“My only intention was to have the record sound like a dream…”: An Interview With Orenda Fink

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(Photo by Bill Sitzmann)

Orenda Fink’s Blue Dream is one of the most moving albums of the year.

An intensely personal record whose genesis began with the death of her dog and later took her on a search to find meaning in loss and then another search to understand what that meaning means, Blue Dream is a stirring song cycle about the ephemeral universe and how to live in it.

Fink’s voice is a smooth and powerful instrument, coasting through these compositions with wonder and grace.

Stereo Embers talks to Orenda Fink:

SE: Let’s begin by talking about “Ace of Cups,” the opening cut on Blue Dream. How does the production work to emphasize the lyrics and vocals?

OF: This one was a tricky one to produce. We (me, Ben Brodin, Todd, Bill Rieflin) were all stumped on this song at one point or the other. We tried a couple of different drum styles and musical arrangements, and finally we settled into the current incarnation of the song, which I love. I think the challenge was creating music for it that had energy but still carried the sense of resignation that underlies the theme.

SE: Would you please tell us why the guitar solo comes where it does?

OF: The guitar solo was something that I had recorded in the original demo and we liked it so much we just kept it. I wanted to evoke the feeling of getting ripped out of the place you are in, shaken up, confronted. My friend, Jiha Lee, who is going to be playing with me live exclaimed, “all hail the two-note guitar solo!”

SE: How does “Ace of Cups” set the tone for Blue Dream?

OF:Maybe it is in a sense preparing you for the ride of the record. There are going to be high moments and low moments but it’s important to stay focused on the most important things in life- love and happiness.

SE: Who is the narrator addressing in “You Can Be Loved”?

OF: It’s me addressing a dear friend who was going through a tumultuous time in her personal life while I was recording the record. “You Can Be Loved” was actually the only song that I didn’t have lyrics for when I went into the studio. I couldn’t figure out what the song was supposed to say. After she reached out to me, I went back to it and the words fell out of my heart and into the song. It was like a letter to her. After months of struggling, I wrote the words in ten minutes.

SE: “This Is a Part of Something Greater” has a very slow tempo. Does the tempo reflect the narrator’s state of mind and, perhaps, spiritual state?

OF: Yes, I believe so. The tempo needed to allow the feeling of reflection, awe, and ultimately the realization that there is life after death. If nothing else, love is life after death. Love is the most powerful thing in the world, much more powerful than how we imagine it in our conscious mind. It connects souls in a way that can never be broken, not even through death.

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SE: The song seems like a dialogue between an individual on a spiritual quest and God. Care to comment?

OF: That is an interesting take on it. The impetus for a lot of the songs on Blue Dream came after my dog of sixteen years, Wilson, died. Watching him die (I had to have him put to sleep) changed something in me. I couldn’t recover from the loss of him and the absence of a spiritual framework about death in general. But about after six months of mental free falling he began appearing in my dreams. I started going to a psychotherapist who specialized in grief counseling and Jungian dream analysis who helped guide me through these dreams. They became so intense they redefined my entire view of the universe and life and death and they began centered around a dog!

SE: Lyrically, “You Are a Mystery” is a song of spiritual wonderment. But the melody and general tone are—to my ears, at least—melancholic. Why the discrepancy?

OF: That song is about the animal spirit being there in my dreams to not only heal my grief, but deliver messages about the nature of the universe. Wilson’s death had, in a sense, created an opening in my psyche to receive what Jung would call Archetypal Dreams- dreams that speak not from personal experiences but from a larger and eternal collective. The melancholy is there because I still missed him and wished he was alive, but he was now something new to me – something I couldn’t understand but nonetheless felt in awe of.

SE: The theremin sounds kind of like a whale’s song and, significantly, reappears as a key instrument on many of the songs. I can’t think of another album that uses the theremin as “sonic glue” to such an extent.

OF: You know, I wouldn’t have even thought to use the saw except that my neighbor plays it and now I can’t imagine the record without it! I think it is the perfect instrument to reflect the unpredictable and mystical nature of dreams.

SE: What was the genesis of the lyrics of “Holy Holy”?

OF: I was very sad when I wrote “Holy Holy.” In fact, I think I wept while I was writing it. I remember feeling a sense of futility about life when you will never fully understand the meaning of it. You know, fun stuff like that.

SE: Listening to the title track, I was reminded of Picasso’s “Blue Period” and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue record. Where does this song take you when you listen to it and/or play it?

OF: To me, this song is like free falling to the bottom of the ocean, but in a dream (this was an actual dream of mine.) It probably has the least amount of words in a song I’ve ever written, but I wanted to keep it very open to interpretation- say a lot with a very little.

SE: “Sweet Disorder” – what does the line, “They don’t know I’m happy with what I got,” mean to you?

 

 

OF: “Sweet Disorder” doubles as a metaphor for the chaos of life, but also a certain kind of relationship where uncertainty reigns. The line refers to the fact that people can feel sorry for one another’s misfortune or pain, but many times one chooses their paths, good or bad, consciously or unconsciously.

SE: “Poor Little Bear” and many of the other songs on Blue Dream sound like spiritual hymns. As the record develops, the songs work together to lead the listener into a very meditative space. Was this your intention?

OF: My only intention was to have the record sound like a dream. I walked around repeating that mantra like a demented parrot to the production team the entire recording session.

SE: “Darkling” – please talk about how you record your beautiful harmony vocals.

OF: I write most of my harmonies right when I write and demo each song. Most of the recorded harmonies on Blue Dream are friends of mine, though- Pearl Boyd, Susan Sanchez, and my little sister Christine Fink. She got the powerhouse pipes in the family.

SE: Why does “All Hearts Will Beat Again” close the album?

OF: I wanted to end the record with redemption, with the song that most closely reflected how I felt at the end of my journey meditating and dreaming about death for the better part of a year. “All Hearts Will Beat Again” was that song for me.

SE: Finally, why are Ben Brodin, Todd Fink, and Bill Rieflin your “dream team”?

OF: Well, it is one of the truest gifts I have been given in my life that I get to work with such talented and amazing people (and one of them is my husband!) I love all three of these dudes with all my heart and they poured everything into making this record. They each had specific strengths that ultimately complemented each other in a very special way to create the sound of the record. And they put up with me!