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A Fine Frenzy, Getting Personal With The Indie Rock Phenom –
April 2009: Common wisdom suggests that if you listen to your heart, success will follow. This philosophy has certainly worked well for singer-songwriter Alison Sudol, whose band A Fine Frenzy released one of the most promising debut albums of recent history, One Cell in the Sea, in 2007. Sudol's poetic, literary-inspired tales of the ebb and flow of love like "Almost Lover" and "Come On Come Out" show that she's listened to her heart quite closely over her 24-year life so far.

Alison Sudol, happy to be at Guitar Center. –

"The point of a song is communication," says Sudol. "You have to keep focused on the big picture and try not to obsess over particular words or phrases. To me when you're really in love it feels like it is so much bigger than you. Love and the feelings that go along with love like heartbreak, sadness, and loss are big forces of nature that can make an impact on you like nothing else."

Alison's musical journey began 13 years ago when she first sang in front of others in drama class when she was just 11. "I was a super shy kid," she admits. "I didn't interact well with other people. My drama teacher told me that no one would hear me if I whispered, so the first time that I opened my mouth to sing a big voice came out. I found this voice that I didn't know I had out of sheer self-defense. It was such a thrill and a feeling of freedom. I truly felt like myself on stage in front of a bunch of people. That gave me the bug to keep singing."

From that turning point Alison was unstoppable in her desire to become a singer. She pushed herself to improve by singing the most difficult songs she could find, learning tunes by artists like Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston. After immersing herself in the study of these powerful singers, she began exploring other styles and listening to music by bands and alternative artists like Björk and Radiohead.

"Eventually I didn't want to sing other people's songs any more," she says. "I wanted to sing my own music. I'm glad I had the background I did because it gave me a lot of strength, but I decided that I wanted to use my voice as an instrument."

Alison started writing songs, but soon she realized that learning to play a musical instrument was a necessity. "Any serious singer-songwriter needs to know how to play an instrument," she says. "I was 19 when I became aware of that, and that led to me learning to play piano. I also learned to play guitar when we were recording One Cell in the Sea. The guitar was really useful for writing songs for our new album while we were on the road. For me, playing the piano was always just a function of being a songwriter. Once I got the hang of it, I found that there can be a lot of joy in playing the instrument."

"When I sit down to write a song, it's the only thing that exists and I am completely focused on it... I write about things that I have experience in and that I understand." – Alison Sudol

Los Angeles songwriter Jolene Bell gave Sudol a few piano lessons, showing her how to play basic chords and rhythms. Once she mastered that, Sudol struck out on her own, encouraged by Bell to "go figure out the rest, then come back and teach her something." Sudol soon discovered her own unique style of playing piano, characterized by complex melodic twists and a flowing, conversational cadence.

"I heard things in my head and figured out my piano playing around them," Sudol explains. "Because I didn't learn to play in a proper, traditional manner, things came out quite differently. I only realized that when we were recording the first album and I had some difficulty playing my piano parts in the studio. We hired a classical pianist to record those parts, and he had a hard time playing them, too. I wondered how that was possible! I guess I've developed my own quirks because I taught myself."

Alison describes her songwriting process as a deep, intense experience. "I can lose myself in it for hours," she says. "When I sit down to write a song, it's the only thing that exists and I am completely focused on it. I don't have that kind of focus when I'm learning someone else's music. If I'm on the road I'll pick up a guitar or I'll seek out a piano at the hotel or somewhere close to where we're staying. I sit down to write when I feel that I have something to express. I start plucking around with some different chords and patterns until I find something that speaks to me. Then I write the song from there and find the story in the song, collecting the pictures that the music dictates. I write about things that I have experience in and that I understand."

On stage with A Fine Frenzy, Alison plays a Yamaha CP33 88-key electronic stage piano. "Tuning an acoustic piano and setting up microphones can be a hassle on stage," she says. "The CP33 is a great solution on the road. I use acoustic pianos in the studio. On the first album and the album we're making now I played a Yamaha GT2 Grand Touch digital baby grand, which outputs MIDI but also sounds great with microphones.

"I love Yamaha pianos," she raves. "I've played a lot of different pianos that I like, but not the way I love my Yamaha pianos. At home I have a Yamaha upright that has the most incredible sound. It's so rich but it's not dark. The action is absolutely perfect – not too hard or light. I can play it for hours, which makes it easy to write songs. Yamaha pianos are really well made and they have great tone. I like grand pianos but I prefer an upright because it has less of a classical sound, especially if it's a little out of tune – I really like that! We used an old, beat up no-name upright on One Cell that we got at a garage sale. The strings are all exposed, and it sounds really cool."

Sudol has assembled the same team of producers and musicians behind One Cell in the Sea to record A Fine Frenzy's follow-up album, which is near completion. Lukas Burton, who has previously worked with Amanda Ghost, Samantha Mumba and Tina Arena, is producing the album.

"Lukas and Hal Cragin, who also produced my first album, both understand me," says Sudol. "We all worked together for quite a long time before the first record came out. When it came to working out the arrangements, there was a tacit understanding of what each song needed to achieve as far as emotional impact goes. Lukas is an incredible arranger with an intricate approach to the finest details. He can listen to a drum take and go, 'The snare pattern in the second bar needs to be relaxed.' Hal is a great musician who has played bass with Iggy Pop and They Might Be Giants. He has a musician's perspective on things, which was really helpful. We all worked as a team and arranged the songs to sound the way we thought they should."

Alison Sudol in good company at Guitar Center Hollywood. –

The team is currently working in Burbank's Eldorado Studios, where A Fine Frenzy also recorded One Cell. "It's great to be back in a familiar space again because you don't have to learn anything new," says Alison. "Our engineer Chris Steffen works there. We started from the same canvas, but we approached this record more as a band-driven effort. Most of the first album was recorded one instrument at a time and layered. This time we wanted to focus on simplicity. Lately I've been listening to musicians like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, the Talking Heads, and Belle and Sebastian, and that music has a kind of space in it. We really wanted to achieve that. We wanted to focus on every instrument having a part that could stand on its own so each individual note could be heard.

"It all fell in place quite easily," she continues. "We recorded for 10 days when we were supposed to be doing pre-production and got a good chunk of the record done. Everybody is so incredibly talented. They didn't need to do much rehearsing to figure things out. It was intense because it was so focused."

2009 is shaping up to be a very busy year for Sudol. In addition to wrapping up work on A Fine Frenzy's sophomore effort and going on tour, she is looking forward to the publication of her first book. Although she worked very hard to get where she is today, Sudol wistfully suggests that fate also played a part in her success.

Sudol in a fine, gear-induced frenzy. –

"I was very lucky to get my demo to Jason Flom (CEO of Virgin Records)," she explains. "Even if you get your demo to someone it doesn't mean that they're going to listen to it. If they do listen to it, you don't know if they're going to be in a bad mood and hating music that day. Everything depends on fate once the demo leaves your hands. In my case the stars aligned. I just think it was supposed to happen."

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