When pop goes to the theatre...
In an age where music feels almost disposable, former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink made his solo LP stand out by devising a play to accompany it, he tells our music critic
Charlie Fink isn't the only musician to look to the theatre to refresh their sound - and the 'gig theatre' phenomenon will be coming to a stage near you soon. Here are three of the latest.
Cotton panic! Stephen Mallinder of alt-rockers Cabaret Voltaire is working with acclaimed actress Jane Horrocks on a show about the often unthold story of Manchester's cotton industry - and it's being done through a propulsive electronic live set.
FATHERLAND Karl Hyde from Underworld is collaborating with playwright Simon Stephens on Fatherland, putting verbatim accounts of father-son relationships to music.
music is torture Music history is rife with stories of bands spending an eternity trying to get their sound right in studio. This play revolves a fictional band who spend 15 years slowly going mad as they try to deliver that masterwork - the performances are courtesy of real-life group, A Band Called Quinn.
He does not say it in so many words, but it seems certain that Charlie Fink grew tired of the arena circuit that his old band, Noah and the Whale, had risen to and he wanted to try something completely different.
"There's so much music in the world," he says. "There's virtually unlimited choice - pretty much any song ever recorded is available to you in seconds on your phone so, as a songwriter, you have to ask yourself if you want to keep doing the same sort of thing or if you throw caution to the wind and try something completely new."
The Londoner has, indeed, tried something different - and not just different to what he used to do, but also different from what the vast majority of his peers choose to do. His solo debut album, Cover My Tracks, is not being released in a conventional way. To fully appreciate Fink's new work, you've got to go and see the stage-play that's been devised to accompany the album.
The theatre production of Cover My Tracks has been garnering excellent reviews in London, and Irish audiences will be able to see it for themselves at the Galway Arts Festival later this month. "It's been very exciting for me to present the songs like this," he says. "I've always had a theatrical approach to performing, but this is taking it to another level."
The play expands on the central idea of the album, which in the words of London's Old Vic Theatre (where it was performed) centres on "the tale of an idealistic young songwriter who sets out to write a 21st century pop masterpiece and vanishes without a trace".
It's performed by Fink alongside actress Jade Anouka. She plays Sarah, a spirited ex-hotel porter whose chance encounter with a famous musician - Fink's troubled Frank - leads both on a journey of self-discovery,
There's an acting component to his delivery, he says, but ostensibly the performance is that of a singer-songwriter on stage. "I definitely wouldn't call it a musical," he says. "I wanted to avoid the idea of going from speaking to bursting into song as if it was the most natural thing in the world."
He's got a heavyweight name to help him make his theatrical vision a reality. Scottish playwright David Greig is one of the finest of his generation and he wrote the 'book' for Cover My Tracks.
The UK's leading theatre magazine, The Stage, was unstinting in its praise for Greig's work on the play: "Death, depression, grief and the impossibility of modern living recur through Greig's book like refrains through a pop song, but always with a refreshing lack of morbidness and a winning, wry humour."
Fink is generous in his praise, too. "I've learnt so much from David," he says. "Had I not worked with him some time ago, who knows if this album would have been presented to the world like this?"
Greig had been commissioned to create a new version of Dr Seuss's classic children's tale, The Lorax, and he approached Fink with a view to creating some music for the show. "My time with the band had come to an end," he says, "and I wanted to do projects that weren't anything like it.
"And The Lorax was quite unlike anything I'd done before. I came to really love the pace of the theatre and how different it is in some respects than performing as a musician on stage."
Despite his passion for the theatre aspect of Cover My Tracks, he says he wanted to make sure that the album would exist comfortably in its own right. And it does. It may lack the mass commercial appeal of Noah and the Whale's radio-friendly offerings, such as the earworm 'L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.' but it's a hugely accomplished collection of thought-provoking songs featuring Fink's warm and engaging vocals.
"Album sales aren't what they were - everyone knows that," he says, "and I think you've got to do that bit more to make your work stand out, to fight against that sense that music is more disposable now than it was in the past."
Hard as it is to hear such an assessment, few could argue with it, and it's little wonder that musicians have tried increasingly novel ways to release their albums and stimulate interest. Some big names - particularly Beyoncé - have chosen to release albums suddenly, and without the months of publicity that used to be de rigueur.
It's worked well for her, particularly on her much-praised Lemonade which did especially big business for Tidal, the streaming service part owned by her, but already one senses that the trick might be getting a little old - and there's always the danger that by releasing an album without the normal attendant publicity, it will pass over people's heads.
I've met a couple of James Vincent McMorrow admirers in recent weeks who had no idea that he's just released a new album (True Care), such was the low-key way he made it available last month. The Dubliner himself even acknowledged that he had to convince his record label to release it in such a fashion: it had been concerned that it might get lost in a busy summer release schedule.
U2 had no qualms about releasing their last studio album, No Line on the Horizon, without warning. They famously made it available for free on iTunes thanks to a very lucrative Apple deal.
Cue outrage from those types who are offended by everything, and bafflement from the band that their 'gift' had irked so many. (I don't expect their next album - whenever that may be - to be given away for free again.)
When Nine Inch Nails were releasing Year Zero in 2007, they generated excitement by devising a cleverly thought-out immersive reality video game. With the help of game creators 42 Entertainment, Trent Reznor and friends created a dystopian world that reflected the themes on the album.
And when Jay Z was dropping his opus, Magna Carta Holy Grail, he paid for special adverts featuring producers Rick Rubin and Pharrell Williams to appear in the commercial breaks in basketball's equivalent of the Super Bowl.
He also allowed a million copies of his album to be uploaded for free on new Samsung Galaxy phones - a deal that added handsomely to the coffers of this super-smart business man.
For emerging artists, it's much harder to stand out from the crowd and to get their albums heard - and trying something as audacious as Charlie Fink has managed just isn't feasible.
But despite all the doom-mongering about the death of the album, there's even more of them being released every year - and that urge to make music and have it heard remains as potent as it every was, even if it's increasingly tricky to get people to listen to the fruits of your toils.
Cover My Tracks runs at the Galway Arts Festival from July 25 until July 30
THE RISE OF GIG THEATRE
Charlie Fink isn’t the only musician to look to the theatre to refresh their sound — and the ‘gig theatre’ phenomenon will be coming to a stage near you soon. Here are three of the latest.
Stephen Mallinder of alt-rockers Cabaret Voltaire is working with acclaimed actress Jane Horrocks on a show about the often unthold story of Manchester’s cotton industry — and it’s being done through a propulsive electronic live set.
Karl Hyde from Underworld is collaborating with playwright Simon Stephens on Fatherland, putting verbatim accounts of father-son relationships to music.
Music is torture
Music history is rife with stories of bands spending an eternity trying to get their sound right in studio. This play revolves a fictional band who spend 15 years slowly going mad as they try to deliver that masterwork — the performances are courtesy of real-life group, A Band Called Quinn.