It’s been nearly ten years since the debut album from indie-folk band, Noah and the Whale, became the soundtrack to many people’s summer. Fronted by Charlie Fink, the band’s infectious songs and whimsical songwriting skyrocketed them to fame, resulting in four stunning albums and a spike in ukulele sales as everyone tried to recreate the iconic intro to “5 Years Time”.
Now, four years after the group disbanded, the frontman is going it alone. In a new venture, Charlie is releasing his debut solo album Cover My Tracks in a show at The Old Vic. Centred around the story of a songwriter who goes missing, leaving behind a songbook full of clues, the show will be the first time Charlie is performing the album live and is certain to be a memorable experience.
Taking the stage on 5th June, we met up with Charlie to discover a taste of what the ex-Noah and the Whale heartthrob has planned.
So how did you first get into music?
My mum was a bit of a folky. She used to have guitars around the house and she used to play to a folk class in Sheffield, where she’s from; we were raised with her playing Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys in the car, so I sort of got into it that way. In fact, until I was about 14 I was convinced my mum had written “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie because she used to play it so much. I found out through being at a friend’s house and they put it on. In retrospect I probably should’ve realised that “This Land Is Your Land” wasn’t written by a Northern nurse, but you learn these things.
Was there a moment when you fell in love with music and realised “I wanna do this”?
I guess I had a slightly evolving relationship with music over time. When I was young, I didn’t really listen to words, I just listened to the rhythm and melody and the sound of songs. When I first started writing there was this local record store that would sell bundles of ten CDs for £5 but you didn’t know what you were getting. They’d all come covered in masking tape and I guess it was just the CDs that the record store was trying to get rid of. I used to go home and not listen to the CDs but take out the lyric booklets and try and write songs to the words. Then over time my relationship to the lyrics has changed so now that’s the first thing I’m drawn to and the thing I feel the most excited about when I’m trying to write.
Obviously Noah and the Whale was a big part of your life. How did that all start?
I had a brief stint at university and was staying up all night writing songs and not going to lectures. I thought that maybe I wasn’t getting my money’s worth so came back to London. I went to an Emmy The Great gig and I was just in the audience and she had Johnny Flynn as her bass player. He was just leaving the band to do his own thing and so Emmy was talking about it during the show, and I just went up to her after the gig and was like, “I’ll be in your band!” Through playing with her and opening up for her sometimes on my own, I put the band together for those songs. That was sort of how the band formed. Some of us were playing with Emmy, so when we were touring together we’d be opening up for her then playing the shows, and then we went off and did our own thing.
And how did you find navigating the success it brought?
It was good! It was quite unexpected. I kind of see two peaks in our time. There was the first record, particularly around “5 Years Time” which was a huge radio hit and we were really surprised. We were making what at the time would probably have been described as nu-folk which at that moment had quite a small audience and people I listened to like Jeffrey Lewis and Bonnie Prince Billy were playing to quite small rooms, so the idea of us making a record that was influenced by that kind of stuff that got crazy radio playlisting was such a shock. I was very green about all that stuff when it was happening. Then I think I sort of in part responded to that by making a very uncommercial second record, which I still think of as my favourite. Then that record sort of gave us a foundation of an audience that’s paying more attention. Then the third record, which was probably our biggest, was a more considered, ambitious record. I don’t know how it happened really. We made the first two records for ourselves and then the third was trying to see what we could do if we made something that was written to be sung along to and played at festivals.
How did you feel after Noah disbanded?
I was pretty freaked out to be honest. If you do something for nigh on ten years when you stop doing it, it’s a very intimidating prospect. I think it was doubly intimidating because I at that time was basically a bit burnt out. With Noah we did four records in six years which is pretty knackering! At that point I wasn’t that enthused about making a new record and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that point. Then it just so happened that the Old Vic wrote to me [for The Lorax] and it was just this beautiful gift of a thing, of being a bit lost and then having something I would never really have thought about. I used to go to the theatre quite a lot but never really thought of it as a medium to write in. I loved the process of making that show so much. It reignited my passion for writing. Then coming into this project basically thinking how I can make writing for an album as fun as writing for The Lorax.
So after that you started working on Cover My Tracks?
Cover My Tracks actually came out of conversations I was having with David Greig, who’s the playwright for The Lorax and Cover My Tracks. Me and David have a shared passion for folk music and storytelling in song. We were speaking about that kind of thing in breaks for The Lorax and I shared with him this idea I had which was about a songwriter who has gone missing and left behind a book of songs that are clues to find what’s happened to that person. That was the seed for Cover My Tracks. Since those conversations, we came to the Old Vic and talked to them about producing it and they were quite interested. And here we are!
Did it come out of wanting to write theatre as opposed to an album then?
I love albums and I love writing albums and listening to albums, but the album is quite a redundant format right now. We’re in a time when we have the most entertaining thing that’s ever existed in our pocket – every song ever written is in our pocket. You don’t play one album on repeat in your car for four months anymore, which is a shame. I was thinking about how can you make an album worthwhile given how people currently listen to songs, and one idea was a story. You have to listen to all the songs to get the story. Then expanding on that, I was thinking what’s the ultimate way to tell a story and it’s in a theatre, which in a funny way is the most difficult way to tell a story because if you’re making a film you’re showing people a world whereas in theatre you’re inviting the audience to create the world in their head. They’re just looking at two people on stage, one of them has a guitar, but they’re being asked to create these images of this story. Also, with my love of podcasts, my ambition for this record is that eventually there will exist a podcast-album-audiobook hybrid where you can hear the whole show and the songs together. For me, that’s a way to make an album feel relevant now. It’s part of a story and you need to listen to all the songs to understand the whole thing.
What was the inspiration for the story?
I guess there’s a few things. One, I was interested in a record label called Light In The Attic. They release these lost albums and there was one album by a guy named Jim Sullivan who was a songwriter in LA in the late 60s/early 70s who moved in quite glamorous circles but he himself didn’t have a great deal of personal success. He made this album all about the desert and UFOs and then one day he was driving from LA to Texas and at some point while he was travelling through the desert he disappeared and they found his car parked by the side of the road but never found his body. It’s this huge unsolved mystery about what happened to Jim Sullivan, obviously made all the more tantalising by the fact he wrote songs about UFOs and the desert. I liked that idea of a disappeared songwriter. Also, what’s difficult in using songs in theatre is you have the tradition of the musical where the reason to break into song is because you’re so emotional you just have to break into song, which is quite cheesy sometimes. I am a fan of musicals but this show is not one because the songs are more for a narrative purpose in the sense that we are learning about a character in part through the songs that that character has left behind. It would be as if we were reading someone’s letters or someone’s diary in the show. It gives you a good justification to have songs in a show without it all being about emotion.
How do the songs differ from Noah and the Whale? There seems to be quite a familiar sound to The First Days Of Spring?
Yeah. I think in terms of sound the second album is definitely its closest relative. I think with Noah, if there’s one sort of through line to my writing with the band, it’s storytelling. That’s the thing I’ve always been most interested in when I write songs. The second and third Noah records are particularly story led. In terms of sound, I was really proud with how the second record sounded. I didn’t necessarily want to revisit that territory, but I think Cover My Tracks is in the same sort of world.
How does it feel putting out a solo album as opposed to working with a band?
It’s funny, it’s kind of unusual. In some ways it feels insanely independent in how I’ve made it in the sense that I’ve written and produced the record myself and I’ve also done it without a record label, which was very creatively freeing to be able to do whatever I want. That independent spirit of this project is something I’m really proud of. But then in another way, it’s also an incredibly collaborative project because it’s songs that are based around a story that’s been conceived by myself, David Greig and Max [Webster], the director of the show.
Are you excited for the show?
Yeah! I mean, I’m nervous but in a very positive way, in the way that if you care about something you probably will be nervous. It’s a project that’s been brewing for a long time so I’m incredibly excited about finally being able to bring it to life. But I’m also nervous because I want it to be good!
And so what are your post-show plans?
We’re doing Latitude with it which will be very exciting. Then there are some regional theatres in the UK that we’re taking it to in September; hopefully taking it out to New York too. For the foreseeable future, I want the show to be the live form of the record, but maybe down the line there’ll be some more gigs. But I think the best way to hear the album is to see the show.
Any plans to write another?
I don’t know! I have to say, just from making this record, it has made me fall in love with writing songs again. When you’ve been in a band for a long time and it’s become a job, it is easy to forget why you do it and why you love doing it and I think I’ve definitely rediscovered that over the past couple of years. Were I stranded on the moon with no one to play to, I would still write songs.
Photography - Adrian Lee
Fashion - Abigail Hazard
Grooming - Sven Bayerbach
Videography - Iolo Lewis Edwards