Singer Tim Finn has written the music for theatre production Ladies in Black.
Singer Tim Finn has written the music for theatre production Ladies in Black. Stephen Ward

Former Split Enz front man Tim Finn finds new niche

A BIT of naivete can be a good thing, as Tim Finn found in his headlong foray into the world of musical theatre.

The award-winning musician and former Split Enz front man has found a new niche behind the curtain with his hit show Ladies in Black.

The Helpmann Award-winning production returns next year for an encore national tour, including a triumphant homecoming to Brisbane where it started with the Queensland Theatre Company.

"Good old Queensland, you backed us and it's paid off," Finn tells me over the phone from his New Zealand recording studio.

"I got started on the whole thing in a certain, naive way... but once it was up and running I realised it's considered a very difficult thing to achieve for a start. I can see why now.

"If I hadn't had a certain naivety, then I might have had a different approach. I think it helped me in a way that I didn't know anything much about how it all worked. Just to gain any traction at all on a brand new musical is considered one of the hardest things you can try to do. I'm very excited it's coming back."


Singer songwriter Tim Finn.
Singer songwriter Tim Finn.


It was by chance Finn picked up a copy of Madeleine St John's 1993 novel The Women in Black at the airport at the start of a family holiday.

Set in a 1950s Sydney department store, the novel follows the staff in the ladies' cocktail frocks section as they prepare for the busy Christmas rush.

"It's a beautiful book. It's simple enough... but it's got layers of strong humanistic tenderness running through it I am drawn to," he says.

"I was just finding songs everywhere. I'd turn a page and go that would be a good song, turn another page and go that would be a good song, so I just wrote them.

"I've found that's the way I like to work, which is opposite to most musicals where people would write or start with the book or lyrics and then get the composer in. I tend to go in headlong, rush ahead of everyone and then wait for them to catch up."

At 64, Finn is enjoying one of the most productive times in his career.

"It's a great way to write songs," he says.

"You're not reworking old themes; it's fresh territory. Somebody said to me it's a way of tricking yourself into writing more songs, and maybe they're right. I do love it and I respect the form. I think at its best it's great art. Sometimes musicals are very naff but when they're good they're the best.

"I found the songs come thick and fast, so something's working."

He already has two more, yet to be revealed musical theatre projects also in the works.

"I'm sort of hooked now," he laughs.

"One hopefully will be produced in 2018. They seem to have these glacial or geological time frames, but I'm getting used to that.

"People are asking 'what are you doing next?' It's a good time to build on the momentum of Ladies in Black."

Finn has always had a very distinct musical style - one which he has had complete control over.

But in his burgeoning theatre career he's learning to let go of his songs as they become part of a larger production.

"It's a handing over of control for sure," he says.

"I was able to have a slightly renegade presence throughout those (rehearsal) stages because I didn't have a particular job.

"Then I was part of the people out the front watching and there is nothing at that stage I can do to control or add anything; that's a strange sensation.

"Opening night was terrifying, but it went really well. You can just tell when you go out into the lobby during the interval and there's a buzz that it's going well."

He'll proudly watch from home when his younger brother and regular collaborator Neil is inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame next month as part of seminal rock band Crowded House, of which he was a temporary member.

"We (Neil and I) did it with Split Enz a few years back and it was a great night; it's special," he says.

"I've decided to leave that to the core members. I'm benevolently watching on (laughs)."

Finn's own music hasn't completely taken a back seat to his theatre work. He'll be seen at next months' Airlie Beach Music Festival.

"For me it's all about songwriting," he says. "I'll write a whole bunch of songs, do demos of them and then forget about them for a few months. It's quite easy for me to compartmentalise my imagination in that way and just focus on what's coming up next."

Ladies in Black returns to QPAC on January 28. The Airlie Beach Music Festival runs from November 3 to 6.

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