Neil Finn isn't the yachting type, but being from sailing-mad New Zealand, he couldn't pass up an opportunity to join his country's Americas Cup crew aboard their boat. But, as he warned his audiences more than 20 years ago, sometimes you get frightened.
"It's pretty impressive once you get out there," he recalls over the phone from Auckland. "I got hoisted up to the mast to the very top. It's a pretty scary thing. I got my foot stuck in one of the stays on the way up and I had to yell to them to stop. It was like being on the rack."
Finn, the former Split Enz member and Crowded House frontman, will presumably take less pernicious means of transportation when he arrives in San Diego (former America's Cup city) on Monday to tour to further support One All, his second solo album and one of 2002's critically acclaimed releases.
It's his second American jaunt since the summer, and he's been living with One All for a quite while, as the album came out everywhere-except these shores-in 2001. The non-U.S. release was titled One Nil and had a slightly different track listing. He was seeking an American deal when his mother took ill and passed away.
"That put everything on hold," Finn says. "It gave me some time to think about it. I could either put out an old record or I could tweak it and improve some things that I would've liked to have changed."
One of the new songs written during this period was the heavy-hearted "Lullaby Requiem," which he says is "very specifically about [my mother]. It's a massive influence on your life when that happens to you," he says.
While Finn does grapple with larger themes, he is also adept at writing about the subtleties. Such is the case with the Sheryl Crow-assisted "Driving Me Mad," a haunting, accordion-laden summer single. The song, which ranks among the finest in his impressive canon, is about the mental barriers that songwriters face as they attempt to make music. In the song, Finn claims that there's "a host of everyday distraction / but most of all is it's music taking me / It's driving me mad..."
"I was referring to the things you invent in your brain to keep you from writing music," he explains. "There is a host of things you can invent to distract you from starting your music. You're going to have a day's writing and you go, "Ah, look at that hedge there. I've got to cut that hedge.'
"I don't personally have a hedge" he says, proving his own point.
For Finn, that initial distraction leads to a darker, even more paranoid state.
"For some reason there is a fear of doing anything creative," he says. "There is a fear that you might not be able to do it again: You've written your best song, and [this one] might not be as good. I've never written about that process before."
Finn's songs involve overtures to universal feelings that are often embedded in highly personal images, as on One All's ode to innocence, "Turn and Run." The folk-inflected number is, according to the songwriter, "a love song in the context of perceiving a lot of forces out there that would make us cynical and hard."
The forces mount as Finn poignantly accuses the "cold killers of innocence." Within the song, there is the curious line about "him standing with his plastic gun." It's that poetic injection of Finn's personal life that marks his work. He explains that this particular line refers to his boyhood, when he was participant in a parade.
"There was a war-and-peace float going down a main street during the annual summer show, and I was on the war side," he reminisces. "There were these bombed-out buildings and I was dressed in battle fatigues. I was so serious about it that I stood there for an hour and a half looking really ferociously war-like.
"Meanwhile, on the peace side of the float all these people are flitting around in little angel outfits, laughing and yelling at their mates at the side of the road. That's where that line came from. It doesn't necessarily relate to the song, but it was something that sounded good and it reminded me of a more innocent time."
Finn says that the recording of One All was "a more direct experience" than his first solo effort, Try Whistling This.
"[That album] was quite introspective and I went off on quite a few angles and tangents that didn't end up leading anywhere," he explains.
This time around he enlisted the help of Crow, as well as the excellent Lisa Germano, along with longtime collaborator Tchad Blake, who produced the album. The creative relationship between Finn and Blake stretches back to Crowded House days, and is still a potent one.
"He is always looking for an angle on what you're doing," Finn says. "You put some very simple melodies down and he's always thinking of something that will give the track an atmosphere, such as draping something over the snare drum or hanging a key chain off the hi-hat."
Though Finn has played before massive audiences, as he did at Crowded House's 1996 farewell gig at the Sydney Opera House, he enjoys the friendly confines of smaller clubs.
"Once you're on stage you just want to play the songs as well as you can and involve the audience, in whatever size venue you've got," he says.
After this American tour is over, Finn will return to New Zealand to record with his brother and former bandmate, Tim. It's clear that he will always return home to New Zealand. The country has a deeper, more spiritual meaning for him that is evident in the way his voice seems to perk up, even as it makes its way from wires to satellite to telephone.
"It's cost me a bit career-wise, but I'm not here for the music industry," he explains. "I'm here because it's the country I love to be in. I find it an inspiring place to be. It's where I'm from."