Walk Bliss Way
Azure Ray’s Melancholic Maria Taylor Perks Up On Her Debut Solo Effort
“Hold on,” Taylor instructs, and then hollers to her little sister. “Hey Kate, what’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done while I was drunk?” Taylor laughs and then pleads with her sister, “Help me out here.” After a few seconds of muffled talk she returns her attention to her cell phone and announces, “OK, the family is thinking.”
Then, a breakthrough, amid much giggling. “My brother, Macey, says that I got onstage recently with Ben Lee [with whom she’s touring] and danced around crazy, like Elaine from Seinfeld. I didn’t think I was that bad, but they made fun of me for days. By far, I don’t think it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever done drunk, but my brother just chimed in and reminded me of that incident.” Wait, there’s more. “Also, I have a bad habit of drunk-dialing and saying things that I’ve always wanted to say. I do it and then I completely regret it.”
It is surprising to find a woman who has earned a solid reputation for penning melancholy, sometimes morose, ballads to be such a goof, even giddy, and definitely with a healthy sense of humor. After all, Taylor has, in the past, claimed that she’s most prolific when she’s sad, and as one half of Azure Ray (along with Orenda Fink) she’s spent the majority of her career mining the darker fields of the human psyche, expressing her inner turmoil with confessional, often somber, musical narratives of love and loss.
Taylor’s latest, 11:11, falls on the sunnier side of this continuum, a subtle mélange of female-inspired folk (think Carole King and Rickie Lee Jones) and traces of dreamy synths that infuse her tunes with an effervescent edge. “One for the Shareholder,” for instance, wouldn’t sound out of place in a dance club. She’s put some sonic muscle into her tour, too. “I’ve pulled out my old distortion pedal and my electric guitar, so it’s definitely—it’s not mellow,” Taylor says. “I thought it’d be fun to rock out.”
While the songs are still as wistful and yearning as anything Azure Ray produced, 11:11 feels light, sometimes breezy, and definitely more inclined toward pop. Taylor herself expresses surprise at her ability to have knocked out an album without being inspired by any depressing events. “I was very happy when I wrote this album,” she says, then laughs and adds, “But this album was definitely more of a challenge because it didn’t just flow out of me. The lyrics do tend to come easier when I’m sad. But yeah, I was completely happy and content the whole time I was writing 11:11.”
Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Taylor literally learned at the knee of her musician father. Macey Taylor Sr. played piano and guitar in blues and cover bands and wrote commercial jingles for a living. As a toddler, Taylor’s schoolteacher mother took her to see her dad play live, and, Taylor remembers, “My dad would let me get up onstage and talk into the microphone.”
By the time she was 4, Taylor the toddler had turned a cardboard playhouse into her very own home-recording studio. “My dad set up a little microphone stand and this little tape player so that I could record myself making up words and melodies,” she says. “I’d sing songs about the Smurfs or whatever.” She still has the tapes and, in fact, Taylor is toying with the idea of including one of her childhood compositions as a hidden track on her next album.
The only other career option Maria Taylor ever considered was becoming a professional ballet dancer. At 19, realizing she had to choose one or the other, she opted to focus entirely on music (“I made the decision one day to quit ballet and I’ve never looked back”). Meanwhile, Taylor and Fink, a classmate from the Alabama School of Fine Arts, had formed a pop-rock group called Little Red Rocket. The duo released their debut, Who Did You Pay, in 1997, and by the time Rocket’s second album was released, Taylor and Fink had relocated from Birmingham to Athens, Ga. Soon after, they dissolved the band and formed Azure Ray in an effort to reinvent themselves as a more introspective, songwriting-centered band.
While the two were recording the first, self-titled Azure Ray album, a mutual friend introduced them to Bright Eyes’ core member and the Saddle Creek record label’s crown jewel, Conor Oberst. Suitably impressed with the duo, Oberst returned to the label’s home office in Omaha, Neb., and convened a meeting of his compatriots to decide if Azure Ray should be invited into the fold. (“Everyone voted that they wanted us to be part of Saddle Creek,” Taylor says.) Soon after, Azure Ray packed up for another move, this time from Athens to Omaha in 2002.
Like Seattle 15 years ago, Omaha is a hub of creativity for distinct singer/songwriters who are happy to flourish, however modestly, outside the mainstream. Maria Taylor, with her Middle American (albeit Southern) background and earnest impulses, fits in perfectly. “There are so many creative people in Omaha, and everybody is supportive of each other,” Taylor says of her adopted hometown. “There is something really special going on there, and I feel fortunate to be part of it. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. It just makes sense for me.”
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