Interview: Jeff Finlin

Jeff Finlin, 2016Esteemed Cleveland Ohio-born singer-songwriter poet Jeff Finlin peels back the outer layers to reveal the truth. Such is his honesty and high standard he has been compared to many of the great past writers of songs and prose. One of his best known compositions is ‘Sugar Blue’ through it been selected by Cameron Crowe for the soundtrack of his feature film, Elizabethtown (2005). Life after death a twenty-track compilation sees release this month on the West London Man in the Moon label.

Hello Jeff, how is life treating?

I live in a beautiful place. I am continually discontented and have to work on that. I am a pile driver, I tend to work all the time and create all the time, laughs Finlin. I’m working on having a little more fun in my life, Maurice.

Yes, work can be and should every now and then be put on hold. It is always there to fall back on?

Yes, most definitely. If I become too immersed in it and don’t take my time there is no perspective.

It is great to see this compilation out in the UK, it having twenty tracks makes it is a big one?

Oh, yeah. I was very grateful they wanted to put it out. The label is a huge supporter of mine and it has put out most of my records over there. It’s always great when somebody wants to help get your work out into the world.

What is it that is so special to you about Europe and the UK especially?

I don’t know. It is the place that has paid attention to my work. You never know if people are going to respond to it, and I’ve never had that much success here in the States. It is not for the lack of trying. But that’s just how it is. It is there where my stuff has stuck.

I remember when you had the Original Fin (2001) album out and you were touring with Steve Earle?

That was nice. I need another one of those, laughs Finlin. It was a great place to be at. You had two thousand people a night and all those beautiful venues. It was great. I also got to be with my great friend, Will Kimbrough it was wonderful.

Will Kimbrough is one great musical talent?

He’s great. He is my mate from Nashville. I haven’t talked to him in a while, I need to drop him a line.

Where do you currently call home?

I go back and forth between Nashville and Colorado. I am out in Fort Collins right now. I really like it here. It is big and its dry, its beautiful and far bigger than I could ever be. It keeps me in line. Keeps my ego in line, chuckles Finlin. It is about 60 miles north of Denver, a little town at the foothills of the mountains. We have the prairie on one side and mountains the other. It is a lovely place to live.

I guess it will be a good place for you to create?

I kind of needed the space. I spent twenty years in Nashville, and it ran its course. We had a kid at the time and wanted to get out into more open space. He needed that, so we just picked up and moved out here. It was a big transition. My whole identity was stuck to Nashville, and it took a while to break free of that admits Finlin. It was hard for a couple of years but it has been really good for my spiritual and artistic life and my health. One advantage was we got away from the humid, mouldy South. It has been a great thing and it has become a part of me, and its now part of my work.

Talking about work it seems like you write as many poems and prose as you do songs?

Yeah, I am finishing up a book on Yoga and recovery, which is near and dear to my heart. I have just finished a book on poetry called The Seduction Of Radha. A few years ago I was writing articles for The East Nashvillian; it was a different kind of writing. It’s a different kind of consciousness today. These days I will sit down and while I am recording and write the songs. It is different from the early days, then I used to sit and work, work, work. It doesn’t take as much time anymore. It gives me more space in my life to do other writing, and think about other things. It has turned out good in the long run.

You also had a book Timeless Travel?

That was just a collection of poems that I had collected over a period of about fifteen years, then there was this new one. I sit down and write every day about whatever.

You mention Yoga it is playing a bigger part in many people’s lives today. It’s used as a way of relaxing, both the body and mind; as a cleansing kind of therapy.  

Yeah, I needed it. I had to get sober about twenty years ago and wasn’t doing well. The practise went really hand in hand in my recover. It plays a huge a part in my life. At some point you have got to give it back (hence the book). I feel it is important to give something back, my strength, hope and relationship of studying yoga. Hopefully it will help someone else (to recovery) along the way.

Is it something you day everyday?  

Oh, yeah. Pretty much. It is part of the way I live. When I don’t live that way it becomes very apparent, laughs Finlin. I don’t do well.

You will be a relatively short distance Santa Fe, New Mexico an area where there is a great deal of history, and a huge contrast to the hustle and bustle of city life?

New Mexico, there is a 1,500 year old culture there. You can feel it when you are there and walk into the towns like Santa Fe. Up here in Colorado as recent as 150 years ago they were still chasing the Native American Indians, it’s amazing down there.

I imagine living the life you do your mind isn’t as cluttered as much as if still living in the city?

But I do miss some things about the city. We went back to Nashville a couple of years ago and it didn’t feel the same, so we spend most of our time out here now. We have become to love it here in Colorado the last 12 or whatever years we’ve been here.

On having lived your life in music you will have met some good people, who among them has given you the best advice?

In some ways I am mostly, I am a bit of a loner. I had to sort out my own path. I don’t co-write a lot. I cut my teeth in Nashville and still fall back on all the years spent there, and I’m really grateful for that. Being able to do that was good. It’s a serious music environment, the quality of musicians and writers are unbelievable. Everywhere you go you run into people, musicians. You will go into a bar and hear a guitar player, and think I will never gets as good as that. Hear a songwriter and say, I will never write as good as that. What it forces you to do is you look to your own inner self, be true your inner voice because that is the only thing that will stand out in that environment of excellence. What that did was, yes I did try to co-write with people and write country songs and had admit to myself that I was not very good at it. I wasn’t born to do that. You have to sit down and ask yourself, what are you born to do. For me it was this little corky thing that I do. Coming up in that environment influenced me more than almost anything. Being in that incredible, musical environment where there is so many talented people it makes you take a hard look at your self.

I imagine it was a case of if you get a style, keep it and people start to say that’s Jeff Finlin music or that’s a Jeff Finlin song?

Yeah, that is what Nashville did for me. In so many ways when you walk out the door you never measure up. You go into a bar and hear a guitar player and think, my god, and walk out the door with your head hung down. I spent twenty years there and it is a good thing to fall back on, and when you want to humble myself.

I read a clip where your writing was compared with that of Raymond Carver and Sam Shepard. I thought was a wonderful compliment to have given to you?

Oh, yeah. Those are the writers I put up high on a pedestal. To be put up alongside those guys is a great honour.

Sam Shepard was a remarkable talent. He left a great body of work as his legacy?

All those plays, the quirky little plays in the seventies he did. I love his little books too. His little books of prose and poetry are phenomenal, and some of my favourite things ever.

When you were growing up was there much music in the family and around the house?

No not at all. I think my parents had two records. My father had a Kingston Trio record and my mother had a Johnny Mathis record, and that was pretty much it. I have no idea where my musical self came from. I was raised in Cleveland and I also lived up round Columbus.

What music was among the first to make your ears prick up?

Listening to late sixties and early seventies radio. I remember listening to this little transistor radio when I was twelve and tuning into stations out of the likes of Cincinnati and Chicago I would tuck that transistor radio under my pillow on a night and listen to what was on, it was just so good. Even the teenyboppers’ stuff was great. Every thing on the radio was fantastic. It was easy to access all this great music because it was right there on commercial radio.

It didn’t need to be hi-definition sound, if it sounded good to you was all that mattered?   

I can remember getting my first stereo; and put this record on, the experience of stereo was mind blowing. You heard the rhythm guitar coming out the right side and thinking, there’s something wrong with this, then the band swoops in on the other side. It was amazing.

What prompted you to start writing songs?

I didn’t write songs until I was twenty-eight. I started out as a drummer, and moved to Nashville as a drummer. Played in bands forever, and I had bands forever and I never really started writing till way late. I was a late bloomer. I am really a drummer, I hate to say the D-word but that is where it comes from. At some point when I was 27 or 28 I just started writing and it turned out I had a lot to say, it just kept pouring out.

It is amazing it happened that way. That is how it was with some the 1960s folk singer-songwriters, Bob Dylan included, and the songs came out in bucket loads. Did the songs start once you left the band situation to become a solo act?

Pretty much. I started to get a band together, you know. Yeah, it was late!

How about career highlights. I read you once performed at a Buddy Holly Tribute Show organised by Paul McCartney?

Yeah, that was a lucky thing. My friend Kevin Montgomery was over in the UK and I was opening a tour for him, and his publist at the time had actually worked for the Beatles. He got us on that show, and Kevin’s dad was Bob Montgomery who was Buddy Holly’s boyhood chum and they wrote together. So there was big connection. We all got together at a theatre in London to play for Paul and the party it was a great night.

Are you big fan of Buddy Holly?

Yes and no. I was more a blues guy. I never owned a Buddy Holly record but I appreciated what he did.

Who were the blues guys you listened to most?

Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Freddie King and guys like that. There are my go to guys.

Do you still chill out to those guys?

Pretty much. They just have a certain something to them I have not found at any other place.

You had an album (Highway Diaries) out on Little Dog / Mercury records, had that anything to do with Pete Anderson?

Yeah, Pete signed me to his label. It was a great thing to be involved with him. I learned a lot from Pete, Pete was like …he taught me a lot. He is kind of a corky player and musicologist and he shared a lot of his knowledge. He also had the Lonesome Strangers, Anthony Crawford and Joy Lynn White. He had some great little people on his label, and Pete did a couple of records that were just great. The first record was especially so. He is a wonderful guy; with him it is all about the guitar.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming singer-songwriters just starting out?

Man, it’s tough these days. My advice is finding that inner voice, and be true to your self. You know that is all we have. Be confident and have faith in what you were born to do, rather than trying to fit in. It has taken me a long time to get to that place; it has been a big struggle for me. That is if I was to give advice at all, laughs Finlin.

Once the compilation has seen its time have you anything started or planned for a new set of work anytime in the near future?

Yes, there is another one sat waiting to be recorded, waiting for the right time. I will let this on run its course. Usually when a record needs to be made it becomes obvious, rather than forcing it. I am going to do some touring of Holland and Ireland in October and November and return to the UK in February, and I am working on other stuff too. I tend to pile a lot of stuff on my plate. There is always a lot of work to be done before I get my plate clean enough so I can see what I am actually doing. I have got some perspective on it. That is always my biggest challenge. I thought I was ready to publish my next book and sent it to a friend, and in spite of myself there was more work to be done on it. I tend to put the cart before the horse a lot. But I am fortunate that I have a lot of good people around me, people in my life who love and care for me. Who I can say to am I losing my mind. Am I done? (Laughs). If it wasn’t for them I couldn’t do what I do, because you can’t do it on your own.

On the compilation there are a few really big ones as in the songs Sugar Blue and Jesus Was A Motorcycle Man.

Yeah, when I put together the compilation I wanted to put stuff on there that I thought somewhat unique to what I did. I wanted it to hold together as a piece of work. I wanted to be able to listen to it and feel is a consistent selection of work, rather than it just a collection of songs!

I Killed Myself Last Night is a strange title for a song?

Laughs). It was about the spirits of the past. I love metaphor. It is like my version of ‘Stations Of The Cross’, it just kind of popped out the way it did a little corky.

Other favourites include “East By West” which is a wonderful song. It must have taken a great deal of sifting through your catalogue to narrow it down to the twenty tracks?  

It kind of did. I needed to get some help with that. Get a perspective on that, because what I think is my best work might is not necessarily so. I got in some trusted people in relationship with that. It is always good to consult with others. Sometimes I am the last to know. Bringing people in and for me to ask them what they think, those who know my work seemed like a good thing to do (and it was).

What do you do for relaxation way from music?

I have been fishing lately, and writing. Writing is always a good thing. We live in a great part of the world for fly-fishing and I’ve been going up in the canyon and that is a good thing.

Enjoy you time in Ireland.

Yeah, I stay with Clive Barnes an amazing songwriter and guitar player in Kilkenny. I love it there. I will drop by everyday to see Willie at Roller Coaster records. He’s a great guy to be around, and talk with. Kilkenny is the best little town (City) in Ireland.

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