Jeff Finlin Interview 22nd November 2016 – The Sound House Dublin
It’s a bitterly cold winters night in Dublin with the outside temperature marginally higher than in the venue where Jeff Finlin is about to take the stage for his slot on his latest Irish tour, this time accompanied by UK’s Peter Bruntnell and our own Clive Barnes. Not the most obvious trio that comes to mind but having witnessed them in action the previous week in Kilkenny, both on and off stage, their compatibility as performers and personalities is obvious. The format for the tour are sets by Finlin and Bruntnell accompanied on guitar by Barnes, who also does a short solo set himself between the two acts. Clive Barnes comes across as the organiser, the tour manager, the sat nav of the team, always busy, setting up, sound checking, and stacking guitars. Peter Bruntnell is the most laid back, the joker, the happy go lucky one. He’s likely to slip out to the bar, have a pint ("I’m very disciplined, only having a few beers every other night on this tour" he tells us) and discuss the merits of Tottenham playing with Harry Kane as a lone striker or how Wales are likely to hammer both England and Ireland in the Six Nations. Off stage Finlin is the most reserved of the three, a listener, an observer, an artist that has been at the cold face of the music industry in Nashville and has witnessed first-hand the highs, lows, expectations, hopes and regrets of a ruthless industry. Yet he also exudes contentment, self-control and is an engaging and charming conversationalist. Hitting rock bottom almost 20 years ago was, by his own admission, a godsend. Getting sober was a life changer, leading him down a more spiritual and magical path which inspired much of his splendid catalogue of work as a songwriter, musician, prose writer and poet. Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to get an insight into the industry from a true survivor, career musician and writer.
You’re one of the few artists that have moved out of rather than into East Nashville in recent years. How did that come about?
My wife and I moved back there but she didn’t really like it, missed Colorado so we decided to get back to Colorado where she was happier, that was about two years ago. I had been in Nashville for twenty years, I cut my teeth there and then we moved to Colorado to raise my son, we wanted to get out of the city which turned out to be really good at the time. There may be an opportunity for me to go back so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Property prices have rocketed but we bought at the last minute so you could say it didn’t work out yet did work out as we still own a house there that we are renting. Even by getting in at the last minute was a coup and I still have a lot of ties there and I’m pretty bored in Colorado right now so I’m thinking of going back to Nashville more often as there are opportunities for me there at the moment. The music scene there is just crazy at the moment, the level of talent there, artists coming through and established acts, it’s amazing but it’s also a Nashville that comes with its own can of worms and the scene of all my crimes! When I cross the county line I think "what’s that funny feeling in my stomach (laughs)." It’s a double edged sword that town.
On reflection and twenty years into your career is it more difficult to make ends meet these days?
Completely, the music industry is gone, it’s over. It’s all about having enough of a name to go out and play and attract people, then it can work out. Who knows how it happens now, there used to be these paths to success which are all gone now, the publishing industry’s gone, the record labelling industry is gone. At least when I was young there was this $100 billion Industry that was out there spending money and making money so if you were in the right place at the right time with the right song something could happen for you. I knew guys that were in bands that signed record deals for a million dollars, records that never even came out! That certainly doesn’t exist anymore! There’s an entertainment industry and a touring band industry. It’s crazy but as artists we’re not in charge of the results, we just take action and turn it over and see what happens.
The contradiction is that the artists are still there, 2016 has possibly been the best year for recorded music in the past ten years
That’s it and you wonder how they make ends meet. You go to Nashville and you see a lot of the artists tending bar. There’s a great story about a well-known artist. It’s a story and I’m not sure if you can publish the artists name but it’s about these college kids having a wild party listening to him and his band and they decided to order a few pizzas and the delivery man comes to the door and guys who’s delivering the pizzas arrives and of course its him. The guys are like "what the fuck he’s my hero!" That’s the reality you know.
So tell me how you ended up touring over here with Clive (Barnes) and Peter (Bruntnell)?
Well, I wanted to come back to Europe as I hadn’t been over in six or seven years and I wanted to come back and dip my feet in the water again. So, I spoke with Clive last year and he said he’d call Peter up and see if we could all do a couple of weeks together in the UK. It worked and we were able to fill the two weeks and we had so much fun that we said we’d try and do the same in Ireland
Tell me about your writing. I’m aware that you’ve written a few books of prose. Did that direction come in advance of the song writing out the other way around?
The music always came before the prose. I’m kind of a word guy, I’ve always written songs because I’ve something to say. People will often say that the music comes first but for me it’s about the story. I’ve had so much stuff going through my head for over twenty years so I thought I need to put this all together in a book. My last book prose book just came along as a stream of consciousness thing.
And is that a form of relaxation for you?
It can be (laughs), it just comes over me and I do it. The last prose book, I was going through certain stuff at the time and I just needed to sit down every morning and write stuff down. I’ve just finished a yoga book too, I’m pretty disciplined when it comes to writing and can get up at six every morning and write, I’m a morning guy so this touring and late nights turns my world upside down, going to bed at 2am and getting up at 8am (laughs). I’m not used to feeling shit all day and coming alive at six o clock in the evening, I’m used to feeling great at 5am and shit at 4pm (laughs). I’m good with the sun up.
So in terms of a young guy growing up in Ohio what sort of music were you introduced to?
I grew up in the 70’s which was probably the greatest time in history for music, the majority of people were listening to the best stuff. Those times in music history are rare, I grew up with all that great music radio in the 70’s, AOR radio and I was a Stones, Beatles, Dylan guy ... Led Zeppelin too. Black and white music was an integral part of what I listened to, they were separate and yet they were not. Getting to see Ike and Tina Turner live in 1974, Pink Floyd in '77, The Stones in '78 so many great bands in that era. I grew up with the blues, that’s why I loved the Stones, they went back into the blues and the Chuck Berry thing but I also always loved pop music. My song forms tend to lean as formalised as pop songs, there is blues influences but there’s pop form in there. Maybe that’s from hanging out in Nashville, it’s a very structured form based craft thing there and it rubbed off on me a little bit.
Your early career found you behind the drums I believe in the rock band The Thieves?
Yes, I was a drummer until I was 28 years old and started writing songs, a bit of a late developer as a songwriter and a guitar player. Some guy at the gig last night commented that I was a perfectly paced guitar player. I had to tell him that I’m actually a drummer and he said ‘Ah well that explains!’ Every good guitarist needs a good drummer behind him so I pretend to be both!
Are you optimistic career wise going forward?
I’m kind of in the middle, I’ve got my ass kicked enough not to get my hopes up. I just trust that inner voice to tell me when I need to write and what I need to do. I’ve just finished another album in Holland that will be coming out next year, have some more touring lined up but realistically it has to be sustainable so we’ll just have to see. I don’t do what I used to do, killing myself. I can’t do twenty-two dates in twenty-three days in three countries anymore, nor do I want to, life’s too short.
Your current compilation album Life after Death. How difficult was it to select the songs from your extensive back catalogue and did the record label give you a free hand to select the material?
Not too hard, there are songs that are missing, as I’ve been reminded. They allowed me to select all the songs myself which was nice of them, though I reckon if I don’t know myself by now I have a problem! I tried to pick songs that were unique to my own little twisted lyrical thing but also wanted it to flow as a piece of work you know and not be disjointed and have a beginning and an end and feel that it flowed the whole way through. It can be difficult when you’re putting twenty songs together but I’m happy with it.
Interview by Declan Culliton