#46. A Conversation with Orenda Fink

Jason Anders: So let's start with your time spent in Azure Ray, a pop duo featuring yourself and Maria Taylor; tell me about meeting Maria Taylor at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and also about your original band Little Red Rocket. What are your earliest memories of performing?

Orenda Fink: Maria and I both attended a fine arts high school. She was a dance major and I was a theater major. We didn't know each other very well, but one day she came up to me when I was strumming a friend's guitar in the common area. She saw that I played guitar and asked if I wanted to start a band with her. I said yes even though I had never sung or written a song in my life. We got together at her parent's house and started writing and singing together and never stopped.

We started as an acoustic duo and would just drive around Birmingham with my guitar in the trunk and play anywhere anyone would let us- lots of parties. We were fearless. Thank god people didn't have a million recording devices back then, haha. Later, we started a rock band, Little Red Rocket. We had so much fun with it. We were signed to Geffen from a random show in Nashville, and that's how we were able to make our first record. After we were chewed up and spit out by the major label machine, we started working with indie labels and put out another LRR record. Eventually, our writing started to shift toward more introspective work and we decided that a pop band wasn't for us, so we started writing as a duo again. This new shift eventually became Azure Ray.

JA: Do you remember the first album you purchased?

OF: Actually I don't remember the first record I purchased. It probably wasn't all that important. But I do remember the first record my parents gave to me. It was Canned Heat. They probably just got it at a thrift store, but I loved it and listened to it all of the time.

JA: Azure Ray eventually relocated to Omaha, Nebraska, where you would join another Saddle Creek band with Maria Taylor called Now It's Overhead; do you remember what originally inspired you to become a musician, and also, what was it like collaborating with Moby on his album 18?

OF: I have always had a love of playing music. I played in school band as soon as I was able to, and would quickly become bored with my chosen instrument when I thought I had "mastered" it. So, I learned to play a lot of different horns in school. I think the real shift occurred though when I transferred from my small town high school in Ashville, Alabama, to the fine arts school in Birmingham. I was going to school an hour away from where I lived. I commuted with my father, who worked in Birmingham. I felt very isolated because my friends in Ashville ostracized me because they felt that I had abandoned them, yet I lived too far away from my new friends to hang out with them after school. So, I decided that I would learn to play the guitar to pass the time at home. That was why I was playing guitar at ASFA when Maria approached me. And the rest is history, really.

Collaborating with Moby was really easy and fun. It seemed surreal at the time, but Maria and I had so much fun with everything we did that we didn't feel intimidated. He sent us music that he had written and we would just sing on top of it. He was very nice to us.
JA: What are the top three favorite concert experiences you've had, and what is your favorite part of performing live and touring?

OF: I have two that I can think of. Seeing Nina Simone for the first time was the single most emotional concert experience I have ever had. Second to that was the last time I saw the Flaming Lips play 'Do You Realize.' At both concerts, I could not stop sobbing.

My favorite part of performing live is when my voice and hands are all cooperating perfectly with me, so that I am able to connect with the music in a transcendent way, rather than worrying about how it sounds. It helps if the audience is into it too.
JA: You have also collaborated with Conor Oberst on various Bright Eyes albums, what was this and other guest appearances like for you? Do you have a favorite artist to work with?

OF: I don't have a favorite artist that I like to work with, per se. I have always loved collaborating and contributing to other people's work. It's definitely a huge part of what I love about playing music.

JA: In 2005 you released your first full-length solo album Invisible Ones; how does it compare being a solo artist after having spent so much time working with other artists?

OF: I love writing and making records as a solo artist, but as far as touring and promoting, I would rather collaborate with people because I am not good at self-promotion. I'm too insecure and it paralyzes me.

JA: Tell me about your trip to Haiti where you would experience what you referred to as a "spiritual awakening", inspiring you to form a new group known as Art In Manila in 2006; also, what was it like to collaborate with the other band members for the album Set the Woods on Fire?

OF: My first trip to Haiti was really intense for me. It's hard to recount the experience exactly because I've been back twice since then, and I feel like I learned such different things every time- like peeling back the layers of an onion. It's also hard to bring things from a place so different back from our culture, because they sadly fade away with time. Or maybe there is just no place for it here.

Anyway, it is hard for me to talk about now in concrete terms. Art In Manila wasn't necessarily inspired by my trip to Haiti, but more from the longing to collaborate with people again after the solo record- to be working with a group that supported a common goal. Everyone in AIM are my very close friends as well as amazing musicians so working with them was great.
JA: What do you love most about music?

OF: I like how it makes you feel real emotions and taps into parts of your soul that nothing else can.
JA: Tell me about your newest project with Cedric Lemoyne, a pop-based album called O+S- also, if you had to pursue a career outside of music, what would it be?

OF: Cedric and I have been friends for a long time. We knew each other from the Birmingham days. We had been wanting to collaboration for a long time. I got a music residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha and wanted to do a project based on field recordings. I asked Cedric if he wanted to collaborate with me on the project and help me mold the field recordings into loops for pop songs. He agreed, and the project was born.

If I didn't do music, I thought I would teach or maybe do some type of international aid work, but it's hard to know.

JA: If you had to sum up your musical style with one word, what would it be?

OF: That's too hard for me to do!