Walking away from his band Betchadupa back in 2007, releasing his debut solo effort I’ll Be Lightning, Liam Finn has since carved himself out a reputation as an engaging and experimental singer songwriter. Opening up for the likes of Pearl Jam, Wilco and The Black Keys, in the past Finn’s live shows have been exercises in minimalism with Finn playing with loop and octave pedals, accompanied by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Eliza-Jane Barnes.
His latest album FOMO (which stands for fear of missing out, a common saying for Finn on tour regarding staying out and partying, while at the same time referencing his move back to New Zealand after living abroad for so many years) sees Finn playing all the instruments in the studio, although this time he was joined by producer Burke Reid. Working with Burke, Finn ended up loosing a lot of the songs he had thought would make it on the album, Reid preferring to explore the less finished ideas with Finn in the studio, the album also marking Finn’s first time truly embracing digital recording technology. We caught up with the songwriter ahead of his upcoming tour to discuss the new album, his writing process now compared to how he put together his previous work, as well as what it’s like being part of antipodean music royalty.
Music Feeds: So tell me about FOMO. How does it fit in with your previous album as well as your work with Betchadupa?
Liam Finn: To me this album feels like a whole new beast all together. I’ve always had an idea that it’d be great to be able to always make first albums. There’s something liberating about starting from scratch and having a clean slate. I think expectations and pressure to follow up something you’ve already done isn’t conducive to good creativity. Saying that, listening to FOMO now as a whole almost feels like an obvious bridge between Betchadupa’s stuff and I’ll be Lightning.
MF: Can you tell me about the writing process and what inspired the songs?
LF: Last year I moved back to NZ after living abroad for about 6 years… I’d been touring I’ll Be Lightning for almost 3 years straight, so I was craving some down time back home and rented a little house at Piha beach. I really wanted to write the record out there from beginning to end while processing the experience of the previous few years. It was quite confronting to have such a change in lifestyle all of a sudden and to be in such an inspiring place but feeling really strange and lost. I think this really came through in the atmosphere of the album and definitely thematically influenced the songs…. that and finding new love. Oooooh.
MF: It’s pretty short coming in at 36 minutes, so I’m assuming there were songs that didn’t make the cut. Can you tell me about that, about what makes the songs on FOMO songs that deserve to be on there rather than the ones that were left off?
LF: I’m quite short too, but it’s never stopped me from doing anything… except playing in the NBA, which I once aspired to. I like short records these days… It’s easier to take it all in at once and easier to create a concise dynamic. I had other songs written for this record, but when it came to recording it, Burke and I gravitated towards the more half-baked ideas: the ones we could explore in the studio and the ones that felt like a progression from how I have written in the past. I really didn’t want to make part 2 of my last record… my head is in a whole new place and I wanted to make something that represented my live show a bit more.
MF: What was it like working with Burke Reid compared to working on your own?
LF: It was great to have a companion in the studio. I was quite disillusioned before Burke got involved. I didn’t know how to achieve the goal I was setting myself and didn’t feel as inspired as I once did working on my own. I guess I craved collaboration, to hear things through someone else’s ears and let someone else steer the ship for once.
MF: Would you say working with him has affected you as a songwriter and musician?
LF: Totally, I think working with anyone always changes your outlook on life/art/love… everything. We have a lot of similar tastes as far as music goes, but sometimes completely different ways of creating it. It was the first time I’d fully embraced the digital age in recorded music and working on protools etc. I had felt in the past that protools was responsible for making bands who can’t actually play sound like they can… and somehow stripped a song of some of it’s soul and spontaneity… I discovered it was quite the opposite and it gave me more freedom to play as wild as I liked, with more of that live energy, and piece together the most spontaneous and inspired parts.
MF: I read that you were very set about making sure the songs were relatable to a wide audience; can you tell me about that?
LF: I think I was more set on creating an atmosphere that was immediate. Songs take multiple listens to understand and appreciate sometimes, but atmosphere is like a scent… you’re either attracted or repelled. It’s the atmosphere that makes you want to go back and listen over and over. From there I think people will relate to music if they believe the person singing the song. That is what is important to me, the honesty I guess.
MF: Was that at all a reaction against some of your earlier work or how you feel some of your earlier work was received?
LF: No, not really. If anything, I think my last record is possibly easier to relate to. It was written out of some pretty bare emotions, heartbreak and tough times. I think that’s what people liked about it… it was very unselfconscious. This one feels a little more cryptic and less classic in its themes. It’s still as honest and baring but I’m a different person now, so I had to write about that.
MF: How would you answer someone who accused you of compromising your musical ideals in order to appeal to a wider audience?
LF: Well, if they were accusing me face to face rather than via email I’d wrestle them to the ground and tickle their belly with my huge musical ideals. I think every artist, whether they admit it or not, wants to appeal to as many people as possible… or at least leave an impression. I make music the only way I know how to; luckily I have never been in a position where I have had to compromise my ideals or beliefs of what I think my music should be.
MF: You play all the instruments on the album and wrote it all yourself; what made you want to work completely solo save for a producer and live accompanist?
LF: I didn’t really plan this record that way. I actually wanted to involve a few of my friends in the recording of the album, especially after the experience making the record with BARB. It just became clear pretty early in the recording that we would work a lot faster just the two of us (Burke and I). Sometimes it’s a lot harder to articulate what you want someone to play or how to play it when you can just do it yourself. I think I will make my next record with my new touring band… but for FOMO this was the only way to go.
MF: Would you ever want to work with a band again after working on your own? I know you released that collaborative album with Eliza in 2009, was that a case of wanting to get the collaborative juices flowing again or just a product of playing together live so often?
LF: Yes, I love collaborating. It’s more fun to listen back to songs that have other people playing on it… I love working with Eliza and the EP definitely was a product of our all our touring. I guess you just have to follow your gut… whatever feels like the most exciting thing to do should hopefully make the most interesting music. I guess this being a “solo record” meant that I felt right to just be me again.
MF: Now being the son of Neil Finn, I’m sure there was both a lot of opportunities offered to you that other bands might not have had, but also a lot of expectation, pre-judgement and a sense of resentfulness from those that saw your success as the product of nepotism. Can you tell me a bit about that, about having to live with the advantages and disadvantages of your father, and uncle’s fame?
LF: In some ways you have answered your question in the process of the asking. It’s part of my story, it’s who I am, all I know… and in some ways I believe it evens itself out. I don’t think any amount of nepotism is going to make good music or sustain a successful career, but I definitely feel very lucky to have grown up the way I have and I never see it in a negative light.
MF: Can you tell me a bit about how you first came to music? I know you wrote your first song with Matt when you were 11, but I’m imagining that with a family as musical as yours that music has long been a part of your life?
LF: I had written lots and lots of songs growing up… songs about friendly burglars and having my ears inside out… I used to write some pretty mean raps too. I was a big fan of Kriss Kross, Fresh Prince and MC Hammer when I was little. It was only when I met Matt that I started writing with a bigger picture in mind. We had romantic ideas of being a grunge band, I guess that’s when we start learning how to record, play power chords and got interested in babes.
MF: Do you think that has helped you a lot? Is it also something you have to try and overcome? I’ve spoken to a lot of musicians who have said that while growing up with musical parents really helped them as players, they also then found it difficult to get rid of that influence later in life when trying to establish their own style?
LF: I guess I’m lucky I like my father’s music. I’m sure it’s been a huge influence on me… the appreciating of melody and harmony, and an emotional directness… but I also grew up with a bunch of other influences that range from things my father was inspired by also to things he can’t stand the sound of. I think it was easy to find my own sound and style, even if at times there’s hints of my family. Dad’s always ripping me off too… and stealing lyrics from my moments of childhood delirium. “Here comes mrs Hairy Legs”… that was mine!
MF: I have seen a lot of stuff written about you ‘proving yourself’ with your solo work, the articles indeed implying that it is you yourself who has put such pressure on yourself as a songwriter. Is that the way you see things or are those comments nothing more than speculation?
LF: Yeah, I indeed have a lot of self-imposed pressure as a songwriter. I have a lot to live up to and I want to add to the family legacy. It’s not a matter of proving myself with my solo work, but hopefully it’s a bi-product of having a high standard and not wanting to contribute to the world of mediocre music.
MF: What is next for you, in the short term and long term? Touring? Next album?
LF: I’ll be touring FOMO for the rest of the year… but I would also like to get started on the next record sooner rather than later. I am excited to be touring with a band now which has my little brother Elroy on drums and good friend and fellow NZ songwriter Mulholland on bass. We’ve already started writing together and I think we’ll start recording at the end of the year.
Liam Finn will be touring Australia in August and FOMO is out now on Liberation