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Craig Finn Looks Back at a Year in Lockdown

The Hold Steady frontman reflects on staying sane during COVID, deciding not to be a father and why his band’s new album is the rock ‘n’ roll we need right now

When you think of a Hold Steady song, you often think of a great lyric. The way “The Weekenders” sets the scene for its anxious romantic reunion with the intriguing lines “There was that whole weird thing with the horses / I think they know exactly what happened.” Or how “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” tells us as much about the title character as its narrator with this opening verse: “Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick / But after I get sick I just get sad / ‘Cause it burns being broke / Hurts to be heartbroken / And always being both must be a drag.” And, of course, there’s the immortal “Stuck Between Stations,” their 2006 anthem about that mixture of futility and euphoria that speaks to every person who thought they’d be further in life than they are — and still believes they could get there. Every line’s a killer, but a few that have struck a chord with me lately are “There was that night that we thought John Berryman could fly / But he didn’t, so he died / She said, ‘You’re pretty good with words / But words won’t save your life.’”

It’s an exaggeration to say that, for Craig Finn, words have, in fact, saved his life. But for more than 20 years now — starting with his previous band Lifter Puller and now with the Hold Steady — the frontman has crafted indelible story songs about people stumbling through existence. Maybe they’re held down by addictions. Maybe they’re struggling with depression. Maybe they’re wrestling with their religious faith. Or maybe they’re just fuckups. But Finn’s gift for the telling detail — his ability to write mini-novels in just a handful of verses — has made these fictional tales resonate with a passionate fan base. 

The Hold Steady are the definition of indie rock — although he’d probably prefer to call what they do good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll — in that they’ve never been big on the charts, never had a gold record, always been more of a critics’ darling than a mainstream favorite. But on albums like Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America, Finn’s bar-band singalongs gave voice to a world of people in dead-end jobs who drink a little too much and get involved with romantic partners who probably aren’t good for them. 

In the past decade, Finn, 49, has made several solo records while keeping busy with his band, who are back with Open Door Policy, which is full of more misadventures and evocative snatches of complicated lives. (“Unpleasant Breakfast” greets us with “Every morning we burn the bread / Walk it down to the water’s edge / See the seagulls eat cigarettes / Check your breath in a spoon.”) While many great recent releases have embraced the isolation of lockdown through hushed, intimate tunes, Open Door Policy does the opposite: It’s crank-it-up rock music that makes you feel like you’re surrounded by Hold Steady fans in a sweaty, beer-soaked club. It’s the sound of what used to be — and because we may be inching closer to life returning to normal, also the sound of what might soon be again.

When I talk to Finn over the phone from New York, it’s been a couple weeks since Open Door Policy came out. Only as the conversation got going did I realize I was speaking to him during his most productive creative period of the day, which is the morning. (He prefers the solitude that comes from getting up early: “The thing about rock ‘n’ roll is no one calls you in the morning,” he tells me.) But the more we chatted, the more the conversation expanded beyond the album — to his childhood as a bookworm, his enduring love for his hero Bruce Springsteen and the concerns he’s feeling as 50 comes bearing down on him. 

Yet what connected everything was the fact that we’re all about to celebrate a year in quarantine. That COVID reality was never far from our minds as we spoke about Catholicism or trying to find ways to distinguish work days from weekends. (Hint: Some days you shave, other days you drink.) Finn’s songs are full of memorable turns of phrase — they have an everyday poetry to them that’s hammered home by his conversational, regular-guy singing style — and during our chat, that same shooting-the-breeze approach was apparent. Honestly, it felt weird not to be talking to him over a beer at a bar. It’s the ideal setting for the men and women he’s brought to such vivid life in his music.

In interviews you’ve said that Open Door Policy was 90 percent finished before the pandemic. I was curious if you felt that the lockdown affected that other 10 percent in any way. 

What we had done at the end of 2019 was the basic tracks. [We had to do] the horns and some of the backup vocals — the “overdubs,” in recording speak — and I don’t think those were changed by the pandemic at all. The only thing it really affected is some scheduling, because we were waiting to see what happened — I think last March, we were thinking, “Oh, surely by June we’ll be playing shows again.” [Laughs] And that, of course, didn’t come true. So there was a wait-and-see that slowed things down a bit, but I can’t honestly say that the sonics of the record were affected by the pandemic.

So many of the albums that have come out during the pandemic have felt like a reflection of the isolation we’re all experiencing. Open Door Policy feels the opposite: It’s big and boisterous. I didn’t know if part of the decision to release it now was because, fingers crossed, we’re getting closer to being out of this and are ready for something a little more raucous.

Part of that [timing] is production-driven: These days, with vinyl and everything, there’s long lead times. To put out an album in February, you really have to turn things in [by] August. The real fingers-crossed — the real hope — was that we’d be playing shows by now. 

But as we were mixing the record and getting ready to send it away to start the process, I did think — like you said, a lot of these albums that are coming out sound like people in different places or sound like people not all in a room together. So, I was thinking, “This is going to sound good. This is going to sound different to people,” because it’s the sound of a full band playing together in the same room. And I think that it at least had potential to be very welcomed by people to hear that sound again, rather than the sort of distance-recording.

So many Hold Steady songs are about people doing things in groups out in public — essentially, all the things we can’t do right now. As a writer, how have you handled losing that ability to be around people and observe them?

I’ve been able to keep very creative during the pandemic, but there’s sort of this second part: I’ve been able to write a lot, but I haven’t been able to edit very well. [Laughs] I sort of feel like the loss of my normal life — the things we normally do — has somehow affected my ability to say, “Oh, I think this is good. I think this song is worth pursuing” or “This one isn’t.” It’s hard for me to understand why that is, but there is something there. 

I get a lot of inspiration from travel and motion — not necessarily being on top of a mountain, but having a beer at the Hilton Garden Inn after you get off the airplane, that kind of incidental travel. So, it’s been tough, but I mean, at the same time, I consider myself a writer, and my songs are based in real things but also fiction. So, it’s not impossible to imagine [what life was like] a year ago — or hopefully six months from now.

I’ve seen you guys live, and everybody knows the energy you all bring to a show. You’ve done a few virtual events recently but, emotionally, how have you compensated for the fact that you can’t get that rush from being in front of a crowd?

It’s very difficult. People yelling your words back to you and cheering and throwing beer in the air — that’s not easily replaced. I think there’s a very real answer [to your question], which is paying attention to your mental health and taking walks and things like that. Exercising. 

But the one thing that was really cool about the livestreams we did in December at the Brooklyn Bowl is that the technology they use there allows us to see the fans. We brought in monitors, so there’s monitors around the club, and we could see people in their living rooms watching. That made way more of a difference than even I anticipated — to be able to see the people, and people from literally around the world. I asked people to hold up signs where they were from — that was really encouraging and helpful in performing. I said afterwards that it reminded us of all that we’ve lost this year with the shows and the lack of an audience, but also what we have and what we’ve built with this community around this band. That was very encouraging. At the end of the last show, the director was toggling through all the screens, all the people watching, and they were all on these monitors above the bowling alley in the Brooklyn Bowl — and it was one of the most emotional moments I’ve had in this band. 

That was definitely the best few days of last year. But it’s not easily replaced. What we do is put people in a room, and I think that that’s important. I don’t think that any technology will ever take that communion away.

Your songs are often praised for their literary qualities. Growing up, did you always have a nose in a book?

I always read. I always read fiction. And I started to read early, and I was kind of proud of it. I didn’t really work hard on writing — I’d start to write songs pretty much as soon as I could play guitar, but I wasn’t real disciplined about it. But I always liked books. My attraction to music was the lyrics.

Most people getting into music are the opposite — they love it for the music. What drew you to lyrics? 

I remember when I first started looking at my parents’ records — they didn’t have a huge record collection — and also when I started buying my own records, I remember what a joy it was to open up the record and slide out the sleeve and find the lyric sheet. Some had them, some didn’t — I remember that was always my hope, so I could read along. 

My parents had Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits, and there’s that song, “Duncan,” which is a story. I remember playing that over and over and seeing, “Wow, he really just tells a story. And it’s less impressionistic. It’s less, ‘Baby, I love you.’ It’s these things that happened to this guy.” That really connected to me — that this story could be told in a way that had a meter and a melody that made it more memorable.

Was reading something you shared with your dad?

My parents were both readers. Music, they weren’t in any way against it, but they probably had, like, 20 albums, and it was things like Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, folky kinds of stuff. And my grandparents encouraged me on the reading, too. Sometimes if I’d read a book, my dad would read it when I went to bed to sort of keep up with me, and then ask questions about it. Reading was always kind of put forth as a noble pursuit.

I remember my dad telling me that when he reads a book — and he always had a book — that he has to finish it. If he starts it, he finishes it. He thought that there was sort of an honor there or a commitment. I have that, but sometimes something is just that bad that I put it down.

I was thinking that it must be great, because you write these story songs, that you don’t have to spend your entire career telling journalists, “No, this song isn’t true. It’s not about me.” 

There’s a weird expectation for songwriters sometimes to be confessional that doesn’t follow other art forms. I’ve said this in other interviews: No one expects Quentin Tarantino to do the things he puts in his movies. But I have seen people react to Hold Steady stuff like, “I don’t think they did this.” Obviously. 

I think I understood early on that that was something you could do with songs — try to make these things cinematic or make these big stories. People like Springsteen or Dylan or Paul Simon could create something that was intoxicating and entertaining outside of the “This happened to me” kind of songwriting.

When I read writers talking about your work, they mention how you chronicle “beautiful loser” types. Your characters are struggling and failing. They can’t get out of their own way. Is that how you see them? 

When I first started writing songs — or the first part of my songwriting career — I really was attracted to those characters, because they were desperate and they kind of moved quicker, you know? There was a desperation that made the stories have stakes that made them interesting stories to me. 

But in the past, I don’t know, let’s say eight to 10 years, I’ve been more and more interested in the dignity of those characters and trying to find empathy in people. Some of them are characters that have just made bad decisions and are pursuing dead ends too fast — but there’s also, more often in my newer work and possibly more so in the solo material, people that are trying to do the right thing but are coming up short for whatever reason. That becomes more interesting to me as I get older.

In that way, the songs are personal — even if they’re not “about” you, they’re reflecting something about where you are right now.

Absolutely. There’s things in your life… I look back to 2013, when my mother died. I’ve had other personal stuff that shapes you in a way that makes you more empathetic. At least that’s how I’ve found myself developing. And becoming more and more interested in empathy in the art.

Your longtime girlfriend Angie is a New York nurse. How has the pandemic been for her?

She moved into a unit taking care of COVID patients when it was really bad, the peak. I guess that was like April, May of last year, and I moved out for safety reasons — there was just not enough separation in our place, and I moved in with another family member for a while. [She and I] were doing parking lot visits every few days at a distance — it was incredibly hard. She wasn’t working with people who were the worst off. As she put it to me, in her unit, they were either going upstairs — meaning to somewhere worse, meaning their cases got worse — or going home, so it was sort of a stop point. But it was bad enough that they were in the hospital, obviously. 

When the cases got under control, she was moved back to her normal position, where she’s largely stayed. So, it’s been hard. But in some ways, the interesting thing is that because of her profession, she goes to work every day — gets on the train and goes to work — which a lot of people aren’t doing. In some sense, we’ve had a little bit of normal in the last six months or so.

Once you realized that the lockdown was gonna be for a while, how did you adjust? Did you think, “Oh shit, I need to make a schedule for myself”?

My creative process is pretty punch-the-clock. I definitely try to get it out in the morning. I sort of like my brain best in the morning — the phone starts ringing in the afternoon. The thing about rock ‘n’ roll is no one calls you in the morning. [Laughs] But I’m just trying to get stuff done. I had another couple different projects I was working on that kept me busy — I’ve been blessed to keep busy during this, obviously with no shows, through various projects. So, yeah, I was a little nervous about it, but it all worked out. 

It didn’t feel like days were stretching out. In fact, if anything, I feel like time has been, weirdly, flying by in a way. Like, all of a sudden, it’s Saturday again. I did really start to do some stuff to divide the workweek from the weekends, because days all start to seem the same. I felt like that was dangerous. So, definitely shave Monday through Friday — try not to drink during the week so you have a weekend. That was probably a successful thing for mental health.

So many of your songs — especially on this album — deal with mental health. Were you a particularly depressed kid?

I look back on when I was in junior high — which is a tough age for everyone — and I was probably depressed then because I remember it all in gray, black and white. But I wasn’t particularly brooding or anything.

But as I got older — and this is really another thing that mirrors a lot of the early Hold Steady songs, Lifter Puller songs, my first band, [where we] talk a lot about partying — it becomes a lot more about mental health. Those are two sides of the same coin, when you think about self-medicating and things like that. 

I saw someone in my social media — someone asked for his advice — and he said, “Take care of your chemicals in your 20s, because in your 30s they can become a problem.” And I think there is a switch between your 20s and 30s, where some of the things start to get on top of people, including mental health, and some of these things rear their ugly heads. In my own experience, people very close to me started to slip away. And that changed my relationship with the songs, and it became maybe more of a focus of the songwriting.

Everybody loves “Stuck Between Stations,” which touches on the themes we’re talking about. But as you get older, are there Hold Steady or Lifter Puller songs that you now think, “Well, I don’t feel that way anymore — it doesn’t reflect who I am now”?

I don’t know if I’d say yes, because I still relate to them, but maybe just from a slightly different angle — in the same way I’m writing about the same people, but from a different gaze. There was an early Hold Steady song where I say, “Elliott Smith seems like a mess to me.” And I look back, and I’m like, “Well, that one…” I don’t know, I wouldn’t write that now. But it’s also an acknowledgment of someone who felt very troubled, and the point of that line in context was that depression is something to take care of but maybe not celebrate.

Your career arc is, in a way, the same thing that rock ‘n’ roll has had to confront, which is that if you’re not gonna go out in a blaze of glory, what’s left? So much of your recent music has been about survivors — people who keep going, even though it’s hard. When you were younger, did you ever harbor that romantic fantasy of going out like a Jimi Hendrix at a young age?

Definitely not that romantic fantasy. But I do remember this very practical way of how that played out in my own life — just having your band suddenly be more successful than it was and getting a tour bus and going backstage and having two bottles of whiskey on the rider every night. And [you have] this weird idea that if you don’t drink them that you won’t get them the next night — and then saying, “Wait a minute, hang on a second, I’m losing my voice all the time. I feel terrible all the time. If we’re going to keep doing this, which I want to, there’s just going to be different decisions made tonight. Maybe wait until the day off to have the big party…” 

Also, in the big picture, there’s this idea that rock ‘n’ roll is now however old an art form. I’m not even sure 20-year-olds like rock ‘n’ roll anymore, but the practitioners are sometimes older. That’s how it looks at times right now.

I love that you refer to it as rock ‘n’ roll. Is it strange to be part of a genre that just doesn’t have the same cultural footprint as when you were a kid?

I’d be more in touch with that if I had kids, which I don’t. But I have a nephew in my life and, god, he could not care less about rock ‘n’ roll. He likes hip hop — he likes music. The thing about rock ‘n’ roll, I use that term in part because that’s something we’ve said in the studio — Josh Kaufman, the producer I’ve been working with, is like, “We should try to make this rock ‘n’ roll but not necessarily rock.” Rock, to me, I think what he’s saying, is kind of like ‘90s alternative rock, [which] is something that seems a little bit dated, where rock ‘n’ roll seems classic to me. 

But it’s fine. The only time you become aware of it is when they have an awards show and you happen to be watching it. I think the mainstream’s relationship with rock ‘n’ roll now is like, “If the Foo Fighters are available, they can play. If not, we’re not going to do rock ‘n’ roll.” [Laughs]

Are kids something you ever wanted in your life? 

I’ve been curious about it. There was a lot of discussion about it around these parts. Angie and I have been together a long time now, but ultimately I’ve decided to not. 

This friend of mine said something interesting — he has some kids — and I was like, “Yeah, I don’t think we’re going to have kids.” And he said, “Well, you know, the problem with that is you’re going to have to be so goddamn interesting.” [Laughs] And I think that there is something that, biologically, we’re so predisposed to have kids, and so if you don’t, you can feel like you’re supposed to be climbing a mountain or putting out a novel every other day, because what else would you be doing? 

But in some sense, [not having kids] creates maybe a distance from the mainstream — when you get to my age — that’s kind of interesting. It can allow you to float around a little bit, observationally — which is, I guess, a good thing for a writer.

Part of the reason why I was curious is that, as a writer, maybe being a dad would open up brand new avenues in terms of story ideas.

A woman music writer once told me, “There’s always that album when the guy becomes a parent, and he writes a song about his new baby daughter or whatever — and that album always sucks.” [Laughs] I thought it was pretty funny — I don’t know if it’s true, but I know what she was saying.

I get it, too: It’s tied to that notion of “Oh, Craig Finn shouldn’t get too happy — his music will stop being good.” Did you ever worry about that?

Actually, funny enough, it was a long time ago. It was right after Separation Sunday, and I kind of cleaned it up. I found that, at that time, my favorite stuff I was writing was when I was hungover — not when I was drunk, but when I was hungover. There’s a dark comedy about being hungover — there’s a bleakness, everything’s sort of just hopeless but kind of funny — and I was able to tap into that. 

So, I kind of cleaned it up, and I was starting to exercise a lot and get in better shape, but I was worried: “Am I still going to be able to write?” That’s when I started forcing myself to write — and one of the things that came out of that was “Stuck Between Stations,” which is about the relationship between art and depression. And that’s probably one of the most beloved songs in our catalog. So I felt like, once I got that one, “This is going to be okay.”

I do feel like mental health is like pushing a boulder up a hill. If you’re not pushing it, it’s rolling back on top of you. The word now is self-care, but for me, a lot of it is fresh air and exercise. I’ve never had any medication or real diagnosis or anything. But I can feel a fog lifting if I just keep on top of aerobic exercise and outdoor time.

It’s not that you don’t write about women, but many of your songs are about men. Are there certain aspects of masculinity you find yourself drawn to in your writing? Do you think about what it means to be a man right now?

I think a lot about that. We’re kind of becoming more evolved, and we’re asking questions about ourselves in a good way constantly as we grow as society, as people, and where the place is for masculinity. 

I think you look at people you admire. Obviously, Bruce Springsteen’s a hero. I look at him, and it seems like, “Well, that’s a masculine guy, right?” I don’t know him, but you don’t think he’s a jerk — I don’t think he’s a bully. You don’t think he’s any of these things that come along with toxic masculinity

One thing that I think of is the way that I and other people react to a leader — and what it means to be a leader. We are a band, but there are some cases where I have to assume a leadership role — [I think about] what that means, to be clear in communication, to be sensitive to other’s needs. All of that, to me, is wrapped up in masculinity — and not in the sense of chopping down trees or bare-knuckle fighting, but in being a leader and being an example.

A rock ‘n’ roll band is one of the last remnants of the traditional all-guy club. That idea of men bonding in a band — it’s this iconic thing in our culture.

In some ways, that’s exactly why I wanted to be in a band. I think about seeing the Monkees on TV: “Well, this is amazing, they live in the same house and they burst into song.” A band is a challenging group — if you were an MBA and you went in and studied it, you’d be like, “Well, this is never going to work.” I always say in a fraternity, the seniors can tell the freshman to clean up. There’s a thing about a rock band: There’s some democracy, but there’s also moments where someone has to take the lead and say, “Hey, guys, let’s talk about this. What do you want to do?” The great thing about a rock ‘n’ roll band — and certainly about ours — is that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. That’s the power of rock ‘n’ roll bands.

In “Stevie Nix,” you sang, “Lord, to be 17 forever” and then juxtaposed it with “Lord, to be 33 forever,” which was around the age you were then. You turn 50 in August. How are you feeling about that?

Yeah, 50’s coming a little heavy. Forty came easy for me, but 50’s a little closer to the finish line, although it’s still a ways away. But at the same time, I feel like when I look back at my 20s, I think most people’s 20s are just harrowing. You’re supposed to grow up and become an adult, but then no one lets you. And there’s this weird pressure to become something that no one really wants you to be — which is to say that some of these ages, 50 and even 40 before it, would be more difficult if I wasn’t pretty content with how I’m spending my time. Sitting on a factory line, I think 50 would be tougher.

On the new album, you have a song, “Family Farm,” in which you sing, “They’re never gonna love you / that one specific way that you want them all to love you.” I was curious what you meant in terms of how we need to be loved.

It almost varies from person to person. There’s some people who need to be put on a pedestal, and some people who need to be catered to. Some people need to be let to roam. But there was this idea that it’s not just enough to be loved — there was this one very specific way that this person needed to be loved.

Has that changed for you in your own life, in terms of figuring out “What do I need in terms of being loved?”

In my own relationship, I’m a fairly independent person, as is my partner, so we both need space. We started dating when I was touring a lot, so people said, “How do you do it?” And it’s like, “Well, this is what we’re used to.” There’s probably times when I’m going to say, “I’m going on tour,” and [she’s] like, “Awesome, great.” [Laughs] It’s not like, “Come back, come back.” So there’s a respect of space within our relationship that I think is unique — it’s not for everyone. That’s probably the best way to answer your question.

Catholicism is a big part of the stories in your songs. You’ve mentioned in the past that you still go to church. Have you been going to mass during the pandemic?

No, I haven’t. I feel like I’ll be struggling with it for the rest of my life. I’ve been in and out. I was raised Catholic, so there’s a lot of that stuff that’s in my thoughts and in my DNA, and also when I think about morality questions. But I go kind of back and forth. I like going to mass, I like the ritual, I like the rhythm of it and all that. More and more, I have a really hard time with, generally, the men in the Catholic Church that are running it. The Trump era really soured me with the Church. I’ll probably go to mass again, but there’s some parts of it that I don’t want any part of. [Laughs] The things in the Bible and the things in mass, there’s a lot of beauty in that for me. But there’s other parts that I just can’t get with.

How strong is your Catholic guilt? Do you consider yourself an irrationally guilty person like the rest of us who were raised Catholic?

It’s hard to know because, obviously, I don’t know any other way. I guess I don’t know that I feel more guilty than the average person. I don’t know if that’s the part I experienced — maybe I don’t totally understand the concept of Catholic guilt. [Laughs] We all feel guilty. We all are guilty of original sin in some way. So there are those moments of human imperfection that haunt me as well as probably everyone else.

And, of course, so much of your music is about human imperfection. The exploration of that is so central to what you do as an artist.

But I think that the other thing — this may be Catholic or it may not… But there’s a lot of power in announcing to the world that you’re imperfect. And that doesn’t mean “Don’t try.” But to say, “Hey, I fucked up, and I’ll probably fuck up again.”