Craig Finn Is Holding Steady in the Trump Era

The indie rock vet is back with a lush solo album about “ordinary people.” Here, Finn opens up about his central thesis: empathy can go a long way—especially in the age of Trump.

The baffling election of a lowest-common-denominator populist like Donald Trump caused many to pause and reflect on how we exactly got here.

With the realization that it isn’t as simple as thinking Americans are just bigoted, hateful people came the need to understand the working-class people who thrust a reality-TV star into the White House. The only way a horrifically divided country can heal, so the consensus goes, is to appreciate the messy nature of simply being an American; and to have some empathy for one another.

A year before Trump took office, The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn recorded songs that, in his own words, are meant to be more empathetic, realistic explorations of ordinary people. He didn’t intend to commentate on the divided state of affairs a Trump presidency would bring about—how could he have known back then?—but the album’s title, We All Want the Same Things, works as a pitch-perfect statement on the connections we can only now hope to make in uncertain times.

The music departs from Finn’s previous two solo efforts in that it’s lush with arrangements, atmospherics, and generally devoid of the stripped-down ethos you’d expect of a specifically “solo” record from the man behind “America’s greatest bar band.”

Much like legendarily empathetic songwriter Bruce Springsteen, Finn here dwells on the salvation ordinary people find through seemingly mundane (sometimes life-altering) experiences; and in the complicated relationships we forge with those around us.

On stunningly mournful opener “Jester & June,” we’re introduced to an average couple revisiting the spots of their golden years, attempting to recapture the excitement and glory of their youth only to discover that all they have is each other.

On the stomper “Rescue Blues,” a “co-dependency jam” as Finn describes it, we meet two broken, lonely people who’ve attached to one another for the basic needs of safety and comfort. “I guess we all get by in different ways,” he chants in the chorus—an effortlessly wise observation that Finn himself says “might indeed be a thesis statement for the record.”

But the album’s definitive statement can be found in “God in Chicago,” an incredibly literary spoken-word-over-piano narration about a young girl and her late brother’s dropout buddy who travel unsupervised to a big city seeking uncertain redemption in one final sale of the recently deceased brother’s drug stash.

Its haunting music video, directed by Kris Merc, interprets the song literally, following our protagonists on their wintry, indie-film-like journey as they get to know each other and leave their comfort zones in order to mutually heal from the loss. “We both want the same things,” Finn sings as the pair realize their attraction to each other.

But the gritty, detailed realism comes with an even more gut-punching conclusion. What it is, however, we’ll never know. Finn ends it on an uncertain note as the pair return home: in the song, the narrator notes how his female companion was “sobbing” as they approached their home city; and in the music video we see her walk away towards her home.

It feels as though the message to take away from this prescient record is that life is messy, complex, almost always uncertain, and absolutely never perfect. And despite our many differences, “we all want the same things,” indeed.

The album title, We All Want the Same Things, seems especially timely right now, no?

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It was timely before Trump won the election. If Hillary had won the election, it still would’ve felt like a unifying theme. It really was just what I was thinking about over the past year—these culture wars, so to speak. I was reading that book Dreamland [by Sam Quinones] that got a lot of press about the opioid crisis, and it kept mentioning Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania—and you think, well, these are all the states they’re talking about in the election, but the book is from a year before and was likely written over a series of years. That can’t be a coincidence. But, really, I’ve always taken my album titles from song lyrics. And as I looked through the album, this was the one that jumped out at me. It’s just perfect for what I was trying to do. I was trying to make an empathetic record. And it fits the tone.

Which makes sense, considering in a promotional video for the record you said, “We live in divided times, but I do believe that people are inherently good.”

Absolutely. There’s good in all people. I think of it as most people just trying to get by. I use the word a lot to describe the truth about my characters: unremarkable. A lot of the characters in my songs are unremarkable, but you try to tell a story about someone who the light doesn’t always shine on. How people are feeling just kinda getting by in life. I think, on some level—these songs versus earlier songs—a lot of these people in my lyrics are a little older than people I’ve previously written about. They are far into adulthood and know that a lot of adulthood is simply trying not to get stuck. That’s what a lot of these songs end up being about: people trying, people getting stuck, and people trying to find their way out.

The stunning song and music video for “God in Chicago” really seems to convey that message. There’s no neat happy ending in ordinary life. Life is complicated.

I didn’t know that there could be a happy ending for those characters. Like, the song happens entirely in the first month after the main character’s brother dies. I don’t think there’s any place that it could go that it could ever be totally happy. It had to cut off there. And I was happy it did.

Right, and her search for redemption through “one last sale” of her late brother’s drug stash—it feels like that emphasizes the theme of ordinary people paying a high price for mundane things, and that redemption can come at a higher price for them?

Maybe, but I just think of a working-class person’s struggles of going to work and going to the grocery store and struggling to put food on the table and how all of that can take up a lot of time and energy. There isn’t always a lot of space for this grand reflection. And, like I said, I think a lot of people are truly just trying to get by. And that consumes 99 percent of their time and their mental time. It strikes as they’re trying to communicate and connect over something small; just getting through is plenty for most people.

Is there something political about that for you?

Well, I think that there’s a required element of being human that means to struggle a little bit. But we have massive income inequality, we have people that are struggling, people who are marginalized in vast sections of the country.

But when I think about Dreamland or J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy—when I read them, I was thinking, “This is really interesting, but this must’ve taken a while to write.” So long to write, in fact, that Donald Trump’s campaign wasn’t even in its infancy when they began writing them. But when Elegy came out, it was marketed in some way as an explainer of Trumpism, but really I’m guessing Vance started it just as a memoir. It just so happened to speak to some truth out there.

In the same sense, my record was me writing songs on just what I was thinking about before Trump was ever elected. It just ended up a year later, framed as a record about the people we’re thinking about.

You’ve said that the people in your songs likely vote differently than you do.

Yeah. And the truth is that some people’s reaction towards marginalization is confusing and I think that’s where you get some of this [Trumpism]. It feels like on some level Bernie Sanders and Trump started out on the same message: “Hey, no one’s listening to you.” And then the second half of that sentence differs wildly. But the message was at first the same: “Hey, no one’s listening to you and no one’s paying attention to you.”

On another note, you recently embarked on a “Living Room Tour.” How was that?

It was fascinating and exceeded my expectations—playing in someone’s living room as just me. People go to rock clubs for many different reasons, but if you’re sitting on someone’s living room floor, you’re probably there for the music.

And with all those things we’ve talked about, it feels just a little bit revolutionary to invite 35 strangers into a living room to see live music. There was this energy to it—and it wasn’t just living rooms, it was non-traditional spaces like people’s offices, too. And they were all great. But the actual living room ones were a tiny bit better. It’s just funny when you’re at a show and you go into the bathroom and use their hand towels and soap. I was laughing afterwards with a friend about how the Venn diagram of people who host or attend these living room shows and also love craft beer would be a perfect circle. But the communal spirit was nice; people interacted way more and it was very, very rewarding. And I opened up the floor for discussion afterwards. The intent was to talk and meet. And I’m doing another one in the U.K. in April. I’m really thrilled by it, quite honestly. And I get to play at 8 p.m. and play for 75 minutes, and it’s over by 10. A lot of people appreciate that. It has utility that way.

What is it a reaction to? Is it an attempt to share some of that empathy you talked about?

It’s just kinda pleasant. There’s an excitement when you go to a good rock show, but it’s rarely pleasant. I think for some people, especially people who aren’t 19 anymore, it’s kinda putting the things that are non-favorite about a rock club and saying we have enough space to do something cool in our living room. I was always surprised 30-45 people can fit in a lot of living rooms. I just think that between the community, the space, and the intimacy, it kind of made for a better experience. Of course, it fit the purpose I was doing: a quiet show.

So we shouldn’t expect any living room shows from The Hold Steady?

[Laughs] Now that would be unpleasant.

Speaking of The Hold Steady—you did three shows last fall, any plans for more with them?

Those three shows [in Brooklyn] were really amazing. I think we’ve got a lot of songs, we were really able to vary the sets. And now I really like that model of playing multiple shows in a single place and make them special and not just driving around and playing shows on the schedule of a touring band.

So playing rock clubs across small towns—not really in the cards anymore?

I don’t have any kids, but some of the other guys do. But we’ve done a lot of touring, and now I’d like to make that thing we do very special. And I think we did just that in Brooklyn. I’d like to work on more of those things in different places.