Sunday, December 30, 2012

An interview with Alison Sudol of A Fine Frenzy

Alison Sudol, the singer-songwriter and pianist better known as A Fine Frenzy, is so genuinely friendly and sweet in person that it’s hard to believe she writes so many sad, vulnerable songs.  But as it turns out, the 27-year-old songstress started writing her third and latest album, Pines, during a dark emotional period of her life—and in the end, those unhappy songs helped save her.

And that’s only the beginning; Pines dropped this fall, along with an accompanying book and short film. In addition, Sudol and her band mates recently wrapped up a tour across the country with Joshua Radin, and they just released a music video for “Now Is The Start,” which also happens to be Sudol’s directorial debut. Looks like there’s no time for sadness now.

Sudol taught herself piano and began writing music when she was just a teenager. The self-proclaimed “nerdy and shy” singer also has a passion for literature, taking her band name from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She released her first album, One Cell in the Sea in 2007 at 22-years-old, and followed it up in 2009 with Bomb in a Birdcage. Her heartfelt music earned her plenty of positive reviews and a loyal fanbase. But despite her success, Sudol still found herself in an emotional funk.

“It was intense,” she says. “It just wasn’t working anymore. I was tired of being unhappy.” She began working on Pines, and found the relief she was looking for. “It was a huge life transition, learned and figured out through music,” she says. “It was cathartic.” Writing those songs also made her change her perspective: “It was humbling in a way because there are things that I just can’t get away with in songs. I’ll write a lyric and realize, ‘Wow that sounds terrible. You need to reevaluate how you’re thinking,’” she says with a laugh. “So it’s really forcing me to get objective about what I was going through, and that was a real gift.“

But despite the emotional drama that went into making the album, Sudol swears she had fun making it. “When I say it was difficult, it was also completely and totally magical writing this record,” she explains. “I wanted to be brave to do the things that I was too afraid to try or didn’t know how to do.” In particular, she tried a different songwriting technique: “One thing I tried was allowing the songs to breathe. I don’t think that I felt confident enough as a songwriter before to just let a song rest and flow without having a rigid structure,” she says. She also wanted the album to feel more textural and intimate that her previous efforts.  “No matter how big a song got, I always wanted the listener to feel like they were right there with me, going through it,” she says. “I just don’t even think I knew enough about music or making records to even think about that before.”

As for performing live, Sudol feels better about that now too, although she still can’t help connecting with the sad emotions while she sings. “I think it is definitely a challenge to perform because music for me is so vulnerable,” she says. “It’s almost harder to remember to smile and have fun during the performance. The way that I do it is to choose to really enjoy it.” Still, sometimes, she has to remind herself to smile—otherwise, she’ll occasionally get too involved with the songs. “I’ve had people come ask me, ‘Are you okay?’ afterward,” she says with a laugh.

One of the best parts of the job, she says, is when a fan tells her about their emotional connection with the music. And social media has allowed her to connect with those fans on a whole new level. “Tumblr has been really amazing because people have been sending in their stories to my ask page, and wow—It’s intense!” she explains. When one fan recently sent in a message about using A Fine Frenzy songs for music therapy while recovering from an eating disorder, Sudol posted a lengthy 800-plus word response of encouragement. “When someone says I’ve gotten into their head, that’s one of the best compliments,” she says.

Now, she hopes fans will find something special to connect with on Pines. “It’s the kind of record that’s written as a journey, and it takes you through highs and lows,” she says. “I hope that people go through whatever they need to go through with this record. There are things in life that we need to face and we don’t know how to face them. Sometimes it takes getting shaken up a little bit to think about them differently. My main hope with this record is that it emotionally means something to people.”

Watch Sudol's directorial debut video:


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