Neil Finn talks Crowded House's return, joining Fleetwood Mac, and why Miley & Ariana's 'Don't Dream It's Over' cover is his favorite

The wait is over for fans of New Zealand legends Crowded House, who finally return this week with their first album in more than a decade, the majestic Dreamers Are Waiting. The group’s seventh studio album signifies a new chapter as well as a full-circle return: Renowned producer Mitchell Froom, who helmed Crowded House's first three studio albums (including the 1986 self-titled debut that spawned the massive and enduring single “Don’t Dream It’s Over”), is now their full-time keyboardist, and band leader Neil Finn’s sons, Liam and Elroy, have also officially joined the expanded lineup.

As Finn tells Yahoo Entertainment, “It just seemed like a real development for Crowded House. It has potential in the future. And there's a sense of occasion when it's a Crowded House record. So, I suppose all of those things congealed in my mind coming off the back of Fleetwood Mac, having the experience of being in the midst of a classic band that had once again redefined itself and found a new way of presenting. It felt full of life and vitality.”

Yes, even though Crowded House have not released an album since 2010’s Intriguer, Finn, one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, was hardly idle during that hiatus. He released two solo albums, a collaborative record with son Liam, and a live LP with Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, but most notably — and surprisingly — he became an official member of Fleetwood Mac, replacing Lindsey Buckingham (alongside Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell) and touring with the group from October 2018 to November 2019.

While Campbell had a previous connection to Fleetwood Mac through Petty’s work with Stevie Nicks, Finn’s hiring seemed to come out of nowhere. Finn admits that he was as surprised as anyone when he got the call from the group’s Mick Fleetwood — with whom he’d briefly crossed paths over the years, first at a Royal Albert Hall benefit for Linda McCartney and then at a New Zealand awards ceremony — inviting him to audition.

“[Mick] calls Stevie an ‘incurable romantic’ — he's the incurable romantic, I think, about bands and about having a band,” muses Finn. “He was an admirer of some of my songs and the Crowded House thing; I'm not sure he knew about everything, but certainly ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ made a big impression on him. But it was the last thing I was expecting. He put my name forward at a point where then had tried a couple of people and they had Mike already in the lineup, but they needed somebody to be able to sing Lindsey’s songs, basically — harmonize and make a good sound with the three of us. … So yeah, it was a shock when he rang me on an afternoon and took about 20 minutes to coming around to actually asking me, talked around it, as he is inclined to do. He said, ‘Do you want to come to Hawaii and have a play and see if it feels good?’ And I was not entirely sure, as flattered and amazed as I was by the offer, whether it was the sort of thing I should be doing.”

It was Finn’s family that talked him into taking up Fleetwood’s offer, understandably telling him, “‘Um, what? You're not going to go and stand in the rehearsal room and sing with Stevie and Christine [McVie] and play with John [McVie]? I mean, are you crazy?” Finn laughs. “Even if it didn't work out, they just said, you know, that's an experience that a musician should have if they've given a chance. And of course it was. And I did.” Finn confesses he was uncharacteristically nervous on that first audition day at Fleetwood’s Hawaiian home “because it was an unfamiliar role. I didn't know [what to expect]. We did two days, and the first day was harder to gauge what was going on. The second day it really clicked, for one reason or another, and seemed entirely obvious.”

Another surprise — one that actually perfectly set up the imminent return of Crowded House — was when it came for the new Mac lineup to tour, both Finn and Campbell got their own nightly spotlights to showcase their own work. While Finn’s performance of 1980’s “I Got You,” a college radio and early-MTV hit for his previous new wave band Split Enz, didn’t quite gel with the rest of the Mac setlist on early tour dates, his duet of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” with Nicks, which dreamily glided right into an acoustic version of Nicks’s own “Landslide,” became a tour staple and a highlight of every gig.

“The beautiful thing that happened was that in reimagining ‘Don’t Dream It's Over’ and having Stevie sing it with me, it set up a really great moment in the show,” says Finn, although he admits he had his doubts about this as well. “I did feel I was nervous about it. I didn't want to impose my presence on it. It wasn't my idea; the band wanted to do it. They were very generous in that regard. But it really works. It worked really well in the show, and it was I think a high point in some ways, because of the intimate nature of it.”

Fleetwood Mac’s live cover of “Don't Dream It's Over” is just one of the beautiful Crowded House ballad’s many iterations in pop culture; for instance, it was prominently featured in the 1994 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand, and it has been covered by Paul Young, Sixpence None the Richer, and many others. But when asked to cite his favorite pop-culture moment associated with the song, Finn readily namechecks a friend, collaborator, and disciple of this Mac bandmate Stevie Nicks.

“Seeing Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande singing a duet of it in animal outfits on her couch was a pretty, pretty good moment,” Finn chuckles, referring to one of Cyrus’s viral unplugged performances from her 2015 Happy Hippie Presents: Backyard Sessions series; Cyrus and Grande also performed the song at Grande's One Love Manchester benefit concert, which organized by Grande's team in response to the bombing after Grande's concert at the Manchester Arena in 2017.

“I really liked what they did. They did it really faithfully, with an acoustic version of the record, and they just sang it really well. That was pretty. I really love their version, and I love the fact that a song goes out and has a life. You know, you never know when it's going to turn up. That's the great one of the great mysteries and compulsions about music is that, and even some of the obscure stuff that you do, which doesn't get the attention of someone like that, sometimes people say they mean individually a lot to them, from a really obscure record. And that that's a really nice feeling.”

Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande at their 2015
Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande at their 2015 "Happy Hippie Presents: Backyard Sessions" performance. (Photo: Happy Hippie Foundation)

Finn understands that “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” which charted in the top 10 or 20 in 13 different countries, peaking at No. 2 in the U.S., “takes on special significance for people because they accompany a period of time in a big way, because it was everywhere.” And he laughingly says he’s “actually really glad that ‘Don't Dream It's Over’ is a song I really like still. There's people who have their biggest hit and it’s a song that it seems is one of their least favorite, and they're doomed to always have to play it, and it’s like, ‘God, not this bloody song again!’ I really like ‘Don't Dream It's Over’ still. I'm proud of it!” But now he’s proud of Dreamers Are Waiting. Again, in a full-circle moment, the album’s title is a subtle nod to “Don't Dream It's Over,” and its process was partially galvanized by his exhilarating Fleetwood Mac experience.

“It definitely made me more aspirational for making a band record,” Finn says of the Mac tour. “I came off doing the last Fleetwood Mac show and went straight into rehearsals literally the next day in L.A. with Crowded House. It wasn't necessarily planned that way, it just turned out that way, but it was really fantastic because there's a sort of energy you get from coming off the road. I was able to put all that energy and all that stuff from that tour into the rehearsal room. It wasn't that there was direct [inspiration] — I don't want to write a song like ‘Tell Me Lies’ or something! — but there was just this outgoing feeling about being in the midst of this band and the harmonies.”

As for whether that newest Mac lineup would ever record a studio album — an intriguing possibility that Campbell recently told Yahoo Entertainment he’d consider — Finn doesn't rule it out. “It was always sort of something that was floating in the ether. Certainly if you ask Mick, he'd say it's a ‘Yes, yes, yes, let's do it!’ Getting people to focus at one time on something like that is the hard part," he says. "It's not that there'd be a will, but it's a big thing to move. Maybe it depends how long this whole world that gets messed up with this pandemic. … But sure, if it worked out, I'd be open to it. I'd be delighted for them if they did anything else again, with or without me, to be honest. I'm really happy to have been part of it. I have great regard for them as a band, and their whole history means a lot to people, so I think it's more for them. I would wish it for them more than for myself, almost.

"I feel like I'm pretty lucky to have had the experience of music that I've had. and I'm still counting my blessings.”

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— Video produced by Jon San, edited by Luis Saenz