Noah and the Whale - After the storm, a sea change
Noah and the Whale have swapped songs of heartbreak for a celebratory new album peopled with captivating characters. The band's Charlie Fink tells Gillian Orr why
Friday 11 March 2011
Every four seconds, someone buys a Harlequin Mills & Boon novel. This is the startling claim at the beginning of Guilty Pleasures, a new feature-doc exploring the Mills & Boon craze that receives a special screening at the Birds Eye View Festival this weekend.
Noah and the Whale's third album, Last Night on Earth, begins with a tale of metamorphosis. "He used to be somebody/ Now he's someone else," croons the band's frontman and songwriter, Charlie Fink.
The track it's taken from, "Life Is Life", might tell the story of a boy packing up his car and starting over, but don't be fooled by the third person narrative that is employed throughout this song and, indeed, much of the album. For there's just as much of Fink here as there has been in previous records, albeit one you may not be as familiar with: one exuberant with the possibilities of life.
Noah and the Whale were first introduced to us in 2008 as a jaunty folk-pop outfit and part of the emerging west London nu-folk scene that also included Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling and Emmy the Great. With their blue-and-yellow outfits and ukuleles (both since surrendered), the band seemed to irritate as many as they delighted. Still, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down was a successful debut, charting at No 5 and selling well.
Not surprisingly, people were taken aback when the band released their second effort, The First Days of Spring, a bleak, heartbreaking album inspired by Fink's break up with Marling. It was a devastating and fragile piece, quite unlike their first offering.
And once again Noah and the Whale (Tom Hobden, Urby Whale and Fred Abbott complete the line-up) have made a change in direction for their third album. Full of uplifting melodies, confident guitar, glistening synths and gospel singers, it tells the story of a cast of down and outs, chancers and dreamers, either making a break for it or reflecting on when they did. It is an urgent and celebratory album about change and transition, whether it's the woman leaving her abusive partner in "The Line" or the boy escaping his home town on a bus in "Tonight's the Kind of Night".
A lyric from the latter track was actually the first thing that Fink wrote, and informed much of the album. With the line "Tonight's the kind of night/ Where everything could change", he had found his starting point.
"Getting that lyric was a kind of breakthrough," says Fink, reliving his eureka moment for me in an east London bar. "It was one of those lyrics that just falls into your head. The sentiment in that song is essentially the thread that goes through the album. In that song is the romance of the night time, the possibility of change and of doing something new. After we finished touring First Days of Spring, which was really tough, I went to Wales to write and I kind of had that feeling of going into the unknown and wanting to start again and have a change in my life. I've invested as much of myself in this as the other records, it's just expressed in a different way."
The album's title, Last Night on Earth, is taken from the single "L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N", a track which urges people to live a life full of risk and adventure so that on your final night you can't look back with regret. The title is also in homage to Charles Bukowski's The Last Night of the Earth Poems. Fink was reading a lot of Bukowski while he was writing the album and his influence can be seen in the numerous lowlifes that pop up. "He wrote about people facing adversity in a confident and romantic way and I really liked that."
After the solipsism of the previous albums, why did he choose to tell these characters' stories? "It was partly as a challenge for myself," Fink explains. "I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone and write in a way that I wasn't familiar with – and I've always respected artists who can write in character. Tom Waits can do that better than anyone, Bone Machine being the prime example."
Other works that influenced the record included Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town as well as the poetry of Frank O'Hara. Despite this seeming fixation with all things American, Fink hopes that people can relate to some of the figures. "I didn't want it to feel like it was set somewhere specific, but all the allusions to the open road and small towns conjure up the image of America, yeah. But I hope people will be able to imagine the stories in their own world as well."
By way of explaining his seamless move into the role of storyteller, Fink touts his interest and experience in film as being partly responsible (he wrote and directed a short film to accompany The First Days of Spring and is making the band's next video). "It's obviously a very different discipline," notes Fink. "But from my very amateurish dabbles in film, I was able to transfer some of the things I learnt to writing songs, such as applying the level of detail you put into a scene into a song."
The album, which was released this week, is a giant leap forward for the band and they are currently enjoying their best reviews to date. "Yeah the feedback has been amazing," smiles Fink. "I kind of anticipated that people would kick back against it a little more because it's such a radical change for us. It's nice for people to be positive and it's very rewarding. You can't control any of that, though, so you've just got to make the best record you can and then it's over to the people, I guess."
Fink understands only too well that you can't please everyone and the band has put up with their fair share of ribbing in the past. Often accused of being twee and cutesy when they first arrived, does Fink feel like they were ever treated unfairly? "I think it's impossible for people not to be a little cynical about a new band," he muses. "And there are definitely things that we did at the beginning of our career that, retrospectively, I think I probably would have done slightly differently; and I understand it confused the message of what we were about. Like how we dressed ourselves back in the day and the aesthetic we had for the band. I was only about 20 at the time so I don't beat myself up about it. Now we've established who we are as a band and I think people understand us more now."
Nor does Fink feel much affinity to the nu-folk scene that people often tie the band to. "It's something that's definitely been romanticised by the media," laughs Fink. "For a very short period we were part of a group of people making music in London who were like-minded and had similar sounds. The work and collaborations that were done over that time are still things I'm very proud of. To an extent, I can understand why in some people's eyes it has become what it has, but it was only a matter of months. It seems such a distant memory now; it's a bit strange to still have it discussed."
Nevertheless, he was thrilled with his old consorts' successes at last month's Brit Awards, which saw Mumford & Sons win Album of the Year and Marling take home Best Female. "Genuinely, seeing that happen was just incredible," he insists. "When I think back to when we first started... it's crazy to think about what everyone has gone on to do. You know, I was talking with my brother the other day and he reminded me of this time when it was one of Laura's first gigs; I didn't really know her, and she used my amplifier and someone said to me, 'Well you can always say that Laura Marling used your amp.' So, you know, it's amazing that everyone's gone on to do such great stuff. It's cool to have been a part of it and seen it happen."
For just a moment he looks wistful before shrugging it off with a smile and looking to me for the next question. This small anecdote reminds me of a track on the new album, "Just Me Before We Met", which sees a man reflecting on his life after finding old photos of himself, a naive boy before he became a man.
Still, there's no doubt that spirits are high in the Noah and the Whale camp. After a few changes to the line-up which included Fink's brother, Doug, leaving to pursue a career in medicine, everyone is now settled and happy. "The vibe in the band at the moment is the best it's been for a long time. I know that sounds like I'm being excessively positive, but we're pretty much best friends."
So what's next for this most unpredictable of bands? "Selling this many records or playing to that many people is not what motivates me. We were in the car the other day, listening to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" and we were all singing along. It was a really great moment and I thought I'd love to write a song that could inspire this for other people. To have people in a car, singing like that; that's the sort of thing I focus on." And you know what? With this album he may have just done it.
Last Night on Earth is out now. Noah and the Whale tour the UK from 30 March (www.noahandthewhale.com)
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