If you are an Azure Ray fan, you can thank a psychic. Not just any psychic, but a single online psychic back in the internet's infancy of the mid 1990s. We don't know this person's name--we know it's a man, at least--but he told Orenda Fink to start writing songs as a method of catharsis to deal with some issues in her life. This was during a time when she was writing what she calls "sugary pop," so it was quite a shock for someone to suggest this sea change in her songwriting themes. But she listened to him, and you are reading this now. And if he really is a psychic, he'll know about this interview and read it too.
The newly reformed Azure Ray, consisting of Fink and Maria Taylor, drops Drawing Down the Moon on Saddle Creek Records this month. (I have to thank Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds, fellow Saddle Creek artist, for setting this up. Read my interview with Burhenn, a former student of mine in her undergraduate days, here.)
So read my interview with Orenda Fink of Azure Ray. You'll learn more about this psychic, what genre of literature influences her songwriting, what it's like being married to another songwriter, and how cooking a good dinner compares to writing a song.
How did you get your start as a writer?
When I first started writing songs, it was with my friend Maria (Taylor, her bandmate in Azure Ray). We were in a fine arts high school in Alabama, and we were taking the writing from some of our creative writing friends and putting it to music. So in the beginning we were not really writing for ourselves. After that, we were in a pop rock band called Little Red Rocket, which was just really sugary pop. I wouldn't call that "writing" either. Laughs.
It wasn't until a few years into that, after a few things happened to Maria and me, moments in life where you begin to become introspective and you ponder the meaning of life: your heart's been hurt, your mind's been hurt by loss. We were both looking for an outlet to deal with these things cathartically. I had written a psychic online, someone I didn't know at all. Laughs. In a real therapeutic kind of way, telling him my problems. This was in the 90s, the start of when people were using the internet for this kind of stuff.
I wrote the psychic about all these problems that I thought were insurmountable. He wrote back and said the only way I was going to overcome my issues was to write about them in my music. I had never thought about that kind of songwriting before, because up until then I had only written pop songs. So the writing process started out of that moment. I started writing things that I wanted to be meaningful, beautiful, and poetic. And I started reading poetry and novels and taking cues from my favorite writers.
So have you ever written any poetry?
Not really, but sometimes when I am questioning my lyrics, I'll write them out in poem form to see if they stand on their own.
I noticed on your website that you are a fan of southern gothic literature. Who are some of your literary inspirations?
I love Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O'Connor. I was in a huge O'Connor phase for a while, and my last solo album Ask the Night was influenced a lot by her writing. I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He was a huge influence on the early Azure Ray days.
How do these writers influence your songwriting?
I am a huge fan of the genre of magical realism. It's my favorite style of writing. I can relate to it in some ways, because if I am in a certain zone--which comes less frequently as I get older, sadly--I see things like that. Sometimes images from the books of those writers can really resonate with me, and I'll write a whole song about one of those images. It's often a starting point for me.
Talk to me about your writing routine.
It's funny because my husband (Todd Fink, lead singer of The Faint) always makes fun of my writing routine, because there is no routine. He is very dedicated to his craft. He writes all the time, and I distract him all the time and do nothing. He'll be in the shower and I'll come in and tell him that I wrote a song, and he'll say, "I hate you!" For me, it's based in inspiration. The easiest songs come when I already have a lyric in mind, even just one. Then the music takes shape around that lyric. It then informs the entire song, and I'll write about that idea. It can come from reading something or hearing something that someone says that just sticks in my head.
So you usually start with the lyrics first?
Yeah, I usually start with the lyrics, and the melody comes next. When I start with the melody, it takes me a while to find the lyric that matches the melody. Starting with the lyric is much easier for me.
For example, after my mother had a stroke, she told me that she was seeing dead people at roadside crosses. It was an intense conversation that made me think. So I started playing with the line of "lonely ghosts and roadside crosses," and it become a song of mine called "Lonely Ghosts": "Like lonely ghosts at a roadside cross/We stay because we don't know where else to go." I built the song around that phrase, and it ended up being a love song about two people who can't leave each other because they don't know anything else. So that's an example of taking a story someone told me, and making it into a song.
When you write, are you better during a certain time of day? Do you make sure you carve out time during the day to write?
I don't, because I work off of inspiration. If I try to do that, I am usually not happy with what I come up with. And it's more frustrating to me because it becomes work. When it comes, it comes--and hopefully in a timely manner.
But does that way of writing worry you? I hear a lot of writers say they wait for inspiration, but the bottom line is that you don't have an endless supply of time. Are you ever anxious because you have to produce?
For the new Azure Ray record, this was the first time I actually had pressure to write. I kind of liked that, because I was trying harder to write a certain number of songs in a certain period of time. I compiled a list of my favorite songs from other artists and listened to them over and over again, trying to jump start the process that usually happens naturally. I should do that more often, but I guess I am a little lazy. It actually worked out well. Once I got into the groove, they started coming quickly.
After I go through a spurt like that, I like to take some hibernation time and watch some bad TV and indulge myself in some mindless entertainment for a couple of months. When I am done with that, I am ready to write again.
Is there anything you must have with you to get in that groove you mention?
I need pen and paper--no computer--and my guitar. Alcohol and cigarettes are good too. And I have to be alone.
Why does pen and paper work for you?
I look at the computer so much, with things like email and Facebook. It's not very romantic and inspiring. Pen and paper frees me from those distractions and separates me from that world.
What do you do to overcome writer's block?
I'll read, or I'll go to the computer and Google what it is that I am trying to write about, and I'll see if any great writers have written anything about it. If something resonates, it puts me on the right track.
I want to talk about what it's like to have two songwriters under one roof. Do you collaborate? Bounce ideas off each other?
We keep our processes pretty separate, but we bounce ideas off each other all the time. Our music is very different, so that's good. His process is way more electronic and upbeat, and he is working on techno music right now as a side project.
I play him everything I write, and he plays me everything he does. We'll give each other feedback, but for the most part it's pretty separate.
It sounds like he is much more disciplined. Do you ever feel that rubbing off on you?
No, I don't. I just try to support him because he does treat it like a job. He sets aside time each day to work on things. It's hard for me to let him do that because I don't do it that way, and that's what I meant earlier about being a distraction. I'll be like, "Oh, let's go to the bookstore, let's do this, let's watch TV, I'm gonna make a huge dinner and we're going to drink wine all night." Laughs. And he'll tell me he has to work, and I'll say, "It's not work. You can do anything you want!" Laughs. So I have to be respectful of the way he works and his process.
We write very different songs. He does what I call "future writing," trying to offer the world something they have never heard. My songwriting is very confessional and pretty timeless. There's nothing really inventive or new about the genre. Having that as his intention, he does need to work harder at what he does.
What do you do when you revise your lyrics?
I try to take something that is plainly stated and rewrite it with imagery or description. So instead of saying, "I am sad," I'll describe the day or the way I am walking. Or I'll go through and change things that are too cheesy or maudlin.