Ahead of a three-show tour of Australia, Finn Andrews - frontman for The Veils, northern-and-southern hemisphere singer/songwriter, guest star of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks resurrection, son of a certain Barry Andrews (who was in both XTC and Shriekback), and owner of three middle names, talks about a solo album where the biggest hurdle to clear may have been himself.
As odd or dysfunctional relationships go, the one Finn Andrews has with his voice could be up there with the oddest. It might well be proper love/hate, with a lot more of the latter for most of his career.
To set the context for the London-based New Zealander’s tale of internal strife it’s necessary to know that in his quietly exploratory and oddly romantic solo album, One Piece At A Time - a project away from his long-time band The Veils – airiness and space is a defining “sound”.
Space for things like bass clarinet and strings alongside a chamber rock group, a combination that positions him in the territory of the Divine Comedy and Leonard Cohen, or Cocteau and Richard Hawley even, rather than the driven, sometimes overwhelming rock of his regular band.
“Having been in a band all of my life [The Veils were signed in 1999, when he was 16] you always begin knowing that you will have certain instruments in there, so it is very freeing knowing there is no guarantee of any instrument being there and you can add things as needed,” Andrews says of the album he recorded in Auckland with Tiny Ruins’ producer, Tom Healy.
“It was lovely being able to bring in some different tones, like the bass clarinet and of course the strings, vibraphones.”
Strings are the sort of things one might expect, but the temptation to push those strings forward, to play up the potential of grandness, must have been strong. Instead restraint is more evident. Was it his intention from the start to be small?
“The only instruction from the beginning was to keep everything based around the voice, and the piano, and having that be the central focus. So even when we added strings and things like that we were still trying to keep them on the periphery so that I could sing quietly and still be heard,” he explains. “Not having guitars helps as well: there’s barely any guitars on the record, which is a first for me. So without them there is a lot more space left open and I was very much aiming to keep it small with room to expand, when needed.”
One of the strengths of the album, however, is that it doesn’t make the other equally obvious choice of keeping this bare like an austere singer-songwriter record. It’s more nuanced. As is the singing. Which is where we came in, and where, it turns out, Andrews has normally gone out. Or at least gone into hiding.
“It’s a constant battle of my life. I’ve never had a naturally pleasant voice: it was always an uphill struggle to make it into something that was remotely (a) nice to listen to and (b) under control,” Andrews say. “For the first 10 or 15 years of singing, it felt completely out of my control and I felt like I couldn’t change it if I wanted to.
“That’s mutated over the last few years I’ve just trying to refine that instrument, trying to make it as much myself as I can.”
This seems extreme as while he can howl and rage at time in The Veils and he’s not a candidate for The Voice any time soon, he’s never been harsh on the ears, and the centrality of the vocals on One Piece At A Time makes it clear his self-assessment is awry.
“It’s a very odd, maddening, mysterious process, being a singer,” he sighs. “It’s never been an easy relationship that I’ve had with my voice and this has added a new dimension to that as suddenly it’s absolutely front and centre.”
Those vocals on the album were in the main recorded live, with few overdubs, which stopped him overthinking. He even developed some trust in that voice.
“I certainly have a more grown-up relationship with it now,” Andrews says. “I still treat it like an animal I don’t want to let have too much over me. I don’t want to feel like I am pandering to it too much. I never do warm-ups or have the lemon and honey tea; I always feel like I have to assert myself with it, to remain in control. That may be a slightly mad relationship when I think of it.”
You think? That is some dysfunctional relationship at the very least, especially as he says the singers he grew up admiring were the less conventional ones, including Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen.
“For a long time I felt such a fraud, almost my entire recording career. I’ve been hiding behind anything that was available, to sort of buffer this feeling of not really belonging in this and not being good enough.
“I suppose there is still a bit of that going on but there were times with this record where I felt I was at least partially in control of what I was singing and what I was doing.”
Finn Andrews plays The Lansdowne, Sydney tonight; Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane, May 3; and Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, May 4.