Culture: Neil Finn
Restless soul ... Neil Finn.
Despite his laid-back, ''I'm just a Kiwi who wrote some songs and got lucky'' vibe, Neil Finn is not a big fan of holidays. He doesn't do the whole relaxing thing very well. ''It just feels a little weird having a holiday, you know?'' he says. ''I tend to get really restless and don't know what to do.''
As a result, he doesn't take much time off. In September, however, he decided to remedy that, and headed to the northern hemisphere for an ''extended family holiday'' with his wife, Sharon, and their youngest son, Elroy. They were in London, enjoying the Olympics, when Finn got what he describes as a ''totally random call'' from Philippa Boyens, writer and producer on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.
''She wanted to know if I'd be interested in writing a song for The Hobbit,'' Finn says. ''I didn't have to think about it for very long.''
A week later, the holiday was history and Finn was winging his way back to Auckland.
Even by Finn's industrious standards, his past couple of years have been busy. In 2010, he toured internationally with Crowded House, which he re-formed after the suicide of drummer Paul Hester. Then there was the release, in September 2011, of an album by the Pajama Club, a group he formed with Sharon (on bass guitar) and Kiwi songwriter Sean Donnelly (Finn played drums). More recently, Finn has been working with producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, MGMT) to record an album with sons Liam (on guitar) and Elroy (on drums), which is scheduled for release in mid-2013.
''Compared with that, writing a stand-alone song for The Hobbit was pretty different,'' Finn says on the phone from his home in Auckland. ''It's a fantasy world that you have to conjure up. You don't necessarily have to make it sound like the song was made there, but you have to have your mind on the fact that an R&B mentality wouldn't work in Middle-earth.''
Finn already had the germ of a melody taken from the film's theme, written by New Zealand composers Plan 9 and David Long. ''The trick was how I would approach it,'' Finn says. ''I was encouraged to sing it out, and so it begins as a ballad but ends … reasonably foot-stomping.''
The piece, Song of the Lonely Mountain, features on the end credits and includes swooning strings, throaty chants and the rhythmic clink of an anvil, taken from a sample. But for the song's performance at the film's world premiere last month in Wellington, Finn brought a real anvil that took four men to lift.
At 54, Finn has become known as something of an anti-rock star, an artist and a thinker, a gentle soul in an industry of narcissists. He has never been one for tantrums or drug scandals, and has never been stingy with his talent. In November, as if to preclude the possibility of ever taking another holiday, he announced that he'd be sharing a stage with Paul Kelly next February and March on a nationwide tour that will include five nights at the Opera House and a free opening-night event at the Adelaide Festival.
Kelly and Finn go back to the mid-1980s, when Paul Kelly and the Messengers supported Crowded House on tour. ''We were both living in Melbourne at the time,'' Finn says. ''He fancied himself at tennis. He and his cousin Alex would come and play me and [brother] Tim at doubles.''
Kelly and Finn seem a natural fit: both are masters of melody, with back catalogues like bulging treasure chests. Both also have a signature lack of pretension that has engendered in their fans a particular loyalty and affection.
The February tour, which has been described as a ''song swap'', will also be a family affair, with Dan Kelly, Paul's nephew, on guitars and Elroy Finn on drums. ''It'll be a small band,'' says Finn, who will play piano and keyboards. ''We will be keeping it pretty intimate.''
This month marked the 40th anniversary of Split Enz, the group who first delivered Finn and his elder brother, Tim, an international audience. Born the youngest of four children in the North Island town of Te Awamutu, Finn found music early, having been inspired by Tim to learn Lara's Theme from Doctor Zhivago on the piano at the age of seven. But it wasn't until he joined Tim's band, Split Enz, in 1977 that the younger Finn found his niche.
Split Enz was flamboyant and theatrical and its members eschewed prog-rock anthems in favour of a more complex and arty stream of power pop that, with strong melodies, made them radio favourites. Songs such as One Step Ahead, Message to My Girl and I Got You - all of which were written by Neil Finn - made Split Enz New Zealand's biggest musical export.
But for the younger Finn, the Enz was only the beginning. After the band broke up in 1984 he formed Crowded House, where he continued to write poignant and flawlessly catchy pop songs, including Don't Dream It's Over and Something So Strong. Crowded House proved a huge critical and commercial success: their greatest-hits album, Recurring Dream (1996), made its debut at No.1 in Australia, NZ and Britain. But they were never cool, certainly not in the way, say, Powderfinger or You Am I were cool. Indeed, drummer Hester once described the group as ''two dorks and a dictator''. And yet this unaffectedness became part of their appeal; when they performed their Farewell to the World concert on the steps of the Opera House, in November 1996, the crowd was estimated at between 120,000 and 250,000.
Finn has since worked with everyone from Sheryl Crow (on his 2001 solo album, One Nil), to Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy (on 7 Worlds Collide in 2001, and The Sun Came Out in 2009). But it's Crowded House that continues to define him, with several of the band's songs having entered the popular canon. This year the musical comedy-drama series Glee covered Don't Dream It's Over.
''They did it really pumped up, Glee-style,'' says Finn, who in his ''more idealistic, romantic moments'' sees most of his songs ''out there'', drifting orphan-like in a type of musical commons.
''As a 15- or 16-year-old, I went to lots of folk clubs and we would all end up singing songs around campfires at 3 in the morning, songs by artists who you didn't know, and they might have been adapted slightly over time, but essentially they were just out there, as songs, on their own.
''And the Glee thing is all part of that. I don't want to be too glib about it, because I expect I will get a nice little royalty cheque out of it, but I think it's the grandest notion of all that a song can live in the public domain.'' Finn's essential dagginess - the main page of his website has a photo of him wearing a sensible scarf and lots of grey hair - has served him well. He doesn't feel obliged to chase audiences, certainly not the ''youngies''. ''That would look a bit tragic,'' he says.
And yet a career as long as his comes with costs. ''Traditionally people say, 'I have no regrets', but I don't buy that,'' he says. ''I do have regrets, some things I wish I could do again. Not necessarily the career things, they don't resonate for that long. But certainly on a personal level, sure, there are people you hurt, things you didn't pay attention to, things you can't change, and there will always be painful things. Maybe you can look back and say, 'It made me who I am', but I'm not sure about that.''
Then there is the sheer psychic cost of making music for a living. ''When something looks effortless, like it always existed, like it rolled out of you like a river, then you have done a good job. But what makes that up is painful small, incremental steps, craft, skulduggery, anything that gets you over the line.''
A good example, he says, is Fall at Your Feet. ''The chorus was reasonably intact but I had three different verses, all of which I worked on exhaustively over a year and a half, and one day, when we weren't even working on Fall at Your Feet, I was playing the melody of something that I'd written as an 18-year-old, and someone heard it and just went bang, 'There's your verse!'''
Fans tend to think of artists as ''stepping into some pure divine state'', Finn says. ''And occasionally there is transcendence involved, but almost every artist is a mass of neurosis and self-doubt, petty concerns, strange competitive urges and feelings of dissatisfaction. And yeah, I still get them. I'm a flawed human being. You want to be brave and confident, but, if people only knew.''
<em>The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey</em> soundtrack is out now. Neil Finn and Paul Kelly play the Opera House from March 10-18.