We all want the same things... Craig Finn talks Trump, the Gospels and his brilliant new record
We all want the same things, right?
If ever we were naïve enough to believe this, then the political events of the last couple of years in the UK and the US have blown the notion out of the water. Deeply divided societies have been exposed, fractured not only on political lines, but socio-economic, cultural and even religious lines.
Into this maelstrom comes a new album from singer-songwriter Craig Finn. It's called, appropriately, We All Want The Same Things. The lead singer of the Hold Steady is from the Midwest, hailing from Minneapolis, and his songs have always featured small town characters, down on their luck, entangled with faith, but also difficult relationships, drugs and law enforcement.
But as soon as you've pigeonholed him you realise he's lived in New York for 17 years and sure as heck didn't vote Trump. His Catholic upbringing has never left him, and once again on the wonderful new album, the songs are haunted by God and the Church.
'I was raised Catholic and I still find a lot of beauty in going to Mass and the stories in the Bible,' he says over coffee in London. 'Of course there's parts of the Catholic Church that I'm repulsed by and I get angry about and it doesn't always align with my political thoughts, but for me, when I think of the big picture stuff, because I was raised Catholic... it makes most sense to me.... When I go to these big morality things, I tend to link it to the Bible and those lessons I learned that way.'
Finn has been watching American politics with fascination as the fracture between voters has become clear. Just as fascinating is the role religion plays. 'Faith is obviously, in America, a big thing and a very complex thing and a confusing thing,' he says. 'You have guys praying their baseball team hits a home run and that's non ironic to them!'
He goes on, 'There's a lot of people in the heartland that are "Christians" and they never go near a church. It's just part of their identity. In that case they don't benefit from the community or the charity aspects. In that way it's a very American thing. It's a fascination of mine.'
Finn retains a fascination with Jesus' interactions with the outcasts of society – something which first grabbed his attention as a child. 'Obviously Jesus in the Bible does not cast out immigrants, does not shun people because they're poor or disenfranchised, does not throw addicts in jail,' he says. 'We do a lot of that stuff.'
Despite his ambivalence over American Christianity, the Gospels retain their attraction to him. 'Those were the Bible stories that always appealed to me. I felt like it was obvious. In all these parables he's being good to the poor, the prostitutes, the tax collectors... It's funny that does not translate to real life and there's this kind of hatred for the poor that comes out that seems wildly against Christian values...'
He is baffled at Christian support for the President. 'What continues to amaze me is these same people in our country have declared Donald Trump one of them – that is to me the biggest mind-blowing thing that I cannot figure out.'
The night before our interview, Finn played a small brewery in Letchworth Garden City, a commuter town just half an hour from London. In front of 50 spellbound fans, he told his stories and played tracks from the new record. He's never lost the love for playing live. He even compares it to going to church.
'I like going to Mass,' he says. 'I'm not sure where I am with any of the rest of it but I really like going to Mass. I go when I can – unfortunately Sunday mornings aren't always the most convenient because they follow Saturday night! There is a peace and meditation that I get from going to Mass... there's a place I go in my head when I'm in Mass that's a lot of the beauty for me.'
It sounds like he's talking about something profoundly sacramental. 'The sights the smells, people rising and kneeling, the cadence of the priest's voice, it's not just the message,' he says. 'It also connects me to my family and my grandparents and all the people in the tradition of going to church. It's a good place and it's a break – a real quiet –you step off the street into this thing and it's an hour of something else.'
In some ways that's like a Hold Steady show, I suggest. The raucous live shows the band put on have become legendary for their sense of community and the tight knit fan base which retains a deep love for the band's six albums.
'I think a lot of great rock and roll does that,' concedes Finn. 'I think as people are going to church less – the one thing church does offer is community. You could say a rock show does the same thing. I think with the Hold Steady, we even pace things to be like that – as do my heroes – Bruce Springsteen comes to mind. Springsteen took the energy and art of his shows from soul reviews which can probably be traced back to Gospel. There is a lineage and getting people to stand up and try to send them forth out into the world after the show on a high and a positive and that's what a church service can do. It's no accident and it's done by design.'
On top of those six Hold Steady Albums, this is his third solo record, which has received almost universal rave reviews. 'This record is bigger musically,' he says, 'but the focus is on day to day realistic subject matter. It's a push forward, it's been well received, people have noticed the empathetic part of it and that was a goal of mine.'
Empathy is probably the key theme of the record, I suggest. Finn smiles a little. 'We All Want The Same Things – certainly it's a nod to that.'
Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy