'The trick is to put more effort into getting into uncharted territory as you get older, rather than more effort into finding the comfort zone," philosophizes songwriter Neil Finn on the phone from his native New Zealand. "To me, that's come down to choosing collaborators that have got a lot of their own personality -- so that you're forced into difficult spots. I think that's where the best music's made."
As collaborations go, they don't get much more ambitious than Finn's latest. Last year, Finn assembled a one-off band of musical luminaries including Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien of Radiohead, Johnny Marr, Lisa Germano and his brother, Tim, for a five- night stand in Auckland, New Zealand. The resulting "Seven Worlds Collide" was released as a DVD and CD earlier this year on Nettwerk. The live album and long-form concert video served as a way to reacquaint audiences to Finn, who gained fame as frontman for Crowded House, setting the stage for the U.S. release this week of his studio album, "One All."s (It was released overseas last year as "One Nil").
"This is only the latest installment in what is, I suppose, a quite confusing but busy year and a half," he jokes.
Highlighting much of the material from "One All," along with selected hits from his Crowded House oeuvre, and songs from some of the other players' hitlists, "Seven Worlds" is a magnificent concert film, full of transcendent performances and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage that, when combined, stand as testament to the musical process itself.
Stripped of the pretenses of major markets, the musicians chosen by Finn were put to work over four stressful days.
"There was something about supplanting people in an unfamiliar but beautiful environment like that, that cuts through a lot of the crap right away," says Finn. "We only had three or four days to rehearse. We had to get down to business really quickly, not only to remember the songs, but also to feel that there was a soul to it. In that respect, by the end of the week, I think we all felt profoundly moved by what we'd been through and really very close to each other."
Most amusing in the video is the scene explaining Vedder's involvement. Finn, who had become a fan of Pearl Jam by way of his teen-age son, phones Vedder on a whim and asks if he would want to be involved. Vedder immediately says yes, but Finn, obviously expecting difficulty from the more current "rock star," requests that he think on it for a couple of weeks. Those weeks later, Vedder, again saying yes, to Finn's astonishment, begs, "Well do you want me to come or what?"
It's a testament to Finn's respect in the industry, and the quality of the music he has been producing for 20 years. In the early 1980s, Finn joined on as a singer in his brother Tim's hit new-wave act, Split Enz. Upon its dissolution, Finn immediately set out as leader to the surprising hit folk-pop trio Crowded House, which broke big in America with its debut record and its winsome singles, "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong." A pinup parade followed, as Neil along with Paul Hester and Nick Seymour became global darlings, witting it up on such mainstream events as the "MTV Music Awards."
In some ways, Crowded House's sophomore record, "Temple of Low Men," suffered from the cheeky expectations of the masses. Exploring darker themes of infidelity and temptation, the album failed to maintain the group's global pop overthrow, a title almost reclaimed by its third record, "Woodface," which was huge everywhere but in the U.S. Creative differences, and a sense that their wave already had been ridden out, led Crowded House to call it quits with the release of a greatest-hits record. But not without leaving a lasting impression on the music world, which is why an event like the one presented on "Seven Worlds Collide" could happen at all.
"I had realized after 20 years that I'd become friends with, and certainly made acquaintances with, a lot of people whose music I really admire," says Finn, adding that "I don't have any hankerings for Crowded House anymore. I was very proud and pleased with what we did. There will be a lot of people out there who are disappointed by the band breaking up, and I suppose they will always be disappointed."
Finn, however, has decidedly moved out of the House, as evidenced in the maturity of his current output. "One All" is at least as good as any record he has worked on before, featuring the signature emotional quirks and organic soundscapes that have always made his songs stick: a certain timelessness of lament and beauty. Songs like "Anytime," an uplifting mantra that skirts the immediate possibility of mortality, defines its life lesson perfectly with a chorus of "I could go at anytime."
"Some people have initially interpreted that as being kind of a dark, miserable sentiment," says Finn. "To me it's exactly the opposite. In the process of acknowledging that you could be gone in the next minute, then you suddenly turn your mind to what it truly is to be alive and why you need to be more aware of the people around you and your actions to them."
Throughout, similar themes are referenced, along with a little glimmer of hope that almost naturally seems to emanate from Finn's lilting tenor, always sounding like something special.
"I think that some of the music that I like most in this world is stuff that evokes that yearning, that nonspecific longing that people have," says Finn. "I would distinguish that from sadness. Some of my songs are sad, yeah, but some of them that sound a little melancholy are actually about yearning, or trying to bridge the distance between people. That's my little area, I think."