Catching Up With Azure Ray

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Azure Ray is changing. Featuring the vocal and instrumental talents of Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, the duo began in Birmingham, Ala., traveled to Athens, Ga., and found a home in Omaha, Neb. For a decade, Azure Ray showcased dreamy vocals, swooning guitar and piano all encased in a pop aesthetic. With As Above So Below—the duo’s fifth studio album and second musical outing since their return from a seven-year hiatus in 2010—introduces the age of electronica. As the band’s website aptly suggests, As Above is “Azure Ray in alternate universe.” Perhaps a strange dimension, where the traditional swell of a guitar has been replaced by the beeps and whistles of some mechanical machine, and where melancholy automatons whisper sad vocals, which seem both universal and personal.

Paste spoke with the duo before venturing out on a month-long U.S. tour on Sept. 4, which coincides with As Above’s release. Even if Azure Ray is cloaked in a complete electronic sound, it’s latest album is just the next step for Fink and Taylor in an already storied, 20-year collaboration.

Paste : Right now, you’re in between finishing up your latest album and going on tour this September. What have you been doing the last couple months?
Maria Taylor: Well we finished the record in March, and I just had a baby. I’ve just been in complete mom mode. I’m just learning how to be a mom.
Orenda Fink: I’ve been working on Harouki Zombie, which is a DJ/VJ project with Nina Barnes, the wife of Kevin Barnes from of Montreal. We shot a video for Azure Ray, and we’ve just been getting together all the artwork and that fun stuff.

Paste : So Maria, with the tour this September, will you be taking the family on the road?
Taylor I am. I’m taking my mom and my baby. So it’s going to be a very different tour. It’ll be good through, we’re excited.

Paste : I noticed that your tour opens with a few locations that are personal for the band. Those being your hometown of Birmingham, Ala., and also Athens, Ga., which is were Azure Ray originated before relocating to Omaha. Is it important to you to start tours at familiar towns and locations?
Fink: We usually kick off the tour from where we rehearse, which can easily be Omaha or Birmingham. So it’s important that the first show be at your home base. We have are friends there so…
Taylor: We have the home team advantage. I used to always dread it because I would get way more nervous because it’s really close friends and family, but I feel like somehow that’s changing and I’m finding it more comforting.
Fink: I think when we first started out, and we changed from Little Red Rockets to Azure Ray, it took a little while for our home town to really grasp that change. That’s why it was a little nerve racking, but outside our hometown people really knew us as Azure Ray, but now it’s totally the same. Our hometown is like any other town.

Paste : So Azure Ray came off a seven-year hiatus in 2010. Was it difficult or different when writing new Azure Ray songs after having so much time off for your record, Drawing Down the Moon?
Taylor: I think it was pretty easy to get back into because we’ve always written separately, but we came back into knowing that we wanted Drawing Down the Moon to be similar to our very first Azure Ray album, so as we were writing songs separately we still had this kind of aesthetic in mind. This time we just tried something totally different, and we’re excited about that, to have a change. But the writing process was pretty similar, where we both brought songs to the table and then decided which ones we thought would work for this record.

Paste : So when making an Azure Ray record, do the songs come in pretty polished and complete or do they get beat up a little bit in studio?
Fink: It runs together all over the place. Mostly, we have finished songs and bring them to each other, but this time we had the process a little more open and we spent a month together. Usually we have fully formed demos and have an idea of what the record is going to be, but this time we decided to leave it open because we would be spending a month together working on material.
Taylor: We just came in with really polished ideas rather than songs for this record.

Paste : Speaking of your new record, As Above So Below, I’ve seen the album described as “Azure Ray in an alternate universe.” Can you elaborate on that?
Maria: I felt like that was a perfect description of our new sound.
Fink: That was the intention when we went in, to take it of its normal sound and make it purely electronic.

Taylor: We wanted to be true to ourselves. We still have what makes us Azure Ray, like our melodies and our harmonies. Our musical sense is still there but we just had Orenda’s husband, Todd, and Andy (LeMaster) take it to some other place where we’ve never been before.
Fink: With this one we just took the same approach but there were different producers.
Taylor: A leap of faith, ya know? But it worked out, at least we think so. We’re very happy with it.

Paste : You’ve mentioned your desire to take Azure Ray more electronic, where did the inspiration for the change come from?
Taylor: On the whole record, it’s all electronic. There’s no real instruments, except a piano on one song.
Fink: We talked to Todd and Andy about it, and as we were just throwing out ideas for the record, Todd mentioned James Blake. He is an artist who uses very minimal electronic work, but it was fully electronic. The elements that are electronic are very well thought out and purposefully put there to accentuate the song and the mood. So we loved the music that Todd was sending us. In our minds, those minimalist electronic artists were our inspiration.
Taylor: Since our first record, we’ve always played an acoustic guitar, that’s the first instrument that you hear. There’s other things around it, and we’ve dabbled in adding some electronic elements, but this is the first record where there are no organic instruments, it’s all electronic.

Paste : Were there any challenges with converting Azure Ray to completely digital?
Taylor: It doesn’t seem like much of a challenge because all the instruments are there, and the music is still there. That’s really important for me. Singing is the last thing I do, and I want the music to conjure up an emotion, so I can really give it the best performance vocally. I found it even more moving because the songs were just so different from anything we’ve ever done. It just makes you want to sing it differently.
Fink: I think that having this minimal electronic sound allowed us to have a different approach with the vocals. The music is still powerful but the vocals are featured more. With organic instruments, they feel a little more isolated. I think that lends the vibe to what we do. You can still have emotion with an acoustic guitar, drums and minimal electronics if you have a producer who knows how to do it right.

Paste : You’ve mentioned Todd and Andy several time, it sounds like this album was a very collaborative effort.
Taylor: That was it. It was just me, Orenda, Todd and Andy. They kind of took it into electronic world. We had no hand in that. We gave them the songs with the melodies and they created this soundscape around it.

Paste : Would you say the electronic experiment was a success? Will it be a main staple for Azure Ray on future projects?
Fink: It’s hard to say because we usually go with our intuition and our gut with what we want to do from one project to another, but overall it was an amazingly positive experience. We loved the results of it. I think we’ll definitely lean towards that direction unless the next record we’re just like “no, it’s going to be all acoustic.” It’s really based on where we are at the time.

Paste : On past albums Azure Ray’s lyrics tackle very large themes, and the trend seems to continue on As Above So Below. Do you ever find yourself more as a philosopher or poet than a musician?
Taylor: I would never be so bold as to call myself that, I’m just really philosophizing my life and my experiences, and try to make poetry out of it.

Fink: I agree with Maria. I wouldn’t call myself a philosopher or a poet necessarily because there are some people who for sure call themselves that, and I’m not one of them. But I think what we do is a cathartic process, so in a way we are philosophizing about our personal experiences. The cathartic part is to essentially turn that into something that is poetry. Something that is universal. Something that makes you feel ok about what you’re going through.

Paste : Aside from Azure Ray, both of you have worked on solo projects, collaborations and other bands. Is writing and touring as Azure Ray feel like home for you?
Taylor: Well working with Orenda is my least favorite (laughs). I’m just kidding. I think it’s great that we have these outlets because they’re all different. Doing something solo, completely solo, is different from collaborating with someone else. When we collaborate it’s something very special because we’ve been doing this for twenty years. I think it’s rare to have a friendship that lasts twenty years and to have a working relationship simultaneously. They’re all really special and fun, but I think us still being able to do this is the most special because that’s the most difficult thing. You can always do things on your own because hopefully you’re at peace with yourself, but it’s special that our relationship keeps growing together.
Fink: I agree. I really cherish the collaborations that I have, but the one with Azure Ray is when I started collaborating with Maria and it’s a really special part of my life. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to do that and have that in my life. Not everyone can do that, or even want to, but I’m so grateful that I can.

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