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Craig Finn on staying positive in tragic times

Craig Finn performs at The Current, 2017. (Nate Ryan/MPR)
Craig Finn performs at The Current, 2017. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

by Caleb Brennan

April 14, 2020

The Morning Show's Phone a Friend feature continued as Jill Riley checked in with New York resident, but native Minnesotan, Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. He provided some perspective on First Avenue's 50-year anniversary, what his life is like during quarantine, and how silly it is to compare yourself to Shakespeare writing King Lear during a plague.

Jill Riley: Craig, how are you doing?

Craig Finn: I'm doing good, as good as I can be under the circumstances. But we're hanging in there.

Yeah. So what part of New York are you in?

I'm currently in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but I've been back and forth between that and Greenpoint. My partner Angie is a nurse here at a hospital in Manhattan and she's caring for COVID patients so we are currently living apart. [It’s] for safety because our apartment doesn't have a ton of separation so myself and the dog are elsewhere, so that's one way it's majorly affected us.

Wow, how is she coping right now? I bet she's just working incredibly hard.

Incredibly hard. She normally works with people that have scheduled surgeries, things like knee replacements or mastectomies, things that are not necessarily elective, but the things that are scheduled and those, of course, have all been pushed aside. And she started working with COVID patients and it's very difficult. She's calm and brave and very professional and I'm in awe of her, actually. But it's a lot and one thing she has said is all the equipment they work with, you know, the coverings and their masks and all that is a lot to haul around for 12 hours. That was her big takeaway, but she's doing pretty good. We're all kind of just trying to get through it.

It's one thing to be holed up at home when you have somebody that you can share that space with and that time with, but it sounds like you're spending...well, you've got the dog, but you're spending a lot of time alone.

Yeah. And I moved in with people here that I'm staying with. So I'm not alone, but, you know, it's certainly being uprooted and trying to keep it the way we can. Of course, keeping busy is one of the challenges here. We've canceled shows. The Hold Steady had some shows, including one at First Avenue, that [were] canceled. We’ve moved going to Australia [back to] May and we've had a lot of cancellations. So it opened up the calendar.

I'm trying to write a lot. One thing I found is I've been writing a lot, but I can't tell if anything's good. I don't know if that's a COVID or a coronavirus thing, but I really have lost my objectivity. So I'm just going to write a bunch and I decided to keep it all and I'll look at it somewhere down the road and decide if any of it is good.

At the beginning of this, you know, on social media, a lot of people are saying Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine. And I thought, well, after a few days, that's just not reasonable to think you're going to produce something great under the circumstances. I guess my process always requires a lot of editing so I'm just trying to fill up pages and then when I have a moment where I trust my judgment a little more I'll look back and see what I have and maybe try to make it better.

Yeah, we were really disappointed about all of the events around the 50th anniversary of First Avenue being canceled. I wonder if you have some words to share about you know, First Avenue — a club that was so integral in the foundation of you being a music fan.

I mean, we canceled those shows and then that great documentary David Roth made that was on TPT came out and I, of course, watched it the night that it came out. And I was actually in it a little bit so I had a vested interest, but it was such an amazing documentary. It really went through the ownership of the club and how it started.

And by the end of it, I was a little teary. I thought about how big of a role that building has played in my life and continues to. I mean, a lot of my really formative music experiences happen there. I know that all these places, all music venues are really hurting right now with the shutdown. Like a lot of businesses, and I hope that they aren't permanently affected in that. I wonder when we get out of this...I have to wonder how many people are gonna be anxious to crowd into a rock club. I hope they still will, because I know I miss it, but it's obviously something I'm concerned about.

I wish everyone at these places the best and, you know, hopefully, we can get back to that. But, just to be involved in that celebration of 50 years, to be tapped for that was such an honor and that was something I was looking forward to forever. We do [have] dates we're talking about for a reschedule. I don't want to say them yet because there's a lot of uncertainty right now. We definitely have dates we're eyeing. And I do hope they will go off as planned. When they do, I can imagine this could be just one of the best parties ever.

I wonder if there is a song just even in your own catalog that has kind of floated to the surface as kind of coming back around maybe having a new meaning?

Well, I mean, the Hold Steady song “Stay Positive” has been coming up quite a bit from people. And it's kind of a semantically interesting thing because, of course, you don't want to be COVID positive, right? But staying positive I think, in the sense of staying optimistic is really, really important and I think what we're all dealing with right now is trying to stay physically healthy and mentally healthy and balancing those two and both are a challenge at this point. So I think that that song, people keep coming back to me and saying, “I've been cranking it today.” I've been listening to it and I'm glad that people are out there finding some comfort or some inspiration in the song.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.