Neil Finn has just completed a Skype call with a fan from San Francisco. It's after midnight on the west coast of America, but in Auckland, New Zealand, the clock has just struck 7.25pm. Finn is less than half an hour into the first of four recording/rehearsal sessions he's live streaming throughout August – one every Friday, building up to the last one of the month, when he'll record his new album, Out of Silence, in a four-hour stint streamed live on the net. This early into proceedings, he's clearly thrilled with how it's all going. "I would love to do this every week of my life for the next 30 years," he grins.
Finn started experimenting with webcasting back in 2001 – "We had to bring in massive servers, and I think we only had 200 or 300 people watching it at once before the whole thing went down. But it felt very exciting" – and last year live streamed a Crowded House rehearsal from his Roundhead Studios complex prior to their Opera House shows in November.
Tonight, in the same studio, Finn has gathered a group of friends (such as Tiny Ruins' Hollie Fullbrook, Don McGlashan and strings arranger Victoria Kelly) and family (son Elroy, nephew Harper) and corralled them into a 12-member choir. A two-piece string section is also present, which by the time the album is recorded on August 25th will have swelled to a 20-piece orchestra. Despite the potentially high pressure scenario – at some point this evening they'll record the album's first single, "More Than One Of You", in front of the online audience – the feeling in the softly-lit room is akin to a laughter-filled campfire gathering, with the singers sitting in a horse shoe configuration around a table laden with bottles of wine and lyric sheets, while Finn conducts proceedings from behind his keyboard.
As the 59-year-old takes questions from fans via Skype, his banter is as relaxed – "Your son's name is Finn," he quips to Lisa from Northampton, UK. "Is it serving you well?" – as the set list is impromptu. After taking a Skype call from Sarah in Brisbane he starts singing Scouting song "Ging Gang Goolie" in the style of Tom Waits; after a question from Nancy in Mexico about what song he'd sing to aliens, he launches into Bowie's "Starman", complete with improvised backing vocals. Snippets of new songs are teased, and at one point Crowded House bassist Nick Seymour joins via Skype from the west coast of Ireland to play bass on "As Sure As I Am", from 1991's Woodface. Only while recording the four takes of "More Than One Of You" does the mood turn slightly more serious.
At 11.30 the following morning, Finn is sitting at a long wooden table in the studio's dining/kitchen area, feeling a little worse for wear. "I had a really late night and ended up drinking a lot of whiskey," he winces. His head was soothed slightly upon checking his e-mail – "More Than One of You" was mixed straight after last night's session and sent to Bob Ludwig in New York to master, and the finished version was sitting in his inbox when he woke up. "That was pretty exciting," Finn smiles. "That's never happened before."
Out of Silence has had a similarly quick turnaround, released just a week after the August 25th session. In the past Finn has often started recording albums with songs half finished, developing them in the studio with the aid of ProTools. To pull this live streaming idea off, however, has required a level of preparation foreign to the songwriter. "Everything about this album is almost the opposite of what I've been used to over the past 25 years," he says.
He had the idea to record this way in 2015, but probably didn't envisage the songs containing some of the most complex vocal and string arrangements of his career. Yet when "all these songs emerged that suggested vocal arrangements" and he began thinking about adding strings he figured, "How exciting would it be to have everything happening at once?"
"I didn't want it to feel like a studio session," he says. "I like the idea of it being the most sophisticated sounding record, like it had been laboured over for weeks, but all done completely live. I just thought to up the ante in every area possible, [and] to let people in on the process and let them discover it during the time it's being made."
The process hasn't been without its stresses. Prior to last night's recording the musicians and singers had only three rehearsals, and he describes "two panicky days where I was like, 'I've got so much to do'." Come the completion of mixing on August 28th, however, he's on holiday. "There's absolutely no plan beyond releasing it," he smiles. "Which is maybe quite perverse."
Top photo: Finn at Roundhead Studios on August 4th, with son Elroy on guitar.
From issue #791 (October, 2017), available now.