To say the least, Craig Finn is known for his words. Something of a Bruce Springsteen for the Internet era, his work with The Hold Steady spoke to a generation of twenty-somethings and sad college kids beginning with 2004's Almost Killed Me (not to mention his earlier, lesser known work with Lifter Puller).

In more recent years, he's delved more into his solo work, releasing an informal trilogy, completed just last week with I Need a New War, his strongest entry into the canon under his own name yet. We linked up with the ever so expressive songwriter to dig into the particulars of the new album, picking apart particular songs and lyrics, as well as sifting through his influences, interests, and inspirations. We also talked about Billy Joel and KISS. Read on for all that and more.


Your first solo record came out in 2012, and you took a few years between it and Faith in the Future: since then you've done one essentially every other year, is there anything particular about this phase in your career, or life, that made you focus on your solo material?

Well, I think one that happened is...I guess what happened was, in 2015, when I made Faith in the Future, I met up with Josh Kaufman, the producer, as well as Joe Russo, the drummer, and Dan Goodwin, the engineer, who I kinda made all these records with, and a couple things happened, I guess, now, looking back. One is I sorta changed my, the way I write songs. I definitely started really kinda...punching the clock, so to speak. Really writing a lot, and pushing to write more and more. But also, I met these guys, and it became a really fruitful collaborative relationship, and, really since then we sorta haven't stopped recording in some respects. We've made these records by doing...we haven't gone in and recorded all the songs at once, we usually go in and record, I don't know, between 4 and 7 songs. Then go back and record another, you know, 5 or 6. Eventually, after three sessions or so, we go, 'Hey, I think we have enough for a record here.' I think these are making sense as a record. And it sort of feels like we've never stopped recording since then. The record's have kind of been dispatches from along the way. In that sense I've said that they kinda feel like a trilogy. One of the reasons is, is because we don't feel...I don't feel like we've ever stopped working on this stuff.

Jumping off that, did you write the songs for each record in the trilogy during a specific time period for each, or were the songs grabbed from different years of writing?

Well, I mean, I'm always kinda like...they're kinda, the songs that ended up on Faith in the Future were mainly written leading up to its recording. So, we aren't pulling things from 5 years ago, but, you know, I'm showing everything I've got to Josh along the way, deciding what songs to pursue. I feel like one thing that happened with these records is, in 2014, well, 2013, my mom passed away. In 2014 I did a lot of writing and know, for the first record. I think there's sort of a shift in the songwriting, especially versus the Hold Steady at that point which occurred. I think things I became interested in kind of smaller things, a little more mundane. Smaller stories. You know, maybe a little more personal, more vulnerable, at least a little more parallel to my real life. Where, I think that those kinda stories became more enthralling to me. The Hold Steady often times, most often, I'm writing to music that's been brought in by the other band members, usually Tad, but also Franz and Steve. It tends to be big riffs, I'm penning usually, trying to tell bigger stories with the Hold Steady. People are falling off buildings, people are getting shot, they seem like big things. These stories on these three records are people that are, you know, in the Hold Steady I people like people are often times pursuing bad decisions, or having bad ideas, and seeing them out. Where, in these records, people are often times trying to do the right thing and still being left behind, or having trouble, you know, keeping their head above water and et cetera.

When you're putting a record together, do you feel the need to come from a quote unquote "now" place, or do you sometimes reach back and pull back from the past for emotions?

I have reached back and pulled from the past, but generally not that far back, because I've been sort of using the songs as...I mean, none of these songs are older than 5 years on these last 3 records. I'm generally trying to use songs that are kinda current because I'm...most interested, I think we're all always kind of most interested in the work you're doing now and how you're feeling now. But I will say that, you know, Josh, the producer, is...has been very hands on for these records. We really talk through the songs, and so, and worked on the songs together, so, what I bring in, in some cases, does not resemble the final product. [Chuckles] He's helped me a lot. One of the things we did a lot of on these records, mainly the first one, or one and a half, is, Josh was constantly saying, say, I bring in a song, and he'd say, "Let's start on the second verse that you've written. You're setting it up too much. We should just start in the middle of this story." And it almost feels like because we did enough of that, that as I started writing the second half of the second record, and this third record, that I'd already trained myself to do that. Like [laughs] 'Am I setting it up too much? I'm just gonna start in the middle of the story.' So, it's one way Josh kinda influenced my songwriting.

I think overdoing exposition is something plenty of us struggle with.

Yeah. Yeah, so that's the kind of thing that...we threw out a lot of first verses early on. [Laughs]

Changing gears, We All Want the Same Things was a pretty strong title, especially considering the time it was release, as we've never been more desperately, bitterly divided as a country, how would you say the mood has changed for I Need a New War?

Well, I mean, I Need a New War is maybe a less, on the title, political. But, you know, it refers to the song 'Grant at Galena', Ulysses S. Grant, actually, in between his stints in the army, floundering. I...I thought of it as, a lot of the people on these songs have been, are kind of like struggling to keep pace with the way our modern world changes. The way we all have to sort of change along with it. I think we're in this period, due to technology et cetera, where there is this rapidly changing world. And people who aren't able to keep up kinda get left behind. I feel like that happens a lot in these songs to people. That mirror, I guess how I feel, you know, sort of in the political environment, certainly in the last election, there was a lot of kinda, I'd say, fearful nostalgia being brought up. Getting back to a place that maybe didn't ever exist. You know, I think that even the music on this record, we kind of have this phrase "days gone by" that we look at. There's an attempt at a wistfulness. Maybe almost a false nostalgia. I think in I Need a New War, in a sense, is, as well, a loaded political title. But just kind of looking back, looking at people who might be feeling washed up on the beach.

Not to ask an annoying question, but what is a 'new war' to you? [Craig laughs] A new feeling, emotional, political?

It's all that. It's a fight. I need a new war, I need something else to be engaged in. In that case, in that particular song, it's about a guy who's, Grant at Galena is a metaphor, this guy is kinda washed up. He's living in a house in which the power has been cut off, potentially getting foreclosed on, and he doesn't have a car, so he's walking up to the store. He needs something to engage with. It's more maybe than a job, it's a reason, some reason, to live, a reason to fight. I think that in adulthood can easily get to that place, where you lose your engagement. I mean, maybe that's sort of the definition of depression, but I need a war is kind of that...I feel like there's a dark comedy to it, calling it a war. But you need something to fight for. If that's, a lot of people find that in their family, a lot of people find that in their jobs, et cetera. But, you know, you can also get to a place where you're not finding any of that.

In some ways the song reminds me of 'First Night'.

Yeah, well, it's funny because it's sequenced on the same place on the record, I think. I think 'First Night' is the last song on Side A. It feels like that in some way. I think, yeah, 'First Night', it can't get as high as the first night, they're looking for something that's not there anymore. Which I think is a very common, modern, I don't know, frequent feeling in our modern lives. Again, it's that sort of creepy nostalgia. And maybe unhealthy nostalgia.

The first song on the record that I really connected with was 'Bathtub in the Kitchen', what inspired those words?

I mean, it's not a real thing. First of all, the record has a number of songs that are about New York, more than I've ever written before, and I've lived her since 2000, so it's almost been 19 years. I haven't written a ton about New York until this record, and I think, when I'm telling you about this world that's changing, this modern world that's changing, I think New York is a perfect microcosm for it. Because it changes so quickly, and if you don't change with it, you just kinda get ground up. And that's what happened to this guy, Frances. He's kind of become stagnant and things have changed. You know, it's not all spelled out, but it's maybe implied that his rent...he's basically, New York isn't working for him anymore. [Laughs wryly] And that happens. This is a place people move to explore their hopes and dreams and et cetera, and a lot of people find them, and a lot of other people don't. I've known people that it's not worked out for, and it's very hard to watch. That's what's happening in that story, is someone who's just not changed as the city's changed, as the world's changed. He has reached this point where it's eating him up, or kicking him out, or however you want to say it.

There some to be almost two sides to the song: on one hand it's "is there a way to help you that's not just handing you money," on the other it keeps discussing the favor Frances had done for the narrator, and, "I can't keep thanking you," and it almost feels like he's holding it over the narrator.

Yeah, well, I think the narrator is feeling a putting some guilt on himself because it has worked out for him. He's come to the city and he's had this early mentor, and now enough time's passed that he's built this life, and this early mentor is, that he looked up to at one point, is maybe not [chuckles] not someone he looks up to anymore. But he feels a guilt, or some shame, in that. He's trying to help, but, you know, if he gives him $200, he's gonna have to give it to him 10 days from now, too. There's this sort of exasperation. And a sadness in watching his friend, and maybe former mentor, go through this.

"Frances, do you even have a plan."

Yeah, also, it's kind of like, "Ok, I can give you $200 now, but unless there's a new job, or a new apartment, or something that's gonna change, then I'm gonna give it, or you're gonna ask me, 10 days from now, too," and I'm gonna feel like I'm in Groundhog Day. What is this going towards?

I could spend an entire conversation on this song, so I've gotta make myself move on. So: 'Blankets'. The song, especially as an opener, really feels like a journey, with all these separate beats. It feels like it travels. What inspired that song?

It's funny. It kind of just unraveled. I started it at the beginning and then...some songs are like that, where I'll get the first line and then I'll go on a journey with it. You know, I had this idea about especially Grateful Dead concerts, you'll see people on blankets, sitting there and selling just little things, like bracelets for a dollar. It's like, 'Jeez.' Thinking about a relationship that started that way, and where it went. The idea of wrapping something, he seems to be trying to wrap up something at the end of his life, and I guess that's just kind of creeping mortality, in a story like that. This idea of a big romantic gesture, it seems very romantic to me that he would go search out the one woman he felt like he's really loved in this life, and try to find her, to say...something. To say goodbye, or to tell her that, or whatever. It seemed like an epic journey. The riff that we came up with for that, to me, felt like a journey, like a desert, almost something like a desert rock riff. Something that kinda...just a wide open space to fit a big story like that, a big traveling story.

Where did the bit about 'trouble with numbers' come from on 'Magic Marker'?

Well, I think, that bit comes from, he gets pistol whipped, and has, I think, a brain injury. And he goes home to work in his uncle's store, but it's still hard for him. There's sort of a defeat, or, a struggle in his return to his hometown. By the end of the song, he's better with his numbers, but he's still in the same town that'd tried to escape.

One of the lines that struck me was, 'sometimes it just feels good to write your name', like the narrator was just trying to control something in his life.

That's exactly it. And in that song people stop noticing him. That's one way, when he writes his name, he says, 'I'm still here.' There's a profound sadness to that but also sort of a...trying to remind yourself, I guess, right, take control. Say, 'I'm here, and I matter.'

Circling back to 'Grant at Galena', since you brought up New York before, when you say, "the city didn't work", is that referring to naive hope that the city will entertain, distract?

I think in that sense it's that he went off somewhere, went to the city, went to work, went to try the traditional, in some ways, I think, a traditional commuter job. Like, 'I'm putting on a suit, and going work.' And it didn't happen for him, it didn't connect. Whether that's in his own city, or that's another city, I don't know, to be discussed. [Laughs] But I think in that sense he tried to be, to go in, and be an adult, you know? It didn't happen.

To me, 'Carmen Isn't Coming in Today' might be the most overtly sad song on the record. The narrator, she seems so kind, and pure, and she's trying to maintain this unbalanced relationship, what brought you to write that one?

Well, I've always written about, I've spent a lot of time writing about fucked up situations, if you will. I think as I get older, I guess, I start to get more fascinated with, I guess you'd call them enablers. There's this television show Intervention, and if you watch it - I don't watch it anymore, because it's too much - but I watched some of it, and there's a formula to it, to all these TV shows. But there's always someone who needs to go to intervention, to go to rehab, but there's almost always someone who's helping them in a way that they shouldn't help. You know? Like a grandma, or an aunt, who's just giving them $200 a day or something. This idea of an enabler is sort of fascinating to me, and I don't think there's been a lot of songs written about them. I wanted to write something about someone who's...dealing with this on that level, and living with a misguided sense of love. It is really a sad song, it's a sad situation for people to be in. That was sort of my attraction to writing that one.

Do you think she manages to leave him?

I don't know. I like stopping the stories before you know. I don't know, I don't know. I mean, it doesn't sound like it's going well, and I think she knows that. It's not like she's completely clueless, but it's sort of where she's at right now. There's nothing to indicate one way or the other, I think, at least, it's kind of a snapshot of that day.

What did you yourself listen to while you were writing or recording the album?

You know, I was listening to a lot of stuff that...I think there was a sense of more traditional classic rock and roll for the record. Listening to the things I always do, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young. But also, Van Morrison was the thing that we listened to a lot during this. Leonard Cohen, we looked to some of those Leonard Cohen records, the treatment of the backup vocals on this record, Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins did the back up vocals on to one microphone, which can account for more of a classic, call and response, sort of sound. That came from Leonard Cohen. There was, early on, I was kind of thinking classic, and maybe even older, rock and roll sounds. Then when we started the record, I was reading this book about the Bay City Rollers, this Scottish teen band from the 70's. They have a lot of their music, it hearkens back, or suggests this kind of older 50's, 60's thing. I was kind of picking up on that a lot, actually. Then, modern artists I really like, and have been kind of obsessed with in the past few years would be Ezra Furman, who brings in a lot of, like, classic rock, or not so much that, but rock and roll influences to his music. And Damien Jurado's last record which had some of the sadness and a little bit of a wistfulness that I was trying to capture. Those are some of the things that I was listening to, but sometimes it just like a moment, or a song, that's like, 'Wow, what is that?' But those are what I was thinking about.

Did you read anything for inspiration?

Um...yeah, I'm always reading. I'm trying to think if there was anything I read that had a message intact.

It might be easier, what was the last great book you read?

Aw yeah, that's a good one. I'm gonna say, I think the last amazing book that I've read, in the past few years, is called Marlena. It's by Julie Bunton. That was some really, that book was really, really moving to me. I've recommended it to a number of people and they've loved it too. It doesn't really translate to a story on this record, but its storytelling was, is, very empathetic. And I think that in all three of these records I've tried to go towards a new empathy for me. I think that novel is a great example of something that has an adult empathy in a moving way, in a very artistic way.

Bit of a random question, but in 'Her with the Blues', why Koreatown?

Well, Koreatown is where, when I moved to New York - and it's about people moving to New York and, again, trying on adulthood in some way, and, when I was in my late twenties I decided to come out to New York, and I started looking for an apartment, looking for a job, and I stayed in this inexpensive hotel in Koreatown. It smelled like garbage and et cetera. So when I got to writing a story about two people who were on the same kind of journey, it seemed like somewhere you might end up because there's a number of inexpensive hotels there, and you might end up there if that was your main factor in looking for a place. That was my thoughts, the 30's and high 20's hotels.

Ok, who's an album or artist you dig that people would never expect from your own sound?

I mean, you know, maybe wouldn't be surprised at this, maybe you can push me harder, but I do have, I will always ride for Billy Joel.

I could see that a bit in the Hold Steady.

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think it's obviously schmaltzy, but I don't I know just think...the reason I think - and it's controversial within the Hold Steady, there's people in the band that don't find that good at all. [Laughing]

You can't deny 'Piano Man.'

It's such good, um, it's so good! I really love it. I guess the aforementioned Bay City Rollers would also fall into that, people don't really think of that as serious music, but it's one of the first things I got into. I still find a lot of great value in it. I still love KISS. They're amazing. I just went and saw them in concert like two, three weeks ago. They're like the best. I mean, they have some terrible music but it's a lot of fun. I'm definitely not above saying, 'This is kind of cheesy and all that, but it's also a lot of fun, and people around me are all smiling.' It was a great night out. That's what KISS will deliver. They don't deliver the more serious music, but they deliver something else.

Alright, it has to be asked: what's new for the Hold Steady? Is the single released earlier this year a sign of more to come in 2019?

Thereeee will be more to come. There where will be more to come. We're gonna keep pushin'.


Craig Finn's I Need A New War is out now on Partisan Records. Read our review.