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Interview: Alison Sudol

6 December 2022

Photo by Federico Nessi

During the early days of the pandemic, after the Fantastic Beasts movie set was shut down, Alison Sudol, who plays Queenie Goldstein in the film franchise, discovered she was pregnant. Around the same time, she had begun writing songs for her debut solo album (she released three albums between 2007 and 2013 under the A Fine Frenzy moniker) with brothers Lloyd and Alex Haines when she suffered a miscarriage. What had started as an album about the early days of falling in love with her partner turned into an album overshadowed by grief where Sudol bared every ounce of her broken soul. The end result, Still Come the Night, balances the joys and sorrow of life and provides Sudol an opportunity to reach not only other women who have had miscarriages but also those who have experienced some form of grief in their life.

The American-born, London-based Sudol, who is now the mom to an 18-month-old, joined me on a Zoom call to discuss why it was important to make this album in light of a tragic loss, from writing songs to sequencing the album in a way that makes sense to the listener. She also shares the advice she’d give her younger self and reveals one of the many famous contacts she has stored in her phone.

Do you listen to your own music?

ALISON: Not really, no. It comes up sometimes on Spotify playlists of other artists that I’m listening to, and it’s always surreal and kind of makes me excited, especially when it’s not a playlist that I’ve had to stick a song on for whatever reason. But, no, I don’t. That just feels a bit funny.

I’ve heard artists say that once they record and release something, it’s not theirs anymore. It becomes the listener’s music.

ALISON: It definitely becomes the listener’s. That’s the beauty of it. It’s nice, weirdly, because I’ve been making music for such a long time, it’s quite interesting to listen to some of my early recordings. I used to just be allergic to it, it was horrendous feeling listening to it. But now, when I listen to it, I can really transport back to the girl that made that music and she’s so miles away from the person I am now. It’s like a little time capsule and that’s sweet. I don’t do it very much because it’s also a really weird feeling.

If you could go back and talk to that girl, what advice would you give her knowing what you know now?

ALISON: We’d need a long time! I think more than anything I would say “Don’t worry. It’s all a process and just trust the process,” because I didn’t trust the process and I had a lot of fear around what I was making. Would it be the right thing? Was I making the right decisions? I could say “No, you weren’t making the right decisions. But it’s okay. You’ll figure it out.” I would say be more willing to take risks, make more music. That’s easy to say in hindsight, I was really burned out after my first heavy year-and-a-half, two years of touring and then going straight into my second album. I was really burned out. The early success came out of nowhere, it was a really intense life shift. I think I would have said, “Try and enjoy your free time,” because now that I’ve got a toddler, which is magic, I don’t have free time to just stay up and do stuff at all hours. I was just so serious. I wish I’d had a bit more fun, let loose a bit more.

In hindsight, do you feel like you were caught in the machine?

ALISON: I was caught in the machine. I didn’t know how to take care of my mental health. I didn’t know how to take care of my physical health. I didn’t know how to have boundaries, didn’t know what I needed. I’ve been thinking about it recently and I love signing albums after the shows. But I would do a radio show in the morning, a show in the in the daytime at like a bookstore or something like, and then I was doing a show at night. And then I was signing albums. My whole career at that point was predicated on vulnerability. I mean, it still is, but I wanted to hold space for everybody that came to me. I took on such pain. I took on people’s narrowly-averted suicides. I took on people’s loneliness. I didn’t know how to process anything, so I was just like, “Give it to me, I’ll take it.” And then I just held onto it. I didn’t have a therapist so I was trying to give as much as I had` and I just didn’t have anything. And what that did was it meant that I got quite scared and small as a result. I just wanted to just say no to everything. I think if I had just been a bit more boundaried and a bit more balanced than I probably would’ve still been able to hold space in a way that was less self-harming and it would’ve been more sustainable. But I just was 22, 23, 24. I thought I was so mature, which is hilarious because I wasn’t.

Still Come the Night is very personal album, one that others might have shied away from writing. Did you feel like this was an album that you had to write?

ALISON: Yeah, I had to. Having said that it was hard to be so vulnerable and to take on so many stories, it’s such an honor. I just didn’t know how to deal with it back then. I’m still learning how to listen and hear and hold space for others without taking some of it into my body because I’m just a spongy-type person. It’s hard not to feel, especially with this album. It’s about grief and I have certainly heard a lot about others grief and it is heart wrenching. In certain moments, it’s really tough but it’s also so beautiful because people are so brave and it’s an incredible thing to open a door to a subject that’s really generally shut down before it even begins. This is such a complicated thing to speak about because it’s so common, but it’s so devastating. I’m talking about losing a pregnancy. That’s my specific grief although this album is about so many different kinds of grief. Because it’s taboo, because you’re not supposed to speak about your pregnancy before three months because you possibly miscarry, I think it’s so important to start the conversation to open up the room. The more we see that others have gone through this, the more that it humanizes things. It means that we can grieve more openly and if you can grieve openly and not feel like you have to stifle it, then you can actually move through your grief.

I’ve discovered, as being a real premium repressor of big feelings, that the more that I’ve repressed, the longer it takes to work through those emotions, the more they stick. Not that grief ever leaves you, but it doesn’t have to calcify, it doesn’t have to be something that you have to build an entire façade above you and around you to avoid having to touch. I think that really makes us distance ourselves from what we’re actually feeling and going through. And when you’re in that kind of space, it’s really hard to access your intuition. It’s really hard to feel comfortable dealing with other emotions because it’s all so delicately balanced around not touching things that hurt.

But, yes, I had to write this and, yes, I wanted to talk about.

I experienced my own loss. My 17-year-old daughter, Liv, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly from a rare tangle of arteries and veins in her brain that caused a clot. So, I appreciate your openness and willingness to share your innermost feelings with me and the listeners. I don’t always have that willingness, I’m afraid that I’ve got a black cloud permanently over my head and that people don’t want to be around me.

ALISON: I can understand feeling like you have a black cloud over your head until you know that somebody else understands and is not afraid to look you in the eye and say, “I’m so sorry” and not flinch. It’s not something you have to feel guilty about but that’s what society makes us feel like. If you haven’t managed to live a life where nothing bad happens to you, then there’s some kind of shame attached to it. It goes way back as some kind of way of controlling and keeping people isolated and small because we are stronger when we bond with each other over our truth. And you can’t get to know somebody really until you know what they’ve lived.

Social media doesn’t help. People on Facebook post things that they want you to see. They curate happy moments and don’t share the bad or sad things going on in their lives.

ALISON: It’s a curated expression of our lives based on how we want to portray our lives to other people. It’s bullshit. I have people in my life that I love, that I feel like I didn’t know for a really long time until, you know, I’d had a bit of wine to be honest. Suddenly all the stuff comes up and you’re like, “I knew that I felt a deeper kinship than what we have in conversation. There you are.” And, it’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m burdening you.” But it’s like, “No. Thank you. Thank you because I’m barely keeping my head above water.” I just don’t post on social media most of the time because it’s a disaster area. Just on like the aesthetic side of things, I almost never remember to brush my hair. I’m generally wearing something that’s not social media approved. I’m just living my life and I’ve probably got snot on my shoulder and the house is definitely not organized and perfect and there’s not like a fruit bowl out there. Or if there is a fruit bowl, it’s probably covered in fruit flies because that’s life. It’s really a shame.

Do you find it easier to write happy or sad songs or, maybe, day in the life songs?

ALISON: I began songwriting as sort of a way of turning away from the world and unburdening my heart. So sadness, longing, being rejected, yearning, all of those things are comfort zones for me. Now, this album stretched beyond that because every song was more of a way of being with things that I had to find names for and this was an unprecedented experience for me. So I was already in new territory. What I found very difficult was writing a love song for my partner who I love beyond. He laughed so hard when he heard “Playground” because the best I could muster was, “I like you so well,” which is so just crap considering we’re like madly in love and had a baby together. But I just found it really hard to put into words, it makes me very shy. It makes me sort of wanna wriggle away.

“No Other” was cringe inducing for me because the song was so clearly a love song with no way to get out of it. From the minute that we started writing it as a band, I was like, “Oh God.” I immediately wanted it just to go away, didn’t wanna write it. I was like, “What am I supposed to write? It’s all gonna come out just garbage and trite.” Embarrassing, big sweeping statements. I had to work at it a lot.

I am interested in what it looks like to write an album about things that are harder to write about, like contentment, like wonder, like parenting, the complexities of parenting, which is such fertile territory. The most major songs are generally written about a relationship and they’re so often about, I feel like, the first like 10 minutes of a relationship. Romantic movies are generally not about the relationship, they’re about getting to the beginning of a relationship. There’s this whole landscape which is like, “Ah, that’s boring.” Let’s go back to like, “I’ve been dumped. I’m madly in love because I have no idea who you are and we haven’t done the dishes together yet.” That’s the landscape that I’m interested in tucking into because it is the land that so many of us live in. It’s really important to not glamorize, but to honor real abiding hard worked at love because we’re people that just divorce people all the time when it gets hard because we don’t see enough of love stories where things get messy. We’re not cute all the time. In my next chapters, that is what I hope to get into because I can’t go backwards. I can’t be that lovelorn kid anymore.

How difficult was it to sequence an album that was so emotional for you to write and record?

ALISON: It’s hard because if you’re making an album of songs that have a cohesive thread but are different stylistically, if you’re not making something where the songs sound quite the same, then it really changes the feeling of the album, which order you put things in. Pines, my third album as A Fine Frenzy, I tried to write that with an order in mind simply to get out of the sequencing issue. I was like, “Maybe if I just write it as a story then I don’t have to deal with the end of my record, like pulling my hair out.” There were two or three different iterations of the album that were really different and there was a point where it ended with “Still Come the Night” versus ending with “Meteor Shower” and that is really different. Ending with “Still Come the Night” felt like a natural end. It leaves you with such a distinct feeling. But I didn’t know if I wanted to leave the listener there actually because then what are you gonna do? So I wanted to end with “Meteor Show” because that felt like there was another chapter. And I think that’s saying there’s good things ahead. I think that’s really important when you’re grieving, because there was a point where I found it really hard to imagine good things ahead. It’s important to have something, some little fragment of light. I’ve figured if someone is listening all the way to the end of this record, that they might understand, maybe they might even be in pain. So it would be important to go deep into the crevasse but then leave on an up slope.

Is there a live element to your music?

ALISON: Yes, we opened for Goldfrapp, two shows here in London, and then we played a show at Rough Trade which was the record release show. It was all great. The record release show was particularly great because I love a good, sweaty, close, sticky kind of gig and Rough Trade is such a great place to play. It’s a church of vinyl, you know? But, it’s slower because I have a toddler and it’s slower because I live in the UK and I predominantly toured in the US and built up an audience in the US and I didn’t really do that in the UK so it takes time. Also, this album is very particular and we want to create a particular environment that feels safe for people to come in and and be emotive and that’s not all venues. So, it’s just slow, but it’s a really important part. My boyfriend was moved really profoundly watching the Rough Trade show because he was watching grown men who may or may not have known what they were coming to see, but so many men were in tears. That’s just not something that we provide a space for in our society. In the comfort of a dark room, listening to music that you can feel something to, even if you don’t know in advance what the music is about, what an amazing thing. I want to do that much more.

I’d love to end with a fun question. You are a musician and an actor so I have to imagine you’ve got somebody in your phone’s contact list that would blow my mind. Who would that person be?

ALISON: (after scrolling through contacts) Steve Perry from Journey. I met him randomly through Dave Stewart. There was a time in my life where I was meeting some really amazing people. I was doing a show where I was singing with Dave, and then I met Steve and had a chat with Steve. It was nothing funny, just like a friendship. He’s a really nice guy. I’ve had tea with him. Every single person that has ever done something that you love and adore is just a person. You grow up with Journey and it seems like Steve’s not a real person, but he is just a person like everybody else. I’ve met some artists that I just adore and I’ve been an idiot. Like, I’ve walked away going, “No, no, no, no, no, no. Let’s just erase that. I wish I hadn’t met you rather than doing what I just did.”

You must have people who meet you who walk away feeling embarrassed about their reaction to the encounter.

ALISON: Every now and then but it’s not from music most of the time. Because I’m in the Fantastic Beasts movies, every now and then somebody will get really excited to meet me but I’ll be like, “We’ll take a second and we’ll just have a little breath.” I don’t want them to have that experience where they walk away saying, “Oh God. I couldn’t even get a word out.”

Do you get noticed when you’re out at the store or running errands?

ALISON: No. Not even remotely. I sat across from somebody on an airplane watching me on screen. He gave me stink eye for looking at his screen while I was on the screen. I don’t look at all like I do on the screen which is really nice but also like, “Hey. I know she’s got better hair than I do but come on!”