Fate Attraction – Noah And The Whale

On their 'Last Night On Earth'

With their new album, Noah And The Whale have made a change – musically and personally. Frontman Charlie Fink talks through the journey that’s led to the last night on earth…

Somewhere in the labyrinthine backstage complex of London’s Koko Charlie Fink sits on a sofa, a few hours ahead of his band’s gig there later that evening. He is, today, a different person to the one who started Noah And The Whale back in 2006, and they, in turn, are a different band from the one whose gentle, twee and pastoral songs helped shape what would be dubbed, somewhat spuriously, as ‘nu-folk’. Just two days before tonight’s show, that ‘scene’ was given a huge pat on the back by the music industry, when the 2011 Brit Awards dished gongs out to Mumford And Sons and Laura Marling. The former took (somewhat puzzlingly, given that it came out in 2009) the Best Album award home, while the latter was crowned Best British Solo Female Artist. Yet, for Noah And The Whale, such mainstream affirmation of the scene they were so prominent in comes just when they decide to firmly leave all that behind, with the release of their third album, ‘Last Night On Earth’. “It’s weird,” Fink chuckles. “Everyone’s been telling me that folk music’s so big right now – what with Mumford, and Laura’s doing so well – and it’s like, ‘Now’s the perfect time to make a synth rock record!’” Which, of course, is precisely what his band have done.

What makes it all the more interesting is the personal and professional triangle that links those bands together. Laura Marling was a member of Noah And The Whale when they first started up, but left after her relationship with Fink came to an end. Mumford And Sons were initially her backing band before they broke apart to follow their own career path. For a while after that Marcus Mumford and Marling were an item, but recently went their separate ways. It’s this somewhat complicated and incestuous context which provides the background for Noah And The Whale – and Charlie Fink – in 2011. Most, if not all of that stuff – musically and emotionally – has been left behind. But don’t think that this is an abrupt change of direction.

“For people who’ve been on the journey with us through our albums,” contemplates Fink, “even though this seems like a relatively large change, it’s part of the same journey. It’s just another step. But you’ve got to take risks, and you’ve got to challenge yourself as an artist. Maybe we’ll settle on a sound one day, but it’s always instinctive. I just go with whatever my guts are telling me – if it feels right to make a synth record or whatever. But what’s quite cool about this record is that the next one could be a guitar rock album or a completely electronic record and it would completely make sense. It’s always frustrating to be pigeonholed in any way. But I think it’d definitely be a stretch to call this new album a folk album.”

It’s true. Compare Noah And The Whale’s 2008 debut, ‘Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down’ with its follow-up, 2009’s ‘The First Days Of Spring’ and the transition, musically, is remarkable. Whereas the latter was a typically (nu-)folky affair, full of banjos and whimsical, bouncy tunes and an almost idyllic sense of naive wonder at the world, it was replaced by something darker: sweeping, dramatic and more ominous sounds that were so much more epic in scope than those on that record. The reason was simple: ‘The First Days Of Spring’, despite its seasonally optimistic title, was inspired by Fink’s break-up with Marling. As such, it was a very personal account of his feelings at the time – the abject heartache and heartbreak he was suffering – and its musical form mirrored its lyrical content. It was, essentially, an all-consuming black cloud of sombre, world-weary, private despair that fully obscured the light. But, as is the way, time goes by and wounds heal. The hurt fades. You begin to smile again. Life, as over-dramatic as it sounds, seems worthwhile once more. And it’s that newfound optimism and hope that dominates this third effort, full, as it is, of potential and possibility.

“It was great fun to make,” smiles Fink. “A much more fun record to write. But it was actually quite challenging, because it was the first time I’ve used third person narratives or written from other people’s perspectives. So in a way, the last album was more indulgent, when you’re writing from…from, you know….” He pauses momentarily, but you can imagine that slowing down of time as his mind takes him back to and through the dark times and circumstances that inspired ‘The First Days Of Spring’, before he returns to the new record, to sitting here in Koko, to now. “It was more fun, yeah. It’s also just nice to sing uplifting things. It’s hard sometimes when you’re singing melancholy songs and you can see people in the audience struggling with it. But I’m always going to have a certain degree of honesty in what I do. I’ll always make a record that pretty much reflects where I’m at.”

On ‘Last Night On Earth’, however, instead of personal missives, that honesty is channelled vicariously through those third person narratives, rather than Fink’s own perspective. His personal life, thoughts and emotions are distanced and removed from the centre of the record. At the very least, they’re protected by that chain of third person narrators. But the songs themselves sound remarkably genuine and real. Like Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’ – which, Fink admits, was a huge influence on this record, thematically and lyrically – they draw you into their world, and for forty-five minutes you’re looking through the window of a parallel universe, looking, for one night, into the lives of people you don’t know (and – let’s not be ridiculous about it – people who don’t actually exist), witnessing them move on, move away, leave home, leave someone or something behind, make some kind of decision that will change them forever. It’s a powerful, affecting theme, and one that permeates the record from start to end, tying the lives of each and every character together. In other words, it’s a concept album. So where did that ambitious idea come from, then?

“The very start of the album was New Year’s Day 2010,” says Fink, “All I had was the lyric, “Tonight’s the kind of night where everything could change”. I took this train journey from Wales to London, which was about six hours long, and I wrote the lyrics to that song [‘Tonight’s The Kind Of Night’], and that was really the seed of this album. For me, finding the thread is the hard bit, so after that that breakthrough, I knew what I wanted the album to be about: that limitless possibility of the night-time, the possibility of change, that you can become something different.”

That is, of course, precisely what Noah And The Whale have done with this album. They packed their bags and they snuck out of their parents’ house, leaving a note pinned to the door, they stole away into the night without saying goodbye and they changed. They’re the same band, but at the same time they’re not. These are Charlie Fink’s songs, but at the same time they’re not. They’re a reflection of everything he’s gone through – personally and professionally – since starting Noah And The Whale, and yet he’s nowhere to be found. It’s a mind-boggling paradox, but it’s one that, in its multiple layers, aptly explains what Fink believes to be the meaning and the message of the album.

“I guess it’s that you need to find yourself what you’re looking for in life,” he ponders. As he walks off into Koko’s backstage maze, you get the sense that, if he hasn’t already found what he’s looking for, he’s pretty damn close to doing so.

Words by Mischa Pearlman
Photos by Rasha Kahil

Watch Charlie Fink discuss the five albums that influenced ‘Last Night On Earth’ HERE

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