It’s been three years since A Fine Frenzy, also known as Alison Sudol, released her charismatic sophomore record, Bomb in a Birdcage. It couldn’t have been a more challenging and rewarding time in between records for Alison, who took an entirely different approach to her third record, Pines. “I went into places with my heart and my soul with this record that I have never cared to go into before, I think,” she says. “It’s difficult to describe, you know?”
It could be because Pines taps into a variety of human emotions through multiple mediums – as the record is based off of a story written by Alison and molded into not only an album, but also a film. “The story came first. The story was connected most closely to the record. But I realized very early on that I wouldn’t be able to explain all the details that I was seeing in my head in the story in record form…”
“At the time I was also watching – sort of obsessively – this film from the ‘70s called Hedgehog in the Fog. And it’s just the most magical piece of film, possibly that I’ve ever seen. And it was such a comfort to me in a difficult time. So I wanted to do sort of a modern-day version of that, of something that could perhaps give comfort to other people in visual form.”
Comfort is something that Pines definitely offers, with its varying musical and lyrical textures telling the story of a tree creating a life of her own. It takes you through all of the mighty horizons and shadowy crevasses of the journey. “It’s like charging into uncharted territory,” she describes, “Thrilling, scary, fascinating. I learned so much and stretched so much. It was an amazing, amazing gift to get to do all these different things. And humbling, too.”
From the very soft, intimate, ukelele-driven “Dream In The Dark” to the booming and enchanting “They Can’t If You Don’t Let Them,” Pines is more than a record – it’s an experience. And it’s no wonder, since recording was a unique experience and process for Alison and the band, who recorded the album in just seven days. “Playing ‘They Can’t if You Don’t Let Them’ was pretty amazing,” she recalls, “… singing it was just so fun and so powerful, and we were all just going for it. Things were falling apart and rattling and falling over and I almost fell over.”
Pines is all-encompassing. The kind of record you can play when you want to be taken somewhere else entirely – an otherworldly place. There’s no doubt in my mind that the book and the film will add wonderful layers to the story of Pines. ”It’s a ride,” she says, “I wanted it to be that.”
Prepare yourself for the illuminary and enchanting journey that is Pines, coming to you on October 9th. You can read my full conversation with Alison Sudol below. Enjoy!
Findyourfav: I had a chance to listen to Pines a few times, and I love it. I read that you said this is possibly your most personal record yet. Do you still feel that way? Why do you feel that way?
Alison: Oh, I definitely do. I mean, obviously all the music I’ve made is personal. But this record, it was…I just went deep with it. I was going through a really intense period in my life and this record was kind of – and I don’t want to say “lifeline” because it sounds so much more dramatic – But it was kind of my best friend, in a sense. I have a lot of wonderful friends. I’m making a mess out of this! I went into places with my heart and my soul with this record that I have never cared to go into before, I think. You can cross all that other stuff out, kind of floundering, trying to find the right words. It’s difficult to describe, you know?
FYF: In 2008, you released One Cell in the Sea. Pretty soon after, in 2009, you released Bomb in a Birdcage. Pines has been a little bit longer, about three years in between. Was that an intentional break?
Alison: Well, I started writing Pines actually very, very close to releasing Bomb in a Birdcage. But it’s been quite an undertaking. And I really sort of stepped away from everything for a while to write it and it took a little while to actually write out the whole record because the entire record is a story. It was just an intense process. And then also, the record’s been done for a little while, but I also wrote a book and made a film with an amazing group of animators. So the book and the film have also taken a little more time. So it’s not just releasing the record, it’s releasing all three things. So that’s why it’s taken a bit longer.
FYF: What made you come up with the concept of having the film and the book? What came first?
Alison: The story came first. The story was connected most closely to the record. But I realized very early on that I wouldn’t be able to explain all the details that I was seeing in my head in the story in record form. Because songs have a particular structure and I didn’t want it to be a four-disc album! So I was like, “ok, well, if I do this, the way that I want to do it, I’m gonna have to write a book.” At the time I was also watching – sort of obsessively – this film from the ‘70s called Hedgehog in the Fog. And it’s just the most magical piece of film, possibly that I’ve ever seen. And it was such a comfort to me in a difficult time. So I wanted to do sort of a modern-day version of that, of something that could perhaps give comfort to other people in visual form. I was like, oh my goodness! What have I signed myself up for? I’ve never made a film and I’ve never published a book. But somehow, it happened.
FYF: That’s the beauty of it, though, right? You’ve never done it before, so it’s even better?
Alison: Oh, of course. I mean, you know, it’s like charging into uncharted territory. Thrilling, scary, fascinating. I learned so much and stretched so much. It was an amazing, amazing gift to get to do all these different things. And humbling, too.
FYF: When I listen to Pines, I notice a really interesting contrast between some of the songs. For example, “Dream in the Dark” – very simple, pretty intimate. Immediately after, we move into “Sailing Song,” which has a lot more layers, is a lot faster. And then there’s “Dance of the Grey Whales,” which is completely instrumental. Was it somewhat freeing to be able to experiment with so many different types of songs? Is that kind of what you were going for?
Alison: Well, I think if there hadn’t been a very clear connection between the songs as far as narrative, I don’t know if I would have been so experimental. Because I think that there was always the thing that tied them together, which was the story. And, you know, I wanted there to be a lot of colors. I’d written pretty much every song, save a couple of them, on the piano. So they all sounded pretty alike when I was writing them. But in my head, they were vastly different. So at a certain point, I just kind of left it up to the producer and the musicians and way we were all feeling, and the songs just kind of took on their own universe. And I loved it. I love that they are so different. It’s a ride. I wanted it to be that.
FYF: So what is your songwriting process like? Do you typically come up with songs based on something you’ve written down in a notebook, or is it something that just comes to you?
Alison: Writing this record was different because I had an idea of the shape of it, and I kind of was figuring out the story a little bit ahead of the actual song. So I had an idea of where I wanted the story to go and what the environments were. But in general, I have no idea, really, what I’m going to write. I just have things inside that I’ve been storing and observing and feeling, and it’s just this strange combination of playing the piano or the guitar and having the music create pictures, and then trying to describe what I see, basically, which somehow results in a song. I still don’t really understand it. I just trust it.
FYF: Do you ever set the mood for yourself to write?
Alison: Generally, I try to have quiet and not be in a distracting environment. But I’ve written songs when there’s absolute mayhem going on. I’ve written songs at pianos in venues when other bands are doing sound-check and somehow I write a song. But it’s not like, “ok, I have to have this, this, this this.” Sometimes, I have everything perfect and I just can’t write for the life of me. I don’t know. It’s a mysterious, magical, frustrating thing.
FYF: Back to Pines. What’s your favorite memory from recording it?
Alison: Oh, gosh – there are so many. This was such a fun record to make. Well, let’s see. Playing They Can’t if You Don’t Let Them was pretty amazing. We recorded the whole record in seven days at Capitol. Did the entire thing live. So when we did that song, as you can imagine, it’s just this crazy, crashing song. So singing it was just so fun and so powerful, and we were all just going for it. Things were falling apart and rattling and falling over and I almost fell over. And then River Song, it was just this magical thing; it’s all one take. We were all playing at once, and there was this feeling of holding your breath. Like your soul is holding its breath. Because you’re so connected with these other musicians all over the room. You’re all in the same universe. I just didn’t want to take a breath out of place or have my fingers slip. It was such a magical moment; I didn’t want to move. It was just like we all went somewhere together. It was unforgettable.
FYF: Wrapping things up: I love your tumblr page. I just discovered it. So awesome! So many good poems and pictures.
Alison: Thank you! It’s been fun. I’m getting used to it. I’m still learning. I’m afraid of overly re-blogging. I don’t know what the blogger etiquette is. I see so many great things on other people’s sites. Are you supposed to do that? I’m obsessed with poetry. I’m so glad you like it. I love sharing it.
FYF: Do you do visual art or any other type of creation outside of music?
Alison: Well, I write prose. I paint, but pretty badly. Totally for me. I draw, generally just for myself. Or as gifts for my parents because they love it. I don’t really stray too much into the other arts. I love doing it, I’m just not very good! But, you know, it’s fun to do. I like making collages. I’m making a collage out of a bunch of old LIFE magazines. It’s really cool, actually! But that just takes scissors.
FYF: In closing, I’d love to hear a little about IUCN. What are you working on right now? What are some things you’re passionate about?
Alison: Well, I believe we’re going to be doing a photo contest in August, of nature photos. I’m going to be a judge, which is exciting! Generally, my involvement with the IUCN is, you know, they’re just such an incredible organization and, really, not a lot of people know they are. They do such great works across so many different platforms. I mean, from sustainability and preserving biodiversity and green energy, to preserving marine life. They do so many great environmental things. And so I kind of just let people know what they’re doing. And I do various things like field-trips and stuff. But the best thing I can do, really, is just shine the light that I have to shine on them – because what they’re doing really speaks for itself.
FYF: Very cool. Are you coming to Seattle any time soon?
Alison: We will definitely come through Seattle on the tour. My hometown!
Thank you, Alison!