After Split Enz and Crowded House, Music Is Still a Mystery for Neil Finn

About a year after Split Enz formed in 1972, the band was set to tour its native New Zealand. Tim Finn, who co-fronted the band at the time with Phil Judd, asked his fifteen-year-old brother, Neil, to be the supporting act on the tour. Since Neil was playing mostly covers at the time, Tim, who’s five years older, told his younger brother that it would be good if he had couple of his own songs to play on the tour.

“One of them was called ‘Late in Rome,’” Finn remembers. “Some of the words were written by a friend of mine who I was playing music with. But it concerned a dancer, an aging dancer, looking back on his life in Rome, which I find deeply mysterious now, thinking about it, that as a fifteen-year-old in New Zealand, I was singing a song about an aging dancer in Rome. It was a pretty good song. I’ve performed it in various obscure events through the years — and who knows? I might even break it out in Boulder.”

When Finn plays two nights at the Boulder Theater — on Tuesday, June 21, and Wednesday, June 22 — he’ll be playing with a six-piece band that includes his wife, Sharon, and son Liam, who will also open both nights with his own material.

“Sharon is a great dancer, so as a bass player, she kind of plays bass like a dancer — just keeps it simple, keeps her hips moving,” Finn says. “Liam and I, we share some traits. He’s got skills and angles on what he does that I find pretty inspiring. He’s a force of nature, and he loves playing live.”

Finn, who turned 58 last month, says that in the context of these solo shows, he’s free to delve into any era, including Split Enz, which he joined when he was eighteen; Crowded House, which formed three decades ago; or his solo material.

“It’ll be a mixed and varied night,” Finn says. “Over two nights in Boulder, we’ll be able to cover a lot of ground.”

Finn has forty years of music to draw from, including solo material like 2014's excellent Dizzy Heights; his six-year tenure in Split Enz, when he replaced Judd and wrote the band’s first international hit, “I Got You,” as well as penning songs for the act during the early ’80s; and Crowded House, which Finn started a year after Split Enz broke up in 1984. “Don’t Dream it’s Over,” Crowded House’s biggest hit, has been covered a number of times (including a fairly recent rendition by Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande), which Finn says helped keep the song alive.

“A whole new generation is finding out about the song,” Finn says. “I’m really happy about that. It’s quite nice when they look back and find out where it came from. The idea that the song is having its own life is pretty satisfying. Even the fact that they don’t know where it came from or who wrote it, it doesn’t seem to matter to me. It seems like just a great feeling that something that came from you is having its own life. I think people come together in some ways or take comfort or get inspired. It’s doing a lot of good work out there.”

While some of Finn’s older material clearly resonates with fans around the world (and there are some reissues being released near the end of the year), he says he’s also working on a new album. He says there’s been an outpouring of new songs, and he’s pretty excited about the way the album is turning out.

“I love that process,” Finn says of making albums. “It’s a really enjoyable thing when things are being created. It kind of feels like anything’s possible.”

Finn recalls that back in the day, the songwriting process was working songs out on the guitar or piano, taking them to the band and working them out at rehearsals.

“But now, the way that my room is set up and the way the recording is, you can start off with an atmosphere that can be the beginning of the record — so you can get an idea, even before the song is written, of what the atmosphere of the record might be, which is exciting. And I find that the spirit inspires me and spurs me on to finish something.”

And even after a four-decade-long career of writing and performing, Finn says that music is still a mystery to him.

“If it wasn’t a mystery,” he says, “it wouldn’t be so fascinating."

Neil Finn plays the Boulder Theater on Tuesday, June 21, and Wednesday, June 22. 
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon