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Neil Finn's Happy With the Sad Songs

Pop Music* The New Zealand performer, who has a new album out, says it's the melancholy tunes to which he's drawn.

March 09, 2002|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a line in "Anytime," the leadoff track from New Zealand rocker Neil Finn's just-released "7 Worlds Collide" album, in which he sings "Everything is in the balance of a moment I can't control."

After listening to Finn talk for any length of time, it's easy to view that lyric as a quick summary of his approach to music.

Last year, for instance, just to keep things interesting, Finn did several shows in New Zealand and England in which he selected fans to be his band for a night. They'd rehearse in the afternoon, then play that evening, for better or worse.

"If you did that all that time, I think it would have some serious consequences on your health," Finn, 43, said with a chuckle. "But what's really good about it is that it forces you to embrace the struggle and the journey on purely musical terms. When you know you're not trying to build a career here, just an event you're trying to make special, you have to concentrate on the music and music alone. There's a purity in that that's really good."

Finn has sought the spontaneous throughout a career that's stretched more than two decades, from the time he joined his big brother Tim's band, Split Enz, in the early '80s, through Crowded House, the supremely catchy pop-rock band he fronted through four albums from 1986-96, and on to subsequent solo and duo efforts with Tim.

This year is shaping up as a particularly fruitful one for Finn.

Two weeks ago he released "7 Worlds Collide," an album culled from a string of live shows he did last year in New Zealand with collaborators including his brother, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, Radiohead members Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien, singer-songwriter Lisa Germano and ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. The set list runs from Split Enz and Crowded House material to numbers from the Pearl Jam and Smiths songbooks.

Finn's doing a quick spate of shows in California early next week, including a stop Tuesday at the Coach House, on his way to an appearance at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, but said he'll return in the summer for a full-blown U.S. tour. (Last month, Finn rode herd over a spontaneous Split Enz reunion, when all the members turned up at a 20th wedding anniversary party for Finn and his wife, Sharon. "There were a lot of rough edges," he said, "but it was still fun.")

He's also looking forward to a wider U.S. release of the movie "Rain," for which he wrote his first film score. It's the debut feature of Katherine Lindberg, recipient of New York University's Martin Scorsese Young Filmmaker Fellowship. "Rain" was shown at the Sundance film festival and has screened at some art theaters in major cities.

Then come May, Finn will see the U.S. release of "One All," an album issued throughout the rest of the world last year with the title "One Nil." The U.S. version includes two newly recorded songs, as well as the studio version of "Anytime."

It's a melodically rich, emotionally melancholy collection that always manages to strike a note of hope with lyrics exploring the human race's eternal search for connection and love--in other words, typically hummable and endearing Neil Finn music.

"I always used to like the sad songs," Finn said. "Even when I was a young teenager I would gravitate toward the melancholy songs, the ones that led you down a path, maybe describing a fearful emotion or a yearning, then giving you a bit of release. Those are still my favorite kind of songs."

Growing up in Te Awamutu, a rural town about 100 miles south of Auckland, Finn and his family were about as far from the center of the pop music world as they could be without moving off the planet.

Neil absorbed the music of the Beatles and other '60s pop and rock acts, but he also studied piano, which exposed him to such classical composers as Beethoven ("I was playing some of his piano sonatas--just parts, a lot of those were too complex for me") and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

"I'm a big fan of Vaughan Williams because a lot of his stuff is built on English folk music, and my family has Irish-Celtic roots," he said. "He has an affinity, too, for exquisite chords.

"I'm a big sucker for chords," Finn said. "I love what happens when you shift from minors to majors, and the way they can echo moments like when you're looking at nature or when you're on a beautiful beach or when the rain suddenly comes down. Chords have the ability to describe landscape--maybe that's a New Zealand thing."

"The other fascinating thing about chords is that when you discover a new chord change, something you've never done before, and then find a melody that goes with it, you're tapping into a new feeling as well," he said. "There's something you're describing, maybe something you've been conscious of but never [have] been able to describe before, and that's really exciting."

Neil Finn plays Tuesday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $20. (949) 496-8930.

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