With his new debut, Collecting Trip, R. Finn has created a heartfelt album rooted in timeless Americana and colored by subtly lush, alternately haunting and hopeful arrangements. The Southern California songwriter took the long way around on this journey, some of his songs on the record tracing back nearly a decade.
The LP's title not only references the “collecting trips” taken by folk musicologists John and Alan Lomax, but also what the album represents to Finn: All the years of accumulating songs, players, styles and gear that have resulted in his affecting, long-evolving sound. And then there’s his deep devotion as a student of songwriting and music history. “I’m just trying to do what I love and what I listen to,” Finn says. “I’m always trying to evoke Ray Charles or Woody Guthrie.”
While the story of Collecting Trip begins and ends in Los Angeles, it’s also anchored by a pivotal journey to rock & roll landmark Woodstock, N.Y., where Bob Dylan and The Band holed up at a house called Big Pink in the late ‘60s, cranking out some of the era’s most iconic songs from a dusty basement studio. Finn found a connection to this bygone era in his early 20s when he crossed paths with The Band’s Levon Helm. He’d heard Helm was living on a farm in Woodstock with a studio out back and no gear and Finn just so happened to have a bunch of gear and no studio. Finn gathered up the nerve to cold call the legendary drummer/vocalist, the two hit it off immediately, and Helm invited him out to the farm. After Finn spent a night recording Helm, Levon was so impressed he asked him to stick around a while longer. Finn wound up staying for two years.
At the time he met Helm, Finn considered himself a singer/songwriter, but his new mentor emphatically assured him, “You’re a producer!” So Finn suddenly found himself recording the house-concert jam sessions at Helm’s farm that came to be known as the Midnight Rambles. The work came natural and easy for Finn, who honed his studio chops on the job while simultaneously deepening his love for American roots music.
When he returned to Los Angeles, Finn converted an old factory into his own studio and creative space, The Heritage Recording Co., and stocked it with the vast collection of gear and instruments he’d amassed. Although he concentrated on production work, Finn never quit writing songs. In late 2014, he got together with an old friend, famed session drummer Jim Keltner (Bob Dylan, John Lennon, JJ Cale), to record a few songs. “It was so much fun that it just snowballed,” Finn says. “ It ended up being this three-and-a-half year process. Having the studio at our disposal, we could really woodshed and not be on the clock. We were able to take our time and let the songs tell us where to go.”
Finn credits fellow co-producer Keltner for helping bring a deep authenticity to the songs. Their success was due in no small part to Keltner’s unmatched Rolodex, the album featuring an impressive list of players including keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), Nickel Creek’s Sean and Sara Watkins, actor/musician Reeve Carney and his guitarist brother Zane, as well as singer/songwriters Madison Cunningham and Anna Nalick.
The music this gang of artists crafted together on Collecting Trip combines what Finn describes as his “dueling concepts”—his love for simple, acoustic-guitar- and lyric-anchored folk music and the more grand production aesthetic of composer/musicians like Brian Wilson and Ennio Morricone. Epitomizing Finn’s approach is the two tracks that bookend the album. Opener “Hard Times Again”—a song about addiction, its title a nod to Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”—starts off as a banjo-led acoustic tune before strings sweep in toward the end. And on the lovely closer “A Bird And The Wild Blue Sky,” strings weave together with a lonesome pedal steel, enhancing the song’s melancholic mood.
Although Collecting Trip's ten tracks were written over a span of a decade, Finn says that this set explores relationships and how he feels about the world right now. “Hard Times Again and “A Bird…” are stand-out examples dealing with the former, as are the jaunty, Leon Russell-esque “The Show Must Go On” and “Let Me Be The One,” a sweet love song that exudes an acoustic Tom Petty vibe.
The more hard-edged worldview tunes—“I Am Soldier,” “God Is On Vacation” and “Desperation USA”—lend a gravitas to the album. Although “Soldier” was written before the Trump era, Finn admits that it holds a new, deeper meaning now. “Desperation USA” is a tender, heartbreaking ballad that was inspired by a news report on America’s childhood hunger epidemic. While “God’s on Vacation” takes a caustic, unflinching look at a planet in crisis, Finn says it’s more about asking questions than making a statement. “I really don’t give an answer with that song,” he explains. “It’s just about challenging people’s ideas.”
Finn is fired up about finally getting Collecting Trip out into the world. “We make records for ourselves,” he says, “but once it’s done you want to share that experience with other people. Hopefully, they can get off on it, too.”