CHARLIE Fink is charmed by the intrigue his lyrics have generated. Aidan Smith talks to the singer of nu-folk sensation Noah and the Whale about his mysterious ragbag of influences
THE online encyclopaedia Wikipedia gets such a slagging that I've developed a soft spot for it. We can't all be as smart as Stephen Fry, so I was pleased when he cut out the jokes to interview the site founder on TV recently – and on learning about the heroic effort involved, to declare himself a convert.
But right now I'm laughing at Wikipedia's expense and Charlie Fink is laughing even louder. "Who's Wendy Jane?" asks the Noah and the Whale frontman. Wikipedia reckons she used to play in his band and was his muse. "But I've never heard of her!" Fink is at his most lovelorn when singing about her, apparently. "Well, she seems like quite a girl. Where can I meet her? Could you get me an introduction?"
Charlie Fink – great name. He sounds like a character in a Steely Dan song, the kind who can be glimpsed "drinking his dinner from a paper sack/says: 'I've gotta see a joker and I'll be right back.'" But classic soft-rock isn't Fink's game; he's a folkie who's part of a new generation of young, good-looking and not too hairy strummers, maybe its de facto leader.
Noah and the Whale broke through last year, along with Laura Marling. This year has already welcomed Emma Lee Moss, better known as Emmy the Great, and there's also Johnny Flynn and Mumford and Sons.
Emerging out of a London pub scene, they're all friends, sometimes playing in each other's combos. Marling and Moss are both ex-members of Fink's band, that's for sure. Fink used to share a flat with the latter and he produced the former's debut. Oh, and he also went out with Marling.
What a tangled web; it's little wonder Wikipedia got so confused. Just as well, though, that Noah and the Whale's songs are so uncomplicated, and so winningly catchy.
Their first album Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down went Top 5 and the single '5 Years Time' was a big summer hit, installing itself as one of the great whistling songs alongside 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life', 'Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard', 'Winchester Cathedral', and of course 'I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman' by Whistlin' Jack Smith. Fink likes to tell the story of the plane pilot who used its "fun, fun, fun" refrain to calm his anxious passengers.
He's tall, skinny and polite with a Soapy Soutar haircut and, right now, he's on a fag-break from rehearsals in a King's Cross studio for a tour hitting Scotland next week which will be a little bit different for a folk band; most pop bands, too.
He explains: "The Club Silencio nights, as we're calling them, will be shows rather than sets, evenings of film and music, with a compre on a screen who'll introduce videos we've made about the songs we'll play."
Inspiration has come from the comedian Andy Kaufman and his Milk and Cookies Show – a genre-busting affair ending with the audience following Kaufman out of New York's Carnegie Hall and boarding buses in search of snacks. "Sadly our budget won't stretch to that," says Fink. "We can't afford a xylophone orchestra either, but we've managed to find archive film of one of them."
But Noah and the Whale obviously have ambition. Fink – who's into film as much as he is music, and shot the band's first promos as homages to his favourite director, Wes Anderson – is about to make a full-length feature with unknown actors as a companion piece to the second album, slated for release in June, and tentatively titled The First Days Of Spring.
"This record's electric rather than acoustic." Judas, I say. "Hopefully! Some of it sounds quite experimental, there's John Cage-type stuff in there and… I hesitate to call it a concept album, but narrative album just sounds pretentious, doesn't it?" Yes it does. "Well, it tells a story, a love story. There are highs and lows again but this time the ending's optimistic."
So, even if they don't refer to the elusive Wendy Jane, are his songs autobiographical? He thinks for a long time then says: "For your songs to connect with people, they've got to mean something to you. I think mine are honest, I believe what I say in them, and naturally they're defined by the life I've led. Autobiographical? Er, to an extent." He laughs. "Would you like me to be a little more vague?"
He understands the intrigue; he's the same about Bob Dylan's songs and the women who inspire them. But doctor's son Fink still thinks any mild obsession with his lyrics is pretty funny, considering that in his teens he was so indifferent towards words. "With my pocket money I'd buy bundles of second-hand CDs covered in masking tape so you couldn't tell what they were. Without even listening to them, I'd rip out the booklets and set the lyrics to my own tunes. Those were my first compositions.
"Of course I'm flattered by the interest. And I love the little films that fans have posted on YouTube where they do silly dancing to '5 Years Time'. One guy plays it on the ukulele, another sings it way better than me – and there's even a film of a parrot bopping along called 'Corky's Favourite Song'. We've collected them all to show during this tour."
According to the big hit: "In 5 years' time I might not even know you." Fink says Noah and the Whale won't be restricted by the nu-folk scene, though they're happy it has already produced so much music, friendship and love.
So, just to be clear: Wendy Jane is a beautiful mystery, right? "Let me see, Laura and Emmy were both in the band, and then there was Becca – oh and I almost forgot Lily… " v
• Noah and the Whale play the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh , Wednesday www.noahandthewhale.com