Love and Permanence:
Azure Ray Draw Down the Moon
No one in their right mind would trade their thirties for their twenties. If you can remember anything about them, they probably weren’t all that fun. But if you can’t, however, they’re horrible, tied with the teens as life’s two most calamitous train wrecks. It’s a time of confusion and mayhem, a time to get locked up, locked down, fucked up, fucked over, knocked up, knocked down and knocked out. The carnage doesn’t stop when your twenties end, but you can still rest assured that they’re over. For that, Azure Ray remains eternally grateful.
“It is your time to make mistakes, and figure things out,” says Orenda Fink. “But when you make mistakes and things happen to you, you’re so wounded by them. You’re incredibly wounded, and you don’t feel it the way you do when you get a little bit older.”
As Azure Ray, Fink and musical kindred Maria Taylor have built their careers on confessionalistic missives of regret and disillusionment. It’s a turbulent indigo all their own, born of plaintive sighs and humid Dixie summers. Each knows the other like the back of her hand: For 18 years they’ve laughed, lived, grieved, suffered, written and performed together, and each understands the other on a level so deep as to be subterranean. Fink is the more verbose of the two (“She can tell a story like nobody’s business!” giggles Taylor); her compatriot, though more reticent, is no less gracious. Six years after their last outing, Hold On Love, Fink and Taylor have grown deeper into themselves – and each other.
“We’re a little bit older; we’re in our mid-30s,” acknowledges Taylor. “I think there is more vulnerability in the other records, which I love. And I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
The songs on Drawing Down the Moon (Saddle Creek), their fourth album, resonate with newfound maturity and depth. The despair and psychic toil of their previous offerings has been nudged aside by a knowing confidence. Beautiful things can come from the dark. “A lot can happen in six years to people,” says Fink. “You grow, and I think we’ve grown in ways that have been very positive for each of us. Coming back together as different people but feeling that magic was almost a spiritual experience.”
Azure Ray’s second wind began when neither Fink nor Taylor predicted it. “When we went solo it was mostly to do something different,” Taylor explains. “We both got busy doing separate things and we didn’t think of it that much.” Both appeared on multiple Bright Eyes albums and generated six solo albums between them; Fink also paired up with Remy Zero’s Cedric LeMoyne for last year’s absorbing O+S project. Fate separated them, but it also brought them back together: Fink’s touring activities with Rilo Kiley frequently landed her in Los Angeles, where Taylor resided at the time.
“It was the first time in years that we had spent quality time,” reflects Taylor. “So that was the actual reconnecting (began). We were always still friends, but it seemed like it was better than ever.”
Azure Ray reintroduced themselves with a Los Angeles gig that teamed them with Saddle Creek labelmates Andy LeMaster and Nick White in November of 2008. More concerts followed, and Drawing Down the Moon proceeded from there. “We didn’t want to come out with a rock record or something that didn’t represent what Azure Ray was,” Fink admits. “But we are different people and have different inspirations now.”
Since then, Fink and husband Todd have returned to the Athens soil that nourished Azure Ray from beginning, and Taylor settled back in Birmingham, where the pair emerged in the early ’90s in the pop-rock band Little Red Rocket. Only four hours separate the two now, and the love and permanence of sound and Southern sisterhood forever binds them. “What I think is special about Azure Ray is that it is so deeply personal,” ponders Fink. “In that respect, none of that has changed.”
Time and distance aside, the creative simpatico between Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink is as vital as ever. All that was missing from the happy reunion was longtime collaborator Eric Bachmann, who refused to budge from his sojourn in Taiwan, where he was busy cultivating a second career as an English instructor. But Azure Ray was not to be easily dissuaded. “We asked him three times,” Fink says. “We were willing to go fly to Taiwan to produce the record. He kept saying no because he wanted to take a break from music. The third time he was like, ‘Don’t ask me again!'”
With Bachmann seemingly out of the picture, Azure Ray approached Mark Linkous to gauge his interest in producing the songs that appear on Drawing Down the Moon. The trio sat down for a weekend demo session, but fate intervened once more: Bachmann reneged, flew back into the open arms of Taylor and Fink, and began adding loops, glimmering textures and electronic beats to their acoustic guitar and piano excursions. Months later, Linkous met his shocking and brutal end in a Knoxville alley.
“When he passed away we thought, ‘What if we had done it with him? Would things have been any different with him?'” remembers Fink. “You can’t really go down that path. It was his choice, and he would’ve made that choice if it was a month later or a month earlier.”
Mark Linkous may have envisioned the moon rising in a search, but Azure Ray focus more intently on drawing it down. A favorite pastime among practitioners of neo-pagan witchcraft, it was a particularly intriguing concept for Fink and Taylor, absent any blood-sister juju. Crown them queens in the valley of the fire. “The moon is a source of power,” explains Fink. “It’s about inner power and claiming it for yourself, and what the universe has to offer you.”
Judging from the contents of Drawing Down the Moon, the universe still has plenty to offer Azure Ray: silhouettes dancing, places where the winter is kind, and wonder in the quilted sky. It’s a record of myriad moods, “Wake Up Sleepyhead” a harp-laden dream and “Don’t Leave My Mind” a warm-hearted ode to optimistic possibility. While ghosts of heartbreaks past surface on “Signs in the Leaves” and “Shouldn’t Have Loved,” Azure Ray’s past themes of sorrow and vulnerability have dissolved into emotional rescue and heartfelt tenderness. “I’d give my whole world up for you to always love,” Fink sings on “Make Your Heart,” one of the album’s most arresting tracks. With so many inner demons banished, Taylor and Fink still wonder at the impenetrable darkness that permeated their lives and songs. Remembers the latter: “We’d go to our separate bedrooms and just go to dark, dark, dark places.”
The darkest place on Drawing Down the Moon is reserved, undoubtedly, for “Larraine.” A brutal account of abuse rendered in chilling detail (“Your daddy loved you wrong while he pointed his gun”) it resurrects the “terrible, terrible childhood” of Fink’s mother. The cello moans in mourning for innocence lost in the worst possible way, the acoustic guitar evokes helpless peril and the harmonica wails like her mother’s futile scream for help – help that never once came. The devastation culminates in the shattering line, “What they did to you, they did to me.”
“Her father was protected ’cause he was a fireman in a small town,” Fink confides. “Even when the police would be called in to the house they’d be like, ‘It’s fine. Let him sleep it off.’ There was nowhere for any of them to turn, really.”
For all the scars that burned so deeply, “Larraine” is a testament to its inspiration’s resilient spirit. “I was a little nervous when we were recording it,” confesses Fink. “You have to call your mom and get permission to put the song on the record because it was so personal. It took like five days to get up the courage to call her and said, ‘Do you want me to send you the lyrics?’ And she said, ‘No, I trust you and I love you. I’m honored, and thank you.'”
“On and On Again” provides a soothing palliative for the horrors of “Larraine,” and embodies the pricelessness of long-lasting kinship. “Music is therapy, not just for the people writing it, but for the people that are listening to it,” Taylor opines. “I think about what songs do to me when I listen to other people’s songs, and how they can save me for those three minutes.”
And as the twosome intones on “Silver Sorrow,” what they do, they do the best that they can. “It’s almost like we had to reinvent ourselves to go back to Azure Ray,” says Fink. “It’s the old Azure Ray but it’s the new Azure Ray, too.”