[6 December 2009]
“I felt like this might be my thing,” exclaims Orenda Fink from her home in Los Angeles, discussing her newest solo release, Ask the Night, a stripped-down and compelling piece that finds her reconnecting with her childhood in Alabama. Inspired by the Southern Gothic literature of Flannery O’Connor and music from the American Folk Anthology, Fink included several pieces of poetry written by her friend and collaborator Chris Lawson; setting his words to beautifully arranged, folk-inspired songs, and penning a few wonderful gems of her own.
Fink began her music career in Alabama, and moved to Athens, Georgia in the early 2000’s where she and Maria Taylor began performing and recording under the name Azure Ray. While living in Georgia the two developed a friendship and musical relationship with producer Andy LeMaster, later becoming members of his band, Now It’s Overhead. After many years in the South, Fink turned her eyes to the Midwest, moving to Omaha and becoming an active member in the Saddle Creek community, often appearing on friends’ records including Bright Eyes and the Faint, among many others.
Fink’s first solo album, Invisible Ones, released by Saddle Creek in 2005, was a work of spiritual realization and cultural examination. Musically it pushed beyond the heartache and melancholy of Azure Ray, delving into Haitian influence while employing a broadening cast of musicians. Fink continued to move forward in her artistic progression with the six-piece band Art In Manila and then onto O+S in 2009, a project that began as a residency at Omaha’s Bemis Center of Contemporary Arts and ended as an album that explored digital elements in recording technology.
During the course of our conversation, Fink opened up about many topics and admitted that her sophomore release might be the artistic statement she’s been waiting to make.
The new album seems to focus on your youth in Alabama and the South. Would you mind telling me about your upbringing there?
I grew up in Alabama and we moved around a bit when I was younger. Sometimes in the city but most of the time it was out in the country. So most of my upbringing was in a rural setting. My mom is pretty eccentric. She’s an artist and practices hoodoo, so she always encouraged us to look beyond the literal wherever we were. My upbringing seemed very Southern Gothic to me. It definitely shaped me as an artist and this is the first time I’ve consciously revisited that. So that’s what the record is about.
Do you see yourself moving back to the South at some point?
I’d like to. My husband Todd and I, we moved out to L.A. in February and this was his first time living outside of Omaha. I think we’ll be here for a couple of years and then I was thinking about going back south, just so he could see what it is like there. Just kind of jump around and get different perspectives.
The album seems to be a return to more of a traditional folk sound that you had with Azure Ray. Did this happen naturally or was it a conscious decision to make the album this way?
It was natural in a way but there definitely were decisions that led to that. The first was when I was dreaming up the concept for this record. It was right after I finished the O + S record and that album was all electronic, all computer. Everything was basically recorded in a room, on a laptop and I wanted to do something very different from that. That was the first inspiration towards making this in an organic, live recording setting. It got a little more detailed when I talked to my friend Stephen Bartolomei, who produced it, and we came up with certain restrictions that would help us stay within our parameters, which were to record everything live and use all acoustic instruments and no drums and then record to an 8-track tape instead of a computer. So it was organic and plotted out over a period of time.
It sounds like a reaction or rejection to the last album you made, almost a 180. Is that what it was for you?
Yeah, definitely. I had just done this project where I was a primary songwriter and singing everything and then to turn around and do a solo record, it needed to be very different. Why is one called O + S and one called Orenda Fink? So you need a 180.
Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse sings on the song “High Ground.” How did that relationship come about?
I’ve been friends with him for a very long time. We met way back in the day when Azure Ray opened up for Bright Eyes like 10 years ago, and we kept in touch over the years. I was thinking of who I wanted to guest on that song. I knew I wanted a voice that was really gruff and powerful and kind of dark and gritty. So I asked him and he said he would.
Did he record in Omaha or did you send him the song?
No, I sent him the song and then he recorded it and sent it back to me and Andy [LeMaster]. We were in Athens at this point and it’s kind of funny because he sent the track back to us at the very last minute. We had mixed the song already and then he sent us the vocal track after the mix and we were like, “Ha ha, okay. Let’s go back in and open this thing up.”
Was there anything that made you want to return your focus to the South and Southern Gothic literature?
I think it was a combination of a few different things. At the time I was reading Flannery O’Connor, which was really pulling me back home in a way because I completely relate to her writing and the characters and situations. I was also listening a lot to the American Folk Anthology. The two of those were really working on my brain a lot, kind of seeping into the subconscious. As I was dreaming up the project those things turned into my creative process. Then my friend Chris Lawson - who is an artist and did the artwork - he’s also a poet, and he was sending me poems that were beautifully Southern Gothic and I used some of his material with my writing. I was missing the South a lot. I had been in Omaha for seven years and it was cold. I wanted to go back to that place because it’s so much a part of me and that should be represented in my music at some point in my life.
How does it feel now having completed the project and to have tackled those ideas? Do you feel like it’s something you can shelve at this point?
I think that’s to be determined because I’m moving right along to making a new Azure Ray record right now, so I’m going to be tied up doing that for a while. When I was recording this album I felt like this might be my thing, you know? I think I could do another record that’s not exactly like this but, based on this. It seemed more right to me. The writing was so incredibly easy and the recording was like a magical haze where it was spit out in one month.
You mentioned Flannery O’Connor - are there any other writers that influenced the album or interest you in general?
William Faulkner is great and I love Truman Capote. He’s not always Southern Gothic but he wrote this one book that’s so amazing called, Other Voices, Other Rooms. That book has been very influential to me too.
You’ve had a few significant moves in your life, from Alabama to Athens, then Athens to Omaha, and now Omaha to Los Angeles. Do see yourself continuing to do that?
Yeah, I definitely do. Todd’s definitely written off the possibility that I’m ever going to be happy anywhere forever. He thinks we should go ahead and come to terms with the fact that we’re probably moving every couple of years. I’m like, “No! I don’t want to be that person.” I don’t know… I get restless and find reasons to move. I wouldn’t take any of the moves back because it’s been a great journey.
Your career seems conducive to that though. It’s not like you have to be settled in one particular area.
Not only that but you kind of have to do that or you go crazy.
Speaking of travel, will you be touring for this album?
I hope so! I told my booking agent that I wanted to. I’m playing CMJ in October. I need to be more proactive about getting the touring stuff together. I’m bad about that.
If you do, will this be a full band or solo setting?
I would love to bring the players on the record, which was primarily Steve Bartolomei, Ben Brodin, and Dan McCarthy. The four of us sat in the basement and recorded most of the album together live. Those guys really set the tone and they’re all so good. That would be my dream to take those three guys on the road. It would sound exactly like the record.
You mentioned collaborating with Chris Lawson earlier. Do you feel more comfortable in a collaborative setting?
No, this is actually the first time I’ve ever done that. Maria and I, for Azure Ray, always write our songs separately. Something about this felt right. He offered it to me and I just love his work so much and thought it fit in so well with what I was doing. His poems are so heart-wrenchingly sad and beautiful, so it was easy to take his words and turn them into songs and music.
I think “The Garden” acts as a wonderful centerpiece for the record. Can you tell me a little bit about that song?
It’s about my mom and I wrote it for her a little while ago when they were, like many Americans, afraid they were going to lose their house. She has a total green thumb, she is obsessed with her gardens and her planting and she spends so much time out in the yard. She was worried that she was going to lose that too.
I love the simplicity in your titles and that the story behind the title is much larger.
Yeah, I think it can go either way. My favorite titles are the ones that aren’t super-obvious, like the songs that don’t just say the name of the chorus. Maybe it’s an obscure word in a song that only appears once or maybe it’s not even in the song. I like to be a little out there.
When do you find yourself writing?
Mostly when I am alone and in a certain mood. It just kind of happens. You can’t really make it happen. I feel like you have to be in a mood to walk over to a guitar and pick it up and make something come out of that.
When do you expect the new Azure Ray material to be released?
We’re still in the writing process and haven’t secured a producer so it’s still in the early stages. Ideally, we’re hoping to record in December or January, so sometime in the middle of 2010, but we still have a lot of work to do.
And will you be touring on that album?
Yeah. We probably won’t do any extensive touring but we were thinking we would hit every major place around the world once or twice.
If you weren’t a musician what do you think you would be doing?
Someone asked me that the other day and I said social work but I think that the truth is that I would probably like to write either books or movies.
Do you find yourself writing outside of music?
Well, I wrote a horror movie once and I’m hoping to rewrite it with a friend of mine out here. But I feel kind of silly about it because it’s obviously not a priority. I have like five other ideas for movies and they’re all ridiculously campy and silly but it’s a fun pastime for me. So if I wasn’t doing music then I’d probably get serious about that and try to become a screenwriter.
What’s the plot of your horror flick?
[laughs] Well I don’t want to tell you because I don’t want to release that information.
Fair enough, fair enough.