If you are ever graced with Alison Sudol’s (the lead singer of A Fine Frenzy), presence, you’ll immediately be embraced by her glowing and bubbly personality, her absolute joy she exhibits for life and people, and then wonder how impossible it’d be for her to experience gloom. The truth of the matter is, Sudol, like everyone, went through a period where she felt lifeless and unknowing.
“I had come to a point in my life where nothing was bringing me joy and nothing was feeling satisfying or exciting,” she admits. “Nothing was making it into my heart; I just felt a bit detached from everything and I had to really, really change on a massive level, because it just wasn’t a feasible way of living anymore; life was grey.”
It was at this point that Sudol began working on her now latest album, Pines, which has more direction than any of her previous releases.
“More than anything, when I was writing [earlier records] A Bomb in a Birdcage and One Cell in the Sea, I had a clear vision with the songs and who I thought I wanted to be, but there were holes,” she reveals. “There were so many holes in it, where I wasn’t really sure and I think there were places where I winged it because I was just figuring things out, which is part of learning and part of who you are. But when I went into this record, I sat down and said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna build this record around things that make me happy. I knew it was gonna be a journey; I knew it was gonna be something where I was gonna have to go on unknown paths, but I knew where I wanted to get, and I knew I wanted the record to be that journey, and I knew I wanted to make it connected and make it a story—there was a very clear sense of what the purpose was going to be.
Despite such clarity in this vision, Sudol also clung to her biggest followers.
“Something I started realizing is that people would always tell me after shows and on social media that they were going through a really difficult time and my music was with me, and it gave [them] hope and comfort and I realized that at least for some people that I had that ability, which was a great responsibility all of a sudden—‘so that’s what I’m supposed to do’—if all I do in my life is make music that makes living a little bit easier for people, that’s the greatest gift in the world and something I need to consciously do, because if I wander away from that, I’m not living up to what I can offer to the world, to whoever wants it, so part of it was wanting to tell a story that would be like a friend, holding your hand and leading you through being in a place of pain, almost in a place of numbness after pain, where it’s like a state I think we get into, but we don’t know how to get out of; pain is one thing; pain is motivating, but when you have just checked out, you don’t even realize it after a certain point, and I wanted to be the person who took people by the hand and into a world where they could feel safe and comforted and transported and then walk them through what I went through in order to find joy.
Along with the release of Pines, Sudol has also _ a short film directed by Musa Booker (which can be viewed here and an interactive book (illustrated by Jen Lobo) to accompany the elaborate story, not to mention the lucid liveliness it possesses.
“Jen and I started making the book totally renegade style,” Sudol says. She was illustrating it, and we were just having little dinners and teas and talking about it and then there was an opportunity to work with iBooks, and I thought that was really cool; we could tie them in together. Then, we got to work with Trailer Park Publishing and they’re awesome! [Senior Vice President] Scott [Tobin] over there—he just got it; I was like, ‘It has to be subtle; everything has to be very gentle.’ When I was a little kid, I would just read books and imagine that the characters were blinking or waving—you’d want to give life to it—and this actually does, which is the coolest thing; it’s like little bits of magic. I was so grateful to be given that opportunity; you’re only as good as the people around you, and the team has been so great.”
Even now that such effortful projects have been completed, Sudol still is staying occupied; she’s been touring across the country with Joshua Radin since Oct. 13, and she made a visit to the Windy City on Oct. 26. This wasn’t her first time, though.
Of a prior visit, she recollects, “I remember walking through a park one night, and it was around dusk; it was cold and crisp, and I just remember looking at the trees, and they were all lit up. I was with a friend, and we were just walking through, and I just remember thinking how cool the city felt; it’s very grounded, this city; it’s very grounding, there’s definitely a beauty in it and it has its own kind of light, but it’s sturdy, like Chicago is not messing around; it’s very well-rooted, it knows who it is. I feel like it’s not a city struggling for its identity; going through different cities, disparate elements; there’s just something very calming about being here; I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad day in Chicago, even when I almost got blown over by the wind. The lake is so beautiful and stunning, too.”
Beyond the music, yet another priority in Sudol’s life has transpired.
“I’m working on life,” she states. “It’s been such an emotionally transitory time; I’ve just been basically reevaluating, readjusting the whole way that I look at life and approach things, so I’m trying to be patient, trying to be more present, trying to practice gratitude and savor life every moment.”
Sudol’s thoughtful outlook and insight are as incandescent as her songwriting, which has always resonated most with nature, though it, too, was once on a different path.
“One of the first songs that I wrote was actually quite nature-based and similar to what I do now,” Sudol reveals. “I got into songwriting when I was 14, and it was such a pop time; everyone around me really loved pop music, and I was learning to sing from a teacher who taught a bunch of young girls. We were all singing Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera, so I kind of got pulled from who I was naturally and started trying to be that and write pop songs, which was funny, because it just never came out right. And it wasn’t until [the hit song from first album, One Cell in the Sea] ‘Almost Lover’ that I found my voice.”
She continues, “When I got to that place, which was really just writing, of something that I really cared about genuinely and felt drawn to, and once I started thinking about songwriting from that perspective, like writing actual stories of my life or my imagination, that’s when nature started coming through again ‘cause that’s something that’s been calming a sort of idea for me, those different elements of nature. I find myself in mountains and parks and lakes and oceans whenever I’m not doing well or whenever I just need some peace.”
While it took time for Sudol to find her voice as a songwriter, she knew early on in her life that music was the path she wanted to take.
“I was 15, and I was in the car with my mom,” she reflects. “I just went, ‘I think this is what I wanna do.’ I was thinking about going to Stanford and studying poly-sci or architecture at the time, and I kept making music as a hobby, but it was something that I was very serious about. It didn’t really occur to me that I could actually do it as a career until that moment, and when I realized that, everything kind of fell away, and it just was obvious that I was supposed to do.”
Even as a seasoned veteran of the music industry, Sudol is seemingly star-struck by the idea of what she’s doing full-time.
“It still is crazy to me that I can do this as my job,” she says. “There’s still a part of me that can’t compute it; it doesn’t seem possible that the thing you do so naturally can also be your job.”
Naturally is an understatement for Sudol’s craft; not only can she beautifully compose a song through her flawless writing and vocals, but she can also articulate it in such fashion.
“When you write something true, that’s all that matters,” she notes. “That’s what it’s supposed to be; it’s supposed to open you. Then you open and it opens other people. Life is like an onslaught, and when you’re a sensitive person—which I think many more people than you think are actually quite so—amidst life circumstances, who you’re around, if you think who you’re supposed to be—we toughen ourselves up, we harden, and we build walls around ourselves, but it’s always in there; it’s like a thorn buried so deep in you, and when you can finally release that, it’s such an amazing gift, and I think what art can do that almost nothing else—love can do that—is friendship. And nature.”
Another way Sudol expresses her work is through social networking, particularly with Pines.
“It’s something that I’ve been pretty passionate about for a long time,” she says. “Twitter is a huge thing, and something that’s been really nice is interactions with people; I feel really strongly that this record is something to be shared; it was mine while I was writing it, and then I opened it up a little bit; every time I bring people in, it’s suddenly ours more and more, and it’s nice to see what people interpret from these different themes that come from the songs; it’s nice to see where people live and see what they see. I put out so much stuff at people, and they’re excited when they can be seen. There are so many boundaries in life—geeze! People don’t get to be creative enough; sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start, just by looking at your environment a little bit differently and saying, ‘Oh, this can be this,’ then that’s an outlet.”
At the end of the day, though, the particular perspective Sudol focuses on is the intertwining of life and music, as well as providing a mentorship to others.
“Kindness is something that I hold really high,” Sudol expresses. “Something that I love to see is people blooming and people connecting with themselves and I love to try and help that whenever I can, so listening and being open and nonjudgmental and allowing people to be what they need to be—one thing I have a lot of difficulty in is doing that for myself; it’s totally different—so that’s what I’m working on, cultivating the same kindness that I foster for everything.”
For more information on Sudol, check out her website here. Part I, the live review from her performance in Chicago, can be viewed below in the suggested links.