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Not Drowning But Waving: Azure Ray Released An EP Last Year, Playing The Bell House Saturday, January 19th, 2019, Talk To rock nyc

Never before and never since has the style of a pop duo been so closely related to their very formation. In the mid-90s, singers Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor were fifteen year old girls who had auditioned for (the only way to get in) and been accepted to the excellent  Alabama School of Fine Arts -a junior and senior high school in Birmingham created by the legislature in 1971 to provide tuition-free instruction for talented and gifted students (their latest alumni is Mitski, a woman whose sound can also incorporate tune based ambient) … that isn’t the seed, quite. The seed is the fast friends forming band after band before settling on Little Red Rocket to immediate success. Little Red Rocket disbanded after the death of Maria’s boyfriend and Maria and Orenda worked through the mourning period  by writing sad and melancholy songs and eventually forming the sad dream pop duo Azure Ray to widespread acclaim, and a song used in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada. That was back in 2001 and ever since then the duo have performed together intermittently, between hiatuses, to provide the same soul torching sound.

The latest reformation occured last year: “We definitely started this EP from a place of nostalgia. We received a box of our old reel to reel tapes of the very first Azure Ray recordings. When we saw those it brought back so many emotions and prompted the idea to write new songs together.” The result was last October’s Waves. In my best of 2018 round up (here),  I put it between US Girls and  the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge,  and though it seemed a little skimpy with only two new songs, one of them, “Last Summer In Omaha” is among their greatest achievements. Speaking over the phone and also answering questions via email,last Wednesday, they said:  “We are dipping our feet back in the water. We plan on writing more together soon…. I feel like the 2 new songs are in the same vein as the older Azure Ray records, or at least that was our intention. With our “Night Swimming” cover we ventured away from our more organic, ethereal sound and used heavy beats and weaving bass lines. On our re-recording of “Hold on Love” we wanted it to sound more like it does live, which is more straightforward. When it’s all together, you get a little bit of everything.”

Orenda and Maria  moved from Birmingham, Ala, to  Athens, Ga to  Omaha, Nebraska to Los Angeles, California, then Maria returned to  Alabama (“New York is too cold!” she noted) before settling in LA.  Maria married Ryan Dwyer (a former congressional aide) eight years ago and has two little boys, Orenda married Todd Fink (he changed to his wife’s surname), lead singer of The Faint. The two women pursued tangential careers while the bottom fell out of the music business. When I interviewed Maria in 2013 (here) she was considering leaving the business entirely but song placement in TV shows and movies helped a lot, her “If Only” off 2016’s sublime In The Next Life was featured on the most popular TV show of the 2010s, “This Is Us”. “We have always had luck with TV and movie placements. We love the opportunity to reach new fans through TV and movies and it’s literally the only way to make money in the music business these days.”

The duo handle this popularity, without requisite financial reimbursement, with relative good humor. When her youngest asked if he could smash a guitar like a rock star, his big brother Miles replied “You can only do that when you’re rich.” Raised on rock, as it were, I remember Miles as a toddler wandering into sight at Maria’s Christmas show streamed from her living room a couple of years ago. But the truth is,  if the kids wanna remain in synch with 2019 they could do worse than listening to Azure Ray, if you can’t hear the duo in Oh Wonder (sampled to such great effect by Lil Uzi Vert) you aren’t paying attention. “Well, neither of us have ever listened to any emo rap. ever!  We’ll get on that…”

Wednesday afternoon was the first time I’ve spoken to Orenda but I’ve been a fan for a long time, as for Maria, since interviewing her in 2013 she has given me shoutouts TWICE at her concerts and her husband Ryan has sent me tee shirts and vinyl. There is something about Maria which solo is a melodic sheen that with Azure Ray becomes an ethereal memory tug, it is, to paraphrase a Maria aphorism, the song beneath the song. This is so effective as background in TV shows because it is both upfront and behind, you glom on as necessary and it provides the clinch of big emotions without the musical blackmail of large sounds: it guides you to a place. I was reading comments on youtube and one woman wrote: “This is the soundtrack to my teenage heartbreak”. It is hard to imagine a better reason for Azure Ray’s (or pop music for that) existence than to help a girl deal with getting her heart broken. Meanwhile, Maria’s youngest is mesmerized by Nirvana and obsessed with guitars.

When I suggest to the women that they are rock and roll royalty they get a good laugh but really it is true. All these bands, the Saddle Creek gang (at my prodding, Maria once compared them to a High School clique, and a friend of mine who performed at their Omaha club dubbed them completely indifferent to everybody else, even other musicians) which includes the obvious (Cursive, The Faint, Rilo Kiley), have moved the heart of indie despite being distributed by Warner Brothers. It’s worth noting that the best indie band in the world right this second, Big Thief, record for them, and this is the world Azure Ray belong to. Discussing  their LA reunion last year Azure Ray noted “It was incredible. It was a sold out show at a beautiful venue. We had 3 string players and a keyboardist accompany us… (the first time we had ever had a string section live.) It was inspiring and solidified our plan to work on new material and play more shows in the future!.” Whereas Alyson Camus of rock nyc wrote (here): “The entire show sounded like a family reunion… the whimsical Whispertown, Morgan Nagler’s indie project, has often opened for Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, the Elected and Maria Taylor herself, then ex-Rilo Kiley Blake Sennett took the stage with his side project, the Elected, for a very anticipated set after a long retirement… and the whole evening brought in mind a deep sense of community and friendship”

Azure Ray are performing at The Bell House in Brooklyn on Saturday, opening is Greg Farley (from his bio: “His dad was a teamster who drove tractor trailers and his mom worked at the A&P”) who spent ten years with the Felice Brothers. and Brad Armstrong “a principal songwriter and producer of the critically successful and financially disastrous band 13ghosts. He has been a contributing member of the Dexateens from 2008 to the present.” I haven’t heard from Dexateens since 2016. As for Azure Ray, I wish we were getting mini solo sets from the women but let’s see what Alyson Camus has to say: “Listening to Azure Ray is like floating in deep blue heaven…. Maria and Orenda shared the vocals all night long, alternately leading, while a keyboard and a string trio (with cello and violins) were accompanying their serene and melancholic songs. Their voices blended in a haunting whisper, the sort of ultra delicate murmur that could evaporate in front of your eyes.”

The duo aren’t certain what to expect from their Brooklyn audience, “it could be sold out, it could be empty. The problem is getting people to know we are performing,” although “we have been writing together and performing together for almost 30 years. We do have some loyal fans who have continued to follow our path and we couldn’t be more grateful.” Tickets are available here.

With the music business so difficult to base a career upon, a duo like Azure Ray have gone from being a strong, gifted part of indie pop to self-employed (they record for Ryan and Maria’s Flower Moon Records), outliers doing the musical equivalent of driving a truck thought without the teamsters behind them. Get off your butts and support them Saturday night, if you won’t do it for me do it for the unions.

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