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Azure Ray portrait

Welcome Home, Azure Ray

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: March 5, 2002

March 9
Azure Ray w/ Conor Oberst, Jake
The Junction,
15th & Farnam
8 p.m.

In the heyday of Seattle's heady grunge era, one way for a band to meet optimum hip-trajectory was to pick up and move to Cloud City. In fact, I knew a number of music writers at the time who casually announced, "I'm moving to Seattle because that's where it's all happening, if you're really into music, that is."

With all the recent talk of Omaha becoming "the next Seattle," it was only a matter of time before a band announced that it was packing up its van and moving to the city renowned for its insurance industry and a town-sized boys' correctional center.

"Yes, we're moving to Omaha in June," said Maria Taylor, who, along with Orenda Fink, make up the evocative acoustic duo Azure Ray. Along with Jackie Lyons on keyboards, the band has been playing shows along the West Coast with Saddle Creek Records band The Good Life in support of their recently released six-song EP, November, also on Saddle Creek. It's a tour that takes Azure Ray to their new home town March 9 for a show at The Junction with fellow Omahans Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Jake Bellows (Neva Dinova).

Why Omaha?

"We love everyone there, and we need a change," Taylor said from her van as it barreled along a dusty freeway somewhere between Los Angeles and Tempe. "That's pretty much it. It'll be inspiring. There's so much great music going on there."



Taylor said she and Fink absolutely love Athens, their home for the past four years. "I'll definitely miss it," she said. "I'll be back in the winter. One thing I'm not sure of is the weather in Omaha. Like, is there snow on the ground there now?"

I tell her that not only is there snow on the ground, but that it got down to about 15-below-zero wind chill just the other night. "Oh wow," she said, sounding a bit unsure of the whole idea. "It gets pretty cold in Athens, too. When we left it was around 32. But the cold never lasts very long."

I didn't bother to tell her was the cold doesn't last very long in Omaha, either -- only about six months. She'll have plenty of time to discover that on her own.

The ice-box winters could be quite a shock for a duo that spent their lives growing up in the balmy South. Fink and Taylor are both from Birmingham, Ala. They met at age 15 while attending a fine arts high school there. Fink was studying theater, while Taylor's major was ballet. "I noticed her playing the guitar one day and said, 'We should start a band.' That night we wrote our first songs," Taylor said.

Though they started as an acoustic duo, shortly afterward they formed Little Red Rocket, an alt-pop band in the Belly/Elastica vein that released its debut on Tim/Kerr Records and eventually were signed to Geffen only to get dropped when the label merged with Universal. It was just a matter of time before the duo returned to its acoustic roots.

"We didn't have a plan when we started doing this," Taylor said of Azure Ray. "These were just personal songs that were reflecting where we were in our lives. We had no intention of playing them for anyone but each other. Someone convinced us to do a show in Athens. Brian Causey (of Athens label Warm Records) said, 'I think you should put these songs out and get Eric Bachmann (of Crooked Fingers) to produce it.' We said, 'Sure, it'll be a side project.' But it felt so much better. It was honest, it just felt right. It got a good response, and we liked working with Eric. We ended up making Azure Ray a priority, and Little Red Rocket broke up."

The duo released its self-titled debut last year on Warm Records. To say it was introspective and confessional was an understatement. And though the CD was chock full of quiet, aching songs about loneliness, heartache, despair and loss, there was no denying the catchy melodies and underlying hope.



Azure Ray's November CD

"These were just personal songs that were reflecting where we were in our lives. We had no intention of playing them for anyone but each other"

Azure Ray image

"For me, this music is why I can be happy. It's like an outlet where I can let out stuff that weighs me down so it doesn't weigh me down anymore."

Among those who turned a kind ear to the debut was Conor Oberst, who invited the duo to tour with Bright Eyes as an opening act and to join him on stage as part of his rotating line-up. Shortly after, Azure Ray was asked to release an EP on Saddle Creek. "That's the advantage of being on an indie label," Taylor said. "We love every band on Saddle Creek and were flattered when they asked us to release something on their label."

Engineered by Now It's Overhead frontman Andy Lemaster, the six-song November was more of the same solemn stuff that adorned their debut, but with a stripped down and, ultimately, even more personal sound. The songs' breathy whispers continued to deal with the shadows of personal loss, but were tempered with hope and self-reliance. Often compared to Mazzy Star, the duo's music is more endearing and stark, like listening to your best friend's confessions while seated in a parked car at night.

You'd kind of expect the duo to sound that way in real life, but Taylor was anything but dour over her cell phone. In fact, she sounded downright giddy. "For me, this music is why I can be happy," she said. "It's like an outlet where I can let out stuff that weighs me down so it doesn't weigh me down anymore."

She should feel completely renewed then, having just finished recording another full-length CD of emotional exorcisms, titled Burn and Shiver, to be released in late April on Warm. "Eric Bachmann produced it, and I think it's a little different than our other stuff," Taylor said. "The production will make it similar to the first CD. I think the songs are less structured, and people might have to listen to it a few times to get it. There aren't as many hooks, but a lot more instrumentation than on the EP, including horns and strings."

The duo won't be hitting the road upon its release. Taylor instead will play drums with Bright Eyes when the band tours this May. "I love to play drums and haven't in a long time," she said. "I really need to practice. I'll pretty much know all the songs by the time we leave."

After that, Taylor is headed back to Athens to pack up her stuff for the move to Omaha. Will she be looking for a job when she gets here? "I'm gonna try to just do music," she said. "Hopefully I'll be touring a lot and won't have time for a job, but you never know. You might see me behind the counter at McDonald's."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly March 6, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.