Good pop songs aren’t dead. It just takes a degree in archaeology to find them and dig them up.
Former Split Enz and Crowded House member Tim Finn is a great excavator himself. His songwriting credits include such Enz classics as “Hard Act to Follow,” “I Hope I Never” and “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” and Crowded House’s “Weather With You” and “It’s Only Natural.”
On “Death of a Popular Song,” the first single off “Say It Is So,” his first solo album in seven years, Finn has a thing or two to say to those who lament the lack of quality pop music today.
“That was written as a response to an article I read in a newspaper in Australia,” the 48-year-old singer-songwriter said recently. “The journalist was writing about the death or the imminent demise of the popular song as a powerful cultural presence. She had been to a concert of a band that was breaking up. There were 100,000 people there, and she saw that as marking the end of an era and that kids were far more interested these days in video games and other things.
“It was interesting that she was arguing it quite rigorously and intellectually; I’m not doing her argument a bit of service, but it struck me as a wasted intellectual effort, because to me a song is a song is a song and nothing can replace a song. You can be distracted from listening to a song or you can bother to not listen, but if you listen, if it’s a good song, then it’s going to effect you the same way as it would’ve somebody in a cave 2 million years ago. Songs go on.
“I can still listen to The Band’s ‘Music From Big Pink,’ and whenever I hear Richard Manuel sing, I get chills. It just has this powerful effect on me now as it would’ve 20 or 30 years ago. That’s the thing about good pop songs, they live on, they are eternally now.”
There’s no shortage of catchy, undeniably pop music on “Say It Is So,” from the sparkling “Underwater Mountain” to the wistful “Death of a Popular Song.” Not only is it adventurous and winsomely melodic (John Lennon would be proud), it’s a personal triumph for Finn.
Arriving Feb. 29, “Say It Is So” is entirely Finn’s baby. He funded it and is releasing it on his own Periscope Recordings, to be distributed in North America via Nashville-based Sonny’s Pop Records. Finn also is his own manager.
The whole experience has been liberating, Finn says.
“To a certain extent, I was forced into it,” he said, “but I didn’t even shop the record, in the end. By the end of the recording, I hardened my resolve to stay independent. There were times prior to that when I was demoing some earlier songs that didn’t make it onto the record and I was sending those demos (to major labels).
“There were times there when I felt up against it a little, but by the time I finished the record, I was righteous and proud and feeling it’s good to be independent. It’s good to have creative control and not have to go before the committee and not have those meetings, having people tell you what the single could be or what it isn’t. All that stuff is incredibly destructive. Unless you’re very career-driven and are very serious about wanting a career in show business and want it high-profile immediately, you can spend two or three years preparing and organizing a team that’s going to give you all that stuff. That’s not me.”
The album also is available at Finn’s Web site – www.timfinn.com – but he’s not ready just yet to put all his eggs in the Internet basket.
“The Internet is still slow in terms of how to get people’s attention,” Finn said. “Yeah, you can direct fans to your site and sell a few records; you can network through it and join up with other sites, but I think it’s still good at this stage to put it out in the shops. Some people will never find it on the Net. I’m doing distribution deals in each territory. Now I just want to go out and play live and get out amongst it and then take what comes.”
“Say It Is So” was recorded over two sessions in Nashville with producer Jay Joyce (John Hiatt, Chantal Kreviazuk, Patty Griffin). Finn says he chose Nashville simply on a whim.
“Somebody just said, ‘Why don’t you go to Nashville?’ I had never thought about going there, but it kind of appealed to me,” he said. “Somebody directed me toward Jay Joyce, thankfully, because I wouldn’t have known anyone in that town, except funnily enough the very first manager for the Split Enz who actually discovered the band in New Zealand in the early ’70s, he’s now living in Nashville and I caught up with him as well. His name is Barry Coburn, he’s now president of Atlantic Records in Nashville.
“We also hung out with Mark Moffat, he’s an engineer; he’s the one who pointed me toward Jay. Then it took a while to meet Jay, because he’s somewhat of an elusive character. It took a while to arrange a period of time to work on it. It all came together in the last week of an eight-week stay, during which time there would be days when we’d be in a shopping mall just filling in time with our baby (Harper). Sometimes my wife (Marie) and I would look at each other and wonder why we were there, but luckily she’s pretty staunch and has a sense of never really giving up.
“We knew something was going to happen. We knew there was a reason we were there. It wasn’t that I love what’s coming out of that town these days, but there is that underbelly, like Lucinda Williams was a great discovery for us. We saw Jimmie Dale Gilmore performing; he’s great. (Drummer) Ken Coomer from Wilco was living there, and I knew I wanted to work with him, because I love Wilco, especially the album ‘Being There.’ It was great to have him on the album.”
Between all the hard work preparing for the album, Finn found time to join his brother, Neil, in a Split Enz reunion on New Year’s Eve in their native Auckland, New Zealand.
“We were great, if I do say so myself,” Finn said, laughing. “There was a lot of emotion there, a lot of energy in the crowd. We did ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’ just before midnight, and it was the perfect song to do.
“The last time we did the Enz was in 1992. It takes a fairly special occasion to make us feel like doing it, and the millennium thing was that. We did two shows, and they were wonderful. The band was rocking. In some ways, it was the best it’s ever been. I remember talking to Neil afterwards and he said he’s finally learned how to play some of these songs.
“The great thing is, the next day you go ‘Okay, see you later,’ and you go about your merry little way.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I think it was Dion’s ‘The Wanderer.’ ”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “The Dave Clark Five. They played in a city near us called Hamilton, and it was awe-inspiring because of the effect it had on my sister and her friends. Until then, she was a fairly sedate 12-year-old, very sensible. Then I saw them all become primal and scream their heads off. I also was amazed by the idea of a singing drummer, which still inspires me to this day. I’m a big fan of Buddy Miles, Levon Helm, anybody who can sing and play drums.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “We love this Australian band called Smudge. They’re so unheard of and very garagey. Tom Morgan is a great songwriter and he’s actually written some songs with and for Evan Dando. He wrote this great summer song called ’18 in a Week.’ It’s roughly produced, but we made that our summer song. It has all that yearning quality that a good pop song should have.”
BWF (before we forget): The Tim Finn album discography – “Escapade” (Oz/A&M, 1983); “Big Canoe” (Virgin, 1986); “Tim Finn” (Capitol, 1989); “Before & After” (1993); “Say It Is So” (Periscope/Sonny’s Pop, 2000).