lesbianlife.about.com: amy ray tackles the tough stuff
Indigo Girl Amy Ray’s second solo album Prom is a listening journey back to high school. Yet despite the sophomoric theme, Ray’s second solo venture is a much more mature album than her first release Stag. Ray spoke with Lesbian Life about her album, gender expression and punk rock music.
Lesbian Life: What made you decide at age 41 to do an album with so much content about high school years?
Amy Ray: I just started writing songs and they started coming out. I think I started thinking about it a lot because I was involved with this new relationship. When you’re in a new relationship you think about the first time you fell in love, the first time you learned to question authority. I was thinking about and going through that story telling process and writing things down as they occurred to me as images and stuff. High school to me was a romantic time. It was very dark, but it was also really incredible.
It was the best and the worst. For some reason I started thinking about that formative time and writing about it. I didn’t have plans to make a record out of it. It just happened.
This album is way more gay than any of your Indigo Girls stuff.
I don’t know. (laughs) I think because in the context of punk and rock the lyrics seems to get a little edgier and more graphic and political. When I have the singular focus and I don’t have two equal voices happening, I think it’s easier to talk about something really intimate, like your own sexual identity, your own gender and how you relate to that. It’s harder to do as a duo. When you’re expressing it through two voices, it doesn’t make sense in the way it makes sense to do it this way. Musically when I express the part of me that’s really political and queer and thinking a lot about androgyny, that musical part of me is the punk part of me.
You mentioned talking about gender and there’s a lot of reference to gender on Prom. What are you trying to get across about gender?
When I say gender, like “We’re a new gender nation”,(from the song Put it Out for Good) I’m speaking from a generation of people, including people that are younger than myself, because they have been the ones to articulate it the most. It’s that idea that we’re not contained into one gender any more. We understand gender fluidity. We’re looking at it in a new way and we’re going to challenge you at every turn. We’re not going to be satisfied with just one gender or locking ourselves into this one little box or feeling trapped in our bodies or feeling like if you think of yourself as a woman you can only be a certain kind of a woman. I think gender to me on this record does two things. It takes a very male/female dichotomy and it takes this other position of gender fluidity that is very important thing that I think has been articulated very well by people who are maybe 10 years junior of me and younger than that, teenagers. When I talk about male and female, I’m speaking to sexism and misogyny. Or when I speak about the male part of me in the context of someone who’s very feminine. It’s all over the map. But I think that’s the way gender is. Right now there’s so many ways to articulate ideas about gender that we’re in the most complex time. We’re trying to parcel it all out and analyze it, where it comes from and what it means.
On your album cover you had a lot of fun playing with the football player and the prom queen and the pompom girl. Are you trying to say you’re embodying all those genders?
I didn’t think about it that deeply. I was thinking more in terms of storytelling and these are all people. When I’m singing the songs these are all the characters that I’m thinking about. I tried to be all of them because I’m speaking for them. I like to play with gender because I think it’s important to do. I think it’s important to see yourself as a man or a woman. When I’m as a man, I’m actually more comfortable than living as a woman.
What do you mean by that?
Well, I look better in a tux than in a dress. (laughs) That’s the bottom line.
I’m curious, you use the word male instead of butch. Why?
I would consider myself butch. But that is a word that is part of my gay generation.
I’ve found that I could speak about part of me being male. And feel comfortable with that. Rather than just say, I’m butch. I actually say, this part of me is masculine and this part of me is feminine, they come together and I am who I am. Which is slightly different than being butch.
I have such a strong male part of myself that I really feel it’s important to understand where that comes from and for me personally not get involved in misogyny. I understand the transgender quandary of being trapped in the wrong body. I understand it really directly. I always felt that way. It took me a long time to be comfortable with my body, the female part of me. And I have. I feel good about that. Not everybody does and not everybody can. I think there are some people who are so overwhelmingly in the wrong body that you really do have to change. I believe that. But all of these things are things that I didn’t even think about when I was first gay. These are things that have been dialogued about more and more in the past few years. It’s part of my dialogue.
I talked about you being more gay and out on this album I wanted to ask about the song Rural Faggot. That song is speaking to a lot of the guys. Were you trying to reach out more to a gay male audience?
Not on purpose. It came from a relationship that I had over the years that I had with a few of the boys in my neighborhood, some of whom turned out to be gay. And I watched them grow up in the last 12 years. I watched them go though puberty and go through their different levels of gay bashing with me.
Were they bashing you?
They would come over and be like really interested in me. They would tell me off-color gay jokes to see how I would respond. Or this one kid just a few years ago, he would be telling me how him and his friends would go down to Atlanta and make fun of gay people. And I was like, why are you telling me these stories, I’m gay? And he said, yeah, but you’re different, I know you. They were all guys for some reason, none of the girls were riding dirt bikes and coming over to my house.
All these little boys, I watched them grow up and some of them became gay and some of them became, for lack of a better word, rednecks. But they were all friends. They were all people that I felt had really valid stories. The song came out of that. It came out of a compilation of all the guys. I really didn’t think about a male audience. I don’t think about an audience when I’m writing.
I know you’re a big fan of punk rock. What is it that appeals to you about that genre of music?
Everything. My definition of punk is very tied to politics. It’s hard for me to separate it. Meaning that you really look at things from an independent perspective, underground, independent media, independent labels, independent businesses. It’s a whole community that’s interwoven around these things. We help each other out. You’re singing music that is of your community and that’s accessible to your community. I can’t really separate the politics from the music. Musically I just like it. The melodies and the volume, the beat and just the way it makes me feel. Like when I first heard Husker Du, or Elvis Costello or Patti Smith. I just remember thinking, “This is it. This is what I’m feeling.”
Who are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to a lot of demos. As far as stuff that ‘s popular and current: Outkast, The Shins, The Distillers.
You mentioned a new love. Do you want to say anything about that?
We’ve been together for two years. She’s a Northwest girl. She lives with me in Georgia, but she goes to film school at Columbia in New York. She’s a filmmaker from Seattle. I always knew I would find a Northwestern girl.
One last question: L Word, love it or hate it?
Oh, boy (laughs) don’t put me on the spot! That is not nice. Just say, I don’t watch it. Actually I don’t. I don’t feel compelled to order Showtime to see The L Word. But there’s a part of me that’s glad it’s on there. I’ll just say that. And I’m rooting for them to rise above. I feel supportive, but that LA scene is not anything I can remotely relate to.