A Fine Frenzy
A Fine Frenzy a.k.a. Alison Sudol inhabits a vivid imaginary world populated by siren songs and sailors, sightless creatures and fragile fallen eagles, a place where almost lovers and hopeless dreams are bid a melancholy musical farewell. And on One Cell In The Sea, Sudol allows the listener inside that often-fantastical world, revealing her inner life via songs Harp magazine praised as "fraught, haunted and beautiful."
One Cell In The Sea is the 14-song debut from A Fine Frenzy, the lineup fronted by 21-year-old singer/pianist Sudol. While A Fine Frenzy's songs are ethereal, the musical and lyrical vision is as thoughtful, brainy and delightful as Sudol herself. Born in Seattle and raised in Los Angeles, Sudol is an only child of divorced parents who found solace in music that ranged from Ella Fitzgerald to Elton John, from Motown to the melodic melancholia of new global British bands like Aqualung, Radiohead and Keane. The diatonic minimalism of Philip Glass and transportive allure of Icelandic music like Bjork likewise thrilled and informed her sensibilities. Sudol's literary tastes are equally eclectic, including the graceful prose of Jane Austen and the quirky, surreal tales of Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis. Then there's the band name, nicked from A Midsummer Night's Dream ("The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.") Sudol's songs embody the qualities of her influences: "In Carroll's 'Through the Looking Glass,' from one moment to the next you don't know where you are, but at the end it all makes sense," she observes. "You can be in the strangest situation, but it seems normal. I love that and incorporate that into my writing."
Some of her earliest and most beloved memories inform the songs on One Cell In The Sea. "I remember really responding to natural phenomenon," she recalls. "I'd get so excited about rain, snow, birds... and I vividly remember our piano, even if I didn't play it yet because I was too tiny." That early inspiration is described in the lush and lilting "Come On, Come Out," as Sudol sings, "watching the sky, you're watching a painting / coming to life, shifting and shaping."
The story of A Fine Frenzy has been shifting and shaping for several years, beginning when Sudol was 18 and penned 'Almost Lover,' which would eventually become the first single from One Cell In The Sea. A strong student, Sudol graduated high school at 16 and began fronting a pop band. By 18, though, she yearned to express herself in a different musical voice, and focused on the piano, infusing her soul into songs. Though live performing is her passion and forte, Sudol kept A Fine Frenzy under the radar in Los Angeles. "Sure, it's easier getting recognition playing the club scene than it is hanging around in your living room," she acknowledges with a laugh, "but I wanted to keep it quiet and let the music speak for itself." It didn't stay quiet for long, however, and it was in that very living room where Virgin Records CEO Jason Flom came to see Sudol—and partake of her mother's cookies and A Fine Frenzy's equally delicious songs.
Entering a Burbank studio near her home in late 2006 with British producer Lukas Burton (who has written and produced for Paul McCartney, James Blunt and Dido), A Fine Frenzy began work on their Virgin Records/Capitol Music Group debut. Sudol and frequent touring bandmates Stephen LeBlanc (keyboards) and Daxx Nielsen (drums) were joined by stellar players for the recording. Contributing to the CD were the album's co-producer, bassist Hal Cragin (Iggy Pop, Rufus Wainwright), along with award-winning string arranger David Campbell (Beck); guitarists Dave Levita (Alanis Morrisette, Sinead O'Connor) and Michael Chavez (John Mayer, Five For Fighting); and drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins). And by early 2007, One Cell In The Sea was born. Sterling songs include "Near to You," a spare, yearning yet hopeful tune about a new love in the shadow of an old ("I'm battle scarred / but I am working oh so hard to get back to who I used to be") and the rollicking dynamism of "Lifesize." Those are balanced beautifully by the delicate, lingering vulnerability of the first single, "Almost Lover," to the bop-along but soaring "Think of You," just a few gems that populate the captivating and hypnotizing One Cell In The Sea.
The album title came from a lyric in "The Minnow & The Trout," a song that Sudol says "felt like a children's story. I was in kind of a dark mood when I wrote it, so it was a way of cheering myself up. I wanted to make a big message out of a small story. The creatures in the story—the ants, the duck--became little friends to me by the end of the song. It's restoring my faith in humanity, because it's such a sweet simple story, but people have a huge emotional reaction to it." The title came from the verse: "Please, I know that we're different / but we were One Cell In The Sea in the beginning / and what we're made of was all the same once / we're not that different after all." It was not a quickly decided-upon title: As with everything in her life, Sudol is an inveterate observer who "really, really watches people and things before deciding my viewpoint.
I digest how I feel, which changes songs, but I think people can relate to them more, because it's more of an objective, carefully considered perspective." Given that, Sudol notes: "Trying to come up with a name that sums up an album of diverse songs is difficult! But One Cell In The Sea kept popping into my head. When I was writing the album, I was by myself, and I felt lonely and isolated. But I felt like the emotions were ones that everybody feels, so that connected me to other people. In that respect, the one place we all came from is also a uniting concept, and it's the beginning. As this is also my first album, it's hopefully the beginning of something big for me."
Before One Cell In The Sea was even released, the band was already playing with Iggy and the Stooges, Paolo Nutini, Aqualung and Pete Yorn, and had dates booked with Rufus Wainwright and Sean Lennon. And A Fine Frenzy, whose lineup shifts around the core of Sudol and LeBlanc, has a blast on the road, both at home and in the U.K., Sudol praising LeBlanc for being her "rock" on the road: "I look over at him when we're onstage and he keeps me grounded. I tell Stephen he must have five hands because I don't understand how he does what he does!" Though Sudol may be young, she's clearly an old soul whose sometimes otherworldly and fragile-seeming songs and vibe belie a mindful, engaging and conscientious artist. But enough about her: Sudol opted to use the name A Fine Frenzy because it's not all about her. "At the end, it's about the music, not about me. Plus," she laughs, "I really like the band name!"
At once surreal and so real, A Fine Frenzy and One Cell In The Sea is a delightful contradiction of lush Technicolor dreaminess, souls stripped bare, quirky Lynchian vividness and picket-fence innocence. But despite the adjectives and accolades that are all too easy to heap on Sudol and A Fine Frenzy, as Sudol told Interview magazine, her goals are as modest as her friends the minnow and the trout: "I just want to be able to make music until I'm old and nobody wants to look at me anymore," she concludes. And if One Cell In The Sea is any indication, that day will be a very, very long time in the future.