Azure Ray on Their First New Album in Over 10 Years and the 20th Anniversary of Their Debut | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Azure Ray on Their First New Album in Over 10 Years and the 20th Anniversary of Their Debut


May 06, 2021 Web Exclusive Photography by Liz Bretz Bookmark and Share

Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink have always had the unique ability to transform tragedy into transcendent, healing music. Azure Ray, their main creative outlet since 1999, began as a response to the horrific death of Taylor’s boyfriend, Peter Smith. For many musicians the gravity of this kind of trauma would be inescapable but Taylor and Fink managed to face it head on then build a fascinating, sonically adventurous body of work that has subtly reformatted part of the singer/songwriter landscape. Now, with their forthcoming pandemic album, Remedy, these two friends continue to find beauty everywhere, even in the most challenging circumstances.

Speaking to Under the Radar from their homes during quarantine, the duo looks back to the beginning of their collaboration. “We started writing these songs for therapy,” says Taylor. “They were helping us get through our grief. Then we played them for a memorial show for my boyfriend. We were a little confused at first with what to do with them. It felt weird to even release them because it was really just how we were getting through every day. Then, after a while, we thought, ‘Well, maybe these could help other people who are going through a similar situation.’”

That’s the kind of thoughtful, deliberate approach that defines this project. Taylor and Fink have an exceedingly rare connection, a life-long bond formed the moment they met as teens at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. Taylor was a ballerina, dancing alongside future Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox. Fink was studying theater. Taylor remembers her first interaction with Fink. “She had a guitar. There was this common area where she was sitting down and strumming. I walked past her then I just remember turning around and going up to her. We weren’t friends. We’d never spoken. I just said, ‘Do you want to start a band?’ And she said, ‘Yeah’ and that was it.” To which Fink adds: “We’ve been inseparable ever since.”

In short order, Taylor and Fink formed the alt-rock party outfit Little Red Rocket and began playing shows with other Birmingham mid-’90s luminaries like Remy Zero and Verbena. They signed an ill-fated major label deal with Geffen Records, then relocated to Athens, Georgia, where their creative circle included bands like The Glands and members of The Elephant Six Collective like Neutral Milk Hotel. Fink remembers it fondly. “It really did seem like an artist playground,” she says. “We had our little service industry jobs that we worked during the day. We’d do that then go home and shower and change and go out at night. There were all these bands and musicians. There were only a couple of bars that we went to. We’d all go play at night together. You know, just like hang out and drink. Or go to parties and somewhere in there we managed to be constantly playing shows and writing songs and singing on each other’s stuff and playing on each other’s stuff. It was a really magical time.”

And after Smith’s death, the Athens community was there to support them. Brian Causey of Man or Astro-man? heard their new songs at the memorial and offered to release them on his indie label, Warm Records. He introduced Taylor and Fink to Eric Bachmann (Archers of Loaf, Crooked Fingers), who produced their first album (and three more for them over the next 10 years). It all came together very quickly. The songs were demoed on a cassette 4-track then arranged and recorded by Bachmann on an 8-track reel-to-reel. They were very different than anything from Little Red Rocket. They were raw but warm, taking place in their own twilight universe. Initially people didn’t know what to make of them. It was something new for everyone involved. Critics called it “whisper core” but it was really just the sound of Taylor and Fink slowly, steadily shaping their grief into art.

The gorgeous, shimmering result of that process (simply titled Azure Ray) has finally gotten the deluxe reissue treatment from Taylor’s Flower Moon Records. It’s now available for the first time on vinyl and with a 100-page photo book documenting the band’s origins. Its quietly powerful songs like “Rise” and “Sleep” (which appeared on The Devil Wears Prada soundtrack) have gone on to influence a new generation of artists like Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers.

“Once that first record came out we’d spend about eight months out of each year touring. We opened up for Moby, Crooked Fingers several times, Bright Eyes several times, then we finally started to headline our own shows,” remembers Taylor.

They were essentially peerless. There was no other American indie band in their scene comprised solely of women. The original lineup included bassist Jackie Ferguson from Little Red Rocket. It was just the three of them in a van packed with gear and burned CDs featuring artists like Cat Power, OutKast, Leonard Cohen, Coldplay, Nina Simone, and Guided By Voices. They had a futon in the back and would look for fancy hotel parking lots where it would feel safe to sleep. In the mornings they would use the lobby bathrooms to wash up and brush their teeth. Eventually, they got one cell phone to share with a voicemail that went “Hey, it’s Maria and Orenda. Please leave a message.”

“We didn’t have a computer. We didn’t have internet. It was just kind of all of a sudden we’re selling out these shows. It was just this real organic, gradual build,” says Taylor. “We definitely weren’t thinking about getting famous and we definitely weren’t thinking about making money but there was definitely nothing else in the world we wanted to do.”

When asked if they ever felt like they were in danger traveling alone on the road, they miraculously said they did not. “I feel like we did so many sketchy things and we weren’t ever scared,” says Taylor. To which Fink laughed, then adds: “Yeah, fear never entered the conversation.”

Over the years both Taylor and Fink released music together and apart in a multitude of other projects but they’ve always returned to Azure Ray. They moved from Athens to Omaha then to California. 2018 saw the release of an EP, Waves, that included a cover of Athens legends R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People classic “Nightswimming” that left fans wondering if another album could be around the corner.

Now, as the world slowly begins to open up in recovery from COVID-19, Taylor and Fink are once again are ready to share more music. Their new album, Remedy, was recorded mostly remotely with a new producer, Brandon Walters (Lord Huron, Joshua Radin). “I wanna just scream his name from the rooftops because he’s done just such a great job,” praises Taylor. “We’re really, really excited. It’s also really charged because of the pandemic. We’ve all been so emotional and had our ups and downs and I think you can really hear it in this record.”

With Walters’ help the band has crafted another album full of quiet confidence and ethereal elegance. The title track and first single, like many of Azure Ray’s best songs, looks to the future with resilience as it boldly states, “You’re a remedy or there’s none.” The second single, “Bad Dream,” implores us to wake up and shake off the nightmare of past year. Hopefully it’ll work.

Remedy will be released on June 18, 2021. Here’s the new vertical video by Ryan Dwyer for “Bad Dream,” featuring both Taylor and Fink receiving vaccination shots.

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