In 2009, Alison Sudol (who records under the name A Fine Frenzy) released “Bomb in a Birdcage,” a catchy and charming electro-pop album whose songs earned placement in work like the Selena Gomez film “Monte Carlo” and Zac Efron romance “The Lucky One.”
Her gorgeous, quiet new album “Pines” is just a bit different. Well, a lot different.
“I thought everyone would think I was crazy and wrote a record about a tree,” Sudol says of “Pines,” which indeed is about a tree. “I was very aware of how nuts that sounded!”
While in Chicago to perform at the Vic Theatre, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter talked about being dangerous on a bike, listening to “Pines” in the forest and why she’d be a terrible judge on a TV singing competition.
Click here to watch video from this interview
You tweeted earlier that you wanted to rent an old bike from someone today. How come?
That’s a secret. [Laughs] [I want to] borrow a bike for a little project that I’m doing.
I’ll assume you can ride a bike and play piano simultaneously at your shows.
I can barely ride a bike period. Yeah, I actually only learned like four years ago.
Was it challenging to learn as an adult?
Very. And humbling. And also I did it in Amsterdam. I just decided to rent a bike in Amsterdam and it’s pretty much the worst place [for that] … If you’re going to learn how to ride a bike as an adult, do it somewhere where there’s no people in the middle of the countryside. Don’t do it where people are born on bikes basically. I actually hit a whole group of people on bikes on my bike. [Laughs] It was awesome.
What did they say?
I was so horrified … [I said], “I’ve never ridden a bike, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” They’re like, “It’s ok. Leave. Go away.”
What can people expect from your live show tonight?
It’s quite a different sort of show. The first half is very intimate and very quiet and quite dreamy almost. And then the second half is very wild and fun. The whole thing is a journey. It’s sort of a condensed version of the record, which is a story. So it’s like a little storytelling experience.
You have such a gorgeous voice. How often you give yourself chills?
Uh. No. [Laughs]
You’ve never heard yourself and said, “Wow, that was pretty good”?
Sometimes I’m like, “OK, that’s fine. I can listen to that.” I think this record is the proudest I’ve ever let myself be mainly because I know how far into unknown territory I went. I didn’t play it safe on this record, and I think I’m proudest of that. That I sang things that I wasn’t sure if I could. And so whenever I hear something like that, I’m like, “That’s cool. That was a learned skill.”
Do you know another major label artist that’s released an album about a tree? Has it happened before?
Uh, I don’t think it’s common. [Laughs] It’s not really common subject matter for an entire record. There’s been different kind of concept records. There was Harry Nilsson, (singing), “Me and my arrow.” There’s really not that many. You have to be kind of bananas or so obsessed with a story, and that’s what it was for me.
What’s the ideal listening environment for “Pines”? Have you listened to it in the forest yet?
I have. Actually right after I finished the record, it wasn’t mixed yet but I went up to the redwoods and started listening to it in different environments. And I was listening to it walking through the redwoods which was pretty magical, and also I drove from Mendocino through Napa down to my grandparents’ house and it was raining and there were beautiful fields with farmhouses and vineyards and hills and forests and I was driving listening to the record. That was a pretty powerful way to listen.
So that’s what you’d recommend to people?
Yeah. It’s also great to listen to just when you’re at home in front of the fire. But it’s definitely that’s good to have quiet. There’s a lot of really still moments in it, and if you’re trying to run around you might be like, “Ahh, it’s too slow.”
Why did you think people would laugh when you said the album was somewhat of a fable?
I just didn’t know what to expect. I was so vulnerable with it. And cared so much that I think I just didn’t know how people would take it. I just didn’t want to get deterred. I think it was more just if someone happened to say something, because on the previous record there were three or four comments made that were very offhand that rattled around in my brain for such a long time. I’m really sensitive when I’m writing.
About the material on the last album?
Yeah, when I was writing. And it really stuck with me and it caused me a lot of pain, so I just figured this time around I would just not even risk it.
I don’t want to make you relive anything, but can you give any sense of what those comments were or why they struck such a chord?
It doesn’t really matter what the comments were because it’s more the effect they had on me. And I think the only reason they had such an effect on me is because emotionally I wasn’t really stable. I wasn’t centered. And that had nothing to do with anybody else. That had to do with me and my life and having gone through quite a huge life transformation from writing songs in my parents’ garage and living at home to touring all over the place and having major pressure and being looked at and not necessarily being a private person anymore and being really hard on myself. I was so raw by the time I started writing that record and was trying to not be raw so I was trying to just be like, “No, I’m fine. Good. I’m going to just make another record,” and it put me in a very weird mental space. It wouldn’t have mattered; someone was going to say something that was going to mess with my head. It doesn’t have anything to do with anybody else. Now I realize that now that I’ve gone through this whole process. No one can shake you unless you let them shake you.
Does this new one feel more personal, more vulnerable? Or is it just a different side and you feel that way about all of the albums?
It is more personal because it’s gone deeper into different areas of my life that I never explored before, and it is more vulnerable on the one hand. But there’s a strength in that vulnerability because I feel like when you let yourself be vulnerable all the way down to your truth, all the way down to your core, you’re impervious because you’re so honest it’s just freeing. It doesn’t really matter what anyone else says or does. I don’t know how to say it without sounding weird. It’s like you’re humming with your own rhythm. It’s something like that. You’re so full of that strength and certainty that you have when you’re being authentic that people can say whatever they want and they can’t rock it.
Is this direction something that took hold now and is out of your system, or is it something you don’t go back from, and the poppier stuff of the earlier records is a thing of the past?
I never really intended to be poppy anyway. I just didn’t really know how to convey what I was thinking as well. I think on “One Cell [In the Sea]”l I explored it and I hit it in a lot of places but I was so young I didn’t know what I was doing. [Laughs] I was just blindly hitting upon things. And then in “Bomb [In a Birdcage]” I was just exploring other places. I think musically I’ll probably do lots of different things in the future, but one thing I don’t have now is fear of going to the left and letting songs breathe. I’m not a pop star no matter what. And I think just embracing that is cool.
You’re doing passionate, personal, beautiful stuff, and lately all you hear is Britney, Nicki and Christina being attached as judges on “The Voice” and other shows. How do you feel about that trend of musicians moving on to being not recording artists but vocal judges?
I think it’s all just different choices. I would be just the worst judge. Well, first of all that’s not the way that I approach music anyway so I would just gravitate toward all the people that would [make people] be like, “Why are you going for this person?” [Laughs] I think it’s great to grow. I think it’s great to expand. I wrote a book and I made a film and that was so wonderful and challenging, and at the end of the day music is my center. It’s my core. I think everyone has their own path.
Why wouldn’t you be a good judge? All due respect to Britney Spears, but you can actually sing.
Mmm. Thank you. I think judging has nothing to do with singing. I don’t know that Simon Cowell sings. And I think that I approach music as an art form and I believe in singing from the heart, and I don’t think it’s necessarily who can hit the highest note or the longest note or the loudest or do the most runs or be the most showy. For me that’s not what music is about, but that’s not necessarily what will win you a competition. I don’t even watch them. There’s a singer-songwriter guy that won one of the things, right? I don’t know. It’s all changing. I would just hate it, to be honest. [Laughs] I can’t imagine telling people they’re not any good. It’s so sensitive and so hard. I couldn’t compete in one of those things. I wouldn’t get past the first thing.
What else do you want to do that you haven’t yet?
Oh, there’s so many things. I feel like my life has just begun in a funny way at 27. I want to do way more with the environment. I want to find more ways of planting trees and helping fight against deforestation. I want to do more stuff with kids. I love working with kids. The record and the book and the film too are all very centered around children and appealing to kids. I want to travel more and see more of the world.
Where do you want to go?
Iceland. Japan. South America. Australia. Scandinavia.
Will you avoid riding your bike to be safe?
I will avoid riding my bike pretty much everywhere. Unless there’s an area with nothing happening. [Laughs]
On time in Chicago: “Right now we’re looking out at the lake and it’s stunning. Every time I come here I want to just get in there and I never have time. I’ve explored a little bit and what I’ve seen has been really cool.”
The most time she’s spent roughing it: “You mean like camping? Probably like a week. I haven’t camped in a while but I do go out in the woods and stay in a cabin by myself or with my fella sometimes. But it’s usually like a week. I would spend more time--I can’t usually get people to leave me alone [Laughs]. Which is great, it’s a great problem to have. I’d get into a lot of trouble if I start disappearing too often.”
On the children’s novel she wrote: “I have to edit it because it’s just way too long. It’s like 400 pages or something like that. It’s meaty. It needs to be pared down. It was my first real foray into prose, and I was so excited about having freedom that I was like, ‘I can do as many words as I want!’ Because in songs you only have so much space. And so I need to just take out the red pen … The book is called ‘Three Sails and the Family Moss.’ It’s a fantasy adventure along the lines of a ‘Narnia’ or a ‘Hobbit.’ Two kids going into another world of talking animals and their parents get kidnapped and they have to go search for them. They end up going up into the clouds and they find these weird manor houses and cloud castles and there’s weird stuff going on up there and they have to go down into the ocean in a bubble. It’s a big wild adventure … I think at the time, I started writing that when I was writing ‘Bomb in a Birdcage’ and I think it was very soothing to me. Children’s literature is something that I think has a lot of power and it’s also very warm. And I needed warmth and I needed comfort and a sense of wonder, and that’s what the book is filled with.”
On the film script she wrote: “The script is totally different. The script is called ‘The Wild and Wonderful World of Scarlet Barrow.’ [Ed. Note: This is a guess at the spelling.] It is totally different. That’s like a grown-up film … There are some animated bits. But it’s got like adult—not like too risqué or anything but it’s definitely adult. It will be a side of me that people have only gotten to see a little bit so far.”
Guilty pleasure movies: “[Laughs] We just watched ‘House Bunny’ on the bus. [Laughs] It’s so funny. It’s so ridiculously funny. I laughed so hard. That was embarrassing but so good. I love ‘Talladega Nights’ too, it’s quite funny. ‘40-Year-Old Virgin’ always gets a giggle … I do like a good rom-com too. I think I’ve seen ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ like 40 times … I’ve seen ‘Harold and Maude’ like 50 times probably … I love in ‘Harold and Maude,’ I think Harold makes her a ring or it’s a coin or something and she takes it and she holds it to her. And then she just throws it into the lake and says that now she’ll always know where it is.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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