When a musician has had a career stretching over thirty-five years with no signs of slowing down there must be a constant need to explore and evolve one’s craft. Such a journey has seen Neil Finn move from being the young upstart who catapulted Split Enz to the charts, and then go on to reach an even bigger audience with Crowded House, through to becoming an elder statesman of pop music with a solo career and a successful band reformation.
Similarly, redefinition is equally as important in a marriage, in this case one that has seen Neil and wife Sharon share a life for almost thirty years. Music being an integral part of the Finn’s family life, with sons Liam and Elroy also forging their own successful careers, it was only natural that for their new project, Pajama Club, the paternal Finns looked to each other for inspiration. The AU Review spoke to Sharon Finn from their home in Auckland.
How are you today?
I understand that you run a business making chandeliers and jewellery – is that still your main focus?
Well I’ve done nothing for the past year. I’ve got a showroom but I’m the worst retailer in the world. I open it occasionally, by appointment only. I started doing that about 2005.
So The Pajama Club is not the first time you have performed on record, you contributed backing vocals to various Crowded House albums and even did a duet with Neil on the last one (2010’s Intriguer), was it an easy transition to becoming the creative focus of a whole album?
Was it a duet? I guess it was sort of a duet, I do my verse, and we also did a song together on Neil’s 7 Worlds Collide album a few years back (The Sun Came Out, a charity album Finn produced featuring a supergroup with members of Radiohead and Wilco). It was unintentional, in a way – you know we’re always jamming away together, although this was quite different. I had to learn to play the bass and find out what all the strings are called! Not really, but almost. I’ve always loved the bass, but just never made the time, there’s always been other things to do.
This was also not your first time onstage, I understand you were on the last Crowded House tour and got up a few times to sing your parts from the album.
Yeah, that was a little initiation to get me ready for this.
Oh right, so it was all part of a plan? They would have been stadium or at least large theatre shows though, that must have been a fairly daunting way to debut?
They were big venues but it was different because I could just come out and do my little bit and then go away again, so it wasn’t that bad.
I was at the Melbourne show The Pajama Club played a few months ago, you seemed very natural and relaxed onstage, although that must have been about your fourth show ever?
A lot of people have said that, which is really good, obviously they don’t see the inner turmoil! I’ve had my moments of panic, it’s still pretty nerve racking but it’s good fun.
And has Neil been giving you bits of advice to help you get through it?
Yeah Neil’s been great. He’s always very supportive.
And now that you’ve finished a world tour is the experience making it easier to do?
Well I’m getting used to it now. I’ve gotten to the stage where I’m almost enjoying it. I’m still not used to the pre-nerves, there’s a lot of pacing beforehand and I’m not used to that whole thing, so I don’t know if I love it, but I’m getting there.
You know, some people are just like that, you hear stories of some artists who are at the top but they’re still rushing off to vomit right before they go on, so luckily it’s not like that for me.
You have been married to Neil for almost 30 years now is that right?
Yes, it’s a long time, isn’t it?
Well it’s definitely an achievement! Obviously during that time you’ve been there during the height of Split Enz’s career, throughout Crowded House and Neil’s solo stuff. Now that you are out the front of the stage yourself, has your understanding of what Neil does changed at all?
I think it has. I think you’d have to be mad for it not to, [as] it really gives you an appreciation of how much work is put into it. You give your all, you really give the audience, those people watching, every ounce of what you’ve got, and it’s exhausting! I think a lot of people don’t realise it – you know, it looks so effortless, so easy, but it’s hard work!
So is this your new career now? Professional musician?
Well, who knows. We’re always playing and Neil always records everything. He’s always got a tape machine there rolling. And I really loved the whole recording process; it was a lot of fun, so we’ll just see about the future.
I’m also aware that Neil has some fairly dedicated fans, how has their reaction been towards yourself? Are they fairly supportive?
Yeah, they have been. Neil’s got a great fanbase, some fairly hardcore fans and they’ve all been really good. There’s always gonna be some naysayers, but that’s okay, you know, he’s not going to stop doing his other stuff, this is separate and I think they understand that, and I hope they really like it.
And have they been fairly understanding that this is a new band in its own right, or are people still calling out for Neil to come out and do “Weather With You” at the end?
That’s been the most amazing thing. I expected that to happen but it hasn’t! There was some guy in one of the first shows who yelled out for some really obscure old song of Neil’s, but that’s been the only time, it’s been great. And the song was really obscure, I mean, I can’t even play that! So everyone’s been great, it’s been really pleasant.
You toured without even releasing a single! I think you put one track out on the internet…
Yeah, “From a Friend to a Friend”.
So most people attending the shows had no idea what to expect, do you think people’s expectations will change and that the band will be able to create its own fanbase, separate from Neil’s other stuff after the record comes out?
Look, that would be good. You know this music is quite different to Neil’s other stuff, and so we’re really hoping it will get its own following, and I think Neil particularly would really like that. We’ll have to see.
Although I haven’t heard the album yet, from what I heard at that show, it struck me that the music was both familiar, due to Neil Finn’s involvement, and at the same time it didn’t sound at all like Crowded House, I suppose suggesting collaboration. How have the songwriting and arrangement duties been shared?
It was all written around the bass and drums, with Neil on the drums and me playing bass in our music room, and it was just built up around those. I think all of those original rhythm tracks from the jam sessions we did ended up being used on the album, and then we brought Sean Donnelly in to produce and add things, keyboards and little noises, which really helped build it up.
Obviously Neil did the lion’s share of the writing, because that’s what he does, and I contributed a line here or there. But it’s quite different from the usual way he works, normally he’d be on the piano coming up with a few different parts, so it was different for him too. This was building from the ground up – groove based.
What about the dynamic in the group – is Neil the band leader, or does he take orders?
Does he take orders?! (laughs) No!! He knows what he’s doing, so we follow him, you know he’s a perfectionist, always wants to get it right, but he’s the professional. He’s really good.
How would you describe the music The Pajama Club makes?
Oh… dunno! Can you tell I’m new to this?! (laughs) Have you heard it? What do you think? Since you’re the music critic…
(Laughs) I’ve turned that around on you now!
How about your own musical tastes and influences? What do you listen to?
Well there’s always so much music going on around here that I end up listening to Liam and Elroy’s music a lot, and their friend’s music that they bring around. Back in the old days I really liked David Bowie and stuff like that…
So besides Sean Donnelly (New Zealand musician SJD) it was just the two of you who played on the album?
Oh no, I just played the bass! Johnny Marr played on a few of the songs, he was in town touring with The Cribs and so we called him up, you know he’s great, a really lovely guy.
Has the band’s sound changed at all after the addition of Alana Skyring on drums?
No not really, Alana just plays what Neil had recorded for the songs.
Does he play drums like a guitarist?
(Pause) What do you mean?
Um, (backpedalling) I mean, did she find it difficult to copy his playing exactly?
(Note: This question was in reference to an article in which Skyring had been quoted as saying “it was written by someone whose primary instrument isn’t the drums so there are some really interesting patterns” http://www.fasterlouder.com.au/features/29014/Pajama-Club)
No, I think she just played what he’d already written.
Right. Has the sound of the band changed at all after having completed its first tour?
Well, when you all play together more and more you lock in and find your feet, you get more comfortable, that’s about all.
Has your confidence as a bass player grown after all those shows?
It has. I think I’m making progress, at least I hope so. I really enjoy it and I’m trying to get better, I practice the bass every day now.
What about the future, will there be another Pajama Club album?
We did a whole lot of jamming the other night in London, and it came out really, really good, and Neil taped it all so who knows? That could turn in to something, but Neil’s got a lot on, a lot happening over the next year so we’ll see.
What do the kids think of their mum suddenly touring the world, doing festivals, supporting Wilco and putting an album out?
Yeah, they’re really into it, they know I like to take on challenges and they’ve been really supportive!
The Finn family could almost get their own section in the record store these days…
I know it’s a bit of overkill isn’t it?
Music is obviously just a slightly big feature in your family, will there ever be a family band album?
We’d all really like to do it and get everyone together, but we’re all so busy… but it might happen. We had a jam with Liam the other night before he went off to Australia, and it was really good, really fun. Neil set the tape machine up wrong so it just came out really weird (imitates a warped tape sound).
(Laughs) Sharon, thanks very much for your time!
Oh, OK! I guess less is more, I mean less of me is more!
Pajama Club will be released September 13th through Lester Records, coinciding with an Australian tour.
Originally published on The AU Review on 24/08/2011. View original article.
Photo by Johnny AU.