Photo: Lee Allen

That’s How Craig Finn ’93 Remembers It

Finn helped to inspire a generation of indie rock stars. Now he hosts a podcast dedicated to memory and the creative process.

As the lead singer of the acclaimed rock band The Hold Steady, one of the most revered acts of the mid-2000s, Craig Finn ’93 has performed on some of the world’s biggest stages, from Bonnaroo and Coachella to the Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Seth Meyers. But these days, Finn is also finding creative fulfillment from a different project, a weekly podcast, That’s How I Remember It, in which he talks to other accomplished artists about their paths and their pasts. 

For a generation of music fans, Finn’s name conjures a bespectacled singer under bright lights, gesticulating wildly to rapid-fire lyrics about wandering souls and salvation. On a bright Thursday not so long ago, though, Finn was sitting quietly at his desk at home, wearing a Minnesota Twins cap and reflecting on his life as a mid-career rock star. He had some budget spreadsheets to review, and he did not particularly look like a man who was preparing for his band’s upcoming series of sold-out shows at a popular New York venue. 

Finn, an electric piano at his side, was speaking from his unadorned office in Greenpoint, the Brooklyn neighborhood he has called home for more than a decade. It’s in this space that he writes many of the lyrics for both The Hold Steady and his own solo career, which includes five acclaimed albums. “A lot of it happens right here,” Finn said, gesturing at the office as car horns and sharp afternoon light filtered in from the street. “I’m lucky in that I enjoy every part of my work—even the spreadsheets.”

This home office is also where Finn records many of the conversations for his podcast. Each week, Finn talks to other artists—from the actor Bill Hader and the fiction writer George Saunders to the country music legends Lucinda Williams and Jason Isbell—about how memory influences creativity, and how misremembering can also spark the creative process. 

The idea for the podcast, which just completed its third season, came to Finn during the pandemic, while he was working on his most recent solo album, the contemplative A Legacy of Rentals, which was released in 2022. At the time, Finn was mourning the death of a friend and isolating from his romantic partner, Angie Bentfield, a nurse in New York’s overburdened hospitals. Amid loss, he found himself thinking about the past and the limits of his own memory. Was it true—as he wondered on one of the album’s songs—that “memories get meddled with” when you absorb them into art?

On the podcast, he often asks guests about their musical memories, and about the songs that bring them back to important moments in their past. For Finn himself, Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” opens a portal to the fall of 1989, when he arrived at Boston College as a freshman. “If you walked down my hall in Fitzpatrick that year, you’d hear three different Tom Petty songs coming from three different rooms,” he said.

Finn recalls his college years as a time of exploration. He spent hours getting intentionally lost in Boston and devouring books on the Dustbowl, a bygone campus green now covered by Stokes Hall. “When I think of BC,” he said, “I remember that intellectual curiosity, that feeling of searching for something.”

The search continues in Finn’s work as a lyricist. On The Hold Steady’s early albums, he wrote with acuity and empathy about teenage misfits, overconfident gamblers, and soft-hearted drug dealers who chased transcendence and love through barrooms and dim apartments. On his more recent albums, his wayward characters are grown up, but they haven’t stopped looking for redemption in unlikely places. 

So do we warp our memories of the past when we turn them into art? Finn’s podcast conversations have largely confirmed his theory that most artists depend on their own capacity to remember. “I think there’s a pride in most writers and creators that’s like, ‘I remember it, and I use it,’” he said in one podcast episode. “It’s something we all use to create.” ◽