“What is that? Is that a squirrel?” Sudol, 27, said affectionately, peering into the shadows. “That is the biggest squirrel tail I have ever seen.”
Nature and nurturing is a recurrent theme in her music, going back to her 2007 debut, “One Cell in the Sea,” which mixed stories of romantic disappointment with wildlife as a metaphor. Her new album, “Pines” is a mature, deeper version of that, with songs that are expansive and emotional, mixing the organic with the post-modern.
The new album's seven-minute opening track, “Pine Song,” connects human passion with her awe of nature, singing of “pining” for a lover as the music swells from a quiet vibration of strings to a cinematic swirl of acoustic guitar, piano and whispers of sound. Sudol's voice is soft and dramatic: “The words you speak / Stir things in me I thought were gone . . . I can feel it through the fields of graves / A beating heart / While rolling hills are roaming through my veins.”
“The whole point of it is to stop pining, and to start being present and start living the life I want to live,” she said of the song, one of many she will bring to the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles (with Joshua Radin) on Nov. 16.
The album was recorded last year during a week of torrential rainstorms at the historic Studio B at Capitol Records. She thought she might write “a lullaby record,” but instead stretched out, reaching far beyond the 31/2-minute limit she always assumed was needed in a pop song.
“I wanted to utilize silence as much as I used sound — because I was creating a world,” explained Sudol, dressed casually on a warm day in a sleeveless top and skirt, blond hair to her shoulders. “There's nothing on there that isn't taking you somewhere. There's no seven-minute guitar solo for fun, or because we want to show off. I want you to feel in ‘Riversong' like you're floating down a river on your back, and you're looking at the stars, and everything is incredibly still and peaceful.”
She traces her obsession with the natural environment to her toddler years in Seattle, before her family relocated first to Hollywood and then to Burbank. Annual summer visits to her grandparents to ride horses and run through the fields in rural Northern California kept the memories fresh. She describes it as a childhood “filled with sea and rain and trees and clean air and mountains and beautiful things in nature.”
They were images that stayed with her, but their use in her music is not simple idealism but a vivid reflection of her emotions and normal life struggles.
“I had a lot of things personally that were just falling apart,” Sudol said of the period when “Pines” was written. “I was really raw and had decided to rebuild my life. At the same time, one of my friends was pregnant — she's the same age as me, and we've known each other for a decade. So I had a strong sense of nurturing things and of nature being connected.
“What's the most nurturing image I could come up with? I thought about a pine tree cradling a little bird and keeping it safe from a snowstorm. I was walking around my neighborhood and there were pine trees and birds flying — the little teeny tiny birds that are so sweet and baby-like. Wow, that's an amazing image. That's something I could possibly build more out of.”
“What's the most nurturing image I
could come up with? I thought about a
pine tree cradling a little bird and keeping
it safe from a snowstorm.”
-- Alison Sudol
Sudol said she also has a 400-page novel awaiting a sharp editor called “Three Sails and the Family Moss,” involving enchanted ships and talking animals. She has been writing since she was a child, and finds it more relaxing than music-making.
“It's different from music because music is like going deep down into soul, like scooping out all the difficult, beautiful, messy stuff and putting it into songs,” Sudol said with a knowing smile. “Writing is more like playing for me. I'm just running around in my imagination and picking at things and pulling at things. It's much lighter. It was just another way to communicate. And there was stuff there that I still needed to explore.”
Her first album, recorded at age 22, was thoughtful and precocious — a collection of piano-based songs that could easily fit on a playlist between the likes of Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor. It was recorded near the home she shared with her mother in Burbank, at Eldorado Studios, right beside Interstate 5.
“My experience was very much in a bubble,” Sudol remembered of making her debut. “I was protected. It was so intimate. No one knew who I was, so I didn't have any real pressure.”
The songs found an audience, introduced to the young singer through the evocative, wounded “Almost Lover,” drawn to the hooks and emotion of the music. The song reached No. 23 on Billboard's adult contemporary chart, and the young singer was soon on her first tour, hitting North America and Europe. Even then, she would look for the nearest park, body of water and forest.
“Going on tour was difficult for me at that time because I didn't have a strong sense of center yet,” she said. “It was overwhelming: I went from living at my parents' house and playing songs in their garage to being in the world.”
The second album from A Fine Frenzy, 2009's “Bomb in a Birdcage,” was a shift in direction, with more pop hooks than contemplation, encouraged by her label and others who pushed for a more immediately commercial sound. The message was: “Your first little album did really well. Now it's time for you to be something else.”
Changes at the label have meant support for a more direct and mature follow-up to her debut. The results can be heard in her vocal performances, which have deepened with experience, at times dropping to a fragile near-whisper.
“It's being more confident as a singer and realizing that it doesn't take being loud to create an emotional effect,” she said. “It's the same as silence, using my voice more as an instrument. I learned a lot of it on tour. Singing in front of people, I learned a lot more about fragility and strength.”
What: A Fine Frenzy, Joshua Radin
When: Nov. 16; 7:15 p.m.
Where: Wiltern Theater, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
More info: livenation.com