Azure Ray Returns: Seminal Indie-Folk Duo Speaks About New Record And Influencing Phoebe Bridgers And Taylor Swift

In 2001, Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor quietly released a brilliant indie-folk album that would go on to influence some of the biggest names in music history.

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The record was the self-titled debut from their duo, Azure Ray, and its candid vulnerability, lo-fi production and hauntingly beautiful melodies have cemented its place as one of the more sincere and sublime entries in the canon of modern songwriting. Among its recorded fans are Phoebe Bridgers—whose own sound has a noticeable influence from Azure Ray—and Taylor Swift, who included their song “Sleep” on her six-song breakup playlist. 

Since 2001, Fink and Taylor have stayed afloat with a variety of projects—Taylor founded the record label, Flower Moon Records, and they both revisited Azure Ray from time to time for periodic releases, mostly singles and EPs in recent years. But now, on June 18, the duo is releasing their first full-length in over a decade: Remedy, a moving and eclectic record forged out of the rekindling of their creative relationship in the midst of the pandemic. 

Hopping on a phone call with American Songwriter a few weeks ago, the duo spoke all about the process of making Remedy and returning to the cathartic outlet of Azure Ray. They also spoke with stark truth about the reality of being indie artists, especially in the time of streaming—even though their sound has continued to spread and influence artists around the world, they’ve faced hard times in the wake of the music industry’s recent changes. But, highlighting their pure love for simply making music with each other, there was a beautiful and hopeful sentiment underneath their words. Read the conversation below: 

American Songwriter: What has the time since the release of Waves in 2018 been like for y’all? What were things like at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Orenda Fink: I moved from Omaha to the California desert during that time, mostly informed by Maria’s suggestion to come out here. That was great. It wasn’t long after we got here that the pandemic and lockdown happened, so it was just very serendipitous to move onto this rural property in a small town. We just happened to have good timing, which led up to this really great year: 2020.

Maria Taylor: We both took quarantine really seriously. I mean, we didn’t see anyone except for each other outside. Orenda was the only person I saw, but we still didn’t do it that often. But towards the beginning of the pandemic, we just started writing these demos and sending them to each other. That’s kinda how we’ve always dealt with our emotions—we just write songs. This was an emotional time for everybody, so I feel like it inspired both of us to write. After about five or six months, I guess we realized that we maybe had a record. It just happened really naturally.

Making it was a really unique experience too—for the very first time making a record, we weren’t together. We’ve always just gone into a studio, but this was all just emails. Emailing your home recordings of vocal harmonies and stuff. It was interesting. At first, I was worried that maybe it would lose some sort of intimacy that way, but I think it’s the opposite. Us being in our homes—where we really held up for over a year—and recording from our actual bedrooms, then making this record. I’m really proud of it. 

AS: So were these songs just natural extensions of your observations and emotions during quarantine? How did you approach focusing them in to become a cohesive album?

OF: I wasn’t writing any songs at all before COVID hit. I was just kinda getting settled into my house and taking a breather, you know? Moving out here was a big “Reset” for me. But then, when the pandemic hit, everyone was searching for what was going to take the place of their lives.

I know a lot of people had a hard time being productive during the pandemic, and I totally get that too—for the first several months, I couldn’t do anything but stare at a wall or CNN. But once we decided to try to write a record, something about that really just opened up the floodgates for me. It gave me something to focus on and channel that feeling of isolation and fear and loss into. All the songs that we wrote for this record were specifically written during this time period.

AS: Do you feel like the experience of making this record during COVID brought y’all into a new creative headspace?

MT: Well, we were celebrating the 20th anniversary of our very first Azure Ray record.That came in January, so we planned this really great celebration—we made this book with all these old photographs we found. We released a new song that we had completely forgotten about. So, I think that really helped—not only were we like, “Holy shit, this pandemic… are we all dying? What’s going to happen? Who are we? What are we doing?” But we were also celebrating that first record, going through the boxes, and finding all those old photographs… the memories just flooded back. It brought us back to our roots. As Azure Ray, I think we’ve just combined our flood of emotions, and we always dealt with that through writing songs. That certainly helped shape this record. For me, there was something really comforting about doing the record. 

OF: Yeah, diving deeply back into the style of Azure Ray was comforting to me, especially just working on a demo by myself. We always kinda do it that way. We’ll work on a demo by ourselves, then we’ll give that to the other person, who’ll sing harmonies on it and send it back. Of course, the song always ends up completely transformed. Maria will throw down three-part harmonies on a song and just bring it to life. It was incredibly cathartic. 

MT: That’s always been an element of our friendship. The very first thing I ever said to Orenda was “Do you want to start a band?” So, that’s always been a huge part of our relationship. 10 years have gone by since we put out our last full-length record, but when she moved back to California, we were around each other all the time. So, it’s really great to be coming back to that. We haven’t done it in a while, but it’s really a huge part of our friendship. 

AS: What was it like to hear these tracks back for the first time?

OF: We were losing our minds. I mean, our producer, Brandon Walters, did such a good job. There wasn’t a single moment where we weren’t blown away. Like Maria said, we normally go into a studio for a month. So, to not be there while Brandon was creating the music was totally different than what we’ve ever done. So, to hear it all at once was a fun surprise. It was scary to give up that freedom, but it totally worked with him. 

AS: What does it mean to y’all to see the reach and influence of your sound? Many—including Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift—have cited y’all as an inspiration. How does that feel?

MT: I think it’s really cool. I think Orenda said it best once—she commented on how music has taken some weird twists and turns. There was a point where she was like, “Maybe my music just isn’t gonna fit in with anything that’s mainstream.” Then, all of a sudden, yeah, our original style is really a style right now. So, that kinda just gave us another reason to put out music right now—it seems like people are really receptive to our style. But, we’ve been writing music like this for pretty much forever. This is just our hearts and souls coming out. So, it’s a really good time and maybe younger people will enjoy it.

OF: Yeah, I agree with Maria—there are certain types of artists, for better or worse, that don’t change their style with the trends, it’s about artistic expression. This is what comes most naturally. That’s the way it’s always been with us. We were in our early 20s when we made that first Azure Ray record. So, it was kinda just instinctual for us. But, we never changed that. So, it’s nice—I guess we’re the outliers. We just stuck with the same style and now it’s back again. Stick with it: they will always come back around! 

MT: Yeah, we stuck with it. And it’s flattering too—Phoebe is a friend of ours and she said that we’ve always been an influence on her. Taylor Swift put one of our songs on a breakup playlist she made. So, the fact that we have influenced some of these amazing women is, like, I don’t even know… it’s the most flattering thing ever. 

AS: Well, it’s especially amazing to consider how resonant and impactful your sound is, even today. The original Azure Ray record is 20 years old, but it continues to find new audiences. That must be a pretty surreal feeling, to see the legs your body of work has, both in terms of your songs and the songs from artists you’ve inspired. 

MT: Well, I don’t know—it doesn’t seem like that. We’re not well-known at all and we’re very broke with shoestring budgets. Like, it’s nice when we hear it sometimes, but we don’t get reminded of that fact daily, that’s for sure. It’s not manifesting into cash. But we love each other because it doesn’t matter. If we make no money, it doesn’t matter if many people listen to it or not. We still love making music together. So yeah, that’s why it really means a lot when people like Phoebe or any artist says that they do love us and we did influence them, because we don’t often get reminded of that. It means a lot. It’s special. It’s not something we hear every day.

AS: In a lot of ways, that brings to light some of the unfortunate realities of being an artist in the modern economy. 

OF: Well, a lot of that has to do with the rise of streaming in the music industry, really. I mean, it just kinda gutted the ability to make a certain type of income for a certain tier of artists… the tier that we fall right into. It seems that in order to make a middle class living, you have to be… I don’t know, something bigger than we are. 

MT: Yeah, we don’t know what we are. I mean, there was a time when people were buying records and I felt fortunate. We weren’t making a lot of money by any means, but I was, like “Okay, I can make a living doing this.” It was great. But now, it’s just really, really hard unless you’re on tour, like, all the time. Even then, there’s so much competition. It’s hard being a band at our level. It’s hard to make enough money to support a family.

AS: Yes, and meanwhile the platforms and the big labels keep making money.

MT: Yeah, exactly—Mr. Spotify is really enjoying it, but Azure Ray’s not. That’s one of the reasons I started my own label with my husband, Flower Moon Records. It’s so difficult to make money, so if you at least own your own label, you’ll make twice as much versus splitting it with a label. Plus, my husband really enjoys it—it’s been his dream forever. I had all the connections and we had the dream and the right work ethic, so we made it happen. But yeah, it’s hard, especially if you’re on a label. 

AS: Well, with this new record coming out and the prospect of touring returning, how do y’all feel now? What’s the future look like?

OF: Yeah, I’m ready to stay in lockdown forever. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about human nature this year that I wish I didn’t know.

MT: Wait, elaborate on that.

OF:  I don’t really know… like, I really cherish my existing relationships—let’s put it that way. I’m very picky about the people that are close to me. They have been thoroughly vetted and are all great, amazing people. I’ve just come to see how rare that is in life. I don’t know—it’s not that I’m scared of people, but I just feel more protective of my energy and my time and my space than I have ever been in my entire life. So, whatever that means, I’m not pessimistic about the future. I’m actually kind of hopeful. I think a lot of people, to a certain degree, have been changed by the fear of being alone. And then, with how crazy the restrictions have been, but also seeing the people who didn’t restrict anything at all about their lives… what does that mean? I don’t know. The whole thing is a real mind fuck.

But so far as the music goes, I think Maria and I are happy to play shows. We really want to reach people with this record. I think that it could be a cathartic lesson for people, you know? That’s just kinda what we want to do. We want people to feel about this record the way they did the first record. We hope that it helps them get through times that are tough.

Azure Ray’s new record is out now and available everywhere. Watch the music video for “Bad Dream” below:

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