Tim Finn lights up the room. There's a momentum in his stride. New music is pouring from him at a rate of knots. Powerful songs, songs that ignite the senses, are appearing out of the ether and Finn has grappled them to earth. Finn is a classicist, more interested in recurrence than eclecticism. At the heart of his writing there is always an acoustic guitar or an upright piano.
"I see the three minute song as a Chinese vase, a classic form," he explains. "There is so much variety to be found within its seemingly simple structure. Also, above all, there are the words. I carry them around in my head for weeks, if only in the end to change an ‘a' for a ‘the' … it's pure pleasure. That's my ‘imaginary kingdom', the place where I work. Only I'm not sure if it's me or the song that rules!"
Imaginary Kingdom is the best record of Tim's solo career. There's something in the writing that stamps the album as a modern classic. Tunes such as ‘Astounding Moon', ‘Couldn't Be Done' and ‘Show Yourself' become ingrained in your cranium and stay there for days.
On the telephone, Finn mentions ‘magic and geography'. The tunes were dreamt up in New Zealand and recorded in Nashville with producer Bobby Huff (Jordan McCoy/Julian Lennon/LeAnn Rimes). Later, mixes were streamed down the internet and Finn would drive his car on roads lit by the moon listening to MP3 files. Crackling through the speakers, the mood of the new material spoke volumes. The lyrics venture towards magic realism, Finn invites the listener into a private world … his own Imaginary Kingdom. The melodies are sharp and engaging, the instrumentation serves the tunes; while the lush strings occasionally add a seductive quality rarely realized in contemporary music.
In the past Finn led Split Enz, had been a member of Crowded House and enjoyed a successful solo career. His catalogue is rich. ‘Poor Boy', ‘I Hope I Never', ‘I See Red', '6 Mths in a Leaky Boat' were hits for Split Enz. As a member of Crowded House, Tim co-wrote ‘Weather With You', ‘It's Only Natural' and ‘Four Seasons In One Day'. As a solo artist there's ‘How'm I Gonna Sleep', ‘Not Even Close', ‘Persuasion', ‘Fraction Too Much Friction' and ‘Many's The Time'.
In the here and now, the artistic re-birth comes back to the momentum Tim has managed to harness in recent times; and how concentrating that energy has led to the recording of the remarkable Imaginary Kingdom.
Two years ago, Tim reunited with his brother Neil to record and tour Everyone Is Here. The pair charmed audiences all over the globe. In London they played three nights at the Royal Albert Hall. In the fields behind Byron Bay they played the Splendour In The Grass Festival and left every other band on the bill in their wake. At the Sydney Cricket Ground Wave Aid event, the Finn's turned a 50,000 strong crowd into a mass campfire sing-along. Further success in sold-out venues across America and Europe followed. Next came a Split Enz tour of Australia that saw the country's largest venues sold-out for multiple nights. The audiences included an army of young fans, many witnessing the band for the first time.
All the while, Tim was working on new material. Of New Zealand he previously sang ‘glistens like a pearl, at the bottom of the world'. These new songs are littered with references to the ethereal qualities of the moon, the stars, the sea and the warm Pacific sun. "There's sadness too in this place. Plenty of blood in the ground. But everyone who lives here knows the feeling of standing on a beach, staring out to sea, and you are right on the edge of the map. Just beyond the horizon…there could be anything…." It was here, at home in New Zealand, where the magic began to happen again and again.
"Every time we took a break from touring," he explains, "I found myself writing another song. When you play a lot of gigs, it feeds back into the writing. It nourishes you in some way. For me, that's how it works. There's a directness in this album, there's not much between me and the listener."
‘Winter Light', which appeared in the film The Chronicles Of Narnia, was inspired during a winter photo shoot when the photographer talked of the way the light seemed to bounce back up from the ground. Finn remembered an incident in London 15 years before, when someone had suggested he write a song about light. "Sometimes it takes that long for two things to connect" says Finn. ‘Couldn't Be Done' boasts that stunning image of the shadow moving across the globe, ‘Astounding Moon' harks back to the artist as a boy on his back deck in Te Awamutu armed with a telescope.
‘Midnight Coma' came ‘in a dream'. Asleep, Tim was ‘watching' his nephew's band Betchadupa as they performed the song. On waking, Finn scribbled down the title and tune and set to work. Later, his friend Penelope Tree expressed a need to ‘stand behind the waterfall'. The metaphor provided Finn with an impetus to complete the song. The stories go on. 'Unsinkable' was inspired by Tim's 8 year old son Harper, who fell in love with a book on the Titanic. His innocent excitement de-saturated the much documented tale for his Dad. "I took him to see Ghosts of The Abyss and afterwards he said to me that he wished we could all go down together."
"Within one week we had all the lead vocals done – we were on a roll," Finn enthuses of the recording process. "You realize it's the song itself that is calling you on and pulling you on, it's always there for you and it's part of the narrative of your life."
"Gertrude Stein said ‘People are the way their land and air is'. I found living back in New Zealand just enriched and intensified my relationship with the country. If I sing about the winter, a river or the horizon light I know exactly what I'm talking about and can relate it back to my surroundings. It's a philosophical, as much as a sensual relationship. It's no surprise that recent fantasy epic's have been shot in the pristine and mystical landscapes that abound here. I've noticed that when you tell people in Germany or the US or wherever, that you come from New Zealand, their faces take on a faraway look…
New Zealand itself is an Imaginary Kingdom for many people. There's a clue to anyone's work by thinking about the land they come from. New Zealand has huge variety within small land forms. With the sea always near. My songs are part of that."
With Imaginary Kingdom we can add another smattering of instant classics to the Finn cannon. There's an energy in Tim's writing and performance that marks Imaginary Kingdom as a special album, an album that grew out of Finn's extraordinary abilities with a pop song. Material here ranks alongside the better work of Ray Davies, Elvis Costello, the solo Lennon and McCartney and whoever else moved your heart with a handful of chords, an irresistible melody, haunting lyrics and an artist's precision for beauty. The poet Robert Graves spoke about an emerging age of psychological magic, here is an album for our times.