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 new solo effort, "Clear Heart Full Eyes." Equally valuable was Austin's wealth of musicians, who added a light blanket of atmospheric twang that sounds nothing like the Hold Steady. 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. "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."

Those Christian overtones might be the part of the record that hits closest to home for Finn, a lifelong Catholic. 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."

"Clear Heart Full Eyes" seems to be largely based on Finn thinking about his place in the world. 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" and the album opener "Apollo Bay." Other tracks appear to reference his 2007 divorce, something he has never opened up about.

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. McCarthy assembled the musicians, including Josh Block from White Denim, Jesse Ebaugh of the Heartless Bastards and Will Johnson of Centromatic. Finn met the players on a Monday, "and by Friday night we had 14 songs."

The musicians met up again in Austin in December for rehearsals and their first gig, at a 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, but the Hold Steady is still my band. Doing this has only made me all that more excited about the band I'm in."