Noah and the Whale: 'Going out with our head held high'
- 11 February 2011
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Noah and the Whale, darlings of the folk scene, have channelled the spirits of Tom Petty and Charles Bukowski on their new album.
Band leader Charlie Fink discussed his new approach to songwriting with BBC 6 Music.
"don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don't add to that."
It might seem strange, but that diatribe - by hard-living, proudly alcoholic beat poet Charles Bukowski - was the inspiration for Noah and the Whale's third album, Last Night on Earth.
"Bukowski writes brilliantly about writers," says the band's wiry frontman, Charlie Fink.
"He says if you're a real writer, you should be able to write any time, in any moment."
Provoked by the poet's barbs, Fink binned his old approach to lyrics and started afresh.
Noah and the Whale's last record, The First Days of Spring, was a relentlessly downbeat account of Fink's break-up with fellow folkster Laura Marling.
This time around, the 24-year-old closed his diary and wrote through the eyes of fictional characters with names like Lisa and Joey - small-town people with big ambitions.
The first result was Tonight's the Kind of Night, the tale of a teenager escaping his provincial life on a National Express coach.
"I was on a train from Anglesea back to London on New Year's Day," Fink says, "and I wrote about a boy who gets on a bus going out of town, running away.
"He's saying he won't allow people to decide his destiny for him".
The song - which echoes Nirvana, another Bukowski poem - captures the adrenalin rush of being on the move in the night.
It is the gravitational centre of the record, establishing a theme of people "facing adversity with pride and looking for opportunity".
Fink says the stories were inspired by his semi-professional hobby of messing around with vintage cameras.
"With the last album, I made a film to accompany the music," he says.
"It's very different - writing a script compared to writing a song - and I tried to incorporate one into the other."
"A lot of the songs on the album are just one scene, and it's all about getting the detail right.
"I'd try to use the detail of planning out a storyboard for a film and put that into a song."
A fearless editor, Fink pared the material down to its barest essentials.
Wild Thing, a pocket edition of Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side, was ruthlessly cut from its original running time of nine-and-a-half minutes.
"We watched this Tom Petty documentary and he said, essentially, 'Don't bore us, get to the chorus,'" says Fink.
"I tried to be as concise as possible. Whittling down the lyrics was a big part of the writing process."
The editing process applied to the music too. "If I don't like a song, it's dismissed immediately," says Fink.
"So the songs that get carried forward get worked on quite hard. There were only really 10 songs I was working on for a year."
Aware that constant revisions can extinguish the spark of inspiration, Fink plays a waiting game. He allows a song to reveal its final form almost by surprise.
"You're just missing one piece," he says. "As soon as that piece arrives, the excitement is reborn.
"At that point we immediately record it and capture that energy."
One of the few songs on the album with an autobiographical element is Give It All Back, which tells the story of a young band playing their first gig in school assembly.
"The performance was nervous and awkward," Fink sings over a naive xylophone riff. "But the passion was real and profound."
He remembers his first forays on the stage as "humiliating and embarrassing". "Invariably, it sounded pretty awful," he says.
"But there's that shared passion between you and your friends - the secret handshake of rock and roll.
"I imagine there's a shy person who gets in front of his whole school and performs because of that passion. That's an image I love."
Was Fink similarly shy at first? "I became a singer by accident," he says.
"I wrote songs anticipating someone else would sing them for me, but no one would."
As a consequence, he has never felt entirely comfortable in front of an audience.
He has had dreams about his teeth falling out while on stage and confesses his band's natural demeanour is "head down and slightly embarrassed".
Last Night on Earth may change that. Recorded in LA, it is more expansive and outgoing than its predecessors.
Released on 7 March, the record tethers Fink's restrained, hesitant vocals to the shimmering widescreen soundscapes of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty.
To perfect the new material, Noah and the Whale have rented a disused church in east London.
It is a cavernous, echoing space, filled with effects pedals, vintage amps and - for some reason - a slightly battered pinball machine.
"I'm trying to embrace the element of performance as much as I can," Fink says.
"For these songs, I really feel like I have to go out with my head held high and deliver them."
Rather than rely on luck and bravado, the band are educating themselves. In the middle of the church hall, they have set up a film projector.
Every rehearsal finishes with an "inspiration session", during which they study the moves and stage presence of their musical heroes.
"I've even been watching some James Brown tapes," Fink laughs, before adding: "Not really. But I might have some tricks up my sleeve."