Azure Ray is, more or less, a pair of landlocked sirens who shed their songwriting scales every few years for the sake of reinvention. When they started making music together in high school, Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor were writing songs of an uplifting, poppier ilk, as demonstrated by their self-titled debut from over a decade ago. Since then, they’ve toyed with various approaches and audio flavors, fleshing out their poetic whispers as they experiment with synths, discordant harmonies, and the gentle thuds of a drum machine.
With As Above So Below, which drops on Saddle Creek September 4, Orenda and Maria brought some friends aboard to make what they call “Azure Ray in an alternate universe” a reality: Andy LeMaster produced their previous album, Drawing Down the Moon (as well as numerous releases from Bright Eyes, the Dirty Truckers and R.E.M), and returned to the studio for Below, along with Todd Fink, Orenda’s husband and member of Omaha’s indie deity The Faint. We spoke with Orenda and Maria about changing dynamics, new beginnings for the band, and writing lullabies as they prepped for their tour in Birmingham, Alabama.
I’m intrigued by what you said about At Above So Below revealing a new side to Azure Ray, one from an “alternate universe.” Now that the record’s about to be released, does it still sound that way to you?
Orenda Fink: We’ve dabbled in this kind of sound before, but we’ve never gone full out in this direction. [Below] is still Azure Ray because it’s our voice and our harmonies. There’s still a lot of Azure Ray in there, but the record does feel like a new universe to me.
How is Below going to work into your live set, with all its electronic components? Are you approaching touring differently this time around?
Maria Taylor: Ask us in a week! [laughs]
OF: We don’t really know—it’s going to be a lot of trial and error, figuring out how to make this work live. Andy is coming with us and he’s going to help us with the electronic elements, and Heather McIntosh will be joining us on cello as well, which we’re really excited about. Also, Maria’s 3-month-old baby and mother are coming, and that’s going to be totally new for us! [laughs]
Congrats Maria, by the way! You were pregnant while you were recording this, weren’t you?
MT: Yeah, I was 8 months pregnant.
How’d that go?!
MT: It was actually hard for me to sing, because my baby was so big he was pressing on my diaphragm. I couldn’t hit notes, so it was really challenging. It was something I’ve never really had to worry about. I had to sing the songs so many times in order to get the notes!
There’s always pressure when you’re recording, but to have literal pressure due to a baby leaning up against your insides—I mean, that’s nuts.
MT: It was crazy! I wonder if he can recognize any of it when I play. They say you can hear when you’re in the womb, and we were definitely listening to the play-backs really loud when he was fully developed, so I always wonder if he’ll recognize the songs when we play them now. Orenda and Todd and my boyfriend and I would put headphones on my belly and play The Faint’s Wet from Birth. We had a rave inside there.
You lived together throughout the recording of Below. Have you done that before with previous records, or was this the first time you were under the same roof?
MT: Back in the day when we started, we lived together for many records. How many, ‘Renda? At least the first three Azure Ray records—
OF: Four. So, this is like old times.
What’s been the most drastic change for you as a songwriting team with Below?
MT: You know, we were just talking about this. It’s funny how we’ve been sisters and best friends since we were young, and we just have the kind of relationship that no matter how many years you take off or how many years you spend apart, when we get back together, it’s just the same as it was when we were 15. Nothing felt that different; it just kind of felt familiar and comfortable and fun.
So, nothing’s changed about your creative process? You’re still writing the same?
OF: Well, mostly, we write separately. I think it helps, too, because we are so close. When we’re in writing mode, we’re convinced we’re in the same place. We write separately, and then we bring the songs to each other and play them, or add harmonies or any kind of little idea or part. Then we collect our songs when we feel ready, and kind of decide which ones fit together to make a record.
What’s next after Below?
MT: Right now, we’re just putting all our focus on putting on the tour and then touring. After that, I’m going to be working on a project with Andy that we’ve been working on for three years now, so hopefully we’re going to finish it.
OF: I’m working on a DJ project with Kevin (Barnes, of Montreal)’s wife—and that’s coming out in October. Maria and I were talking about doing a lullaby project from Azure Ray. We thought we should make it an annual thing where she and her husband come here for the month, and we work on music, and then put out a record. So hopefully we’ll be able to do that again next year.
What did you take away from the collaborations on Below that you can apply to the future pursuits of Azure Ray?
MT: Well, I think that we all collectively learned that Todd and Andy work really well together. It was their first post-production job together, and you never know when you go in how that’s going to work. Sometimes it’s hard for a husband and wife to work together, and Orenda and Todd did great, and I really enjoyed it, too. We didn’t know going into it, but there was a lot of chemistry.
You’ve been friends for years, and now one of your husbands has worked with you together in a professional capacity. What’s the secret, when it comes to making a relationship—professional or otherwise—work?
MT: You know, I think the answer to that is keeping your ego in check, and I think that’s why lots of people can’t work with their significant others or their friends—the ego rears its ugly head. We’ve really just learned to not be that way, you know? We respect each other. Even when we have different opinions, we hear each other out. We set our egos aside for the greater good of the experience and the outcome of the record.
OF: It probably helps that when we met in high school, it was basically through music. That was the first thing we ever did together. So in our way, our friendship was formed symbiotically with a working relationship. They’re so intertwined that it seems like a big part of the friendship.
One of your lyrics from the record is “You can’t change nature’s wishes.” I’d say that line applies here, just because it seems as though your musical partnership and your friendship have both grown so organically alongside each other.
MT: I love that. That’s one of Orenda’s lyrics, and I think it’s my favorite one on the record. That part of the song gives me chills all the time, and when you said it I got chills again!