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Dec 11, 2008

Songwriter Liam Finn is making a name for himself without his famous father’s help—or even a backing band.

By Michael Tedder

Years before he would release his soulful, playful debut album, I’ll Be Lightning, Liam Finn wanted to be a rapper.
At the age of 10, the Australian-born, New Zealand-raised lad proceeded to craft a series of “gibberishy, Beck-inspired nonsense lyrics.” However, he doesn’t mean gibberish in a bad way: “I found a few of them recently, and I was like ‘man, that’s not bad for a 10 year old, I might have to make a hip-hop record and used the raps from when I was 10.”
Apparently, these kinds of early songwriting achievements are what happen when there are always guitars lying around the house and parents offering encouragement.
Genetics might have played a part as well: Liam’s father is Neil Finn, one of New Zealand’s most beloved songwriters and the leader of the groups Split Endz and Crowded House.
Finn grew up watching his father make music, and often joined his parents on tour. Although, he says, his mom probably thought, “God, I hope you don’t follow in your father’s footsteps,” he doesn’t think he could have followed another path.
While still a teenager, Finn formed the punk group Betchadupa with friends. They would go on to make two albums, earning a dedicated following in their home country and winning the award for best new act at the New Zealand Music Awards in 2000. “I think I was just drunk on the idea of being in a band like, I guess, most teenagers,” he says.

In 2006, Betchadupa moved to London to focus on breaking the group outside of their home country. Instead, the band began breaking up, as did Finn and his long-time girlfriend. He often retreated to his rooftop, guitar in hand, to cope.
“I was probably writing a lot just because I was treating writing like a therapeutic tool in some ways,” he says. “At the time, it was very useful and really kind of enjoyable to go and be on my own and just write songs.”
Though Finn hadn’t originally planned on making a solo record, he began to feel that the songs he was writing wouldn’t fit in with the “wild, sort of punky kind of music” his group was playing. He also began to feel self-conscious about presenting his songs about heartbreak to his friends.
“It just made me realize that in order to make a record that I could really believe in,” he says, “I was going to need to do something a bit different.”

Listen to three songs off of Liam Finn’s latest album.


Second-hand CD stores are littered with scions of famous musicians who have tried their hand at a music career, only to be met with accusations of nepotism or, worse, shrugs. Finn admits that his father casts a long shadow, and in an effort to be seen more like a Rufus Wainwright (credible musician/son of famous songwriter) and less like a Kelly Osbourne (punch line/daughter of famous singer), he’s gone out of his way to challenge himself.
So when Finn began recording the songs for I’ll Be Lightning, he recorded himself singing and playing guitar onto analogue tapes and would then “color in” around the performances.
He always thought he would get some extra musicians in to play or hire an engineer to help him record. But in the end, extra personnel turned out to be less important than some quality time alone. “I really love demoing songs when I’m just alone in a room and I let my imagination take over. All of a sudden eight hours have gone by, and you haven’t eaten, and you’ve got this song and strange noises,” he says.
The result was not only a solo album in the truest sense, but also a tuneful fusion of the sounds of Beck, Ben Harper and Elliott Smith. To promote it, Finn recruited his friend Eliza-Jane Barnes as a back-up singer and player and began touring hard, driving 15 hours to play to “15 people in the middle of nowhere.”

Liam Finn’s home country has music as fresh as its kiwis. FLYP Media presents an infographic, giving you the ins and outs of New Zealand’s biggest bands all while you listen to a song from each.

He quickly found that the lessons he learned about doing things himself carried over to touring. With the exception of Barnes’s contributions, Finn plays every instrument on stage, running his guitar and a drum kit through a series of distortion pedals and looping devices (he even achieves bass notes with an octave pedal) until he has built up a frenetic one-man-band foundation. “It’s always on the edge of completely falling apart and mayhem, but I think that’s what keeps things interesting for me.”

People in New Zealand take Finn’s heritage for granted at this point, even if it’s often the first thing he gets asked about over here. And, although he is a household name in his native country, Finn is just beginning to build up his profile in America.
“That’s completely understandable, but I guess it can get frustrating sometimes when you want to prove that you are doing it for the right reasons,” he says, “and not riding on your dad’s coattails.”
Though he’s working on making his own name, Finn hasn’t gone too far out of his way to distance himself from his father. He played guitar and keyboards during a 2007 Crowded House reunion tour and will guest (alongside members of Modest Mouse, Wilco and Radiohead) on his father’s 7 Worlds Collide charity album project, proceeds of which will go to the non-governmental organization Oxfam.
“I think that no matter who you are—whose son you are—it’s a really hard world out there,” he says. “Ultimately, your songs are going to be judged against everybody else’s songs. So if you don’t have it, people are going to be very quick to tell you that.”

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