Noah and the Whale: Where are we now?
Noah & the Whale emerged from a Chelsea scene that also spawned Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling. Sometimes, though, singer Charlie Fink misses the simple, mundane things of yore, he tells Tony Clayton-Lea
Changing creative gear is crucial for any band, especially when they can see their first two albums careering down the road in the rear-view mirror. Ask Charlie Fink, lead singer and primary songwriter with Noah & the Whale – one of the UK’s more surprising and idiosyncratic success stories of the past five years – about this and he’ll tell you why ratcheting up from third to fourth before ramming it into fifth is a wise move.
Fink is a confident sort, straight out of upper-middle-class central casting. Born in Twickenham (his real surname is Finkel; his grandfather was a German Jew who escaped the Nazi regime in the 1930s for a life in South Africa). He co-founded Noah & the Whale in the mid-Noughties with his older brother Doug.
It was while attending St Paul’s private school in Barnes that Fink befriended teenage banjo player Winston Marshall. The two friends weren’t to know it at the time, but in due course Winston would go on to form Mumford & Sons. Fink would follow suit with Noah & the Whale, and in the interim forge a brief but significant creative and personal relationship with Laura Marling. It all started, recounts Fink, during open-mic evenings in a cellar bar called Bosun’s Locker, on Chelsea’s King’s Road.
“It really was a natural, organic scene, but at the time it didn’t feel unusual in that you suspected it was happening in places other than London. Now I look back on it, however, it’s remarkable that all those people were located in pretty much the same place. People would just get up and play, very loosely, but mostly everyone who played there has subsequently gone on to much greater success.”
Back then, there was little or no question of Fink changing gears; the band’s debut album, 2008’s Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down , was rooted in the nu-folk scene cultivated in that Chelsea pub. Yet 2009’s follow-up, The First Days of Spring , was a perceptibly altered album, notably influenced by Fink and Marling’s break up. The third album, 2011’s Last Night on Earth , was another creative blindside (goodbye exhaustive soul-baring; hello sun-drenched West Coast pop), and so, too, is the band’s latest album, Heart of Nowhere .
Fink, 2013 version, is in reminiscent mode as he ponders on once-abiding friendships currently lost or misplaced. “Being a successful band and being on the road for such a long time – and then being in a recording studio, let alone the solitary nature of songwriting – means you become adrift from a group of friends. And when, as has happened, a good friend is getting married, you start to wonder about the settling nature that occurs in your 20s.” Fink pauses, backtracks tactfully. “It’s not that the fabric of the relationships fracture, it’s just that, inevitably, friends drift apart. But, then, an event like a wedding brings people back together again, doesn’t it?”
Has the success of Noah & the Whale altered his views of contentment?
“If anything I feel that when we’re touring it’s the simpler, more mundane things I genuinely miss – like meeting up with your friends on a regular basis, having a bit more of a routine. Which is odd, because you spend so much time trying to get out of routines, but I think everyone need some kind of structure.”
And what about success in and of itself – have your perceptions of it changed from when you started in 2005?
“Well, there’s a perception in most or all walks of life – not just in music – that once you achieve something you aim for, then you set the bar a little bit higher for the next ambition. I think back to what our ambitions were as a band at the very start of our life, and then see where we are now, and the journey seems crazy.”
Fink goes on to tell a story about one of Noah & the Whale’s first gigs.
“We played in a small venue in Manchester, supporting a singer-songwriter from America. I recall distinctly at that point that we felt we’d totally landed on our feet. Also, the idea back then that we’d ever make an album seemed absurd. I’d made recordings on a four-track in my bedroom, but never thought it would go beyond that.”
And now? Well, Fink accedes to the notion that – four albums in – it’s all gone just a little bit nuts and crackers. You can’t think about it too much, or to be intimidated about it, he claims.
“I think it worked better for us that we came up with a bunch of other people who were going through similar experiences – people like Mumford & Sons and Laura. So by the time a modicum of success started rolling in, we thought, well, maybe this is happening for a reason. I also think the opportunities you get the more ambitious you get – I’m not talking about record sales or size of venues, but rather what you can do with your songwriting and how to develop your craft.”
There’s a strong sense from Fink that honing his craft through a succession of different-sounding records is more assiduous than obsessive, more creatively instinctive than commercially astute. Which is all the more apparent from the new album, which benefits from mistakes in musicianship that Fink and the rest of the band allowed to linger.
“I love the idea that imperfections are signifiers of unchecked feeling and emotions. Perfection is cleaner, yes, but also colder and more clinical – and I think people respond more to things being not quite right. It’s an inexplicable connection that people have with human performance: if you mess up, then it’s okay to mess up, and sometimes it’s how you fail in an attempt to imitate that originality is created.”
Well said, that man. But, er, speaking of imperfections . . .
“Oh, I’m quite an anxious person, and one of the ways that manifests itself is by being quite controlling. I’m trying to see what will happen if I’m less controlling, and this album is an experiment in that.”
Did it work?
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly say!”
Heart of Nowhere is released today via Universal. Noah & the Whale play Electric Picnic, which runs from August 30th-September 1st. electricpicnic.ie