Crowded House’s Neil Finn on the 1986 Smash “Don’t Dream it’s Over” (Part 1 of 2)

This feature first appeared in SPIN

“Our albums have always had elements of melancholy,” says Neil Finn, leader, singer, guitarist and songwriter for Crowded House. “And some of the best songs I’ve written have been on the melancholy side.”

Those strains of melancholia came to the fore on “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” the fourth Crowded House single from their 1986 debut. The song climbed into the Top 40 singles chart in eight countries, making it to #2 in the U.S. Today, even after decades of international acclaim, it remains the band’s most well-known song.

New Zealand-born Neil Finn put Crowded House together in 1986, after the demise of his previous band, Split Enz. Launched in 1972, art rock ensemble Split Enz had been a beloved cult sensation in Australia and New Zealand; the group moved in a more accessible direction after leader Tim Finn encouraged his younger brother Neil to join. In short order Neil started writing songs, including “I Got You,” the group’s biggest international hit single. By 1986, Neil had formed a new group, Crowded House. That same year the band released its self-titled debut. Setting a pattern that would repeat itself many times over, Crowded House was a massive critical success, and a major seller worldwide.

Everywhere except the U.S., that is. For whatever reason, Crowded House’s commercial success in the U.S. has always been more measured. In the band’s original run, Crowded House albums earned Platinum status in the UK, Canada and Australasia, while performing more modestly Stateside. But the critics have been consistent and near unanimous in their admiration for the group, and hit singles like “Something So Strong,” “Better Be Home Soon,” “Chocolate Cake,” “It’s Only Natural” and “Locked Out” helped make Crowded House an important part of the soundtrack of a generation.

After ten years, the band took an extended hiatus; Neil Finn launched a solo career. But Crowded House returned in the 21st century, with new albums and tours. Released May 31, Gravity Stairs is the eighth studio album from the band. Of the founding trio, Finn and bassist Nick Seymour remain; drummer Paul Hester died in 2005. Today the group is rounded out by original producer Mitchell Froom plus Finn’s sons Elroy and Liam.

Some albums take a few listens to reveal their charms. They might require a tiny bit of extra work on the part of the listener, but that effort yields rich and long-lasting rewards. At times, Crowded House’s latest album Gravity Stairs is understated, sublime and subtle. But Finn is justly proud of the eighth studio album from his group. “I do think the album has an outgoing nature to it,” he says, noting that many of the songs on the record have already been part of the band’s live set. “And onstage,” Finn says, “they’re very outgoing.”

Songwriter Beginnings
I supported Split Enz around a New Zealand tour when I was 15 years old; Tim had asked me if I wanted to do it, and of course I did; I was absolutely enamored with the band. For the first two years after having joined Split Enz, I was just trying to become good enough to be a credible member of the band and be able to play guitar.

But I had already had begun writing songs, including a couple where Tim wrote the lyrics and I did the music. And then it just felt like it was starting to flower; Tim and I were holed up in an apartment in Rose Bay in Sydney, writing songs for the album that became True Colours. And “I Got You” came out in one day. My songs had a simplicity and a directness about them that the band was hungry to play… and played really well. And that was a pretty giant encouragement.

I was 21 at the time when “I Got You” became a hit. It also put some pressure on to some degree. You don’t know how you do these things; you [just] do them. It’s not a conscious process of, “I’m going to write a hit today.” They just become hits, and then you go, “Well, what was it about that?”

And having a band to write around is such a valuable thing for a songwriter; you get to try the songs out in a room with other people. They’re responding, and they’re playing them differently – and usually better – than you could have imagined. It brings the whole process to life and stops you from circling in your own subconscious insecurities.

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