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Noah And The Whale: A Folk-Pop Band, Forever In Flux

Success hasn't come easily for Noah and the Whale, whose sound has changed constantly from album to album.
Courtesy of the artist
Success hasn't come easily for Noah and the Whale, whose sound has changed constantly from album to album.

Noah and the Whale has inspired a devoted following ever since its first album landed in the British Top 10 in 2008. But success hasn't come easily for the group: Key members have left, prompting striking changes in Noah and the Whale's sound. In a span of just three years, it's released three very different albums.

"You need to be sort of brave, I guess, when you make a record," says Charlie Fink, the band's singer, guitarist and co-founder.

Five years ago, Fink had a solid band behind him, and he was becoming a big part of London's folk-music scene. But since then, Noah and the Whale's lineup has been volatile, though Fink says the upheaval isn't all bad.

"What I find exciting is, because we've made three kind of varied records, I like that people are guessing about what the next stuff will be," he says. "It's exciting to find out for myself what it's gonna be. I think it's totally acceptable to come to our shows and not love everything we do."

What audiences heard between Noah And The Whale's first two albums was a striking shift from sweet folk-rock to a slow, sad meditation on Fink's breakup with singer Laura Marling. She'd been in the band on and off, but left for good in 2008 — the same time she left him. Their breakup became fodder for gossip, and for songs by both of them.

The chaos didn't end there. Noah and the Whale's new record, Last Night on Earth, follows another departure --­ drummer and co-founder Doug Fink, Charlie's brother, left in late 2009 to pursue a career in medicine. That led to another change in sound. For the new record, the band found a replacement fans never could have imagined: a drum machine.

Replacing Doug Fink with a machine — in a folk band known for acoustic guitars and violins — follows a familiar pattern for Noah and the Whale: After Marling left, the band made its second record, The First Days of Spring, with no female vocals at all. For Charlie Fink, a band member's absence has a profound impact.

"Being in Noah and the Whale is kind of like taking a tour of Willy Wonka's factory," Fink says. "There's people dropping off at each step. So I don't know. I guess we're probably at the chocolate river now. If there's a chocolate river, then our bass player's probably going in — in which case I don't know what kind of record we'll make. It's gonna be synth-heavy."

It's a good thing Charlie Fink knows how to write songs about being alone.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)