Orenda Fink Will Never Forget Nina Simone
Jazz is usually not a part of Orenda Fink’s musical palette, but the 23rd Annual Atlanta Jazz Festival presented the best concert she has ever seen.
Nina Simone stepped on the amphitheater stage at Chastain Park on May, 26, 2000, and there was magic in the air.
“I had been a huge fan of Nina Simone since I was 17 years old,” recalls Fink, who is best known for dreamy folk, pop, and rock music on her solo albums and with Azure Ray. “Her concert was the first and only chance I ever had to see her perform. She rarely performed in the US, so it was a real gift to see her. She could barely walk out to the piano by herself, but once she sat down, she played a fierce and flawless concert. You could look around Chastain Park and see that literally everyone was weeping. It was moving, magical, and intense.”
The concert took place three years before Simone died of breast cancer at age 70.
One of the best singers of her generation and a civil rights activist, Simone wasn’t simply a jazz artist. She also made her mark in blues, soul, folk, classical, gospel, rhythm and blues, and world music.
Though Simone’s performance was mesmerizing, it was another concert by a very different group of musicians that most influenced Fink.
“Surprisingly, seeing Royal Trux at The Nick in Birmingham, Alabama, when I was, ahem, too young to drink, was influential in an interesting way,” Fink says.
The Nick, a gritty dive bar, was where Fink’s first band, Little Red Rocket, got its start. Fink can’t remember the year Royal Trux performed there but believes it was either 1995 or 1996.
“I think it was (influential) watching Jennifer Herrema walk through The Nick looking like some kind of post-apocalypse, road-weary rock goddess and then losing her shit on stage in front of about 15 people. I thought the road was a place I wanted to check out if amazing creatures like her populated it.”
Based in Chicago, Royal Trux was a lo-fi experiment of Neil Hagerty, formerly of Washington-based punk-garage band Pussy Galore, and Jennifer Herrema. The duo played a few reunion shows last year, and, to put it politely, their avant noise is an acquired taste.
It’s a lot easier to appreciate Fink’s music, creativity, and clever songwriting – solo or with Azure Ray. Consider No Depression’s 2002 review of Azure Ray’s third album, Burn and Shiver.
“The voices of the two women who are Azure Ray suggest bedtime: whispery, comforting, soft and downy. The music all around them suggests machines: always churning, remorselessly in motion. Combined, they are lullabies for insomniacs … . The music on Burn And Shiver emanates from the subconscious, the spaces between thoughts and actions. It comes from everywhere and nowhere … . Magnificently hushed and momentously soft, Burn And Shiver does right by its title.”
Azure Ray was formed in Athens, Georgia, by Fink and songwriting partner Maria Taylor in 2001. They had earlier met at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and formed a band, Little Red Rocket, that recorded two albums.
Fink and Taylor released four Azure Ray albums from 2001 through 2003 and moved from Athens to Omaha, Nebraska. There they started a second band, Now It’s Overhead, with Andy LeMaster, who had worked with Bright Eyes. Besides recording with both bands, Fink and Taylor performed on various Bright Eyes albums and wrote a song with Moby.
Fink released two solo albums, Invisible Ones in 2005 and Ask the Night in 2009.
In 2010, Azure Ray was revived after a seven-year hiatus and released Drawing Down the Moon.
“For Drawing Down, we focused on revisiting the very first Azure Ray record,” Taylor writes on the Azure Ray website. “That approach facilitated bringing our sound together stylistically and emotionally after working so many years apart. “For As Above So Below (released in 2012), we wanted it to be more like Azure Ray in an alternate universe.”
In 2014, Fink released her third solo album, Blue Dream, which looks at death and was inspired by Laurie Anderson and the death of Fink’s dog, Wilson. “It captures … the subsequent search for meaning in life and death,” she says. “This period found me lost and found, many times over, and I think the songs on the album reflect that. They ended up telling a story of loss and redemption and finally some peace in acceptance. It’s an important work for me because, even though I have always been a confessional songwriter, I surrendered to the songwriting of this record more than I ever have. I knew that I needed to honor the experience with honesty, and not hold anything back, even if it was painful or scary.”
While writing the album, she says she contemplated “the experiences that precipitated it” and explored “new perspectives gained” during the prior year. She was left with “the belief that we can only be truly healed if we find our interior god.”
How can one’s interior god be found? There are many ways, including through dreams, she says. Dreams are “the closest way to have a direct experience with the all-knowing past, present, and future.”