Alison Sudol is in the middle of a fine frenzy. After only four hours of sleep, she woke at 5 a.m. to sing a track from her debut album on a live, early morning TV show in Portland, Ore. And now at midday, she still has another 12 hours and a concert to play before a full night's rest is an option.
Sudol is also the focus of A Fine Frenzy, her Los Angeles-based persona that centers around her gently rolling, ethereal netherworld – a fantasy island of literate and lush soundscapes, propelled by fantastical, occasionally psychedelic narratives. On One Cell in the Sea (Virgin), her recently released major-label debut, the striking, raven-haired 22-year-old is pictured in a gauzy series of archaic images.
"That girl is definitely not the real me," Sudol laughs over the phone. "That version of me exists only in my head. In there, I'm totally amidst the bears and trees and stuff." In her real world, however, she's far removed from the gifts of a benevolent godmother or kind-hearted king. Instead she toils in her modern wonderland, working long and often grueling hours in support of her new album.
"I never look at too much of my itinerary at once," she says, calling in the middle of a rare moment of downtime. "If I did, I'd be overwhelmed and just go 'arrrarrgh.'" Currently in the middle of a whirlwind blitz that will bring her to Atlanta – where she'll open for Rufus Wainwright at the Tabernacle – Monday, Aug. 13, and then again Sept. 25 at the Roxy, the high-spirited singer/songwriter is living her own personal fairy tale.
Not that every day is a sepia-toned delight. "Yeah, today was rough. We started playing, and my keyboard didn't work, and I was trying to make it work as I was singing, and it's early in the morning, uggh. So I sang the first part pretty much a cappella, and then it started to kinda fritz in and out while [my touring bandmates] played on and tried to help. You just have to go, 'OK, this is what I wanted, right?'"
Her formative years weren't exactly a ticket to the Magic Kingdom, even though she grew up in the shadow of the iconic castle. At age 5, her parents divorced, and young Alison was moved down the West Coast, from rainy Seattle to balmy Burbank. She was a reserved and bookish child who entertained herself with ballet, literature and music. Hollywood, though geographically near, was as philosophically removed as the places she read about in the books of her beloved writers, E.B. White, C.S. Lewis or Jane Austen.
"When I was old enough to understand what was going on [in Hollywood], I chose to stay away from it. Burbank is a strange little town, but sweet and far enough from there to keep me pretty normal. It's just like growing up in any small town, except I could see NBC, Warner Brothers and Disney pretty much from my window."
Rather than being swallowed by the excesses of Tinseltown, her impressionistic style thrives on her idyllic early years. "We just played a show in Seattle a couple of nights ago," she explains. "Driving in, this daze came over me, and I realized where I get my images. I remember all of it from when I was zero to 5, basically. The evergreens and the farmhouses just outside of town and the creatures, the water, the market, all of that stuck with me so much." Her music, she says, is a way to recreate those mossy green memoirs of her childhood.
The verdant visions are melded to highly melodic tunes, creating an aural ambiance that exists on a highly cinematic plane. Sudol's story songs resonate in a gravity-defying orbit where Tori Amos or Sarah McLachlan wouldn't be uncomfortable. But the refreshingly regular Sudol bests those established flakes by eschewing the forced pretense of Amos and the calculated chill of McLachlan. "A lot of people are much better at being super weird and out there than me," she says. "I like bringing it down a little to really look at it, and then I can become a part of the music as I observe it."
The core of A Fine Frenzy's songs, while produced within the constraints of modern equipment, owe as much to the organic folk-rock of the Mamas and the Papas as to the contemporary sheen of Coldplay or Radiohead. "I don't even know how to write 'modern' music," she continues. "I just know what I grew up with were classically crafted songs with real melodies."
One concession to today's machinery is a guest-star role on the season premiere of television's "CSI." "I'm not pursuing an acting career by any means," she says, "but they wanted a real musician. I came in terrified and completely out of my element and left feeling really great. I got roughed up a little in one scene, which was pretty interesting."
But don't expect her to go Hollywood anytime soon, even though it's close to home. "Music is the thing that makes me wake up every day," she concludes before she's off and running to do more promo work for the album. "Everything else is the icing on the cake."
I'm pretty sure he was 19.
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