Picture this: Singer-songwriter Neil Finn, relatively unknown to most American pop music fans, puts out a call for big-name musical help to record a live album in his native New Zealand. Instead of being greeted by guffaws and excuses, Finn gets immediate and enthusiastic response.
Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien, Radiohead drummer Phil Selway, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and violinist/vocalist Lisa Germano all signed on to work with Finn. He's best-known as the foundation for Crowded House, which had Top 10 hits in 1987 with Don't Dream It's Over and Something So Strong.
They were attracted to Finn because of his reputation for pop songcraft, something that has earned him a devoted cult following even if he has disappeared from radio. In fact, this year he has two albums in stores: the all-star concert disc, 7 Worlds Collide -- Live at the St. James and his just-released, second solo studio album, One All, which features friend Sheryl Crow. Next month, he starts a three-week, U.S. concert swing (no South Florida dates are scheduled).
That his style of melodic, Beatles-influenced singer-songwriter pop is out of fashion -- the Musichound Rock encyclopedia called Crowded House ''the most melodically stunning pop this side of John Lennon and Paul McCartney'' -- doesn't bother him. ''Most of the time I don't think about it,'' he says in a phone interview from New Zealand. "I have so many reasons to be thankful. I've had a good career. I've had a good fan base. I've stopped thinking about this urgent way that this has to be done."
In fact, Finn, 44, has been on the verge of American stardom twice before. In the late '70s and early '80s, he co-helmed Split Enz, the colorful pop group that had several hits in New Zealand and Australia and a near-hit (I Got You) in the United States. Still, the band never could move beyond the fringes here. Crowded House, his next band, received more mainstream attention but ultimately found a larger audience in Europe than in North America.
The group, known for its raucous, good-humored live shows, split up in 1996 amid some rancor and despair. Sagging sales, says Finn, hit drummer -- and head clown -- Paul Hester especially hard. "It may well have had some factor with Paul getting so grumpy on the last American tour when he left," Finn recalls.
But Finn long ago shook off his gloom, returned from Australia to more bucolic New Zealand, and spent more time with his family (son Liam is a musician as well). He also decided to concentrate on the type of highly personal songwriting he enjoys, pop trends be damned, and his first solo album, Try Whistling This, came out in 1998.
Don't count on a Crowded House reunion anytime soon: With Hester living in Melbourne and bassist Nick Seymour in Dublin, the members are separated by physical and emotional distance. "We keep in touch but not a lot. Life goes on in different ways. There's still talk from the fans about how great [a reunion] would be. But there's no guarantee that you get together after a long time and there's still chemistry anyway," Finn says. "I'm enjoying my life immensely and I'm enjoying my music."