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WIND BACK WEDNESDAY MEETS THE NEWEST MAC – NEIL FINN


Shocked by Neil Finn joining Fleetwood Mac (touring version) along with The Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, as the Lindsey Buckinghams you have when you don’t have Lindsey Buckingham? You shouldn’t be, and not only because, as he says here, "I don't know anyone on this planet who is better on their own as a musician than in the company of other good musicians."

The adventurous and sometimes wilfully different approach of Finn was locked in more than 20 years ago when his solo work, and breaking up Crowded House, showed he was up for just about anything.

In this 2001 interview you can see some of the seeds of the Mac move as he explains why "I like to keep the element of struggle and the element of chance and surprise uppermost in whatever I do."

GO YOUR OWN WAY

Neil Finn is no longer seeking redemption. After more than two decades of being pop music's poster boy for guilt, of cleverly hiding lyrics of remorse and insecurity behind sweet-as-pie melodies, he has decided it's time to lighten up.

With his second solo album, called One Nil with the same ear for a self-deprecating Kiwi pun that sees his Web site called Nil Fun, he has stopped trying to please. And stopped apologising for any other perceived sins.

"It's not as dark, no. I think there's more resolve on the record," he says. "It feels a bit more romantic in a way and it reflects the fact that I'm a little less angst-ridden and I don't worry about things that aren't as important as I used to think they were. I was a bit of a stress merchant there for a few years; I'm a bit more relaxed now and I wanted the lyrics to reflect that."

No apologies then, but still a confession of sorts, that his happy-go-lucky image has not always tallied with reality.

The public may well have seen him as "the nice one" when compared with his mood-swinging brother Tim in Split Enz or the edgy clowning of Paul Hester in Crowded House, but there have always been powerful emotions just under the surface. That inner tension has revealed itself more often in recent years, with reports of sharp exchanges and angry outbursts, professionally and socially.

Some of the reasons for this seem obvious: the temptations of a life mostly lived hundreds of miles from family and home. But some were more complex, tied up in ambivalent reactions to fame, success and wealth, particularly as his brother's solo career went backwards while his own went forwards. And some flowed from the assault on the ego, both positive and negative.

"I think doing something creative demands an amount of self-possession and self-regard because it's a force of will," Finn allows, before adding with a chuckle. "There's a guy I know in Auckland, a very talented musician, and his theory is that in order to write anything you have to believe you're a genius, otherwise it will never come out.

"People have said about me that I'm very ambitious and, yeah, I probably am. But when you put a massive amount of energy and belief into making a record you want to believe that it has potential to filter out there and into people's lives. There are people out there doing beautiful artistic things who don't need that kind of reassurance, but I do."

To understand One Nil and Neil Finn in 2001, it helps to understand his first solo album, 1998's Try Whistling This, and the Neil Finn of the late-'90s who split Crowded House and then, aged 38, sat down to work on his own for the first time in his life.

Try Whistling This was an experiment mixing low-budget sounds, odd tunings and often deliberate left turns from the accepted Finn style.

Finn now says "with Try Whistling This I was adrift on a sea". He wanted to be anything but Neil Finn.

"What I initially imagined on that record was going to a really out-there mode, being completely unrecognisable, almost. Who knows, maybe I will be that wilful again, but I realised that I don't have to throw out the baby with the bathwater and certain strengths that I had should be embraced for what they are."

In a telling aside, Finn says: "In that respect [One Nil] is not as adventurous but feels more at ease with itself." It's a line he repeats a number of times ... "In the past two years a certain amount of assurance has emerged or maybe it's being comfortable in my own skin, whatever you want to call it. I don't tend to be concerned so much with what people might think. It takes a long time to get over that when you're a performer."

This self-assurance has seen him move away from the idea of the "solo" artist to this album's collaborations with former Prince associates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, Crowded House's producer Tchad Blake, Midnight Oil's Jim Moginie and his old Crowded House partner Mitchell Froom.

"I think [Try Whistling This] taught me that what I like most is to be in a room with other musicians and there's nothing glorious or glamorous about being on your own making music at all," he says.

"I don't know anyone on this planet who is better on their own as a musician than in the company of other good musicians."

One of the more unusual activities Finn has taken up this year is the so-called Band Of Strangers. It began when he invited fans to send in tapes of themselves playing old Finn songs. The best ones, he promised, would get to play with him at a Christchurch gig. There were more than 60 tapes and the dozen who made the final cut were too good to be separated, so they were divided into two bands and Finn played a set with each.

He is still bubbling about it. "The night was absolutely wild and celebratory and these people put in the performances of their lives. Every time I turned around to see one of them they were like [he makes a mouth-wide-open face mixing astonishment and high excitement]. It was the greatest intensity for them and for me."

His new freedom has energised him: he will write for and perform with the Australian Chamber Orchestra this year, and also record a new Finn Brothers album with Tim. Next month, he will tour New Zealand with an extraordinary band boasting Ed O'Brien and Phil Selway from Radiohead, Melvoin and Coleman, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, English guitar hero Johnny Marr and brother Tim.

Strangely, for a man with two decades of experience, he seemed a little lost, or at least unsure of how to be the only one in the spotlight when first touring Try Whistling This. And it's only now that he can see his reaction as another side of the insecurity and guilt he was yet to overcome.

"What I've learnt now as a solo artist is that I can engage with the audience just as easily as I used to [as a member of a band]. I walk onto stage on my own with a guitar and I find it really easy to talk to the audience and have a good laugh. I don't think I could have done that solo during Crowded House."

It's been a turbulent couple of years for Finn. His mother died late last year, which prompted thoughts of abandoning the already recorded album ("I wasn't interested in music, I didn't want to concentrate on it."). One Nil survived, but it may well be that it is important for more than its musical content - it marks the point at which a man notorious for retaining control decided to let go.

"I'd like to keep the element of struggle and the element of chance and surprise uppermost in whatever I do," he says. "The danger, ultimately, is the attraction to things teetering on the edge of collapse."

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