Molly Malone’s can be a brutal place to have a gig. Veterans of the tiny stage in this otherwise comfy neighborhood pub in L.A.’s Fairfax district are quick to recommend playing electric, and loud, because unless you’re playing Irish traditionals, the patrons often seem more interested in finding the bottom of the pint glass than they are in finding new music.
Jeff Finlin isn’t playing any Irish jig, but he is playing loud. With the help of a three-piece band, Finlin rattles home some gritty folk-rock that actually does earn him some applause from the dozen folks paying attention. For Finlin, a Nashville resident, the Molly’s gig might not be his only fish-out-of-water musical experience. The factory town he calls home manufactures country, and he’s a songwriter whose sweaty, strummy, literate creations steer more toward Greenwich Village or Asbury Park than Music Row.
“It’s always been this big underdog thing being in Nashville and playing something different than straight country. I just ignore it,” he shrugs, more interested in the biscuits and gravy the waitress at this Burbank breakfast joint is serving up than offering verbal lashings about his city’s narrow-mindedness. “I pretty much decided that if I can’t do what I want, then it’s not worth doing. I’ll work in a restaurant or something. There’s not much sacred in this world. If you start trampling on those things, then you’ve got nothing left.”
Finlin, a 35-year-old son of Irish railroad workers from Ohio, started writing songs around 1990 after a stint as drummer in the Thieves, a rock band that saw one record die on Capitol. “I thought, ‘What would be the most challenging thing I could possibly do?’ ” he recalls. “So I decided to write and put out a record on my own. Amidst a lot of giggles from the Nashville songwriting scene, I did it, and I ended up getting a publishing deal and getting signed to MCA.”
The MCA sessions never saw daylight, but his self-released 1994 album Highway Diaries did. A year later, it was picked up by L.A.’s Little Dog Records, home to producer Pete Anderson and other rootsy up-and-comers.
Judging the book by its cover, Highway Diaries suggests another collection of world-weary ramblings by a poet with an acoustic. But Finlin carves his own little folk-rock nook with a healthy shot of blue-collar, bar-band muscle and a razor-sharp, even Axl Rose-ish(!) vocal delivery that snarls as much as it yearns.
His romantic tales range from playful to desperate; imagery often travels time as well as space. One character flirts with Napoleon’s lover, another glamorizes Jesse James’ outlaw existence. In “Idaho”, Finlin imagines the carnage resulting from pioneers’ attempts to settle in such rugged terrain. Then, awestruck, he warns, “If you think you make a damn / To the grand in the plan / You better take another look at the show / They got in Idaho.” Some things are bigger than all of us.
Like the music biz, for instance. Finlin is no exception: As with most other aspiring performers, he faces day jobs (“Shoveling shit, digging ditches,” he says of ways he’s provided for his wife and year-old son), near-obscurity and semi-attentive audiences in local dives.
But the reward is songwriting. Finlin considers it his gift. “I’m a firm believer that you get a gift when you’re born and you’re supposed to use that gift and follow it. And that’s the key to happiness, you know?” he says. “It took me a long time to figure that out.”