insideout hudson valley: amy ray on the indigo girls
OK, so most of us began listening to the Indigo Girls when verbs like “process” and “empower” whizzed through casual conversation like bras onto a stage. Ten studio albums, one Grammy and two decades later, the Indigo Girls release their newest album, “Poseidon and the Bitter Bug,” on March 24—this time with a fun adverb: “independently.” We spoke with Amy Ray about trust, tumult, and staying the same, even in the midst of change.
Amanda Schmidt: “Poseidon and the Bitter Bug” is a bit of a departure from your traditional sound. It has the simultaneous ability to make a listener ask who it is, even as the ear recognizes quintessential Indigo Girls.
Amy Ray: Well, I’m glad that happened. It was sort of accidental—but a couple of things happened. One thing is that I think Emily kind of made a leap generally in her writing on this record. There are a couple [songs] like, “Digging for Your Dreams,” for instance, that at first when you hear it, you’re like, Is that Indigo Girls? because it’s a little different. And I think “Sugar Tongue” does the same thing. And then I think we have some stuff that you can really know who it is right away.
But second, Mitchell Froom, the producer, really helped us with that. He played keyboards, and he became sort of part of the band for this record—and really made his mark, I think, and took us in a different direction sonically, chord-wise and harmonically. I attribute a lot of that to him, actually, for this record.
AS: It was refreshing to hear you singing in a higher octave on “Sugar Tongue.”
AR: I’m working on that. It’s not the strongest part of my voice, and I really want to express that area. So I wrote the song, and moved up there for that one.
AS: This is actually a double album: one acoustic, another full band. Can you tell us a little about how the songs changed during the recording process?
AR: Emily and I typically start the process kind of at our houses, and we do arrangements that are just solo acoustic. We spend a lot of time on that, and then Mitchell works with us on the piano and the keys. And we might shift some things around when the basses are joined, too, like certain ways of playing chords so the notes work well together. So, sort of as we’re getting ready to go into the studio, [we] start arranging as an acoustic duo, and then move it into an arrangement that works with the band. And so it’s kind of backwards. We recorded the band version first, and then we went back and did the acoustic-duo versions. And we kind of had to remember what we did differently. And they’re just small things. You know, it’s not big stuff—but for us, it’s important.
strong>AS: What was the motivation to create these two different versions?
AR: The motivation was just Mitchell’s idea. He had read some comments about the last record in a blog, and I think he was picking up that our audience would really like to hear us just acoustically, without a lot of production. So we wanted to do it [to] give the people that buy the record both versions, so they can love the one they want to love, you know?
AS: “Poseidon” and “The Bitter Bug,” are each phrases taken, respectively, from a song that Emily wrote, and a song that you wrote. What does that say about how you’re both feeling, and the overall mood of this album?
AR: Mitchell actually suggested that title as a joke. He was feeling like the record was so serious and dark in some of the writing. And, we’re pretty goofy people, actually, when we hang out in the studio. So it’s kind of funny. But this record came out of a really tumultuous time. Because we did a record on Hollywood [Records], and we started working with Mitchell, and really, that was a very important relationship. And an important opportunity came out of being on Hollywood, which was meeting Mitchell, so we were appreciative of that.
But it was also a very tumultuous time, because the company didn’t work that well with us, and didn’t do that great of a job. And I think politically, a lot of bad stuff is going on in the world. And Emily was going through stuff. Our world was sort of turned upside down, in some ways. And I think it was a comment on that.
For me, the “bitter bug” is like, that vice of my cynicism that I have to be careful of—because I’m such an optimist, and to deal with the flip side of that is to be a total cynic. I’m sort of talking about that in the song “Second Time Around,” what I’m going through. And I think the record was born out of that, out of this upheaval.
AS: I was picking up on that in the lyrics. But at the same time, there’s a relaxed, soothing feel to the album.
AR: Yeah. We intended that. Because the point of a lot of those lyrics is not to knock you over the head. There’s always a nuance. Either not always totally sad, or not always totally happy. So I think musically, we wanted to have this vibe that was more spontaneous, and kind of fresh and energetic, but at the same time, sort of relaxed.
AS: In a line from “True Romantic,” you offer a great take on gender identity: “Baby, if you took all the good stuff and you put it all together/ And you took all the bad stuff and you threw it all away/ Would I still be the girl that suits your fancy/ Would I still be the boy that rocks your world?”
AR: That’s obviously a love song. And it’s sort of a desperate love song. And yeah, if I write my gender in a song, I typically go between the two, because that’s what I am. I’m gender-fluid, and that’s the way it comes out. And it’s interesting because I tried to switch it. I was like, Well, is this really fair, to say the boy is the one that rocks, and the girl is the one that suits the fancy? You know? So I tried to switch it, and it just didn’t feel right for me. So I thought that was kind of my own little internalized sexism, probably, in there. But yeah, it’s just my own personal gender identity. I’m not commenting on the world. I’m just commenting on who I am.
AS: It was nice to hear—because most of us are fluid. And some of us actually realize that. So to hear someone referring to both, in the same person, was great.
AR: Good. Good. We could all be set free a little bit. It’s not a matter of what your sexuality is. I mean, a straight guy can be gender-fluid. It’s just the way it is. And I think you’re right. I think most of us are, and everybody probably is, to a certain degree. We’re just not free enough; society doesn’t allow it. And we are society. We have to make that happen.
AS: We do. We’re working on it. Especially you in the tie I saw in one of the promo photos.
AR: Right. [Laughter]
AS: The Indigo Girls have been in the vanguard of openly queer, yet “mainstream-approved” musicians for the last 20 years. And only for the past 10 or so have we seen queer people in the public spotlight sort of using their own lives as instruments of change—holding them up as examples, to say, Well, I’m famous, but I am also this. Can you talk about how the world around you has changed, or not changed?
AR: Well, people using their identity and trying to create changes—I think that’s happened over time, in cycles, where it happens for a while for different reasons. You know? And it can be, I have AIDS. And I’m saying this, so I’m gonna talk about this. Or it can be, I’m gay. Or it can be, I have breast cancer. And I think we go through cycles in our society and in our media where it’s acceptable, and then there is a backlash.
But I think the thing about being gay and queer, that has shifted. But it kind of shifts around. We gain some ground where we feel comfortable. And it feels like people respond positively to it. And then we lose a little ground, too, for one reason or another. You know, there’s a backlash.
To some people, it may seem like you get something out of being queer and being an artist, like more community around you, or more support around you in some way. And that’s probably true, compared to 15 years ago. But what’s not true is that we have gotten to a place where it’s not this derogatory thing in the mainstream media. You know, it’s still derogatory to be talked about as “lesbian” folk artists.
AS: Right. It’s a difference with other implications.
AR: Yeah. It’s implication, and it’s—are they reviewing your music, or are they just talking about your audience? And there’s a lot of nuance and subtext that goes on. And so I think we’re not there yet. And we definitely aren’t there in the radio world; because just generally speaking, women in rock do not get equal airplay. And in folk, I think they get equal airplay for a while, and then they get none. You know, it’s kind of like, Well, we’ll give you the Lilith Fair years, but we’re gonna have a backlash against that, and you’re not gonna get played at all for a while after that. So you better get everything you can during those three years. That’s kind of the way it happens. And it’s a drag, you know?
And, it probably happens to guys in folk music, too. It’s like, the only place where you feel the playing field is equal in some way is Top 40. And that’s really because it’s all about image. And so if you’re willing to play the game, it doesn’t matter what you are. As long as you’re willing to have an image, and really play it up and hype it up. So it’s interesting to me, the way it all works. But we just kind of do our thing. Sometimes it’s going well, sometimes it’s not. You know.
AS: Have you had any particular way of trying to shake it off when people try to pigeonhole you, or talk about your audience, or frame you as gay artists? In a way, it’s incredibly limiting.
AR: I mean, we are gay artists, and we are pretty active. And so I don’t blame people for picking up on that. And wanting that to be a question. Because we’re sort of asking for it, in our subject matter and in our activism, and in everything that we do. But at the same time, I don’t want to be limited by it.
AS: I grew up in Buffalo, where Ani DiFranco was still a young, local artist, and I used to see her play for $5. And when she got very popular, I would notice the crowds changing: it was kind of daunting for me to watch people throwing their bras on stage. [Laughter] And I’m wondering if you’ve had an opportunity to watch your crowds change over the last 20 years.
AR: Yeah. There’s a core audience that we have—I recognize people, and I see them grow up, and get into their careers and their activism, whatever they do. It’s kind of cool in that way. And then we have folks that are the younger siblings of our original fans, or the kids of our original fans. And they’ll be like, “My Mom brought me to a show when I was 6. I’ve been into it ever since.” And that’s a really good feeling, to feel like your community is growing, and evolving.
And people are. We’ll get a letter from somebody that’s like, “You know, I saw this Honor the Earth show, and I started working in this indigenous community. Now I’m in Mexico, working on issues.” Something that just, like—where someone has devoted their whole life to something, based on one experience they had that we might have been part of. And that makes it all worth it. You want to inspire each other. So we inspire, and we get inspired, and that’s the whole point of it.
AS: Indigo Girls has been together through nine studio albums and two decades. You have two very different musical styles. You’ve had no breakups. In a way, you’re kind of like the professional version of a really successful couple. What do you think your secret is?
AR: I think it’s giving each other space. And respect: It’s really about mutual respect. And we don’t hang out together a lot at home. So we have all that space for autonomy, and feeling this is who we are that’s different from the other person. I think that’s important.
And I think not getting caught up in your own ego. And when you get scared when you write a bunch of songs, and you’re getting ready to sit down and arrange them with the other person, and your song [will] become the Indigo Girls’ song—that’s scary. Because it’s like, Well, how’s it gonna sound? Are they gonna like it? Is Emily gonna like it? You know, all that. And I think for us, [when] that happens, we just trust the process, and we trust that the end result will be stronger than the beginning of it. And if it’s not, then we go back to the drawing board. And we just know that. And I think we’re just lucky in a lot of ways.
AS: Has either of you ever just listened to a new song, and looked at the other and said: “Ugh. Horrible.”
AR: No, we wouldn’t do that. That’s an important thing not to do. [Laughter] I think it’s good to be honest, but I think you just don’t do that. And I rarely would think, like, Horrible. Because I think Emily and I know enough to not bring a song in that’s not finished. And sort of—we edit things out that we know are bad. [Laughter] But, if I have a song that I don’t think is that strong, and I say to Emily, “I’m not sure about this one,” she’ll be honest with me.
If I ask, she’ll be like, “Eh. You might want to work on it more.” Or, “It’s not my favorite one you’ve written.” There are nice ways to say it. You know, you don’t want to be an asshole.