Tim Finn has had a solo career for 40 years, since the release of Escapade in 1983. In the last decade alone, he has been prolifically writing songs, composing music, recording albums, creating musicals and even an opera.
Collaboration is the key word: he seeks out new creative partners, musical or otherwise, and new mediums. He follows his muse like the rugged individual in ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’ – the Split Enz classic which, only last year, he re-recorded in te reo as ‘Ono Marama Takerehāia’, with translator Hana Mereraiha, for Waiata/Anthems.
In May 2023, as True Colours topped AudioCulture’s readers poll for the classic album, and Mental Notes came in third, Finn was interviewed for AudioCulture by Trevor Reekie. The ground covered was broad. The following day Finn announced that he would be touring the main centres of New Zealand and Australia for the first time in a decade. He has the wind in his sails.
Trevor Reekie: Last time we spoke was at WOMAD in 2014, you were an exceptional form. What I gleaned from that show was just how much the audience reacted to your wonderful catalogue of music. I can only imagine that the respect for your achievements has been enough to shelter you from any sort of figurative storms.
Tim Finn: Yeah, there’s nothing like [playing to a crowd], I’m going to head out again soon. That sort of visceral contact with the audience. There’s a sort of loop that goes on between writing a song, recording it and then going out and playing it live, and then going back in and writing again. That loop is easily interrupted. And when it is interrupted, something’s not quite right. So you kind of want to get that back again, that lovely connection, yeah. So it takes care of everything.
You opened your set at WOMAD in 2014 with ‘Parihaka’, a wonderful song and a formidable composition. So how did you actually research that piece of history?
Oh, it was Dick Scott’s book [Ask That Mountain: the Story of Parihaka]. My older sister Carolyn had read it, and said to me, you’ve got to read this book: write a song about that. It was almost like a command – when your older sister tells you to write a song, well, you better get busy. We have a great relationship, she and I, so it was a great prompt. I read his book, and met him as well, actually, after I’d written the song. I owe a great debt to him for that song and for the lyric. It was wonderful to be called on to the marae down there, it was pretty hardcore. And to meet some of the people there and, yeah, just to be accepted for what I’d done, that meant a lot to me.
I’m sure it means a lot to them too.
Hopefully ... so the kids got up at WOMAD that time, with some of the local kids, and sang it with me, which was pretty moving. Our two children, Harper and Elliot, were playing. Harper was on keyboard, Elliot on bass. So that was pretty special way to open the ceremony.
Has your creative process changed much over your career? I read a quote from you where you said, “The best thing I do is when I throw away about 90% of what I’ve been doing, and then get to the nitty gritty.” I thought, that’s an interesting process. Obviously, theatre has now entered the equation.
Yeah, well, I’ve always wanted to work in theatre, like writing musicals. I’ve been inspired as a kid by all the classics like My Fair Lady. Mum took us to see My Fair Lady in Hamilton, when I was about eight, and I can remember jumping to my feet and sort of pure excitement when they were singing that one, ‘I’m Getting Married in the Morning’. It blew my mind.
And it sort of stayed with me all through the years. Eventually around 2003 I collaborated on a musical with playwright Toa Fraser. We had the wonderful Madeleine Sami and a season down in Palmerston North. A lot of that was me learning what not to do. It’s a craft and you’ve got to really kind of knuckle down, you’re serving a narrative. You’ve got to write those songs that will take the story forward, tell us about character. So I had a lot of learning to do.
It was almost like after many years in rock’n’roll I went into a new apprenticeship and that led to seven or eight other works that mostly have been produced in Australia. We did have Ihitai’Avei’a – Star Navigator go on in 2021, the opera I collaborated on with Tahitian writer Célestine Hitiura Vaite and Wellington composer Tom McLeod. So we put that on in Manukau and Porirua and put it through. And that was a whole new thing as well, opera. It’s just a whole other. It’s a whole other.
It’s not a project that surprises me because you’ve always been interested in theatre.
I think that’s true. I mean, you look back, you know, I was always theatricalysing my emotions, like ‘I See Red’, ‘Dirty Creature’, they were writ large. They weren’t introspective singer-songwriter songs, there were songs you had to portray and embody every time you did them. And I find that that it’s always been in me. So you’re dead right. It wasn’t really a surprise to me. In the end. We know this is an entirely natural progression, but it’s a new craft, you have to learn. And I mean, I saw a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, that really kick started it for me. I was on tour and I was in Louisville, Kentucky, and I just had a night off and went and saw this thing, and that blew my mind as well. And I thought, well, the bar is really high, you know, Sondheim’s a genius and I better get busy.
I’m always impressed that your relationship with past members of the Enz are a big part of your life. I’m thinking especially of Eddie Rayner: are you still working with Eddie?
Yes, I am. Eddie and I have started sending files back and forth. We started with a song called ‘Walking’, which was based on a fragment of a song called ‘Walking Down a Road’ from Mental Notes. We recorded that in London when we recorded some tracks with Phil Manzanera at Basing Street Studios in 1976. And Brian Eno wandered into the studio because he was obviously an ex-bandmate of Phil’s from Roxy Music. Yeah, well, he was he was heading towards minimalism. And we were kind of maximalists. Our songs had so many bits in them, and he focused on one bit of ‘Walking Down the Road’ and said he really loved it. And it was just a section where the music starts to really float, it’s quite a dreamy, beautiful section.
I said to Eddie, 47 years later, why don’t we loop that and try and write a new song over it? And we did – and it was a very exciting moment. Because you know, you’ve got sort of the pathos and the poignancy of that memory in that moment and that fragment, and then you kind of do something entirely new with it. It felt different. It felt like something that nobody had ever done or something and we started sending files back and forth. We built up a collection of songs, which we’ve called Forenzics. We’ve had one album come out, and we’re finishing another one as we speak.
True Colours won the recent AudioCulture readers poll for the classic New Zealand album. You must look back on that album with considerable affection. It’s had a massive history.
Yeah, I love that record. I’m going to be playing it on the  tour, I’ve always played some songs from it. I always do ‘Poor Boy’ and ‘Shark Attack’ and ‘I Hope I Never’, and there’s Neil’s wonderful songs on it. And Eddie Rayner’s instrumentals – I love the fact that there are two instrumentals on it. With all the abundance of songs that we had coming through, we still had room for a couple of instrumentals. And the album doesn’t feel crowded. It doesn’t feel like there’s too many tracks.
It gave me a chance to explore [Eddie’s] sounds and his melodies. ‘Coral Sea’ sounds like a Giorgio Moroder tribute, you know, around that time with David Tickle producing for us. He’d been in the studio with Blondie and [producer] Mike Chapman, he was like the assistant for some of those sessions. And so he brought a lot of that into those sessions. The band was kind of at the point of critical mass, just ready to go to the next level, I suppose. Yeah, it has a lot of great memories, and it stands up really, really well. And as I say, I love playing it live still.
You and Eddie have a fascinating history together. He’s obviously a creative force.
Yeah, I mean, it’s because he’s a keyboard player – I love the piano. And we just seem to click in other ways as well. When Phil Judd left the band in ’77, after our first American tour, Eddie and I went straight away into writing mode and wrote ‘My Mistake’. It's just extraordinary to me that we didn’t do it again, I don’t know what happened, right? But I know that I had to kind of figure out what it meant to be the lead songwriter for the band for that period, to carry it through into a new kind of era. I was obsessed with trying to write myself. But that first song, ‘My Mistake’, was great, so it’s still played live. It just surprises me that we didn’t [write together] more. But here we are doing Forenzics, all these years later.
So for you in many respects, that song was a look into a creative process that you more or less discovered within yourself?
Yeah, that sort of led to me writing ‘Charlie’, which was, I think the first real song I wrote.
Your band ALT formed in 1994 featuring yourself and Irish singer songwriter Andy White, and Liam Ó Maonlaí, frontman for the Irish band Hothouse Flowers. He’s obviously a considerable creative presence in your life. It’s obviously something close to your heart. It connected with you, you with your Irish roots.
It did. I first went to Ireland prior to that in the early 90s. I don’t know why I took so long to get over there because all those years in London in the 70s and 80s I could have just got on a plane and gone to Dublin, I would have been much happier. But I finally went there when I turned 40 and I met these guys – Liam Ó Maonlaí and Andy White, who’s from Belfast. We hung out together and became really good friends. We were staying in a house in Dún Laoghaire which is where the ships come in from England. There’s a swimming spot up there called The 40 Foot where James Joyce used to go swimming. It’s a wonderful place. We had the most marvellous summer and we wrote music together including the song ‘Many’s the Time’, which I put onto my next solo album. But we knew we had made a date with destiny, we had to make a record, and so in 94, we got together in Melbourne and made our ALT record in the house in Melbourne. I was living in Caulfield, Melbourne, where we had recorded some Woodface tracks at a little home studio there. And, yeah, it was a record of spontaneity and joy. It stands the test of time, and if some people are interested they should check it out. The album is called Altitude.
That was a great year, ’94. Because I did the Finn album with Neil around that time, and we still love that record so dearly. And I also wrote a series of songs with an Australian poet called Dorothy Porter. And that led to a theatre show in 2016 in Melbourne at the Malthouse Theatre, which we called Fiery Maze. So there was a lot going on. And then Alt that year.
I’ve reconnected with ALT recently, making another record [AT] with Andy – sadly Liam couldn’t join us. The L part wasn’t there. But he said home recording and sending files – that he just can’t do. He said he falls at the first hurdle. So there are people like that who are intensely creative, free spirits, and they just don’t want to do it. Unless they can just do it in the studio with somebody else who does all the [engineering].
Talking of engineers and producers, you’ve worked with an accomplished crew of people over the years, including Mitchell Froom and Tony Visconti. That must be an education in itself.
I’ve worked with a few. David Bascombe did some tracks with me for Before and After, he’d been working with Tears for Fears and various people. He’s amazing. He put ‘Many’s the Time’ together, constructing it out of beats and loops and samplings, some vocal stuff from Andy and Liam that they’d done on a demo version of the song. So, you learn as you go: Tony Visconti with all his incredible kind of legacy behind him. Mitchell Froom, just amazing: his song construction, editing, changing maybe the odd chord, cutting this bit, that bit, and suddenly you’ve got a song that has a lot more energy and focus in it. He’s amazing at crafting song structure, but also a great musician himself.
John Leckie, more recently, who mixed the AT record – he’s known for his work with Stone Roses and lots of great artists in the 80s. And 90s. He was going to record an album with Split Enz in ’78, which we ended up calling Frenzy. We should have gone with John because he came out to meet us in Wales, we had a great meeting. For some reason we went with somebody else and I don’t think it turned out anywhere near as well as it might have done. So that was a regret. It was lovely to reconnect with him and apologise, and say thank you, John, for holding on like this and working with us again. He’s just a master. I’ve sent him so many files for these tracks, we thought he’d weed them all out and, and prune it, but he just basically worked with everything we gave him and crafted a really dense but satisfying record. Yeah.
Sometimes the creative process is a hit and miss affair. Sometimes, nothing happens. And some days, a whole storm comes in. I remember talking once to Paul Kelly about how the creative process works for him. And he basically said, Turn off your phone. And then just toss your line into a pool and see what happens. The important thing is to touch the line into the pool. Is that advice you would share?
Yeah. I don’t have a phone. I’ve refused to have one which means I have a lot of time for daydreaming. There’s many hours of every day when no one knows where I am and what I’m doing and I love that.
Basically, I’ve been enjoying the last 20 years writing for theatre. It’s been really good because you’ve already got a set of characters, and you’ve got a narrative, you’ve got a story, you’ve got emotions, and really, you’re just liberated to kind of explore those. You’re not fishing around in the pool of your own experiences, maybe your themes are on hold for a while and you’re exploring other people’s themes – which of course end up being your own anyway.
For example, Ladies in Black, which was a show I wrote, because I read this novel, called Women in Black, we couldn’t call it that, because of Daniel Radcliffe’s film: the first 8000 things you would bring up on a Google search would have been his film. So we’re going to reluctantly change it to Ladies in Black, but set in a department store in 1959. And the central character is a 17-year-old girl. You might sort of ask yourself, well, what would I know about that? How would I get inside the head of somebody like that? But I can remember my first day working at the abattoir when I was 19, and how I felt, you know, and you just walk into these worlds, and you feel completely exposed and vulnerable. So I was able to go into it from that kind of process, and just absolutely love it.
It’s the best time I’ve ever had in the last several years just writing songs for other people. What a liberation. And so I continue to try and find stories and ideas that I’d like to write songs for. I’m lucky to have a director friend in Australia, who is actually a New Zealander, Simon Phillips, and his wife, Carolyn Burns. The three of us, we actually won a Helpmann award for best new Australian work for Ladies in Black. That was a hell of an entry into that world. I cherish it and don’t take it for granted.
I imagine anything that comes along, you’ve worked into something positive, because everything can go either way.
Yeah, they will. It’s like that all the time. So yeah, you fish in the pool. I mean when Neil and I write together, I’ve used the image before of a tide-pool of memories, because we don’t have to talk about it, it’s just there. It’s a beautiful thing.
You did a new version of ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat, in te reo: ‘Ono Marama Takerehāia’. What inspired that?
I was approached by Dame Hinewehi Mohi, who was about to put together more Waiata/Anthems, the first one was so successful. Of course I was very keen. It occurred to me that it would be great to do ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’ – a song that everybody knew – sort of reinvented, slowed down, with some female voices. To think of it in a different way, all these years later. I asked if I could work with a female translator, I just had a feeling about that that would be a good balance. And I was lucky enough to be given the chance to work with Hana Mereraiha, who had already been working on the first Waiata/Anthems and translating musicals into te reo Māori. She [worked on] Frozen and Moana, so she’s right out there on the coalface of bringing things together and translating. She’s a songwriter and singer herself. So we went backwards and forwards on it, just sending emails in that invisible space that I enjoy working [in], where vague ideas are literally floating through space and you’re exchanging thoughts. I wanted to keep the metaphor alive of six months and a leaky boat. I especially like the leaky boat idea, because that had been a hard-won metaphor for me. I’d come through a rough time and I’d been reading about the people coming out on the on the ships from Europe and England. It worked for me, to carry me through that time and to have that kind of metaphor going.
Translation is a beautiful process. You’ve got to be very open. You can’t ever get an exact translation of every single line and syllable. So you have to kind of be free and open and let it happen. I’d already done a fair bit of that with the opera, Star Navigator. We did a lot of translating into Tahitian. When you have a pre-existing melody, and you’re working with languages that have long cadences and many more syllables than English. And they don’t always end on a hard consonant, like “boat” – you’re not going to find that. So you’ve got to have these open vowel sounds at the end of lines, which can subtly change the melody. It’s a really interesting, organic process. I love it.
Your appreciation of te reo has obviously opened up a whole new world for you in many respects.
Well, I mean just translating generally, because with the albums I did with Phil Manzanera, he’s Spanish speaking, he grew up in Cuba. I really wanted to work with some Spanish. So I would basically be translating some of my songs into Spanish, and he would help to guide and coax them into into place. There was one I had called ‘In a Different Light’ and it ended up ‘Bajo Luz Distinta’. And distinta is a really nice word for different, because we can recognise the root of that as distinct. It’s just amazing to open up language, I can see why certain writers will write a work in a language that isn’t their first language. Like Beckett, for example, wrote Waiting for Godot in French. And he was probably a very good French speaker. Nevertheless, it wasn’t his main language. And it kind of empties out a lot of the preconceptions of language and it’s quite a fresh kind of feeling, I can see why they do it.
I’d be interested to know how with Forenzics – Shades and Echoes, you use old Mental Notes motifs to create new songs. That’s an interesting way of looking back on your catalogue and working with it. It is having a new lease of life.
Yes, here I am now at the age of 70, reconnecting with my 24-year-old self, it’s very interesting. Because they are distinct, you know, that word is distinta. Again, because they are distinct episodes of your life, you can’t really know what it was like, at 70 to be 25. It’s impossible. It’s a foreign country. But through music and through what Eddie and I were doing, we can approach it and eulogise it almost, it’s a really interesting thing. So we did it with ‘Walking Down a Road’ and that became ‘Walking’. We’ve been recently working with ‘Sweet Dreams’. We worked with ‘Another Great Divide’, ‘Lovey Dovey’ – some of those earliest songs. We’ll just find something in them that sparks a new idea. And then write new lyrics, a new melody, new chords, actually, literally, a completely new song. But at its core is this seed of 1975, ’76, ’77.
I love the way that you’re looking back on your catalogue and just still working with it.
Well, with Split Enz, there were so many great bits, so many great parts. We were, as I said, kind of maximalists. We’re also deconstructionists because we were messing with song structure all the time. Yeah. We learned that from The Beatles, it’s quite obvious, like when you listen to ‘I Am the Walrus’ or ‘Strawberry Fields’. They were showing us the way that was the template. Yeah, it doesn’t have to be just verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, whatever: you can completely destroy that. And yet not destroy the song; in fact, enrich the song. So we were very much influenced by that in the 60s. And then off we went through the 70s, and it’s funny, Split Enz: people often think of us as an 80s band, but we were so much a 70s band.
Very much. I saw you on the university circuit many times, and I always loved it. I loved the way that you know, you went from prog is not the right word, but the Enz were exploring directions that not many artists were working along with. Split Enz was actually sort of coming up with a new genre in many respects.
The difference between Split Enz and prog is quite subtle and yet it’s really strong. Not everybody would understand that. But if you play our record side by side with a prog rock record, it’s obvious we were different, yeah. And yet we were also breaking up song structures. What we didn’t do was have long solos, we weren’t that flash, you know, we weren’t overly technical at playing, we were always pushing to the very limits of what we were capable of. And sometimes we would fall short almost, but that becomes part of the charm of those, like Mental Notes to us was a great disappointment. Not now, I love that record. But at the time, it was a huge disappointment. We fell short of our dream for those songs. That’s what happens, I guess to everybody to some extent, but to us it didn’t sound as majestic and awe inspiring as we wanted it to. But now the flaws are part of its charm.
I love the fact that you can make a mistake, then turn it into an asset. That’s exactly what I imagined that happens quite often.
It does. Mistakes are great on the piano. If I want to play a certain chord, I’ll just play it on the piano, I might miss. I might miss a note by a semitone. Or make a mistake and I’ll immediately go, I love that. That’s what leads me into a whole new thing. I never disregard a mistake.
I love that too. I question the fact that you sometimes think you’re a flawed pianist. I think you’re actually a very, very accomplished pianist. Creatively, especially.
Well, thank you. I think rhythmically, I’m good. And I love playing arpeggios. And I can do certain things. But my left hand/right hand separation was never that strong. Because I gave up after a couple of years with a lovely piano teacher I had, called Sister Raymond. She could tell that I was fed up with reading the dots and all that. So she got me to learn ‘Alley Cat’. It had been a big hit at the time, an instrumental song. And I loved it. Dad enjoyed that because he was into swing. So I’d play at home and the whole family were grooving. I realised years later – only about five years ago – that’s where the piano solo from ‘I See Red’ comes from. It’s obvious. It had stayed in my kind of DNA and came out – it’s different, but you can see exactly where it comes from. I love that. It all comes from somewhere.
Let’s talk about your recent projects. You’re looking back on a lot of areas of music that you hadn’t approached before. Theatre, and te reo as well. It’s opening up a world for you.
Worlds within worlds. Yeah, exactly.
That’s a very interesting process, probably a demanding process – and sometimes a frustrating process. But what comes out of it is what counts.
Yeah, I think with lyrics – doing a lot of theatre work now and writing for character – it’s really sharpened my lyric writing to the point where I now just very readily discard entire drafts and start again or, you know, chop and change. There have been many times when I’ve been working with theatre where I’ll write a song, and then it’ll either get dropped completely, or the lyric has to be completely rewritten once we’ve workshopped the idea and seen the actors do it. And now I’m ready. It’s very easy now for me to discard, throw away, start again. And really make sure that the lyric is doing what I want to do. Every line.
“I wake up in the morning, and if I’ve got a song to write for a certain moment in a show, I’m excited.”
It’s obsessive, and it can drive you mad, but actually, I relish it, I love it. I wake up in the morning, and if I’ve got a song to write for a certain moment in a show, I’m excited. As soon as I get out of bed, I make coffee, boom, I’ve got a beautiful project to get on with. Whereas when you’re writing songs for albums like I did for so many years, you can get periods where it’s very exciting, and it all flows, and then lots of periods where it’s not. I much prefer the kind of more steady work, day by day by day. It just seems it doesn’t seem to stop, and you know, hopefully till I drop. Who knows?
I read an interview with Tom Stoppard recently, who’s now 85. And he’s probably one of our greatest living playwrights, if not the greatest, of the English speaking world. He was lamenting the fact that he didn’t have a new play to write, he hadn’t found one yet. He’s 85 and he said, I’m much happier when I’m when I’m writing. I think we all know that feeling, whether you’re writing a play or writing a song or just doing something creative – gardening, anything that’s creative. We want to keep doing them until we drop.
Exactly. Yeah, I think that’s another reason why Brian Eno is a very interesting man as well, because he’s always working. You get the impression that he must notebook everything that he thinks and creates. And from that he draws inspiration for new work. Is that how you approach things as well? Or is it a bit more lateral than that?
I do keep notes and ideas scribbled down, I’ve got a huge set of drawers at home. They are baker’s drawers, so once upon a time, there would have been bread, fresh bread, and now there are scraps of paper, diaries, notes from friends. That’s where my OBE is. The kids found it quite a few years ago now when they were still little, and they were awestruck, you know, and that kind of gave me a lot of pleasure. Suddenly, like, “oh, yeah, I’ve got a medal”.
“Can I wear this?”
Exactly. I’ve got a little mini one for our son. Sam Neill suggested that to me. You can ask them to send you a little one, a junior one. But yeah, the lyrics that I wrote in the 80s, there are still lyrics that I’ve never used. So it’s quite interesting to go back, pull them out. Now, nothing has to put them back.
And I love the tactility of a bit of paper like this. There’ll be a hotel that I was in, which had a little sketch pad by the bed. And I’ll have scribbled an idea. And so when I pull that out, not only do I see this idea, but I see the name of the hotel, and I can roughly remember where I was. It’s nice.
Like a photograph. I’m impressed that you maintain those working relationships, obviously with Eddie because he’s probably a close friend as well. And Phil Manzanera, as well. That points to a lot about you as a person, that you value these people.
I do value them, but years can go by when you don’t see them or speak to them, and then just pick it up where you’ve left off. I got an email this morning from Phil, from Stockholm. Working online is something I really value and it has changed everything because I’ve made reconnections with people that I may not have worked with for years. You can send a file back and forth, and write and record a song and then get somebody really good to mix it and you’ve got an album. It’s unbelievable. In the old days, if you wanted to demo a song, you had to book a studio, go and pay $1,000 or whatever it is. And then if you wanted to send it to people, you had to actually go to the post office and post it to someone and hope it made it. What a laborious process. It’s instant now.
Did Split Enz used to demo much material?
Not really – there are lots of cassettes of us in rehearsal. I think some of them might have ended up in the Enzology compilation. Nigel Griggs, our bass player, would record everything. And then he’d sit up till four in the morning editing. So when we got up, about 10 o’clock, after a night’s rehearsal ... there’d be something waiting for us like a cassette of edited highlights from last night’s jam. He must have 100 cassettes. That’s invaluable, I know. And funny. There are so many funny moments that you would have never remembered where a joke was, either a musical joke or a verbal joke or something stupid happened. You just thrive on those things in a band. It’s all about the humour really.
Even more remarkable is that he’s chosen to keep that.
The other thing Nigel used to do was song lists. You never had to think about it, because Nigel would have crafted one all afternoon. He was a true archivist. All bands will play the same set for a whole tour, that’s pretty common. But our obsession was that every night had to be completely different. One night we started with ‘I See Red’, which we never did again. It was a big mistake. The crowd went insane. And then it was just very hard to get them back.
You hadn’t thought that through?
Well, we were perverse. I think we were just testing the water. So many other songs, you can work out in your setting, you know, it’s gonna get that sort of reaction.
There’s quite a few now, for example ‘Weather With You’. Neil and I both can play that song and you just know that that’s a huge audience participation song, right – singing and arms in the air, anything they want to do – but it has a certain magic that it brings out.
So you structure your set around knowing that those songs will elicit a response, and bring it up and down and back. That must give you almost a theatrical view of your music.
I did a show in Manly towards the end of last year , which has really been the prompt for this upcoming tour, because I loved it. And there happened to be one of Australia’s leading promoters in the audience, who loved it. What I decided to do for that show was to do it chronologically, and I’d never done it before. And so I started at 1977, with ‘My Mistake’, and just went forwards from there. Normally, I would never do that, I’d be looking more for those dynamics. As you say, kind of crafting a theatrical, up, down, up, down. This was just like, I’m going to do this and see what happens. And it worked. So I’m going to do that again on this tour. It’s a chronology. And it has its own kind of theatrical reality about it.
Doing something to see what happens is actually a very important part of the creative process, isn’t it?
Of course it is. Yeah, there’s no other way of exploring it.
One of my favourite songs is ‘I Hope I Never’ – I imagine it gets a similar response every time.
Yeah, it’s an important song in the set. I can easily inhabit it every single time. And I’m not sure why. It’s easy enough to get back into that mood, I suppose, of you can’t see somebody because it’s just too painful. But you really, really want to see them. And I think we’ve all been there, you know. That song is notable in the sense that it’s the only song I’ve ever written I think [in which] I wrote the verse on piano and the chorus on guitar, and joined them together at different times. I had no idea they belonged together until I suddenly realised that. It’s neither a piano song nor a guitar song. And the first demo of that song, I played acoustic guitar. But obviously, it became a keyboard song on the album and has remained so, but I also can play acoustic with it.
Just a bit of a nerdy question about on guitar. Do you ever work in open tunings?
I have done, not very often. I think everyone knows Phil Judd was amazing at that. Some of the songs on Mental Notes and some of the early singles were written with open tunings. He just went off into this other world completely. I mean, ‘Time For a Change’, for example, was written on acoustic guitar in an open tuning, and it sounds so like a piano song. Now, you wouldn’t have dreamed of that. So yeah, hats off, he explored it in a completely free kind of way. And I didn’t even know what an open tuning was – I do now. There are so many of them, you can just go on and on and they lead you into those accidental areas. Just plunking your fingers down and you’d play a normal G shape or something and it sounds like a whole different thing. It’s amazing.
I love Brett, he’s my idea of a musician. Somebody who who never stops learning, never stops pushing himself. He’s a national treasure. A beautiful guy, and Dianne – an amazing spirit. Brett’s amazing. It was the bass player Mareea Paterson who recommended Brett and we’ve played together ever since. Brett said to me that when he came back to New Zealand 20 years ago he had an inkling that somebody he should work with was me. So it was meant to be.
Coming back to theatre and opera, tell us about some of the projects you’ve got on the boil?
As I said, it sort of all started back in the early 2000s and led me through these different projects. And so, the last one was Come Rain or Come Shine, which was a Kazuo Ishiguro short story. That was with Melbourne Theatre Company. At the moment, we’re developing a couple of things. Same team, me with Simon Phillips and Carolyn Burns. I’m sort of superstitious about saying what they are, but there’s definitely something brewing.
And, on it goes – I don’t think I’ll ever stop. Also, hopefully I’ll keep making albums with people where we don’t have to physically be in the same space, but mentally, spiritually, emotionally we’re right there. Obviously Forenzics is definitely part of that. I’d love to make another album with Neil. One day, and that may well happen.
We talked a bit about your life, and looking back. Do you ever think that at some stage, you might write your own biography?
Well, I’ve been asked about that a couple of times by different publishers, but it’s never really appealed to me. I don’t know why exactly. I think it’s all in the songs, as much as I would care to reveal. There are definitely hints and suggestions and sometimes pretty obvious parallels in the songs with my life. And, you know, to write a biography, I think a lot of the most interesting things that have happened to me, I would rather keep private, you know?
Tim Finn’s theatre work
Steel City (soundtrack album, 1998). Music for a tap dance production by Sydney Theatre Company. Australian choreographer Dain Perry. Marie Azcona (Tim’s wife) co-wrote a couple of tracks, as did Mike Chunn.
Feedback (2003). Written with Toa Fraser, starring Madeleine Sami and Steve Tofa. Limited season Palmerston North, Centrepoint Theatre.
Poor Boy (2008/2009). Premiere production Melbourne Theatre Company, starring Guy Pearce and Sarah Peirse. Further production with Sydney Theatre Company. An Auckland Theatre Company production took place in 2011.
White Cloud (2012). Written with New Zealand playwright Ken Duncum; premiere production at Bats Theatre. Wellington. Toured as one man show starring Tim Finn.
Ladies In Black (2015/2017). Written with Carolyn Burns, directed by Simon Phillip. Opened in Brisbane, played across Australia. Won Helpmann award for Best New Australian work.
Fiery Maze (2016/2017). In 1995 Finn started working on an album with Australian poet Dorothy Porter, writing songs to her lyrics. Porter died in 2008. This production, performed by Finn with Australian singer Abbie Tucker, had a season at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, and featured in the 2017 Sydney Festival.
Twelfth Night (2018). A musical version of Shakespeare’s play; season produced by Queensland Theatre Company.
Ihitai’Avei’a – Star Navigator (2021). Opera, written with Tahitian writer Célestine Hitiura Vaite and Tom McLeod. Premiere season in Manukau, Auckland; 2023 season in Porirua.
Come Rain or Come Shine (2022). By Carolyn Burns and Simon Phillips, adapted from the short story by Kazuo Ishiguro. Songs by Tim Finn.
Music work since 2012
Mr Pip (2012). Music for film of the Lloyd Jones novel, with composer Harry Gregson-Williams. It received a NZ Film Award (a Moa) for best score.
The Fiery Maze (2018). Tim Finn album. In 2015 in Melbourne he presented the songs he wrote to the lyrics with young Australian singer Abi Tucker.
Caught by the Heart (2021). Album with Phil Manzanera.
Shades and Echoes (2022). Forenzics album with Eddie Rayner.
‘Ono Marama Takerehaia-Ngawiri’ (with Hana Mereraiha) (2022). ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat in te reo for Waiata/Anthems. Issued with ‘Aotearoa’ 2022 remix of the original.
The Ghost of Santiago (2022). Album with Phil Manzanera.
AT (2023). Album with Andy White, ie ALT without Liam Ó Maonlaí.