Portrait

From the roots to the Enz. By Romy Ash.

Perfect harmony with Tim Finn

“Goodo,” says Tim Finn, ordering a shiraz and sweeping his grand grey fringe out of his eyes. “Why not?”

He’s handsome in the way older men who’ve kept all their hair are. Australians can be derogatory about the New Zealand accent, but Finn sounds somehow posh and laid-back and laconic all at once. He speaks like someone who loves language, loves literature.

He says, “Gertrude Stein made a great quote; she said, ‘After all, anybody is as their land and air is.’ I think that’s really true, it comes out in your work, or just in your feeling for the world. It is the land itself, the air, the light, and growing up in New Zealand. It’s such a skinny place, there’s water everywhere. The light is very vivid. I’m used to those simple elements I suppose. That’s why living in London was very difficult for me. I was in London for a number of years and I didn’t find it… It was great for music, the band was there, and I was there on my own for a little while, but it was never really a time of great creativity for me. I felt very oppressed. And so I can see the excitement of a big city, but it doesn’t really do it for me in terms of my work.” In Auckland, where he lives, “there’s a west coast, black sand beaches, very wild, heroic and dark. I grew up in a very small town. I like that feeling.”

He was born in Te Awamutu, a town in the Waikato on the North Island. He describes his mum, an Irish woman who loved music, playing the piano, teaching him and his brother, Neil, to harmonise in the kitchen as she washed the dishes. “She’d start singing a harmony, and we’d follow that. Very important, precious guidance, but very understated,” he says.

“Mum used to take me down to the church – we were Catholic – we used to go down to benediction, which only the really staunch Catholics went to, on a Wednesday night, where they’d hold up the host. I would play the organ. There was a delay in the sound, being up above the congregation. Because of the echoes and ambience we were hearing it slightly differently, a bit out, so she would stand beside me and keep me in time with the singing. I always remember that. I love those old organs where you have to pump the pedals. There’s something about it, it has a sort of wheeziness, it’s not constant. Whhhhhoooosh shooooooshhhh.” He breathes the sound of the organ in and out.

His family wasn’t one of artists, but he describes a place where music was important, where he’d watch family playing the piano at parties. “The adults would be dancing, and as kids you got used to music actually being made in front of you and igniting people, and giving them a sense of freedom.” Watching old footage of Finn’s first band, Split Enz, you can see that ignition. The power music can have over an audience, over the singer.

“People tell me they’re not surprised that I’m doing music theatre because they think that a lot of my work is very theatrical, and they don’t mean Split Enz’s costumes, they mean I was embodying emotional events in large ways. A song like “I See Red”, you can’t sing that song just standing there, you really have to embody it, and quite a lot of my songs are like that. So, in some ways it was a natural shift. In other ways it feels very fresh.”

Finn’s written the music and lyrics to Ladies in Black, a musical by Carolyn Burns based on the 1993 novel by Madeleine St John The Women in Black. Finn was in Bougainville when he read the book, researching music for a film project. “It was so off the grid and so weird and so hot, and I could retreat into this book every night,” he says. “It was like a crisp, cool experience that helped soothe me after a strange day where nothing happened as it was supposed to. I’d make appointments with people and they wouldn’t turn up and it was just really chaotic. And that book is so beautifully observed and written and quiet, in a way. It just drew me in, and I thought – this could make a musical.”

He says, “I love writing songs that serve a different narrative to my own. I’ve played around with my own themes for a long time. To be able to get in the head of a 17-year-old girl, or a 50-year-old Hungarian man, you’re jumping around all over the place. For me it’s quite a departure. Once I started Ladies In Black… I just find myself… it’s almost like an addiction. Every book I read now, This could be a musical. I have to stop myself.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2016 as "Perfect harmony". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.