There is a singer-songwriter inside Craig Finn, and he needed to come out.
So, while his band was on a much-needed break, The Hold Steady singer made a solo album that was released last month. Now, before the group starts its new record, Finn is on the road touring behind Clear Heart Full Eyes.
"We've been The Hold Steady for eight years and I still like being in the band," Finn says. "But you fall into some habits. Artistically, I thought it would help me grow to do this. I've always had songs I couldn't do with the band, and I wanted to do more and do them differently."
Inspired by the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, Finn wrote about 50 songs for the record, pared them down to 27 and sent demos to Spoon producer Mike McCarthy.
"He talked me down to 13," says the East Coast musician, who went to Austin to record with McCarthy.
The result is an album of dark tales involving breakups and not-so-heroic heroes, inquiries into the nature of his Catholic faith, and meditations on isolation. The musical settings, meanwhile, are spacious, filled with shimmering guitars, shades of light psychedelia and country rambles. Each creates a mood far removed from The Hold Steady's anthemic rock.
"It lacks a lot of the optimism of The Hold Steady stuff," Finn admits. "The Hold Steady is such a celebratory, big rock thing. They're all parts of my human experience. I am an optimist by nature, but not all the time. When I sat down to write these songs, I tapped into a different part of me.
"In the Hold Steady, I don't really write much music — the simple guitar chords is about all I write. This was something different. In some ways it's simpler. That may be because of my limited musical ability. But I wanted something — a 1-4-5 progression — that was much simpler. It puts the lyrics and the stories that much more to the forefront."
The songs on Clear Heart Full Eyes are, at least in part, personal. "Honolulu Blues," for example, is based on an encounter he had with an old woman who served him a drink in Hawaii, then offered him a prostitute, while songs about relationships gone awry, like "Not Much Left of Us," are also grounded in experience.
"I always say I like them to be honest but not true," says Finn. "You can write a breakup story, but it isn't your breakup. There's little bits of me, or any other artist, in their work, even when they're trying to tell a story about someone else."
The most personal element on the record is its exploration of religion and faith.
"I'm somewhat religious — I go to church, then I don't go for awhile, then I go back," says Finn, noting that he's the only member of the Hold Steady who's religiously inclined. "When I made my solo record, I did talk more about Jesus than I normally would."
Isolation is another theme, something that was driven home when Finn stayed behind after an Australian tour and headed out into the country by himself.
"Being alone in Australia, you can get to some really remote places. We all enter and leave the world alone. That was something I was thinking about when I made the record."