As evidenced by all the references to City Center, Lowertown and many other Twin Cities locales, Craig Finn spent a lot of his early years as the Hold Steady’s frontman writing songs about life back in Minnesota. So it really was about time he got around to singing more about New York City.
“I’m sort of working on a 15-year pattern,” said the Edina native, whose sophomore solo album landed last month with ample NYC-inspired lines and only one discernible Minnesota reference.
“When we started the Hold Steady, I was gazing back 15 years before that to when I was 20 or younger. Now, 15 years later, I’m looking back on being 30 and older, which is when I moved to New York.”
Issued while the Hold Steady is on an extended hiatus, Finn’s new record, “Faith in the Future,” strips away his band’s loud guitars and bar-rock mayhem more than ever before. He maintains a familiar songwriting style, though, filling the album with desperate characters trying to rise above their environments.
‘An overriding darkness’ in NYC
Finn, 44, will be back on home turf Saturday with a three-piece backing band, although the Minneapolis venue this time is a new one for him: the theater inside the Woman’s Club. It’s an intimate setting that’s an indicator of the album’s sparser, mellower arrangements. He's also playing the Turf Club on Sunday.
“One of the ideas with this record was to let the narratives and lyrics shine through and only keep what we needed, just enough ornaments to hang on the songs,” Finn recalled. “Those are a lot easier conversations to have with a solo record than with a band record: ‘I don’t think there are going to be drums with this,’ or, ‘We don’t need any bass.’ ”
The minimal instrumentation also served the often somber, emotionally ragged tone of the songs, which isn’t so surprising when you learn exactly when Finn moved to New York: Sept. 15, 2000.
“Less than a year before 9/11,” he noted. “There was a hangover in New York for years after that. You really felt an overriding darkness there after that.”
That foreboding tone casts a pall over many of the new songs and takes on a literal form in at least one of the album’s tracks, “Newmyer’s Roof,” loosely based on Finn’s view of the 9/11 tragedy.
“I saw the towers go down from up on Newmyer’s roof,” he sings of a real-life friend’s apartment building (and yes, on this album he really does “sing” a lot). “Yeah, we were frightened, yeah, we were drinking / It was all so confusing.”
Asked about the drinking reference, Finn sheepishly admitted, “That sounds crazy now, especially since it was only 9:30 in the morning. But it speaks to how insane the day felt. Looking back, I know it was a completely inappropriate reaction having a beer, but we didn’t know what to do.”
Closer to home
Other songs carry the confusion of that time, including the slow, atmospheric gem “Sandra From Scranton” and the elegant, National-flavored rocker “Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son.” Finn said the latter song is about “the idea of always looking for some kind of new meaning, whether it’s something spiritual, religion, chemical, consumerism.”
As much as the album harks back to the lost daze and mourning of a post-9/11 New York, it also reflects a more personal and recent trauma in Finn’s life. He wrote all the songs after the death of his mother, Barbara Finn, from cancer in April 2013.
Craig kept up appearances with the Hold Steady in the months after she died, including hometown gigs at the Minnesota Zoo and the Replacements’ Midway Stadium gig later that year.
“I was just keeping busy, trying to keep moving,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about the Hold Steady: No matter what I’m feeling going into it, once we get on stage and strap on the instruments, the task at hand becomes very easy.
“When we played that show in St. Paul with the Replacements, I was more nervous than anything. That was a really big deal, probably bigger than any show for me. But then the first note came and I thought, ‘We’re going to be OK. We’ve done this so many times.’ There’s a calming thing getting on stage with those four guys.”
Between gigs, though, his mother’s passing unavoidably stuck with him. None of the songs on “Faith in the Future” directly addresses the loss, but Finn said, “It certainly made for a different kind of record.”
“I wasn’t writing about my mom, but about people persevering after some big change in their life,” he explained.
That idea ties back to the theme of “Newmyer’s Roof.” One of the people who did manage to escape from the twin towers on that tragic morning is now Finn’s longtime girlfriend, who was working on the 33rd floor of the first tower to collapse.
“It’s all the kind of stuff that causes you to take stock, if you’re fortunate enough to live on,” he said. “What a terrible day. But things did get better.”