Think Crowded House — and its enduringly agreeable songwriter Neil Finn — and the lascivious baritone croon of Barry White is probably the last artist who springs to mind. After all, over the sunny melodies of Weather With You, Don’t Dream It’s Over and Chocolate Cake, Finn’s lyrics talk of blue skies, television pages and, well, chocolate cake. And yet, Finn’s latest solo record begins with a slow jam dripping with sensual soul.
“I was really taken with Barry White’s Love Serenade,” he says from a hotel room on his United Kingdom tour, tongue not entirely in cheek. Thankfully, this 55-year-old New Zealander isn’t getting frisky just yet, even if the first track Impressions might suggest just that.
“It’s a big, dreamy soup to ease you into the record and I was imagining what Barry White might have done with that song when I put the string arrangements on,” Finn explains. “I know that conventional wisdom is to put a pop tune at the front of the album. But I was trying to upset my own expectations and resist the temptation to make things more agreeable.”
Not that Dizzy Heights is a difficult album to like. It’s packed with typical Finn pop-rock songcraft and winning choruses. But the commitment to experiment is partly why Finn has remained interesting and relevant where other fiftysomething singers might trade off past glories. As he prepares to play in Dubai for the first time — “something I’m really looking forward to” — Finn doesn’t necessarily have to rely on the nostalgic memories of his audience.
“I’m trying to find new angles all the time, mostly for my own piece of mind,” he says, pointing to his work with Dave Fridmann, the producer responsible for Flaming Lips, Tame Impala and MGMT’s more adventurous records. “It’s so easy to repeat yourself. For some artists that works, but I want to feel like I’ve travelled through my life and represented the sum of my experience.”
It helps, he thinks, that he’s surrounded himself with younger people in the recording process for Dizzy Heights. And with his sons, Liam and Elroy, playing on the record and wife, Sharon, playing the bass, Dizzy Heights is quite a family affair.
“Having young people around lends a certain energy,” he agrees. “Of course, older musicians can have that, too. I saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse not so long ago, all of whom played like teenagers in a rehearsal room. But there’s this sense of wonder with young people.
“I’m really fond of Pony Ride on the album. It’s largely what we played as a family on the studio floor and it’s my 92-year-old father’s favourite. I think that’s because he won a horse-riding competition in his little town when he was young.”
Finn’s songs have always had a propensity to trigger memories of place and time. He thinks this ability to soundtrack people’s lives is the best part of being a songwriter.
“I’ve had the most extraordinary range of reactions to songs I’ve written all through my life,” he says. “They help people through tough times, they provide a spark. I’ve come to realise it’s more important to write songs that stand the test of time than write an immediate hit. Although sometimes you get both, which is no bad thing, either.”
Finn is, of course, talking of the string of hits that came in the early 1990s with Crowded House. Fall At Your Feet, Weather With You and Distant Sun all hit the charts at the back end of grunge and the beginnings of Britpop. Finn couldn’t hope to match the cool value of Oasis’ Definitely Maybe — but listen to the 1993 album Together Alone now, and it has a real lasting value.
“We used to get a lot of reviews that began: ‘I’m not supposed to like this, but,’ and to me that was more of a reflection on the writer. It’s unhelpful to consider whether you’re hip or not — it doesn’t assist you when you’re trying to write a song. To me, the coolness is in the body of the work, rather than where the songs were in one moment.”
This is perhaps why Finn will never tire of playing Weather With You, and promises the Dubai set will be packed with familiar songs.
“It’s not like they’re novelty tracks that became burdensome hits — they represent me pretty well,” he says. “A youthful zip, you might say.”
A beginner’s guide to Neil Finn
1 I Got You (Split Enz, 1980)
Neil joined his elder brother Tim’s band as a teenager in 1977 and wrote one of the first identifiably 1980s pop songs soon after.
2 Don’t Dream It’s Over (Crowded House, 1986)
Confirmation of this ballad’s classic status surely came when Don’t Dream It’s Over featured on Glee.
3 Weather With You (Crowded House, 1992)
Archetypal Crowded House and the soundtrack to many lazy summer days.
4 Distant Sun (Crowded House, 1993)
Finn didn’t always write about meteorological conditions (see also Four Seasons In One Day) but this is one of his favourite tracks on album Together Alone.
5 In My Blood (Neil Finn, 2013)
A quietly reflective verse gives way to a typically singalong Finn chorus. Highlight of his new album.