For the first time, you can really hear Craig Finn.
On the Hold Steady frontman's first solo album "Clear Heart Full Eyes" (released Jan. 24), he trades rollicking bar-band riffs and beer-soaked scene lore for a touch of twang and subtle narratives ("No one's getting shot, no one falls off the roof -- it's just someone sitting in the room, thinking about how they got there," he describes it). If you didn't notice it on Hold Steady albums, you'll pick up on it here: Finn can write a mean one-liner, whether it's about Freddie Mercury or Jesus or Joan Didion.
Single "Honolulu Blues," inspired by Didion's 1984 novel "Democracy"
"After a long bunch of touring with the Hold Steady and shouting against the din and still not hearing yourself, something I really enjoyed about this record was it being more lyrically driven," Finn tells Billboard.com. "The music tends to support the lyrics rather than the lyrics being inside the music."
Finn wrote the songs at home in Brooklyn before heading down to Austin to record with producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Trail of Dead), whom Finn tasked with putting together a band. McCarthy's Texan recruits included members of Heartless Bastards, Phosphorescent, White Denim and Centro-matic. Finn and his new band "shook hands on Monday morning and by Friday night, had 14 songs tracked" for the album, which features pedal steel guitar, fiddle and warmer Americana instrumentation.
Craig Finn Live: "Western Pier"
"Leading up to the album, I had been listening to a lot of people like Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Randy Newman -- traditional songwriters rather than rock bands," Finn says. "Even before I decided to do it, the treatment in my head was more Americana, more country because it lends itself to a certain kind of lyrical style."
Perhaps to the chagrin of others, Finn's inspiration does not lie in the cult TV drama "Friday Night Lights," despite the album's title winking at Coach Taylor's motto. Rather, he tipped off more by literature on "Clear Eyes Full Heart." "If I want to write a song, the thing for me to do is pick up a book and read until I get to a part that reminds me of something in my own life," he says.
Still, he does have a special place in his heart for "Friday Night Lights."
"The only thing about the record that really deals with 'Friday Night Lights' is the title. I've seen it overstated in a few places, like that I wrote a record about a TV show," Finn says, chuckling. "That said, one thing I love about the show and just can't get over is that when the kids get older and graduate, they go away - but you're staying there. You know the teacher, the football coach, the guidance counselor, but you have a new group of kids coming in. That was a very smart plotline."
Another misconception surrounding "Clear Heart Full Eyes" involves the future of the Hold Steady, specifically that the band is on shaky ground in some way. Nay, the rockers have been writing together in recent weeks ("It made me kind of excited to do something loud again after this more introspective record," Finn says).
"The whole process was about plugging into this new thing and going outside the norm for me," he says. "The big thing is, I wrote the songs by myself and that was a departure for me; with the Hold Steady I pretty much just write the lyrics. The beginning was intimidating but I was really happy with the results, and at the end, I had a lot of confidence in my own abilities because it worked."