Live and direct: Neil Finn on livestreaming the recording of his new album

by Finlay Macdonald / 31 August, 2017
Photography / Adrian Malloch

Neil Finn at one of the recording sessions for his new album, which was livestreamed from Roundhead Studios.

Live and direct

Neil Finn was determined to be different with his new album, and boy did he follow through, with a star-studded choir, a string section and Jimmy Barnes on Skype, all on livestreamed recording sessions. “It’s a complete reversal of nearly every recording process I’ve got used to,” Finn says.

Neil Finn had a busy August, as anyone who dropped in on one of his livestreamed rehearsal and recording sessions will know. Each Friday evening of the month, he assembled various configurations of band, orchestra, choir, crew and live audience in his beautiful Roundhead recording studio in Auckland, then hosted the event for an audience tuned in on laptops and phones around the world. It was the perfect collision of modern communications technology and an old-school recording session, with the resulting album, Out of Silence, mixed and mastered within a week, and released digitally on 1 September. As a format, it not only turned the usual business of making a record on its head, allowing for a real sense of intimacy and spontaneity. It was also just a really great night out for those lucky enough to be there.

Neil Finn with members of the “Infinity Orchestra” that he assembled to record the album.

Finlay Macdonald: Playing live in a studio, in front of an international audience, really brought out the MC in you – ever thought of hosting your own variety show?

Neil Finn: Well, I enjoy that format. I suppose after years of performing on stage and, especially with Crowded House, developing a kind of improvisational approach between songs, where you engage the audience – helped greatly by the presence of our former drummer Paul [Hester], of course, who was a master of that – I found my repartee chops. Now I just enjoy the livestreaming thing, and I’ve done quite a bit of it now. It feels like there’s no middle man, it feels like you’re communicating directly with the audience, as opposed to TV, where you go in and you feel like it’s their turf, and they’re calling the shots. This feels different.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by your global fan base and the music’s reach, but seeing people Skyping in from around the world really brought that home.

Well it’s a really nice way to get a sense of that, doing these Skype calls. In the back of my mind, I was thinking we’ll keep them short, ask a question and move on. But of course some of them have interesting stories, so it seems good to explore them. I’m always very pleased to find that the songs have spread, and there’s a lot of goodwill out there for what I do. I do think that Facebook, for whatever flaws it may have, is really good at getting information out… it probably reignites some people’s interest, who haven’t thought about me for five or 10 years.

Infinity Orchestra members David Kay, Emma Eden, Douglas Cross and Timothy Sutton recording ‘The Infinity Sessions’ livestream (they also play for the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO))

Skyping Jimmy Barnes in to sing the intro to the song ‘Shark Attack’ was inspired, and quite a hilarious moment, too.

It was. Of all the things I’ve tried to do musically, I think it was the most successful. But it was also the most basic. I just suggested he might play the record and sing along to it and then we’d try and catch him up, and it worked really well.

It also reminded me of how you are, in a sense, clearly part Australian now. You’re obviously a New Zealander, but do you feel Australasian perhaps?

[Laughs] ‘Austracised’, as far as New Zealanders are concerned. I don’t feel Australian, I feel I’m a New Zealander. But I have a very affectionate feeling towards Australia, and it feels great that Australia considers me their own. Because it’s like being embraced by another family. I have never had any problem with it being an identity issue. I know where I come from. And Australia reached a critical mass, possibly more than anywhere else in the world, where almost every home had a Crowded House record in it. I think our ‘best-of’ sold as much as the Abba ‘best-of’ or something, which is hard to fathom. But it means I do shows over there and there are young kids, teenagers, 20 and 30 year olds, there’s every generation in the audience, and it’s a really nice feeling. I don’t take that for granted whatsoever. And although things are really good in New Zealand, I don’t think it ever reached that level here. So I quite like that in a way, because I live here and I’m quite happy to blend in a lot of the time.

Neil Finn’s choir members included (back row from left) Phoenix Foundation’s Sam Scott, Harper Finn, Sandy Mill and EJ Barnes. Front row from left: Reb Fountain, Jimmy Metherell, James Milne (aka Lawrence Arabia), Don McGlashan, Sean Donnelly (aka SJD), Hollie Fullbrook from Tiny Ruins and Amelia Murray from Fazerdaze.

This process of rehearsing and recording an album live, in front of an audience, albeit at one removed via the web, rather than the usual process of constructing songs more or less privately in the studio, must be quite a novel experience.

Well it’s a complete reversal of nearly every recording process I’ve got used to for the last 20 years. It’s not disconnected from the way we used to record back in the day, when we would spend weeks in rehearsal with the band, and work the arrangements up pretty well, and work with the producer, and then get into the studio pretty confident in what we were doing. But even then you’d be overdubbing. You’d be hoping for good bass and drums, and anything else was a bonus. I think to some degree it’s like an old Frank Sinatra session. You’ve got a full orchestra, and Nelson Riddle’s done the arrangements, and that’s been worked out really well, and they’ve rehearsed. And Frank wanders in and sits down and they spend the afternoon recording. It’s just that now we can let people watch. It just seemed like a way to create a sense of occasion for a record and hopefully for everybody.

Letf: Elroy Finn plays tea chest bass during rehearsal. Right:The APO’s Bella Zilber on double bass.

It also blurs the line between stage and studio in a way. Is there one you’d choose over the other?

Not really. The travelling part of performing is the difficult part. Especially as I get more sensitive to my environs as I get a little older. But standing on a stage and being in a town where people want to hear you is still, in a way, the most precious thing of all. But I would say that this little adventure we’ve had this month puts me in a place where I’d happily be for many years, as a semi-regular thing…  I can see some future in it and I’d like to explore that a bit.

Livestream producer Hugh Sundae at the control desk.

During the show I attended you talked about this one particular evening playing the piano, from which a lot of the songs on the new record sprang. How did that work out?

It’s been three years since my last solo album, Dizzy Heights. Since then, I think one of the sparks for this new album was that particular night I was talking about, when I just played for hours on the piano in a freeform manner, and either that night or the next morning I went through it and figured out there were quite a few substantial ideas there. And I immediately went through and tried some vocal ideas on all of them, and a few bits of additional piano, maybe a string line or two, and six of the songs on the record were from that session. They obviously had work done on them, but that’s an unusually productive night. It also occurred to me that not all these songs were necessarily suggestive of being rock songs, or to be played with a pop band. They would all take strings really well, and they seemed like they would all suit massed singing, a big vocal sound. And I’d been thinking for many years about doing a live record in one go on the internet. At the time I thought I could get it out the next day, but a week is as quick as we could do it. So it was a convergence of all those thoughts.

Neil Finn, at the piano with his back to camera, watches singers EJ Barnes, Sandy Mill, Hollie Fullbrook, Reb Fountain, Jimmy Metherell and Tama Waipara.

It’s also a way of making the internet your friend in a way. Obviously the digital era has been a challenge for musicians and the music industry, so do you feel like you made some accommodation with this way of working?

The part of it that I enjoy is the bit I’m doing now, which is the ability to have an idea and mount it, without having to go to a sponsor or a TV station or make a pitch. I mean, I guess I shouldn’t be glib. I’ve got an amazing studio that allows us to push this to a really high quality level that you wouldn’t be able to do in a lot of places. I’m using every channel the studio has. And it makes me feel really good about having gone and done such an extravagant thing, because now I’m really using it to its full advantage. So I love that about it. And having a direct connection with people is a great thing about the internet. I find the traditional means of distribution into the world confusing now, because there are so many gatekeepers out there. And young people are working so hard on their social networks, on their lives, and checking their numbers – I find that all really unhelpful. I don’t really want anyone to tell me the numbers for this. That gets me thinking about it in the wrong way. I kind of hope and trust that good work shines through eventually. So I just try and keep doing good work, and getting it out there

Guest stars

Neil Finn’s list of collaborators.

BAND AND CHOIR Neil Finn had an embarrassment of riches in his band and choir, which included Tim Finn (who also wrote the track ‘Alone’), Don McGlashan, members of SWIDT, Hollie Fullbrook of Tiny Ruins, Sean Donnelly (aka SJD), EJ Barnes, Amelia Murray from Fazerdaze, James Milne (aka Lawrence Arabia), Reb Fountain, Jimmy Metherell, Harper Finn, Sandy Mill, Sam Scott of The Phoenix Foundation, Elroy Finn, Tama Waipara, Delaney Davidson and Finn Scholes. David Squire coordinated the choir.

 STRINGS Finn says he thought the songs on his album “would all take strings really well”. They did, with the help of these musicians. Violins: Andrew Beer, Liu Yi Retallick, Yuri Cho, Mark Bennett, Caroline von Bismarck, William Hanfling. Violas: David Samuel, Christine Bowie. Cellos: Ashley Brown, David Garner. Bass: Bella Zilber. Woodwinds: Kathryn Moorhead, Bede Hanley, Bridget Miles, Ingrid Hagan. Brass: Emma Eden, David Kay, Doug Cross, Tim Sutton. Percussion: Eric Renick. The orchestral score was written by Victoria Kelly and Neil Finn, and the orchestral parts prepared by Ryan Youens.

Out of Silence is released on Friday 1 Sep.

Watch the livestreamed ‘Infinity Sessions’ below

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