Craig Finn questions our memories on new album and podcast

"Going outside living in New York and hearing all the sirens nonstop, but seeing zero people on the street, it was jarring. I thought, if we get through this, I’m gonna tell people about this. It was trying to grab onto those moments.” 

Craig Finn is thinking about the past. Rather, how we remember the past. It’s an interesting focus in this unprecedented time; how quickly we began talking about “getting back to normal” once the pandemic hit. Then came the talk of a “new normal.” Then the question: What ever was normal?

Finn—who fronts The Hold Steady and who tours with the Uptown Controllers—explores memory in some big ways; his latest album A Legacy of Rentals is a meditation on memory as told through a variety of narrators, all framed in Finn’s characteristic, engaging storytelling ability. He also launched a podcast this year, That’s How I Remember It with Craig Finn, in which he explores the nexus of memory and creativity with a cavalcade of creative guests like Fred Armisen, Adam Duritz (Counting Crows), Emily Haines (Metric), Patterson Hood (Drive-by Truckers), and more.

Finn recorded A Legacy of Rentals in 2021 with a group of frequent collaborators, and although he’s been thinking about memory, he was struck with the idea of how the present moment would be remembered.

“It felt like we were living in this historical moment,” Finn says. “I was thinking, how are we going to remember this? Anything that unprecedented, when you don’t know how to feel, always seems to be a big moment. Going outside living in New York and hearing all the sirens nonstop, but seeing zero people on the street, it was jarring. I thought, if we get through this, I’m gonna tell people about this. It was trying to grab onto those moments.” 

Finn is certainly considering the impact of any one thing—one memory, one album, one event—in the grand timeline of the universe, both on the album and in the podcast. He’s both aware that any record release is a drop in the cosmic bucket, when dozens more will be released in the week following. However, the relevance of those moments endures in the people who enjoy them in the moment, and carry the memory of that joy.

“The title A Legacy Of Rentals acknowledges that we can never completely hold any of our possessions,” Finn says, “and that our bodies are merely a temporary residence for our souls. All moments are fleeting. After the destruction of the past few years, I believe that there is joy in each and every living action, however mundane—walking to the kitchen, missing a train, spilling coffee, cleaning it up, meeting a friend for a meal. We all want to be remembered. We all want our time here to be consequential. In taking these daily actions, we engage in hope, and we guarantee our unique place in history.”

Finn’s creative structure has changed over the years, and he has a clear enough memory of the early days to contrast the two.

“When I was a kid [before 30], I very much believed in inspiration and sort of waiting for a lightning bolt to hit,” Finn says. “Now I very much say I have to go to work and I sit down and write. I now know if I put the time in I can get something I can use. I think there’s more and more power as I get older. I think that now I just sort of show up.” 

Finn recorded the new album with his usual collaborators—saxophonist Stuart Bogie, backing vocalists Cassandra Jenkins and Annie Nero, and the rhythm section of Joe Russo (drums) and Michael Libramento (bass)—but also included a 14-piece string section arranged and recorded by Trey Pollard at Spacebomb. The effect is a unique juxtaposition of Finn’s characteristically tight songwriting with a more cinematic—sometimes hopeful, sometimes foreboding—undertone. Paired with Finn’s low and slow vocal pattern (and he takes to spoken word several times on the record), it feels like an intimate conversation. 

The first track of the album, “Messing with the Settings,” sets the tone for the record.

“I wanted the first song on the record to open on that note,” Finn says. “This song is literally a eulogy. It’s delivered by someone who has lost touch with the recently deceased but still finds them important. Musically, it really explores the line between talking and singing, which was something we leaned into on this record. We wanted to make this song an incantation of sorts.” 

Turning the unique sounds of the album into a live show has been a creative endeavor for Finn. There’s a saxophonist and keyboardist, which fills in some of the orchestral parts, but one can expect a different feel from the songs in concert as opposed to the album.

“It’s kind of a free cool band,” Finn says. “It’s a loose band that’s very light on its feet. And we kinda do a lot of different things, reinterpretations of songs, which is exciting for me; you don’t get too bored with it.”

Craig Finn and the Uptown Controllers have cancelled their October East Coast tour dates, FYI. To listen to That’s How I Remember It with Craig Finn, go here.