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Just a few weeks before he headed to Texas to make his first-ever solo album last summer, Craig Finn snuck back home. He saw a Twins game, took in the Rock the Garden concert and attended his niece's baptism -- all in one weekend.
No wonder the Hold Steady frontman opted to record in Austin instead of his hometown.
"Too many good distractions there," he said. "Whereas Austin in July is an entirely different story."
The Texas heat provided a good incubator for Finn's slower-stewing solo effort, "Clear Heart Full Eyes," which came out Tuesday. Equally valuable were Austin's wealth of musicians, who added a light blanket of atmospheric twang that sounds nothing like the Hold Steady. The lyrics -- some of Finn's most personal to date -- are almost as distinguished.
However, the sweaty confines did not melt away two songwriting elements that permeate Finn's music: his lyrical nods to specific Twin Cities sites, and his not-so-specific references to Christianity -- each born from his Edina upbringing.
"There's a lot of Jesus on the record," Finn, 40, admitted with a laugh two weeks ago by phone from his New York apartment. He returns to town Saturday to promote "Clear Heart Full Eyes" with the Texas musicians who played on the album.
"In the Hold Steady, I'm usually the only one that has Jesus on my mind. I felt like I could get away with cramming a lot more of him onto this record."
In one of the disc's most emotional songs, "Western Pier," Finn sings between eerie waves of slide guitar: "Jesus is a judge, and he's kind and he's just / Forgives us for our avarice and lust." One rollicking, up-tempo song is even called "New Friend Jesus," which imagines Christ hanging out with the narrator.
Those Christian overtones might be the part of the record that hits closest to home for Finn, a lifelong Catholic and graduate of Breck, a Christian high school in Golden Valley.
Religion "is always going to be the part of my music that's really my personal thing," he said. "Even when I go to church, which is certainly not every Sunday, some of it is for the religious aspect of it, and some of it is because of the connection to my family. I end up thinking about my place in the world as much as I think about whatever the priest is saying."
On the personal side
While it has the usual blend of autobiographical elements mixed with storytelling -- the "very good imagination" that Finn's mother, Barbara, mentioned in a 2005 interview about Craig's most sordid songs -- "Clear Heart Full Eyes" seems to be largely based on Finn thinking about his place in the world. That tends to happen when you take time off from your full-time job.
He wrote the songs in early 2011 at the start of the Hold Steady's first-ever extended break, which lasted nearly five months. It was his first time writing music on his own.
"Without the volume of the Hold Steady behind it," he said, "the songs pretty naturally got to a more intimate place."
Some riff on his travels, including the single "Honolulu Bay" (about the underbelly of paradise) and the album opener "Apollo Bay" (from a trek to southern Australia he described as "very, very lonely").
Other tracks appear to reference his 2007 divorce, something he has never opened up about, aside from veiled references in Hold Steady songs (see: "Lord, I'm Discouraged"). He refrained from talking about it two weeks ago, too, mentioning that his ex-wife lives here and he doesn't "want anything to come off hurtfully."
One can only guess, then, if Finn is referencing himself or a character in the most intimate songs, including the twangy, mournful "Balcony":
I know the look / I know the lines / I know the laugh from back when we first started it / Such a drunk romantic genesis / Now we've really made a mess of this.
Finn did open up about the album's most haunted-sounding highlight, "Rented Room" ("I know I should be getting over you / Certain things are really hard to do / When you're living in a rented room"). It's partly based on his life when he's off the road, a rare event over the past five years.
"When I moved to a really heavy touring lifestyle, my thinking always was, 'I just need a place to crash whenever I get back home,'" he said. "But to not really have a home, a place you feel totally comfortable in, can be really psychologically exhausting.
"There were a couple years where I'd come home to a house with certainly nice people in it, but it wasn't any place where I'd think, 'Oh, I just want to stay in.' It was always either I'd go to sleep or I'd go out."
NYC to ATX
He still loves New York, though, especially since settling into a non-rented Brooklyn apartment with a steady girlfriend. "It's all pretty good now," he said. "And, of course, I still have the band here."
It was partly to get out of his usual music-making element in New York that Finn went to Austin.
"I've been in the Hold Steady a long time now, and you get into certain habits, good and bad," he said. "One of the main reasons for doing this was to learn and grow from trying something else."
His chief ally became Austin producer Mike McCarthy, who has worked with Trail of Dead and Spoon. Finn said Spoon's albums often start with singer Britt Daniel and McCarthy working one-on-one, "which is exactly where I was coming from. I mentioned my limited musicianship to Mike, and he said, 'If you can sing me the song over the phone, just vocals, lyrics and melody, then the rest of it is my problem.'"
McCarthy assembled the musicians, including Josh Block from White Denim, Jesse Ebaugh of the Heartless Bastards and Will Johnson of Centromatic (only Johnson is not part of the tour). Finn met the players on a Monday, "and by Friday night we had 14 songs."
The album's title, "Clear Heart Full Eyes," is a twist on a Coach Taylor line from the Austin-produced TV series "Friday Night Lights." Finn said the title is just his "coy tribute" to the city, but he doesn't deny a triumphant feeling.
"It was a challenge, but it really paid off, I think. I learned a lot and am really proud of it."
The musicians met up again in Austin last month for rehearsals and their first gig, at a hip hot-dog eatery called Frank. Finn said it was his first show in years where he "didn't feel like I needed to go crawl into my bunk afterward."
"With the Hold Steady, you know, there's volume, and I have to really extend myself vocally to be heard over the guitars, and it's just a more physical performance," he said.
Don't go thinking he's retiring from the rock 'n' roll Olympics, though.
"I really hope I can do a solo album again and maybe keep bouncing back and forth," he said, "but the Hold Steady is still my band. Doing this has only made me all that more excited about the band I'm in."