I've noticed recently that people on the street sometimes look at me strangely," says Alison Sudol. "You know, kinda stare at me for a while, and then they smile, but then they don't say anything, and I'm like 'Okaaaay...?' It's these funny looks that I've never — "
On the phone from a tour stop in Boston, 22-year-old Sudol — who writes and performs under the moniker A Fine Frenzy — interrupts her observation with a huge burst of laughter. "Oh, my God, talk about perfect timing! My best friend — she's been touring with me — she just got off the bus.... These outfits you develop on the road are just amazing, and she's got the winner right now. She's got bright-pink slippers on, and then green socks pulled up to her knees, sweat shorts, and then a big Run-DMC shirt and some huge '80s sunglasses. It's pretty rad. Everyone's gonna be looking at her today!"
Still, it's not hard to figure out why so many eyes and smiles have been pointed in Sudol's direction. Yes, she's strikingly lovely, with cascading scarlet locks, an alabaster complexion and a conservative yet elegant fashion sense that generates a bookish allure. But maybe those people are slowly realizing that they know the singer-pianist from somewhere. Perhaps from the appearances she made this past summer alongside her Fine Frenzy bandmates — keyboardist Stephen Le-Blanc and drummer Daxx Nielsen (son of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen) — on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Last Call With Carson Daly.
Or from Sudol's acting debut last month on an episode of CSI: New York, in which she played a murder suspect and got in some quality chin-quivering, not to mention two of her tunes. Or from the pages of one of the many magazines, from Paste to Interview to Vogue, that have profiled her in 2007. Or from her much-talked-about showcase at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, this past spring, where — in one of those odd pairings that can only happen at the annual music festival — she delivered her delicate, oft-wistful piano pop as an opening act for raucous reunited rockers the Stooges (her Virgin/Capitol labelmates). Or maybe they recognize her from three months of solid touring with the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Sean Lennon, Neko Case and now roots-pop singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, with whom Sudol's sharing stages on the VH1-sponsored "You Oughta Know" jaunt (previous incarnations of which have helped spur the careers of Amy Winehouse, the Fray, and, uh, James Blunt).
A fine frenzy, indeed: All of this action comes in the wake of the band's debut album, One Cell in the Sea, which has already spawned a pretty big hit in lead single "Almost Lover." Steadily moving up the Billboard charts since its summer release, Cell has turned Sudol from "one to watch" into "one who actually sells records and has lots of fans." And, needless to say, the events of the past year have turned her life upside down.
"A year ago, we were just kinda playing in my living room and making music very quietly, and now it's all so surreal," Sudol marvels. "When you have goals and dreams and things that you've been wanting your whole life, and then they actually start happening and you start checking things off your list, it's like, whaaat? Huhhh? It's so good, and it's so magical that it almost feels like...I don't know when it's all gonna sink in, but I'm trying not to think about it too much."
Sudol's march toward widespread recognition is well deserved, given just how gorgeous, richly crafted and immediately captivating the fourteen songs on One Cell in the Sea are. Most have at their center a fine-spun piano melody that's pushed into dreamy, moody, romantic (in the Keats/Coleridge rather than the googly-eyed sense, though there's some of that here, too) realms by the dramatic sweep of a string section, the mournful saw of one lone violin or cello, billowy guitars and keyboards, brushed percussion, chimes, and/or Parisian-cafe accordion and subtle electronic fillips.
Sudol's clarion, pitch-perfect voice is a wonder, not because it's show-offy or acrobatic, but because of how much warmth and sincerity it transmits. And her lyrics do it justice; a professed fan of such writers as Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis, Sudol's words frequently lean toward the fanciful (in "The Minnow and the Trout," hummingbirds drink coffee with ants and elephants share peanuts with rats) without coming across as too dainty or saccharine. She keenly documents both ends of the love spectrum, as well. In "You Picked Me" (one of the album's best cuts), she revels in the glow of a blossoming relationship: "Like an apple on a tree, hiding out behind the leaves/I was difficult to reach, but you picked me." But in "Almost Lover," it's all come toppling down, and the hurt in her voice at the song's climax is palpable and arresting: "I cannot go to the ocean, I cannot drive the streets at night/I cannot wake up in the morning without you on my mind/So you're gone and I'm haunted, and I bet you are just fine/Did I make it that easy to walk right in and out of my life?"
Though she's coy about revealing the actual inspirations behind such songs, Sudol says she avoids penning lyrics when she's in the middle of life experiences both good and bad. "I definitely need time to process," she points out, "because otherwise it either comes out 'Oohhh, la la la, oh, you're so great, I love you, la la la...,' or 'I hate you, I'm so mad, I'm so angry...' So that's not really the best way to write for me; it doesn't lead to any great thinking or profundity."
Sudol's not nearly as shy about discussing her musical inspirations; she calls Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head one of her favorite albums ever, and cites discs by Bright Eyes and Icelanders Sigur Rós and Emiliana Torrini as key influences. Born in Seattle and, following her parents' divorce when she was five, raised in Los Angeles, Sudol — a self-described loner and "a bit of a dork" — spent much of her teens absorbing jazz and Motown before gravitating to atmospheric Brit pop. After graduating from high school at sixteen, she started singing in bands, and then just a few years ago taught herself how to play piano. And that's when the songs really started to spill out.
"It wasn't until I wrote 'Almost Lover' three years ago that I was like, 'Oh, my God, I just wrote a full song, and I actually said what I was trying to say,'" she says with a laugh. "It sounds like it would be obvious, right? Like, okay, duh, you go write a song and you mean to say this and you say that. But as a songwriter, it doesn't happen like that. You try and try and try to communicate what you want, and it usually just comes out way wrong. But then you're like, 'Okay, I'll try again.'"
Eventually, she put together A Fine Frenzy (named after a line in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), and a demo found its way into the hands of Virgin Records CEO Jason Flom. Shortly thereafter, Flom came to the house Sudol shared with her mother and sat in the living room listening to the band play for him while Sudol's mom served him fresh-baked cookies. It worked: Sudol got signed almost immediately, kicking off a journey that's culminated with people the world over hearing her songs and sending stacks and stacks of fan mail.
"That totally blows my mind," she says. "Sometimes I think it's not possible. In my mind, I'm still that kid who gets affected by other people's music. So to think that we can have that kind of effect on anybody..." Her voice trails off for a second. "It's like when you're growing up and you look at the kids in high school, and they're so much cooler than you are, and you wanna dress like them and talk like them, and then when you're in high school you notice that there's one little kid that's maybe doing what you're doing. It's an incredible position to be in, and I just do my best to communicate with people as much as possible and try to set the best example that I can."
A lot of people are watching to see what's next for Sudol and A Fine Frenzy. "Once one goal is checked off, you have to up the ante just to keep yourself sane," she notes. "We still have so, so much more to do. We've been incredibly lucky to be able to do all the things we've done so far, and it's really nice when things actually happen instead of fall through. As a musician, you kinda get used to failure in life, and then when things actually start succeeding, it's a very interesting feeling."