Craig Finn

Craig Finn
Photograph by Mark Seliger

The lyricist and lead singer for the acclaimed New York band the Hold Steady and former front man for Minneapolis cult favorites Lifter Puller recorded his first solo album, CLEAR HEART FULL EYES (Vagrant, out January 24), in Austin. The title is a variation on “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” the rallying cry of the beloved TV drama Friday Night Lights.

How does a guy who has led bands in Minneapolis and New York City end up in Austin?
I always like it when I’m in Austin, and I have some good friends there. But the most important part was Mike McCarthy, the producer, who works in Austin. I really liked what he had to say about songs and music and making records. I’m a huge fan of the Spoon records he’s made and his work with Trail of Dead and Heartless Bastards. He had good ideas about using Austin musicians, so it just ended up being more realistic for me to go down there. It wasn’t like he just hit the record button. He really helped me through the process.

You were here for a few weeks this past summer during some brutal heat.
Eventually I got into Barton Springs. A lot of mornings I’d drive over there first thing to cool off.

You recorded with Josh Block from White Denim, Jesse Ebaugh from the Heartless Bastards, Ricky Ray Jackson from the Happen-Ins, and Billy White, whose résumé includes a stint in Dokken. You met all these guys for the first time in the studio.
It was intimidating. I was like, “Am I going to be able to keep up? Are we going to be able to communicate?” But we hit the ground running. It was really exciting to me; I’d show them a song, and all of a sudden we’re recording. We moved pretty quickly, and it was a real confidence-builder. We did fourteen songs in five days.

I think a lot of people have trouble understanding why lead singers, people who are perceived as leaders of bands, go off and make solo records. What was the impetus in your case?
The Hold Steady were kind of fried, so we took about five months off last year. So one of the impetuses was just to do something with my time. You have your habits that you get in and your roles that you play within a group, and I wanted to get outside of that and see if I could get some perspective before we started the new Hold Steady record. The material I was writing during the break didn’t seem right for the band. It was quieter, a little more narrative.

During your break you had an exercise where you were trying to write a song a day?
Yeah, a lot of them were awful, terrible. But I found that if I put them aside for two weeks and then looked back on them, I could figure out what was good or what was bad with a little perspective. It might be I kept the first verse or something and Frankensteined it onto another song later. I have a friend who wrote for Letterman for a long time, and he would always say, “My show’s going on at ten-thirty. So first I write it, and then I figure out how to make it better.”

What inspired the title?
I love Friday Night Lights . It’s one of my favorite shows of all time. I watched every episode and I was in tears for about half of them. I think it’s interesting, because I’m a forty-year-old in rock and roll, and rock is always kind of perceived as a youth thing. A lot of my songs deal with people who are younger, people who are old enough to be left alone but young enough to make really stupid mistakes. I think there’s something similar about Friday Night Lights , where the kids who are going through this, and the coach and his wife who are trying to guide them, try to make the right decisions in their lives without always succeeding.

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