Underneath This just had the soulful experience of interviewing talented the talented singer-songwriter, Orenda Fink. Please read more about Orenda (from bighassle.com) before proceeding to the interview.
Throughout her time with Azure Ray and over the course of her solo career, Orenda Fink has never shied from exploring the darker edges of spirituality and the human condition. On her debut solo album Invisible Ones, Orenda explored traditional Haitian ritual and mysticism. She then followed that up with an examination of the Southern Gothic subconscious on Ask the Night. Needless to say, death has been visible in much of her music. On her latest album, Blue Dream, she looks deeply at the subject, reflecting upon a year-long meditation on death that started with a dog named Wilson and the words of Laurie Anderson.
“Just look at yesterday, and what you were doing, and how important it was, and how nonexistent it is now! How dreamlike it is! Same thing with tomorrow. So where are we living? Tibetans have unbelievably fascinating answers to that. This is what I’m studying because my dog died.” -Laurie Anderson
Orenda was sent this quote by her friend Nina Barnes after Wilson, Orenda’s dog of 16 years, died. That year she found herself on a deeply personal search for the meaning of death. Pieces of answers, coded in riddle, came to her in dreams. Her dreams began to tell a story – about life and death and the afterlife, reality, and the fine line between the conscious and subconscious world.
She then spent the next year understanding the experience and filtering it through the musical inspirations of Smog, Violetta Parra, and Kate Bush to craft Blue Dream. The album truly came together at ARC in Omaha, NE with the help of producers Ben Brodin and Todd Fink (The Faint), along with drummer Bill Rieflin (Ministry, Swans, R.E.M., King Crimson).
Lead single “Ace of Cups” starts the album off by using the Tarot symbol of attunement and spirituality to explore the interconnectedness with the world and humanity that even death cannot undo. The haunting “Holy Holy” examines them directly with lines “We come into this world all alone/and we leave with not much more” and “I lay in bed/collect all my dreams/then I pay/someone to read them to me/the simple ones are just as they seem/but open your eyes/and they say so much more.” Whereas “All Hearts Will Beat Again” displays ideas Orenda came to understand upon reflection in lines “It’s a sign in the eyes/something in your smile/it’s a nod and a wave from the darkness/but our hearts will beat again/and the love we gave will come back/but i don’t know where or when.”
Writing the album allowed Orenda to contemplate the experiences that precipitated it and explore new perspectives gained over the past year. This process left her with the belief that we can only be truly healed if we find our “interior God.” How do you find your interior God? There are many ways, but she believes one of them is through dreams. Dreams being the closest way to have a direct experience with the all-knowing past, present, and future.
Please describe your path to becoming a musician.
When I was young my dream was to become an actress. My father wisely suggested that I audition for the Alabama School of Fine Arts (high school) for theater. I did and got in, but realized that I didn’t really have the chops for acting. However, it was there that I discovered the guitar and songwriting and met Maria Taylor, whom I went on to form many bands with, including Azure Ray. Neither one of us have really stopped writing and performing since we met.
You have songs entitled “Dirty South” and “Alabama.” In what ways has being from this region of the United States influenced the music that you make?
I am definitely influenced creatively by my southern roots. There are things I’ve always loved about the South- the languid pace, the sound of cicadas, the viscous humidity. It’s a habitat for ghosts.
Is your music feminist? If so, how so?
I would say that my music is derived from more of a humanist perspective than anything, but at the same time perhaps it’s inherently feminist because I am a feminist. I think I am drawn to exploring the human condition- the meaning of life and death, how we are affected by love and loss, how we overcome our deep flaws to find some sort of redemption. I see this all as a woman though, and as a woman, I fit into the puzzle of life in a uniquely feminine way so I suppose it’s humanist and feminist.
Your style has been characterized as “adult alternative” and “indie rock.” What do you make of these adjectives?
Those are pretty generic labels. It’s difficult because I’ve never really aligned myself with a “genre.” I’ve been told that Azure Ray started “whispercore” but my solo work isn’t quite like Azure Ray. Death folk seems like it would describe Blue Dream haha, but I know that I don’t fit into that genre. Maybe I should make one up. Grief Wave.
From your vantage point, how are women treated and viewed within these genres?
Women are certainly the minority in this business, and of course sexism does exist in the industry, but I don’t think it is something that should ever prevent a woman from going all in. From my perspective, male or female, you are treated with respect if you are good at what you do, you are professional, and you are courteous. There is always the old sound guy that doesn’t think you’re in the band because you are a girl (even though you walk in with a guitar), but honestly I stopped caring about that a long time ago. Being overly concerned with that antiquated behavior can distract women in music from what they should be doing, which is kicking ass.
One of my favorites by you is “No Evolution” off your 2005 solo album, “Invisible Ones.” What is the story behind that song?
That song is about stopping evolution so the people we love don’t have to die. If we could freeze time, and just be suspended instead of blindly falling into the cycle of life- it’s a protest song against nature.
I absolutely love your song, “The Moon Knows” from the subsequent record. I can also totally imagine Cat Power covering this. Do you ever write songs with other artists in mind?
Thank you! That’s a great compliment. I love her work. I don’t write songs with other artists in mind, per se, but sometimes I will hold my work up against someone I really admire and see where I feel it’s deficits are. Sometimes this can help me write a better song.
Which songs have you or would you like to cover?
I’ve done several in my career, Townes Van Zandt, Guided By Voices, Les Savy Fav, Bruce Springsteen, to name a few. I’m about to cover a John Lennon song for the Ace of Cups single. It was one I just heard for the first time this year and I fell in love with it.
Your most recent album, “Blue Dream” was at least partially inspired by a personal experience of loss. What was it like to make a record that was about such intense emotions?
It was… intense haha. There are several songs on this record that I literally wept while writing. There are actual tear stains on my lyric sheets. That sounds like the beginning of a country song. But really, the recording was also intense in a different way. By the time I recorded, I felt like I had walked through the fire and had come out a healed, if not stronger person. So I had this body of work that I wanted to honor by going back to those painful places. It all seems like a blur to me now, really.
A Laurie Anderson quote was also influential. I can hear her influence in some ways. Who and what else have been your most significant creative influences?
Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, and Bill Callahan were pretty big influences on me these last couple of years.
The tracks, “Ace of Cups” and “You Can Be Loved” beautifully open the album in an inspiring manner. What was the impetus for these songs?
Thank you. Both of these songs look at what it means to love and be loved. I think love is eternal life. But it’s not easy- you have to work and sacrifice to love and be loved. But it’s worth it. Love is magic, it’s alchemy, it’s the only thing that truly matters. That’s why people who don’t know how to give or receive love are so profoundly unhappy.
The lyric, “Your broken Jesus is in pieces” from “This is part of something greater”, is so thought and feeling provoking. How has spirituality influenced your work?
Spirituality has always been a great influence on my work. Like the song title, I do think this- this thing we’re all doing- is a part of something greater. I don’t know what that is exactly but it keeps my heart alive. Studying different spiritual practices, religions, writings of the great mystics has always been a passion of mine and does inform my work. I think our attempts to understand the universe, the meaning of life, and the afterlife through religion are much like a dream- they are stories coded in riddle and symbolism. These symbols and archetypes are quite powerful and poetic to me. It becomes a danger though when people take these writings too literally. That is the tragedy with religion. But even that misguided attempt to connect with the divine has its own damaged beauty and that was sort of what I was speaking to with that particular line.
The title track quite vividly paints a picture of sadness. Which other emotions are contained within this song?
Probably sadness mixed with a bittersweet resignation. Like just deciding to let go and let it wash over you….
What is the meaning of “Sweet Disorder?”
Sweet disorder is about embracing chaos, embracing the unconventional, the frowned upon. It’s about giving up on trying to control life and just being.
The cover art of your new album is quite striking. How does it connect to the themes of the record?
Thank you. The amazing artist Maria Reichstadt painted it. The strings of teeth are from a dream I had where I was pulled up from the bottom of the ocean by them. The narwhal was a friend’s idea. He listened to the record and that was the image that popped into his head. The narwhal spirit in mythology speaks to mystery and the subconscious as relating to universal truths. After he mentioned the narwal we started seeing images of them everywhere. It was so weird. I took it as a sign. Also, it’s the unicorn of the sea!
What has it been like collaborating creatively with your husband?
I love working with Todd. I’m a very lucky lady!
How has it been working with Maria Taylor in Azure Ray and Cedric Lemoyne in O+S?
I also love working with Maria and Cedric. I have known both of them for over half my life. They are like a brother and sister to me. Again, I am very lucky!
From your perspective, how do the Azure Ray and O+S albums compare to your solo work?
Azure Ray and O+S are highly collaborative works, so even though I am writing and singing in both, there is a huge element of Maria and Cedric in the work, respectively. I think with my solo work, I can be a little more self-indulgent which can yield positive and negative results. I think for Blue Dream it was mostly positive though because of the intensely personal nature of the journey I was on while creating it.
On what projects are you working on next?
After touring for Blue Dream I plan on finishing up a new O+S record that Cedric and I have been working on for the last couple of years. It’s getting close!
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
Know that your career is going to have ups and downs. Never give up. Support your fellow artists. Build up, don’t tear down. Believe in yourself but practice humility. Work hard, but have fun and follow your heart!