Perhaps most well known as one half of the now-defunct dreamy pop duo Azure Ray, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Orenda Fink comes to Ft. Lauderdale tonight fronting her new band Art In Manila, which released its debut, Set the Woods on Fire in August on famed Omaha-based indie label Saddle Creek Records (home to Bright Eyes and Fink’s husband Todd Fink’s band the Faint). For their appearance tonight, Fink pulls double-duty as touring trumpet player/keyboardist for headlining Saddle Creek alums Rilo Kiley. In her downtime, Fink continues to play in Now Its Overhead, also on Saddle Creek and based in Athens, where Fink called home for several years before she moved to Omaha. In a lengthy conversation with New Times, Fink discussed her new band, her life-changing experience in Haiti, and the connection to late-night talk show host Art Bell. A condensed transcript follows.
New Times: According to your bio, you got an “astrological nudge” to form Art In Manila with certain players from your solo touring band. What was that nudge?
Orenda Fink: It stemmed from, after I put out my solo record and toured on that, I just really felt like the universe wasn’t helping facilitate that project very well. I didn’t really understand why and I was seeking answers, like “okay what’s going on? Why isn’t this working?” And then I was reading my horoscope, a long-projected forecast, from this site that I like a lot. It basically said that, for like a two-year period, anything that I was going to try to do was going to fail --- like, destined to fail. But then it said that the only way to get around that would be to share the work and share the glory for whatever I was doing. [To me,] that translated into starting a band.
The band’s name was originally Art Bell. It’s sometimes spelled with an “e” at the end, Art Belle.
[Laughing:] Well, I wanted it just to be his name, without the “e.” But then I consulted a few lawyers about whether or not we could legally do that. I got a couple of different opinions, like “why don’t you just make it the female version of Art Bell.” So we played with that for a little while, but then another lawyer said “no, it’s phonetic, so you can’t get away with that either.” I tried to contact him to get to get permission, but I never heard back from him. And finally I just felt like it was too risky, so we changed it to Art In Manila.
Which is also a reference to his travels to the Philippines. How much are you a fan of his show?
I really like the show. I don’t listen to it religiously, but, for some reason, it stood out as a great bandname to be because I it goes back to my first years of touring.
That’s interesting, because the show is really scary. There are so many creepy things on there, which is funny that you would associate it a pleasant memory.
[Laughs.] I like stuff like that. I’m drawn to it. The whole conspiracy-theory/supernatural realm is really interesting to me. It’s not necessarily scary. I was always glued to it. I never really got scared by it.
Speaking of that, what happened when you visited Haiti? It sounds like it had a really personal impact, and not just musically --- although that was obviously part of it, with the guest musicians and Haitian folk elements you had on your solo record, 2005’s Invisible Ones.
The first time I went, I felt like I had a real spiritual, emotional awakening there. I think the planets were perfectly aligned, because with everything that I experienced, I felt like I was a child when I went in and I had grown up when I left. I learned and saw so many things that I never knew existed or knew I could feel in certain ways. Immediately after that trip, I became completely obsessed with Haiti. I’ve gone back two more times since then. Every time I go, I feel like I’m having a more mature outlook and understanding of the country and why I’m drawn to it and am really trying to learn about all the aspects of it. Sometimes you find something in your life that somehow makes sense to you to study and you can relate to the rest of the world. It’s some kind of strange model.
Or, to put it another way, when you find something external, like a cultural world, that strikes a chord and feels like there’s already some of that inside of you, but you didn’t know it.
Definitely. Beyond that, just the people that I met there who were my guides are some of the most inspirational, beautiful, spiritual, intelligent people I’ve ever met in my life. They are almost like my mentors, and that had a lot to do with it to. They provided me with such an education that I feel like I started my life over in a way, in the way I think about the world. Sometimes I neglect to mention that those people are a huge reason. It’s not like I’m just wandering randomly around the countryside. I’m actually being taught by these people that live there. That’s a huge aspect of it too.
There are a lot misconceptions when someone says the word “voodoo.” How can you give the average person, who maybe doesn’t have any exposure, a clearer sense of what spirituality in Haiti is?
I’m no expert. And, as with most things in Haiti, not everything’s black and white. If you walk around Haiti for a week and ask different people about voodoo, you’ll get a hundred different answers. I guess my understanding of it is that it’s about balancing the natural energies of the universe and appealing to the certain spirits that represent those energies. And also learning how to harness that energy to create life the way you want it. It’s interesting to me too, because there’s been this resurgence here in the US recently about magical thinking and that kind of thing. Like The Secret, where they’re just saying if you think about something enough and really concentrate on it, then you’ll make it happen.
Like quantum theory and manifesting reality.
Yeah. To me, voodoo is kind of the same thing. To me, that’s what magic is. It’s part of folklore and superstition to create this whole god/demon thing. But it could very well just be that it’s your own energy. And whether you want to use it for something good or something negative, that’s your own prerogative.
How did the poverty there impact you, experiencing it first-hand?
The first time I went, I went to these obviously impoverished areas, but it didn’t really affect me that much. They just didn’t really seem like they were impoverished. They were very happy and well put-together, very welcoming and giving. I didn’t see myself at that point as being separate from them. But later, I saw some areas that I realized what everyone’s talking about. [Laughs.] Like Cité-Soleil. It’s the worst area, maybe in the world. It’s really intense. You can’t really go in, because it’s really dangerous. We just kinda drove around the outskirts, so I didn’t meet anyone from there. I just saw it, but it really affected me. I asked people, like “how can something get that bad?” Because it’s basically just like piles and piles and piles of garbage that you can’t even see over, and people just living in tin lean-to’s amidst all this garbage. The answers that I got were mostly, “it’s just hopelessness.” It’s generation after generation of hopelessness. Coming back to the United States, it made me think about where this country is going, and how damaging either hopelessness or apathy can be over generations and where we could possibly be heading.
And also the unseen-but-still-felt psychological toll we pay for our lifestyle creating that elsewhere.
Yeah, it’s called a developing country for a reason. It’s like trying to feed adult food to a child when you just inundate them with all these products. Like plastic, basically. That’s a huge problem in Haiti. All this plastic from these industrialized nations flooded in, and they had no way to dispose of it. The people that I talked to explained that this way of throwing your garbage out worked when it all decomposed into the ground. There’s a community on one of the coasts called Garbage Island, because the garbage is piled up so densely and so high that it actually extended the land. They started building houses on top of the garbage, and every once in a while the garbage will break away and a house will just float out into the sea.
What is the artwork that pops up on Art In Manila’s Myspace page?
It’s by the same artist, my friend Chris Lawson, who did the artwork for Hold On Love, the last Azure Ray record, and the Art In Manila record, which is my favorite artwork of anything I’ve ever done. He went to Haiti the second and third time and he did some collaborations with some Haitian artists. Those are pieces from that series. At the time I created the page, I didn’t have any artwork for the record, so I just stuck ‘em up there. It’s a similar aesthetic, not exactly the same, but the same artist.
How far back does your relationship with Rilo Kiley go?
Maria [Taylor of Azure Ray] and I met them, god, almost ten years ago at North By Northwest when we were in the band Little Red Rocket and played a show together, but never really saw them again until Rilo Kiley started putting records out on Saddle Creek. And we were like “oh hey, I remember you!” And then Now It’s Overhead toured with Rilo Kiley.
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You’ve attributed the breakup of Azure Ray to your not being able to write in a sad or heartbroken state anymore after meeting your husband. Why was that group not able to sustain a change of heart or a different mood for writing songs?
It was more that Maria and I had kind of moved on in where we writing from. Maybe the group could have, I don’t know, kept on going if we had both shifted directions together. But I felt like we really came to an impasse and were in two different places. We were so used to being in tune with each other and I was just difficult to keep it going. And we didn’t really see why we should if we weren’t in that place, because it had been so special. Like, why do it if it’s not going to be everything that it should be?
How difficult is it for you to expose yourself the way that you tend to do in your songs?
It’s not that hard. I try to keep songwriting confessional enough to be universal but cryptic enough where it’s not an emo tell-all. I’d rather think of what’s going on and try to create some type of imagery with it rather than name people’s names. [Laughs.] It’s not hard for me to be honest. It’s just, I guess, hard for me to articulate in a way that I feel is poetic rather than just strictly confessional. --Saby Reyes-Kulkarni