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The Handy Ambassador To New Zealand's Music Scene


New Zealand is famous for a lot of different things: sheep, stunning vistas, even Hobbits. And one of the specific island's most notable musical exports is a guy named Neil Finn. He took to the stage in the 1980s with the chart-topping kiwi bands Split Ends and Crowded House. Neil Finn has also had a strong solo career. And his new album, "Dizzy Heights," comes out Tuesday.


NEIL FINN: (Singing) You must reveal your inter sorrow. Show what you're made of, don't know what you're afraid of...

MARTIN: I recently spoke with Neil Finn and I asked him if he's OK with being the go-to ambassador for his country's music scene. He told me he ran into some folks from the New Zealand consulate in New York this past fall.

FINN: And I've been hassling for a diplomatic passport so I can get through the immigration lines a lot quicker. And so far they haven't come. So, you know, my status has yet officially recognized.


MARTIN: Well, let's get into the album. Let's listen to a bit of the title cut, "Dizzy Heights."


MARTIN: You've got a big string section playing on this song and on several other cuts on this album. What were you hoping that would add to the sound?

FINN: Some of the songs seemed to have a broad kind of character to them that would take strings really well. And I started doing them at home with a little sampler thing that I had. They just became married to the songs. That's what sort of happens. And then rather than just leave them as string-influenced parts, I thought - there's this great arranger in Auckland by the name of Victoria Kelly. And thought, well, the hell with it. You know, I've now been doing this for a long time. I should be able to broaden my palate and really have a good comprehensive go at strings.


MARTIN: It does have a kind of a throwback quality too. It's a little 1970s thing happening there.

FINN: Yeah. I think there are some elements of - and it's unusual, I mean, some things in the sound that I haven't used or I haven't done before. I like that kind of pop music that came out with a bit of a soul touch. And there's elements of that in the record. So, I'm quite happy to find new angles for myself. It's always seemed to be what it's about, is not just sailing into the all-familiar groove.


MARTIN: You recorded this album with your family. Your wife Sharon plays bass. Your son Liam plays guitar. Your son Elroy on drums.

FINN: Yeah, that's right.

MARTIN: That's pretty amazing.

FINN: It was. It was a really great opportunity. We've done thing together in pieces, you know, one with things with Liam. Sharon and I made a record two years ago called "The Pajama Club," which was just based on jams that she and I had after dinner - her on bass, me on drums and neither of us belonging there really or even knowing what we were doing. But it spawned a whole bunch of songs. So, she's kind of into the arena of late. She plays bass like a dancer. And for her it's all about anchoring the groove, so.

MARTIN: What does that mean, to play bass like a dancer?

FINN: Well, she's a good dancer and she really understands a good groove, because she doesn't play like a Paul McCartney-style of bass playing with lots of melodic flourishes. She just anchors it and fiddles into the simplest soloist groove that a song seems to need. And I find it really refreshing.


MARTIN: Is there a particular track on the album that highlights some of the collaborations, some of the perhaps high points for you with the collaboration you did with your family?

FINN: Oh, look, there's lots of them actually. "Pony Ride," "Better than TV," all really done live. And, yeah, very much so. In some cases, the songs came straight of, you know, that lineup, and that familial theme that people understand each other's groove.


MARTIN: We read that you and a lot of musicians out of New Zealand have been inspired by Sir Edmund Hillary. Is that true for you? Is there a connection to the themes in the songs of "Dizzy Heights" at all?

FINN: Sometimes you think about these things after you've make a record. And the title, "Dizzy Heights," as with the song, seemed to describe a kind of a thread that permeates the record, reaching for elevated spaces and the good and the bad things that go with that; the fear of failure, the risk of a sudden descent. But the thrill and the dizziness that it provides is quite addictive. I think climbing, you know, we grew up with the legend of Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest. He was a thoroughly decent man and an amazing adventurer. And, you know, and then he followed up his ascent of Everest with years and years of building schools and getting involved with the sherpas in Nepal. And, so he's an inspirational guy. He's a genuine legend and probably - I hope and I think - most New Zealand kids would grow up with a real appreciation of him. You know, it's part of our DNA, national DNA.


MARTIN: Neil Finn. His new album is called "Dizzy Heights." He joined us from our studios in New York. It's been so fun to talk with you. Thanks for making the time.

FINN: Thank you very much. Same here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.