Alison Sudol

by Nicole Roberge

The Fantastic Beasts actress, formerly known in the music world as A Fine Frenzy, takes us on a journey of healing and discovery through grief with Still Come The Night, the first album released under her own name.

When Alison Sudol got her musical start as A Fine Frenzy, the musician and actress, then 22, didn't know the stress that would come along with it. With lush and melodic piano arrangements, Sudol brought a spark, her passion embodied in her lyrics. Though young, her music had fire and life rarely seen in musicians her age. The young Washington native embarked on a national tour in support of her celebrated album One Cell In The Sea, and Sudol gained popularity with her single "Almost Lover." She garnered a devoted fanbase who appreciated her openness and vulnerability in both her music and communication with fans.

Subsequent albums Bomb In A Birdcage and Pines, as well as a Christmas EP Oh Blue Christmas, revealed Sudol to be a master of her own sound, in command of an ethereal voice and presence. In 2013, the year after Pines was released, Sudol abandoned the moniker A Fine Frenzy and took a break from music, later confessing to fans her struggle with anxiety and depression during that time period. She went on to have great success in acting, starring as Queenie Goldstein in Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, and the sequential installments The Crimes Of Grindelwald and The Secrets Of Dumbledore.

Though she tried new creative endeavors, Sudol never abandoned music, and released new music under her own name in 2018, with the EP Moon and in 2019 with the Moonlight EP. Her albums have always had an earthy presence, drawing on nature to evoke emotions. With a mythical sound, Sudol, both in her solo work and as A Fine Frenzy, reaches the core of the listener with her melodious songs, peaceful voice, and expressive lyrics.

In 2020, on the cusp of the world shutting down, Sudol went to a friend's farm outside London to record her first full-length album since Pines. She did not know then that a series of traumatic events would follow, including the COVID-19 pandemic and, significantly, a miscarriage. The world she knew would disintegrate and she was left with a longing that was pieced back together through music. The album she had been constructing was abandoned, and in its place grew Still Come The Night, a beautiful mosaic of healing through grief, connection through loss. It is a testament of one's ability to heal even through our darkest moments, to find joy in the things we love, and remember beauty even when we have seen tragedy.

Sudol calls to the listener, invoking them to feel. Though they may not have experienced the same loss, any pain they have known can be felt and released while listening to this album. Still Come The Night may not have been the album she intended to make, but it is the one she was meant to. Songfacts connected with Sudol, who now lives in England, for an intimate conversation about the process that is grief, how loss motivated her new album, the decision to move on from A Fine Frenzy, and how she feels about it now.
Nicole Roberge (Songfacts): Congratulations on Still Come The Night. Are you happy to be immersed back in the music world and do you find a nice balance between that and acting?

Alison Sudol: Thank you! I've continued to make music even though there was a drop out in terms of what I released. I've been making music consistently the whole time. I just didn't know how to deal with the industry for a while, so I had to step away. It was two years between recording the two EPs that I did and releasing them, and it's been two years since I wrote this and have released this. I'm gonna try and pick up the pace from now on. It's been really slow, but it feels so good and so right to be focusing on music and allowing the space in my heart for that.

Songfacts: Do you find as a creative person that you pull anything from acting into your music, or do you put that aside when you're songwriting?

Sudol: Everything feeds everything. With music, I draw from my collective experience with whatever has gone into my life. Acting is a huge part of that. Just in terms of my brain and the way my life works. Music is really the Wild West. It's all over the place in terms of schedule and the way things are done. Acting is very regimented, and I benefit a lot from both. The freedom to create and delve and the space to dream but also, too much space and I go into a depression.

Songfacts: You introduced yourself in music as A Fine Frenzy and now choose to go by your own name. Talking about how you struggled with anxiety and depression during that time in your career, you no longer wanted to talk about A Fine Frenzy. After deviating from that, is that still something you're not comfortable talking about?

Sudol: I needed that at the time. When I put A Fine Frenzy to bed, it was like 9 or ten years ago. I've had enough distance and enough life experience to look at that time much more compassionately and lovingly, as opposed to a time when I was in a troubled and confused headspace. I needed some distance but now I'm happy to talk about it.

Songfacts: Do you still play and appreciate those songs as building your career?

Sudol: I played "Almost Lover" on tour when I toured in 2019. I hadn't played that song for a long time prior to that. It felt important to give a nod to the audience members who connected to that song and had followed me for a long time.

There's a project I'm working on that's connected to that music which I'll be speaking about in a bit. That music is how so many people found me. We just did a show a couple of nights ago and so many people were coming up to me, in their late 20s and early 30s, saying they grew up listening to me and connected to One Cell In The Sea. That's such an incredible thing, to be a part of the fabric of people's lives and to be with them on a musical journey growing up. It's something I'm really deeply proud of, which I maybe didn't have the perspective to see when I was 27. What a beautiful thing that something I make be a part of somebody else's formative life experiences.

Songfacts: The song "Almost Lover" seemed a pivotal moment in your career. What is the story behind it, and did you think that would be the song that people would gravitate towards?

Sudol: I wrote that song when I was 19. I had been in a band prior to that. I really struggled to have my voice heard in that band even though it was my band. It was a lot of male voices, and I was young and inexperienced, and I didn't play an instrument. I felt swallowed up by that experience and so I ended that band and started to play piano. The first song I wrote on piano was "Almost Lover" and it was a song that I wrote out of pain and necessity. I remember thinking, "This is as honest as I can be in this moment, and if people don't understand this, then I don't know if I should be making music."

To have the reception that it's had is incredible. I certainly didn't expect it. I was a dorky kid from Burbank. I was still living with my parents when I went on my first tour. I so didn't expect it, so I didn't handle it well when suddenly there was a considerable amount of attention and energy coming towards me and around it. I was unprepared and I didn't have a toolkit to field that attention. So, it was part of what started me on a little bit of a rocky road in terms of being a public figure and my mental health. But now I look back and it's still there, people are still incredibly connected to that song. Now I'm old enough and stable enough to enjoy that and hold space for whatever emotions people have that are connected to it. At 22, I didn't.

Songfacts: Your new album, Still Come The Night, seems like it was a cathartic process. You started the album, COVID happened, the world shut down, and you suffered a miscarriage. Did that shift the goal completely of the songs? Did you take a break from writing or did that propel you into the writing and healing process?

Sudol: I had been making a separate album with a totally different theme and feelings sonically prior to that. I was struggling with it to understand what I was doing and make what I was making. I was really floundering. Then everything happened. We had the miscarriage, lockdown. Everything hit. I turned to writing to give me something to put my energy towards, like a steadying influence. Also, as a way of processing - I was struggling to process.

Then I contacted one of my partner's best friends, who is a producer, Chris Hyson. He and I knew each other a bit but not very well. I just had a feeling there would be something there collaboratively that would be really special. He was up for making something. We tried one day where I played "Mary Of The Willows" into a microphone and he came back with an exquisitely produced version of it, which I was not expecting, and then said, "Do you want to go rent a studio for a few days and see what happens and not put too much pressure on it?" He brought Lloyd and Alex Haines (drums and guitar), and Alex Killpatrick (engineer), and we went to Wales. I didn't know what was going to come of it, to be honest. It wasn't like we were longstanding collaborators. Everything poured out and it was magical.

Songfacts: This album really seems to be about the power of music, not just for a songwriter but for a listener. Has that always been true for you beyond this album - that healing power of music?

Sudol: It's always what I want to do more than anything. It's not always easy to know what that is and sometimes it takes me quite a while to gather what I want to communicate. The focus is generally healing. It's my own first because that's the only place I know to start with. I leave things open enough that I hope other people can take it on and filter their own stories through the stories of the songs, and hopefully connect their own emotions through the music. That's the hope, and fundamentally why I make music.

Songfacts: The album intro of "Bone Tired" is very evocative of those feelings. Did you want to give the listener that sense, like, "This is what I'm going through and I'm setting you up for it."

Sudol: I've been writing songs long enough now that I've realized you can create a space, but a person is going to have their own unique reaction to it. Some people might feel exhausted by it, some people might feel calmed and meditated by it, for some it may bring out frustration or even anger because of the mantra-like aspect of it. I don't necessarily know that I wanted to make you feel tired, but I wanted to convey that that's where I was at.

Songfacts: Going into "Playground," it's a very refreshing song. The music and energy are so joyful, and it was unexpected after "Bone Tired." It's kind of how emotions are. It's fun and lighthearted, really one you want to enjoy with someone. For having gone through such a difficult thing, how did that song come out of you?

Sudol: It came out very naturally from us in the studio writing lots of things, and as we were writing, emotions or a tone would come out that we hadn't touched upon yet. I didn't want to make this a depressing record or a record that would pull you into a murky space. Kind of the opposite. Because I was in pain, I wanted to, not shy away from pain, but cover a spectrum of emotions to remind myself of them.

"Playground" reminded me of falling in love with my partner and wanting to move my body and celebrate that and not forget that, even though we'd gone through something so painful together. It's a really light song. The vocals are really ropey. I wrote the song pretty much as we were coming up with the whole thing. The lyrics came as well.

I listened to the music as we were getting ready to leave the studio, and the vocals sounded so annoying. I thought I was going to hate the song listening back. So just to temporarily do it, I said, "I'm going to sing down two things right on top of each other and I'm gonna sing them like shit, but playfully." And instead of trying to sing it, it sounded like it needed to be talked. And we kept them. And it's amazing what you can cover up when you put new vocals on top of each other, because they are ropey.

Songfacts: "Peaches" is lush and melodic, with an accompanying sweet video that features your daughter, who this is about. Are songs like that harder to write than a sad or emotional song, and what does this song mean to you?

Sudol: I think of her every time I sing that song and it gets me very emotional. In a different way because so much of the emotion on this album is about the child we lost, but now that we have a child in our lives, that which we could have had is all the more poignant. Because we know how magical she is, and it reflects upon so much gratitude and so much wonder. It's an absolute miracle when a child is born because so many things have to work out. It's astonishing.

Songfacts: "Still Come The Night" has such an ache to it. It feels like a prayer. It's quiet and loud, simple and complex all at the same time. It's stunning. How hard was that for you to write and to sing?

Sudol: Both, very. I wrote that song a few days after [the miscarriage]. I started to write it in the wreckage of it.

I considered not putting it on the album because it was so intense. I found reasons that were wrong with it. I think ultimately it was just highly emotional. It's pretty tough to sing live. It seems to resonate with other people. That's why I'm doing this.

This album, it's around grief. We don't know how to process grief in the Western world. Whether that grief is the loss of someone that you love, or around the environment or the life you could've lived. We calcify those emotions in order to not be bombarded by them all the time. Music is really effective at stirring that. Just the vibrations going through your body is very powerful at dealing with grief. When I sing that, I sing it with the hope that it's going to dislodge something. It certainly does it for me every time. Just vocally, it's quite hard to sing at the end, and the feeling I have afterwards.

Songfacts: You have been very open about your personal struggles in hopes that they help other people, whether it's been anxiety in the past or grief through this process. Do you see yourself as an advocate for these causes and how do you hope you can help people - is it through your music or by telling your story?

Sudol: I've got the privilege of being a person that is in a public position. I think it's a position of responsibility in my own small way. I'm not a mega-person but there are some people who listen to me. A lot of people that connect to my music are sensitive people and have a hard time. I'm a sensitive person and I've had a hard time with the way the world works. If I can say something that makes somebody feel less alone, then I think it's a really important thing to do. I didn't even know that words like depression and anxiety could apply to what I was feeling for forever. So, naming those things and being open about them, it just dispels the shame that can surround feeling this way so that there can be a more open dialogue and more light shed upon things that feed on silence and hiding.

Songfacts: Those conversations are important and when you have those connections with people, they realize they're not alone. I think people appreciate you having that voice.

Sudol: It's something that when I'm having a moment of self-doubt, it's a stabilizing thought, that I know I can do that and it's important to me.

Songfacts: I think you do this through your song and video for "Meteor Shower" also. It sends a powerful message. What was the process musically and how did it inspire the video?

Sudol: Musically, it started out incredibly bare bones and wasn't much more than synth in the studio. It was nothing really. Chris and I both heard what that song was gonna be very early on, even though there was not much to it. When I heard it, I felt there was something in the color of the synth that echoed the morning after when we got back from the hospital and were staying at my friend's farm. The way everything looked and felt was echoed in the music. It was easy. Not all songs are easy.

Federico Nessi, who directed the "Meteor Shower" video, started out as a friend that I knew a bit. He Instagrammed that he was listening to my old music. I said, "Do you want to hear something current?" and sent him the record. He responded so viscerally and immediately. We had beautiful discussions about how to visually represent the gravity of what the album is about but not be too on the nose. From the get-go, he wanted to make a video for "Meteor Shower." It happened very naturally. He introduced me to tapping, which is an interesting way of processing grief and trauma, and thought that would be a nice physical representation of trying to move through something hard. It was a beautiful day and experience.

Songfacts: You have grown as a musician immensely since One Cell In The Sea. You are very exposed on this album and confident in your music, and even though you're vulnerable, your trust in exposing those feelings is felt in the music. Do you feel you've grown, and is it easier to share feelings through a creative process?

Sudol: I've grown a lot. It's hard to even connect too much to that person that made that initial record because I've gone through such an enormous amount of change since then. I've done a lot of personal work and had some really difficult things happen that ended up being gifts in the long run that pushed me to grow. I dealt with some painful things through youth. I think I have a lot less fear than I did, and a lot more confidence in myself and my voice. Also, a lot more understanding in who I am and what I want to do.

But there was some clarity I had when I was young, when I was 21 making that record, that I've also been able to connect with more. That got muddy. That sort of idealism that I lost a long time ago that I'm connecting to in different ways as a conscious choice as opposed to a blind idealism.

Songfacts: Is there a song of yours that you feel defines you the most?

Sudol: We're all multifaceted as human beings. Every time I write a song, it opens up room for another song. It's impossible to say everything and be everything in one piece of music. I'm feeling very connected to "The Clearing" and "Wasteland" from this new album in terms of sonically. But it changes.

Songfacts: What is next for you? Are you gravitating more towards acting or music?

Sudol: I've just done a beautiful indie film directed by a wonderful woman named Julia Jackman. It's her first feature and I love her to bits. It's playing a mother to a teenager which is wild because my kid can't even really talk. It was a great experience with a warm group of people to work with.

Next is a lot of music. I've got a lot of things currently simmering. Borderline overwhelming, but exciting. I'm juggling with a toddler. I feel like becoming a mother has opened up my creativity and my need to connect musically with people. The world is in such a crazy place and I'm certainly clinging on through music, so I want to make as much as I can.

November 3, 2022

Follow Alison Sudol on Instagram.

About the author:
Nicole Roberge was 18 when she started doing music interviews, traveling to New England rock clubs and beyond. After winning a Rolling Stone writing contest in college, she pursued journalism full-time and went on to publish in The LA Times, ELLEgirl, Blurt, Hear/Say, Songwriter Universe, J Vibe, and Script Magazine, as well as running her own online music magazine, Tuned in Music. She is the author of the memoir, Hang In There, Wherever "There" Is.

Photo: Angela Kohler

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