem to draw so much inspiration and influence from not just the TV shows we were talking about but also novels, poems, and so on.
Finn: Yeah, yeah. Certainly, if we’re going into a writing session, one of the first things I’ll do is start reading more—just ’cause that seems to me the way that my mind works. I was just reading this thing that David Foster Wallace, I think, wrote—one of the short pieces he wrote. It was about who reads fiction, and it talked about reading fiction as a form of meditation, which I thought was really interesting. You go into these other worlds and sort of forget about yourself.
Slate: Are there particular writers you find yourself going to when you’re preparing to write?
Finn: No, not really. I read—and I read pretty contemporary, you know? Things like The Art of Fielding or whatever everyone’s reading right now I’m reading, generally. I’m trying to read Anna Karenina right now, Tolstoy… But I reward myself—I read on a Kindle now, and I get, like, 10 percent in, and I reward myself by reading a modern book. There’s interesting parts, but then you get into a few hours’ worth of reading about farming.
Slate: Is there anything in particular you’re listening to these days?
Finn: Yeah, I like tons of stuff. I really like the new Deer Tick record. I love that band—they’re a particular blast. A while back, probably two or three months ago, I went to Le Poisson Rouge and saw tUnE-yArDs, which was just an incredible show. And I ended up sitting next to [Merrill Garbus’s] parents, which was pretty funny. So I chatted with them for a little while. I wonder if they’re closer to my age than her. I’ve really enjoyed the new Ryan Adams record as well.
Slate: So The Hold Steady’s back writing again for the next album. Do you already have notes for lyrics, or do you go in cold?
Finn: I try to write every day a little bit. And then I’ll go in and hear what those guys are working on and look through my book and think, “Yeah, this sort of fits the mood and the meter and all that. Maybe something like this’ll work there.” And then I’ll start playing around. This time I’m trying to experiment a little more with coming in on a few of them at least a little blank, and just sort of see where they take me. Because sometimes you do too much preparation. If you’ve got pages and pages of lyrics, you can start to put square pegs in round holes, so to speak.
Slate: Before you go, I wanted to ask about your handling of religion, something else that sticks out about your songwriting. Not that many indie rockers get into that subject.
Finn: Well, I think faith is just an interesting topic, and it’s something that I quite honestly struggle with. But I always find, however much I believe about the Catholic Church—and I have some major problems with it—I always find that going to church is a very peaceful and a really nice time for me. Sitting through mass, and sitting in mass. You know, the thought of forgiveness, redemption—those are things that hold an awful lot of beauty for me, and really relate to our lives, no matter who we are. So those are the kind of parts that I focus on. And obviously there are things that are really scary and awful that I try to forget about.
Slate: Have you read the book Friday Night Lights, by Buzz Bissinger?
Finn: I haven’t read it. I haven’t seen the original movie, either. I’m sure I’ll get into that eventually…. Did you watch the show?
Slate: I did. I’m a huge fan.
Finn: So you’re all caught up and all that?
Finn: You know, it’s funny: I had a drink with Bridget Carpenter, who was one of the writers, not too long ago, and I totally blew it… I was wondering, what happened to that Epyck girl in the fifth season? It never really developed into a real story, did it… I did see a good Twitter, by the way, or something on Twitter the other day that said that with Coach Taylor already in Pennsylvania, maybe he’s going to get the Penn State job.
Slate: Ha. It does seem like his character has become iconic. Do you ever find yourself trying to strike a Coach Taylor pose? Ask yourself, “What would Coach Taylor do?”
Finn: Well, I don’t know that Coach Taylor’s approach works in a rock and roll band. Might be a little—I don’t think I have that kind of authority.
Slate: Are you a big football fan? I know you’re a baseball fan.
Finn: Yeah, I love all sports, pretty much. I wish I had a college team I was passionate about, but I don’t. I went to Boston College, but it’s not the same as going to Georgia or something. I like the Vikings, which is not a great thing this year. But I watched two or three games yesterday. Sundays are football day for me, definitely.
Interview has been condensed and edited.