Songs to Sooth the Heart and Raise the Spirit: Azure Ray return with “Drawing Down the Moon”
Reprinted with permission from The Varsity
The girls are back: after a six year hiatus, Saddle-Creek Records’ beloved alternative rock duo, Azure Ray, return to the scene. With their fourth album, Drawing Down the Moon, Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink have just as much heartache and raw emotion to share, set to the loveliest harmonies and soothing melodies. Their album has been well received once again by the likes of Pitchfork. With their producer, Eric Bachmann, the two have managed to recall their classic sound of heartbreak and longing while continuing to experiment musically. Although most of their songs are either acoustic and slow, or more pop-like, each album will always have something unexpected thrown in. Half way through this album, we are jolted into a new pace with the drum-driven “Make Your Heart”. The spooky side of Azure Ray should not be discounted either, as Orenda Fink’s haunting vocals and gothic stories lull the listener into a hypnotic state, on this album particularly during the songs “In the Fog” and “Larriane”. I spoke to Fink and Taylor, before their show in Toronto at the Horseshoe Tavern, about topics ranging from Fink’s marriage and the therapeutic release music brings her, to the other projects the two are involved in. We also discussed what it’s like being a musician in the oversaturated world of internet and technology, and even got the dish on the new Bright Eyes album.
Azure Ray are one of the core group of the first bands to record on Saddle Creek Records, such as Bright Eyes and Cursive—their lyrical sentiments and musical facility are definitely at par with those respected bands. Their lyrics pull at your heart-strings for sure, but they also do what you need music for the most—they put to words what you were so deeply feeling, but may not have known how to explain, or may not have realized as a universal feeling. They lift you up, make you feel less alone, and give a sweet tune to your troubled thoughts. “Whatever it is we are going through—everyone is always going through something shitty—it is our way to be alone and write about it,” explained Fink. “Our songs are a cathartic for us—they let out our angst and help us deal with what we are going through.”
Although the two met at a performing arts high school in Alabama and have been tight ever since, the first time they wrote a song together was on this album for the track “Dancing Ghosts”. Their songs for Azure Ray have a quite distinct sound and are different but also closely linked. Their different musical sensibilities can be heard more by listening to Fink’s myriad array of projects including O + S, Art and Manila, and her self-titled solo release. Taylor’s last three albums and EP carry her unmistakable voice and love songs.
“Surrendering to the nature of our collaboration creates its’ own unique sound and vibe. We had always worked together so when we went solo we defined our individuality,” Fink explained.
“Finding our common ground again,” Taylor smiled.
“Riding that wave,” Fink added. “It’s not easy to quantify how it’s different; we can just feel that it’s different.”
“Yours is more storytelling, mine is more poppy. When we come together, it comes from all over the body, mind and soul,” Taylor mused.
“Reconnecting with Maria was a big inspiration, and moving to L.A. I asked all my friends their favorite songs of all time, and so even though they weren’t my favorite necessarily, I was inspired by that,” said Fink.
“I lived in L.A. for two and a half years, so I wrote about everything that was going on in my life at that time. It was not necessarily about writing about stuff from our past, but I did revisit the same emotions as I wrote about in songs before, if they still apply to what we are going through in the present,” Taylor added.
Azure Ray are most famous for their songs “Sleep” and “Rise”, both from their 2001 self-titled debut album. These songs are often used in television shows such as Grey’s Anatomy. “Sleep” was actually used (oddly enough) in the film The Devil Wears Prada. The song is a classic lament of insomnia and romantic longing: “I can’t sleep, I can’t speak to you. So I’m reaching out for the one. So I’ve learned the meaning of the sun. And all this like a message comes to shift my point of view. I’m watching through my own light as it tints the shade of you.”
“Rise” was used quite artfully in a great montage in the independent film Winters Passing starring Zooey Deschanel. It is a song anyone who has ever been dumped can relate to, as they sing “Today I’ll crawl out of bed, I can’t stand your shadow, it’s too heavy to lift…Look how low I’ve sunk, don’t ask me to rise, I’ll only lose you when I’m high.”
Actually these inclusions have not helped the band as much as you might hope: “It hasn’t really affected our lives that much, since you can buy songs individually,” Fink explained.
“It hasn’t really changed things at all,” Taylor laughed. “I mean people buy single songs without looking into the artist a lot of the time. I’m guilty of it too sometimes, but it’s just frustrating because people often won’t know it’s even your song.”
Azure Ray is the kind of band where you can feel personally connected to them as a fan of their music, because you feel they have opened their hearts to you as a listener. Their music has the potential to make a great positive impact on your life if you are struggling with a break up, or with finding strength and the ability to let go. Therefore it is reassuring to know their songs really do come from a deep place inside of them. “Almost one-hundred percent of our songs are personal experiences, or the personal experiences of others. It will be something that is at least affecting us or on our minds,” Fink explained.
“When our lives get really boring, that’s when we will start writing fictional songs,” Taylor laughed.
In the song “Larraine” from their new album, Fink sings a horrifying story of family abuse: “They said that you were nothing, with their hands under your skirt…your daddy loved you wrong, while he pointed his gun. Your mother turned her face, being princess of grace…They left you in the woods, to find your way back like a dog…The nightmares wouldn’t stop, so you drank them to a haze…Now you have a little girl who writes songs about your pain. An episode of Greys [Anatomy], and now she’s living in LA…Even as I cry for you, I know they are all in hell. Oh Larraine.”
On past records, Fink has cut to the core more bluntly, as she sang in the 2003 song “Look to Me”: “And I look down at you, and you look up at me. We are a real f-ed up family.”
I was deeply saddened to read that “Larriane” is in fact the story of Fink’s mother and grandfather; and the abuse he inflicted upon her mother without legal repercussion, as he was a fireman in their small town. When asked how writing about these stories helps Fink, she explained: “I’m not sure how it does, but it just does, it’s my way. If I didn’t, I would definitely be seeing a psychiatrist, and I probably still should. Romanticizing dark things is a way of working through it and feeling better about it. When you are writing it, it’s really intense, but once it’s done you’ve given birth to it, and it is diffused out into the world.”
“We recorded the new album in Asheville, North Carolina,” Fink recalled, “Bachmann set it up because he was friends with people in the area. He played a lot of the instruments with us during recording, and otherwise we just hired local people that played classical music.”
Fink first met Bachmann when he was recording for his band Crooked Fingers’ debut album in Athens: “He needed a female back up singer,” Fink continued. “Right after that, he came to one of our shows.”
Taylor said: “Our friend had the idea for him to produce our songs, and we had been doing a side-project of songs we had no intention of recording. We were doing our rock band Little Red Rocket, we had gone through some shit, a tragedy we were dealing with, and we were playing some shows just to get these songs we wrote in our bedroom out. Our friend told us he was starting this label and that we should let his friend Bachmann produce it. We were so naïve, we didn’t question or research it, and we were just like “Okaaay!”. So then it turned out great of course,” they laughed. Warm Records went on to release their first two albums, Azure Ray and Burn and Shiver.
Bachmann wrote a song called “Silver Sorrow” for the album, and they decided to name the album Drawing Down the Moon because of the themes of the song, so then they asked Eric to put that line in the song, “We thought it tied it all together,” Fink explained. She discussed in another interview the strength she feels she one can “draw down” from the moon, and how that image is quite important to her.
As a fan of their work over the years, it is beautiful to see the overlapping themes in their songs from album to album. For example, their 2003 song “The Trees Keep Growing” seems to directly continue into the song from their new album “Signs in the Leaves”. “Ohhh, I didn’t notice that before!” Fink remarked on those two songs.
“I thought that before, that seemed like a perfect continuation,” Taylor exclaimed.
“Both us of have themes we hold onto and write about throughout, especially in terms of imagery,” Fink commented.
After attending high school in Birmingham, the girls went on to Athens, Georgia, where they met Bachmann, and Saddle Creek Records musician Andy LeMaster. “Other people have said you can hear the difference, but I’m unaware of it. Our friend said ‘this album sounds so Los Angeles’ and I never ever thought that. I’m too in the middle of it to see it,” Taylor smiled.
“It’s mostly weather. In any town, the weather probably dictates the overall mood. But it definitely affects the songwriting to a certain degree,” added Fink.
Fink has had an even larger change that has affected her songwriting, and that is her marriage to fellow Saddle Creek musician Todd Baechle of the band the Faint: “It affects it, it’s not easy. It’s funny to say that, because being happily married makes it too easy, because it makes it harder to be creative. Todd and I talk about this because we both suffer from it. It makes it more difficult because you definitely need to make a separation from your life. It’s a lot easier when you are alone to tap into a really unique and introspective microcosmic core, which is harder when you are used to completely sharing your life with someone, and be in certain moods, and be with them all the time and not have time alone…it makes it difficult but I wouldn’t give it up.”
Taylor fell into teasing her about going on and on saying Fink should ask me: “Actually, how long do you have? It’s difficult..,”
Fink then explained that “this Japanese man” was interviewing them and asked her awkwardly: “How’s your marriage?” and she responded with the uncomfortable, “Um, it’s great!” with a laugh. No Depression Magazine engaged in none of that foolishness though.
Although Azure Ray clearly fits into the niche of Saddle Creek independent rockers, they have a varied and classic list of influences: “We always go back to the same old ones—Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and Elliot Smith,” Taylor said. “We’ve been listening to a lot of our friends—Nik Freitas, Taylor Hollingsworth, Morgan Nagler,” she added. Freitas and Hollingsworth joined Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst for his two releases with the “Mystic Valley Band”, which also included Jason Boesel of Rilo Kiley, and Bright Eyes mainstay Nate Walcott. Taylor and Fink became close with Morgan Nagler upon moving to L.A., as she is the lead singer of an independent rock band from the area called the Whispertown 2000.
“We’ve been really digging Tim Fite,” Fink laughed. Fite opened for the band in Toronto, and he was certainly a site to behold: a Caucasian man with a cow-lick haircut and white overalls, singing rap and hip hop, then switching to slow quirky loner style laments, all set to amazingly original videos. “He’s so awesome!” Taylor chimed in.
If you are eager to put a face to the words, and missed their show at the Horseshoe, treat yourself to a few minute break from whatever you may be working on, and look up “Don’t Leave My Mind”: “It’s just our faces singing,” Taylor laughed. Anyone who has seen these women know that “Just our faces” is a big understatement, they are gorgeous and the video is a dream-like escape set to a song about attachment that we can all understand.
Unfortunately, the video has not gotten much exposure: “It’s out there, but we don’t understand why old fans aren’t aware of it. The video was released about a month ago, but we need to try to reach old fans. It’s on our website and everything. And we’ll do a video for another song when we get back.”
“I’d be making music no matter what I would be doing,” Taylor explains. “It’s what I do best and what I do most naturally. I love that I get to travel and meet people, and I love drinking red wine [laughs]. My job is: drinking red wine, meeting people, going to new cities and doing my hobby. Even collaborating with people, coming together in another way besides just talking—it’s this whole other way to communicate.”
Fink explained: “I realize sometimes I’ll get down about certain aspects of it, but those things happen in any job, it’s just that I don’t like to think of playing music as a job, so when it does feel like that, I start getting bummed out about it. But then I realize if I wasn’t doing this, I’d have to have a job and I’d feel those same pressures.”
“A nine to five,” Taylor chimed in. “So I feel incredibly lucky about what I do, and wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Fink beamed.
Since Taylor and Fink have been in music for the last seventeen years, they were hard pressed to come up with one memory that stands out from their life so far in music, “We could tell you probably twenty stories right now. We didn’t tour for so long, since our last CD release, so I can’t remember that far back,” Taylor laughed.
Equally difficult was trying to find one favorite off the album for Fink and Taylor: “I love them all,” Taylor smiled. “When we were done, I’d go on walks in my neighborhood and listen to the album and come up with a new favorite every time, so it’s ever changing.”
Although Taylor moved to a Vancouver-based record label called Nettwerrk, she still maintains ties with the Nebraska base: “The cool thing about Saddle Creek is that they are friends of mine, and they were friends before I started putting out records with them. There will always be a connection no matter if I keep putting out records with them. I will always feel a connection with the all Saddle Creek guys. I love the Nettwerrk people too. Generally I make sure I really like people before I work with them. They are so different—Nettwerrk is a bunch of awesome girls and Saddle Creek is a bunch of good ol’ boys,” Taylor laughed.
“We are going to do separate things for a year before we do another Azure Ray record,” Taylor explained. “Andy LeMaster and I will be putting our project on hold for a bit [the two toured this summer to practice playing together again for their new project], so I might do another solo thing instead. I am tampering with the idea of recording in my basement and just playing everything myself—drums, bass, guitars and piano and releasing it kind of like demos.”
Fink will be joining Cedric LeMoyne from the band Remy Zero, to work on a second O + S album: “He said he has stuff, but he hasn’t sent it to me. I expect him to get something to me by e-mail when I get back,” she laughed. “What’s up with our projects? None of this should be set in stone,” Taylor laughed.
“Yeah because Cedric got back into the Remy Zero stuff,” Fink laughed. “We need to get to the bottom of this, I might get shafted too!”
“Either way I think it would be cool if we try to do it all,” Taylor smiled. “Do our own things, do Azure Ray, and do collaborations: people are putting out so much stuff now, and everyone’s attention spans are so short that people really can take in lots of different things. Constant output is what they want and need.”
Of course I had to ask what the new Bright Eyes album sounds like, especially as it it set to be the last release by Conor Oberst with Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis under the band name Bright Eyes. “It is similar to the Jenny and Johnny album—very 80’s,” Taylor explained, referring to the project by Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley and her boyfriend Jonathan Rice. “The keyboards at least, and then the vibe is more 90’s shoe-gazer, also like the Jenny and Johnny album.”
“Retro!” Fink exclaimed.
“Retro is the 90’s, weird,” Taylor laughed.