Craig Finn, longtime lyricist and singer for the Hold Steady, will release his second solo album, Faith In the Future, in September. The longtime Epiphone Sheraton fan spoke with Epiphone.com about opening his first solo shows for pal Jason Isbell and re-discovering the sound of his musical soul with the volume down.
The Hold Steady is taking break—was that the inspiration for making Faith In the Future?
The band is
taking a little break. We did a 120 shows last year and I think everyone came home a little tired. But that said, even though we did 120 shows last year, I made my own album that’s going to come out in September. I made it with a producer Josh Kaufman and drummer Joe Russo and did it over three sessions. It was a small crew. In the Hold Steady I mostly write lyrics. But I also had songs that I had written both music and words for--pretty simple. Josh and Joe and I played together with the idea to let the songs and stories come through. So it’s kind of a sparse, cool record. We made it up in Woodstock. And there’s a lot of percussion. We tried to hang just what the songs needed so the stories shone through.
I’m really excited about it. I think it’s a little different than anything I’ve done before. I did some dates with Jason Isbell to preview the songs. And so that was very positive and unique. He offered me a spot on his bus and the opportunity to play alone, which I’ve not done before. It’s been a whole new thing—playing by myself. And I’ve been using an acoustic and an electric. It’s a whole different muscle to flex and it’s actually terrifying. The tour mostly went to small theaters where the audience was seated. And they’ve been really receptive—pretty open to listening. It’s gone over better than I could have hoped. I’ve also got a small band I’ve been playing with in the New York area.
If you compare your new songs to what you had previously written for The Hold Steady, what differences do you notice?
When I’m writing as a soloist, I tend to write pretty simply. I’m not an advanced guitar player. I came into the studio with a simple structure, a little looser idea of what it’s going to be like. Maybe the producer fills in more. I think it ends up having more space. With The Hold Steady, we have two great guitar players in Tad (Kubler) and Steve (Selvidge). They come in with these riffs and it’s a big high-powered rock band. So with that sound in mind, I tend to write about bigger subjects. Things have to be more dramatic. I’m not writing about my life because going to the post office and the grocery store doesn’t make a good song. But with the solo records, I can write about that or something slower. I might tackle more mundane ideas or try to find some beauty in the mundane because the music is a little simpler.
You made the new record in three sessions—is that quick compared to how you usually work?
That’s quick for the solo stuff. For The Hold Steady, we tend to do more of a modern rock recording with a fair amount of overdubs. We might do scratch vocal takes with the drums and do multiple vocals takes and comp them and all that. Whereas for both solo records, I’ve been more interested in playing and singing with everyone in the room and getting takes. Keepin’ it clean and being able to say “ok—that was a take
.” And we try to get an early take because I feel there’s a certain magic that happens when you’re just trying to wrap your head around a song for the first time. There’s a lot of emotion there. Maybe afterwards you might find it needs a little horn overdub. But largely we just nailed it and said “ok, so let’s move on
.” It’s harder to get those moments in a big loud rock band. With certain less volume there’s more opportunity to grab those early takes and do things a little more live.
When you performed solo, you brought both your Epiphone Sheraton and an acoustic guitar.
Yes, at first I was kind of like “ok I’ve done one or two shows with an acoustic guitar so this time I would just bring an electric so if things get weird I can fight back so to speak
.” I think it’s nice to be able to vary the tones and get some different sounds so the audience isn’t just hearing 45 minutes of songs they don’t know with just an acoustic guitar and voice. I think by switching back and forth you wake them up a bit. Another thing I found is I tend to talk a lot, and if you tell people what the song is about, they kind of listen for it a little more. And that’s been a useful technique.
You probably don’t have that luxury when you’re with The Hold Steady.
No, you have to kind of be more respectful of everyone’s time. I don’t want to be giving a 4-minute introduction to a song that takes 3 minutes to play. And also with The Hold Steady, we have six albums. There are a lot of songs people want to hear when we perform. So there, I feel like devoting more time to play the songs is more beneficial. There’s also kind of a more entertainer thing going on with the solo thing. And with Jason, he could get a bit loud, so I chose to keep it light. It warms people up in a nice way.
Do you sense your writing has changed direction since making this album?
I think it will. It’s funny because with the solo stuff, I’ve been playing the songs the way I brought them into the studio and showed them to the producer, which is not how the songs ended up. So it’s getting back in touch with the song in its original thought. In some cases, in the studio we added a bunch.
Do you think The Hold Steady might return with a sound that’s influenced by your separate projects?
It’s hard to say. Our writing is collaborative. I just saw Steve play with The Donkeys and he was playing some more single coil pickup stuff—very cool, slinky sound. I had forgotten he could play all that—I’m used to hearing him on a Les Paul. So, I think after being 10 or 11 years in a band, anytime you can play with other musicians is good.
You mentioned you’ve been touring with the Sheraton-II?
Yeah, the Sheraton is what played for the vast majority of the solo shows and I did some recording with it too. I love it. I put heavy strings on it—12s—I like getting it close to an acoustic. It feels really nice up there. It feels like a great guitar to accompany yourself on. You can get it a little hot but it’s still pretty sweet.