Charlie Fink of Noah and the Whale is the man behind a searingly honest break-up album - and an accompanying film.
The labours of lost love
His pizza is picked at, half eaten, and soon he is up again, heading to the bar. Despite being in the back end of the British summer, his thick woolly hat is pulled so far down it is as if he is trying to keep the world out. I wonder whether even a simple "how are you?" will be too much for him on his return. If all of this sounds a little much, please bear in mind that this is Charlie Fink of the British indie-folk band Noah and the Whale, a man who has just completed one of the most affectingly honest break-up albums ever. So, when he does come back, orange juice in hand, eyes bursting with life, and says: "Wow, this is exciting," I do a slight double take. Maybe he doesn't need a hug and a shoulder to cry on, after all.
His excitement comes from our meeting place and what Fink created from the ashes of that relationship. We are at a cinema in Manchester just before the film of his album The First Days of Spring is premiered. The 50-minute film is also directed by Fink. In it, three actors play three stages of a man - Ethan - quietly breaking up with his partner as the music slowly, almost agonisingly, vocalises his thoughts and feelings. The most impressive thing is that this isn't some flimsy concept where every song has a tenuously linked pop video attached. Despite only having a few lines of dialogue, The First Days of Spring is a real film, starring Daisy Lowe and produced by the BAFTA-nominated Olivier Kaempfer.
"I'm really pleased with it," Fink says. "The way it looks is incredible. When it was finished I actually wept. Was that an emotional response to the content? I don't know. What I do know is that it felt like we'd achieved something really wonderful." The First Days of Spring isn't just startling because its redemptive, dreamy melancholy marks the arrival of a genuine talent behind the camera. It also stands out because Noah and the Whale were, just a year ago, the happy-go-lucky darlings of indie-folk. Their song Five Years Time was a summery hit throughout Europe and has soundtracked commercials the world over. But Fink broke up with the woman who provided the backing vocals for the, Laura Marling, and retreated to the things he knew best: music, and film. In fact, the band's very name is a hybrid of their favourite director Noah Baumbach and their favourite film of his, The Squid And The Whale.
The project comes as film and music are cross-pollinating more than ever before. Last month saw the comeback single from the American band Modest Mouse making headlines, thanks to a Heath Ledger-directed video, the late actor's last work and one that had to be completed posthumously. Meanwhile, Blink 182's Tom DeLonge's next project is apparently a Stanley Kubrick-style "blend of the film industry and music industry". This may all be coincidental, but whatever the case, it appears that the days of bands saying their album is the soundtrack to an imaginary film are well and truly over. These days, they are making the films, too.
"In a lot of ways the album is dead," says Fink. "People listen to stuff on shuffle, they rarely listen to a record all the way through. They may not get as far as buying the whole record even, they just buy the three songs they like from iTunes. So this film was a response to that, to make people remember what an immersive experience an album can be." It may be rather an indictment of our attention spans that Fink felt the need to provide pictures and music to make sure we understood what song titles such as I Have Nothing and My Broken Heart signify, but it really does work as a whole. This is largely down to Fink deciding on the concept of a film/album first, then working out the music and the screenplay together. It certainly looks (and sounds) like it came naturally to him. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
"When you're in the studio," he explains, "it's you and the band working out songs. When you're on set, you're at the mercy of so many other people. There's a chaos and randomness that, particularly with a low-budget film, you just have to go with. The CD of The First Days of Spring, is very much Fink pouring his own heart out. The film, though, is definitely about Ethan. It immediately lends it a more universal quality. "Yeah, and I love that," Fink says. "I didn't want it to be like a musical, like my voice was narrating the film. Even though the songs are the same, the narrative is slightly different."
I remind him of a quote from WH Auden that he has been using to describe the whole process: "All you need to make art is something to say and a respect and understanding of the medium." "Exactly. Exactly," he says. "That, for me, is how I feel about art, and film? and music.