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Although they became important figures in the Saddle Creek community of Omaha, NE, Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor made their initial mark in Athens, GA, where they formed Azure Ray in 2001. The two musicians -- both Alabama natives -- combined elements of folk, Americana, and light electronica into their 2001 debut album. The next winter, Azure Ray issued the November EP on the Saddle Creek label, sparking a fruitful association with the label and its roster. The sophomore effort Burn and Shiver followed in 2002 and exuded a more serene soundscape, as well as slick production work from Crooked Fingers frontman Eric Bachmann. Fink and Taylor also began lending their contributions to other albums, from Moby's 18 to Bright Eyes' Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. A year later, Azure Ray continued their prolific pace by issuing Hold on Love. The album proved to be the band's last release, however, and both musicians went on to pursue solo careers
"When people ask me what kind of music I do," says Soko, "I usually tell them ‐ Punk
secrets". Intimate, lo‐fi, crazy, sexy, funny, tear‐stained, heartbreaking, often all at once, the
explosive young Frenchwoman's songs have already touched people around the world, earning her a
massive global following. At one mega‐gig in Australia, she had 15,000 people singing along with her.
Since her teens, Soko has been on a rollercoaster journey. From a stockpile of over 100 songs, she
has now finally whittled down to a selection of 14, her debut album.
Aptly entitled 'I Thought I Was An Alien', it's full of love and loss and worry – the kind of
fundamental, life‐dictating human feelings, which are so far beyond rational explanation, they really
ought to be kept under lock and key, along with that strange apparition from Roswell. Like one of her
absolute heroes, Daniel Johnston, however, Soko has the rare ability to sing openly about those
feelings, in a way which is utterly compelling, sometimes devastating, but also, completely uplifting.
"Most of what I do is like crying on my guitar," she says.
"Why it took me so long to make my album?" she ponders. "It's because I'm a control freak. I
wanted to feel totally independent in my music. I wouldn't've been able to release anything before I
was sure I could produce myself, and I can play every single instrument, except strings and horns,
and control every part that's on the record, and know that I've chosen everything myself, or I've
played it myself, or I made the arrangement for it." Like innumerable bedsit troubadours of her
generation, Soko started out with just her voice, her acoustic guitar, and GarageBand. After moving
to Paris, her early demoes were picked up by radio stations in Denmark, Belgium and Australia,
making her too much of a new pop thing, without her own consent. In 2007, her music was used in a
Stella McCartney show in Paris. Soko played gigs with Daniel Johnston, MIA, Babyhambles, Adam
Green, Jeffrey Lewis, Seasick Steve and many others.
Feeling under pressure, perhaps, she went from home studio recording to trying to record
her songs in a proper studio, working with producers who would hire session musicians to play the
other instruments. "It made my songs sound way, way too produced," she says with a shudder of
disapproval. "All my friends were telling me, 'It doesn't sound like you, it doesn't feel like you're
telling me a secret anymore, and that it's just to me.' Just to hear that, and acknowledge that,
everything made much more sense. How I was looking at making music after that – I wanted people
to feel like they're in the room with me when I sing, like I'm singing right in their ears."
Soko's acoustic playing, too, has grown up from the punky thrumming of before, often
arriving at the complex, fluid picking of the "old '60s folk dudes" she's been listening to, such as Roy
Harper, Michael Hurley, Davey Graham, Karen Dalton and Jackson C Frank.
In 2008, Soko moved to Los Angeles. Amassing more recorded versions out there, she soon
realised she needed someone to help her sift through it all, and make sense of everything she'd
created. Losing quite a few months to dead‐end offers, in late 2010 she was eventually introduced to
Fritz Michaud, who had her instant admiration, having worked on the late Elliott Smith's final album,
'From A Basement On The Hill', which is one of her favourite albums.
"So I worked with Fritz every day for eight months, just with his laptop and a pair of
speakers, and that's how we finished it. We were basically fucking around with a lot of songs,
speeding them up, slowing them down, changing the key, making sure they were as lo‐fi as they wereoriginally recorded, and as intimate as possible, and that everything that's there is supposed to be
there. Sometimes, we'd use a deck of Brian Eno's 'Oblique Strategies' cards to find our way out of an
issue and move on, to help us remember that, 'Where there's a will, there's a way'. Other times, I'd
be at the studio all day, then go home at night, and record a whole new song on GarageBand, and
the next morning I'd come back and say, 'I just wrote a new song, we're working on this today!'"
Like many of her songs, though, it was written as a message, to a specific person. "When I
write," she says, "I don't write for the purpose of putting another song on my album, I usually write a
song for someone, like a musical letter, as my way to communicate with them – I'll write it, record it,
and five minutes later send it to that person. It's like making a present that means something. I don't
think I ever wrote a song for no‐one. Maybe I could censor myself more, but I don't think I could do
anything else but something that's raw and purely honest."
So, 'I Just Want To Make It New With You' was actually written for Soko's then boyfriend,
"like the song he might've written for me". She says she writes best and most prolifically, when she
has a muse in her life. Alex Ebert, from Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, was apparently one of
them, and it was he who helped her arrive at the albums's exquisitely muted sound.
Having asserted her control over her music, Soko realised that rules are made to be broken,
and allowed others – close friends, this time – to add their expertise, "When I needed a new take on
something. Stella [Mozgawa] came and added some magic. I said, 'Can you play some weird guitar
solo in a hooky Television style?' She came up with that and we would write the harmony to that, so
it was very collaborative. Likewise, she called in her friend Indiana from Australia to provide string
parts on 'We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow'. "She came over and I knew exactly what I wanted it to
sound like – like crying/singing whales."
The air of mortal tragedy in Soko's songs comes from bitter experience. "I had an awareness
of death so early in my life," she says, "because I lost my Dad when I was five. I lost my Godfather
when I was eight, my grandfather when I was nine, my grandma when I was ten, then my other
grandma and grandpa when I was 16. So, 'We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow' is like an urge to live my
life now, to make sure that I do the right thing, that I'm the best of myself every day, even if most of
the time I'm not – I'm just trying to be. 'I've Been Alone Too Long' – that's definitely a Dad's death
On 'Treat Your Woman', her voice is breathless, as if she's been sobbing for hours
beforehand – maybe she had, such is the heartbreaking sense of betrayal in her words. The listener
never has to suspend disbelief, you never doubt for one instant that Soko's pain is real. She's had a
fan come up to her after a show, saying that they'd come off heroin, after hearing her tortuous, in‐
love‐with‐an‐addict number, 'For Marlon'. Her songs literally change lives.
When she sings of a rootless existence, always sadly moving on with her suitcase and her
guitar, you know that this is her existence – and it really is. "I'm just a homeless gypsy couch‐surfer
citizen of the world, depending on the love and charity of my friends," she giggles. After such a long and soul‐searching evolution, 'I Thought I Was An Alien' finally introduces a
truly singular talent, at her point of fruition. Like any artist in creative overdrive, Soko talks excitedly
about her next album, her newborn songs as if she had already started a new chapter.