Jeff Finlin - singing in the rhythm of time
Once a drummer, always a drummer. You see that guitar Jeff Finlin’s holding? It’s a drum. And that piano that he’s sitting at? That’s a drum, too.
"I play everything like a drum," says the Colorado-based Finlin. "If I need a bass part, I’ll pick up a bass and somehow make it work. I figure that if it’s in time, then it’s right."
Finlin’s songs are more than just bursts of rhythmical perfection, though. He belongs to the body of songwriters whose work is classed as a continuation of America’s great twentieth century literary figures’ output.
The Beats were an influence. Gonzo journo Hunter S Thompson was a hero - with whom Finlin had a night on the tiles in his youth and lived to tell the tale. And Finlin’s grasp of character, narrative and atmosphere has been likened to Sam Shepard’s economic playwriting and Raymond Carver’s short story style.
Which the way things are in the American music business just now inevitably means that Finlin is better appreciated in Europe than at home, although that may be changing. Bruce Springsteen has been having Finlin’s CDs played at his concerts as interval music to alert his audience to him and Cameron Crowe placed Finlin’s Sugar Blue in his movie Elizabethtown.
Not that Finlin’s a complete stranger to success. Back in his pre-singer-songwriter days he drummed with a band called The Thieves, whose album, Seduced By Money, was produced by Marshall Crenshaw and spawned the US hit single Everything But My Heart.
It was shortly after this that Finlin, who’d been working with a songwriter, helping him out on arrangements, decided that he should try songwriting himself.
"I’d been playing drums since I was about eleven and I kind of got bored with being the guy who just provided the pulse," he says. "I wanted to see if I had something to say myself and when I sat down at this piano a friend gave me, stuff just started pouring out."
He’d begun playing in a marching band at school in Columbus, Ohio at a time he remembers as a golden period in rock music, 1970/71. Charlie Watts of the Stones, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Levon Helm of The Band especially were his favourites.
"Of course, in came Led Zeppelin and my marching band discipline went all to hell," he says. "But Levon Helm is the drummer who’s stayed with me. When I’m making records now, I’ll often have a very fixed idea of what it is I want from the drums and I’ll do it myself, and I think I learned that whole concept of being a drummer in a song context from Levon. Because as well as having such a great feel for rhythm, he’s a fabulous singer who knows all about song structure."
When he left school Finlin followed in the Beats’ footsteps, hitting the road and hitchhiking west. He worked with a circus, taking the money for the freak show and keeping the elephants in food and the clowns in tequila.
An unrequited crush on the contortionist resulted in him quitting the job and winding up in a bar where Hunter S. Thompson befriended him. They ended up back at Thompson’s ranch, blowing things up with sticks of dynamite. Just from this episode, it’s not difficult to see how all that stuff that poured out when he sat down at the piano got into his songwriter’s imagination to begin with.
Returning home from his road adventures he teamed up with a friend from school, Gwil Owen, formed The Thieves and set out in pursuit of rock stardom, moving to Boston, then Los Angeles. Eventually, after The Thieves’ brief dalliance with the charts, Finlin settled in Nashville and began to write.
"I couldn’t do that Nashville Music Row thing of writing for whoever needed a song," he says. "I had to write for myself. Any time I’ve sat down to write with any ambition or intention, what’s come out has always been second rate, the stuff I throw away. I don’t know where the songs come from. Obviously the ideas have gotten into my head somehow but I never force it, I just sit down and open myself up and generally something’ll come out."
Operating at the working songwriter level, rather than having big company backing, means that Finlin tours on a budget. Previous visits to Scotland have generally been either solo trips or with one or two musician friends.
For his latest visit, which begins tonight [Thursday] in Glasgow, though, he’s joined by the Quireboys, the Londoners whose Faces-Stones bar band rock achieved a certain notoriety under the guidance of Sharon Osbourne.
"I’ve known Paul from the band for a while and we decided to give it a try because we get on well and they’re in London, so we’ll rehearse for a couple of days and work up a set," he says. "I like working solo or with a band. I enjoy it either way. The actual creation of music, for me, is such a solitary pursuit that I just love getting out to play to people."
From The Herald, September 2006