queerky.com: indigo girl gone solo: amy ray and the art of letting go
“My wife and I missed your show last night,” says a nondescript man. He’s first in line to greet Indigo Girl, Amy Ray at a Chicago Border’s in-store signing. “Our son got sick.”
Another man, not a day under sixty, carefully unloads a stack of Ray-related memorabilia, including a vinyl copy of her newest solo album. He folds his hands behind his back, and smiles as she signs each one.
In search of a landline on which to conduct our interview, I ask a friend’s boss if I can borrow a cubicle. “I can’t believe Amy Ray is gonna call here,” my friend’s boss, straight and suburban, squeals, “She’s like a real celebrity!”
Clearly, members of the mainstream can pick Ray out of a lineup; even sing a few bars of one of her songs, or at least one written by the other Indigo Girl, Emily Saliers – hers tend to get more radio play. But Ray is the Indigo Girl gone solo, the one hauling her own gear, staging a packed punk-tinged show at Chicago’s small concert venue, The Metro, pushing the envelope of queer visibility by showing the world (or at least those who are savvy enough to pay attention) another side of a forty-four year old lesbian singer/songwriter, the side that fucking rocks.
When Ray calls from outside Chapel Hill, she’s just taken a turn driving her tour van, byproduct of a stripped down tour. She’s headed out the other side of a Midwest stint that began with a broken down van and a missed Iowa gig. Back in Madison Wisconsin, she offered to make dinner for any audience member who could lend her a truck. “I make a killer sweet potato enchilada,” she said. Now she seems in good spirits, anticipating a break followed by a West Coast run, “Birmingham, Tallahassee, maybe a Mississippi show,” she says, “then out through Texas, the Southwest and up to the West Coast.” January 15th through February 7th if you’re wondering.
Not wanting to try Ray’s patience, I skip the lame background questions: “How did you come up with the name ‘Indigo Girls,’” (a serendipitous pass through the dictionary) and “Have you and Emily ever had sex?” (Absolutely not). Instead, I plunge right in.
Queerky: Didn’t It Feel Kinder is your third solo album. After making your career as half of a duo, what surprised you most about suddenly being a solo artist?
Amy Ray: When I started I thought [solo work] was just gonna be something I did a couple of times to experiment, get a few things out of my system. Then I realized it was as important to me as what I do with Indigo Girls. That was a surprise for me.
Q: Tell me about your writing process.
AR: I have a lyric journal, and when I’m in writing mode, which is probably about seventy-five percent of the year, I write maybe four or five days a week anywhere from two to five hours a day. I don’t censure myself at all; it doesn’t have to be quality, its just getting my ideas out. Then I comb through for nuggets of songs and I tape myself playing and singing along to different parts. The first part of the process when I read back through, I’m a little surprised at what comes out sometimes, but I step back from it and try to be really objective, so it doesn’t scare me like it used to. (laughs)
Q: As a writer I tend to reveal without editing and then be surprised by how vulnerable I’ve made myself. Can you relate to that experience at all?
AR: Well, when I sing live, it becomes a more vulnerable experience. But I just have to let go and be in the moment. I can’t be responsible for what my vulnerability is at that point.
Q: How has your relationship to songwriting as a discipline changed over your career? Did you always write every day?
AR: Right now on tour I’m not doing that. We just finished an Indigo Girls record so I’m not writing as much as I typically do. I’m just sort of on break to let things in. But no, I didn’t start out writing like that at all. I was really undisciplined. I believed in this idea that if the muse hits you, you write. I didn’t edit enough and I didn’t really work hard enough. Probably eight years ago, when I started making solo records, I started reading a lot about writing and talking to different songwriters and I realized I needed to create a routine around it and I did.
Q: Did that change your work?
AR: Melodically I still struggle sometimes, but I noticed that my songs got better, the images got a little tighter, I got more prolific. I feel like anytime you work on something as a discipline it improves. There’s no doubt about it.
Q: In terms of discipline, it seems like your vocal range has developed in recent years as well. Was that something you consciously cultivated?
AR: Earlier on, I just took my voice as the natural quality of what it was and didn’t work on it. I definitely didn’t take good care of it. I drank and smoked a lot and that’s not good for your voice. That stopped about twelve years ago. Probably five or six years ago, I started working with this DVD for heavy metal singers called “The Zen of Screaming.” I was listening to vocalists like Brandi Carlisle and Jeff Buckley who had a certain way they would break into their head voice. I started working on that, doing specific things around building my range. I talk to other vocalists and call this vocal teacher and ask her questions. It’s kind of nerdy; I definitely work on it a lot because I want to be able to go between screaming a punk rock song with melody within the screaming, to singing in a very strong but vulnerable kind of head voice. I want to be able to do both things because I’m writing songs that, to me, have both voices in them, and if I can’t do that it’s frustrating to me.
Q: You talk about how using your head voice goes along with the progression of your songwriting and all the work you do with gender.
AR: Yeah, when I wrote She’s Got to Be, I wrote it in that higher range cause I was trying to reflect a sort of quote unquote feminine part of myself by singing in that register.
Q: Speaking of gender, I have a theory that most lesbians-femmes included– have a secret male alter ego. If you were a man (and I’m not saying you aren’t) how do you imagine you’d look? What would your name be?
AR: Oh…what would my name be? Well, people call me Amos, so that’s probably my alter-ego name. I’d probably look about the same to be honest.
Q: Did you see how quickly you came up with that?
AR: Yeah I think because I’m so male-identified in so many ways it’s not a hard one for me (laughs).
Q: We’ve talked a bit about what it’s like to put your songs out and sort of let go of them. You seem really at peace with the whole process. Some performers, Kurt Cobain and Ani Difranco both come to mind, famously object to fans misinterpreting their songs. You use metaphor and history and personal experience to write really multidimensional songs, so I’m guessing you get a lot of fans flattening your meaning, maybe going for the obvious interpretation. What are your feelings about that?
AR: I think when Ani comments on that or when Kurt did, I think they had such frenetic fans who had a propriety relationship to their lyrics [which] probably made them feel like they shouldn’t have to be accountable for this or that. I don’t have that same intense experience. I really believe in letting the song go. I’m fully aware that people are going to have their own meanings for it. Obviously, it would upset me if people thought I was saying something inflammatory or negative or mean when I didn’t mean that, but as far as interpretations of metaphors, or taking the song and making their own meaning, or even reading into my life in a way that’s not accurate, it doesn’t matter to me actually. I don’t think about myself to that extent, you know what I mean?
Q: That probably makes it a lot easier for you.
AR: Yeah, I’ll sit and read a Louise Erdrich book, and in my mind I’m coming up with all these ways that it connects to her real life, and I’m sure none of them are true. I used to do that all the time with Bernie Taupin’s lyrics with Elton John. I just thought I had him figured out lyrically. It’s just what people do.
Q: What’s more likely to make you cry, books, movies or songs?
AR: Hmmm. Songs.
Q: And now we come to the meat of the interview, some very serious questions coming up. The L Word, positive cultural step forward or exploitative poorly-written drivel?
Q: Or maybe both.
AR: (Still laughing) I might have to take the fifth on that. I think it’s both.
Q: Starbucks drink of choice?
AR: Soy Chai.
Q: Favorite season?
Q: Favorite time of day?
Q: Name four activities you cannot live without. By activities I mean, like working out-
AR: Working out…being in the woods… I can’t live without… eating junk food and I can live without sex… for a while but not for more than a couple of years.
Q: Ok, well should I count that one or not?
AR: Um, let’s count that one.
Q: How many animals do you own right now?
AR: I have… five dogs and seven cats.
Q: How many is too many?
AR: I could probably fit one more dog and one more cat and then I’m at my limit.
Q: What’s your favorite breed of dog (although I’m assuming you go more for the rescues and the mutts)?
AR: Yeah, mutts are my favorite breed. I like around a forty-five to fifty pound dog.
Q: Could you have a relationship with someone with opposing political views?
AR: Not a love relationship, no.
Q: Speaking of politics, a lot of queer people describe having a circumscribed period of pure joy when Obama was elected, followed by deep disappointment, almost an estrangement, after Prop 8 passed. What was your experience?
AR: I was so overwhelmed that Obama won with such an incredible majority that for me, it didn’t dim that much, because I expect that this marriage thing is gonna be pretty slow moving. Even Obama can’t stand up and say he’s for gay marriage. The marriage issue is important to me as a human rights issue but there are so many other queer community issues that are important to me. I didn’t have high expectations, is a simple way to put it, so it didn’t blow my mind, but I think it’s important that people are speaking out about it. I think that’s great.
Q: I have a potentially dicey question for you. In mainstream culture, references to Indigo Girls, more often than not, appear as jokes. Like, Glamour magazine might write, “you’ve just been dumped, and you’re at home listening to Indigo Girls and eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s,” or I know I’ve read belittling references in Maxim for example. Why do you think Indigo Girls end up a cultural punch line?
AR: Yeah, people say “I’m a closet Indigo Girls fan.” It’s as if women are only allowed this very narrow access to music and success, and when they do have it there’s still a sense of embarrassment about recognizing it or validating it. It’s about sexism, and sort of a derogatory idea of what it means when women express themselves. When you add homophobia on top of it, and then a band that’s been together twenty something years; when you have such an attachment to such specifics, you’re gay, you’re a woman, you don’t have an image like Madonna, you put all that together, and you have a very easy target. There’s a certain almost derogatory iconic status that comes along with that. In some ways you have to expect that if you’re gonna be outspoken and so politicized, so iconically who you are, you’re gonna get cultural references that aren’t always positive, and humor that’s the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it’s clever. Sometimes it’s subversive and even flattering in its cultural way. The only thing that bothers me about it sometimes is the reflection it has on society: It means we haven’t moved that far. The gatekeepers are still the patriarchy. They still think of rock or folk or country as sort of a man’s game as far as who can lay claim to some kind of intellectual free rights. It doesn’t ruin my day or anything. It just kind of is what it is.
Q: Again, you seem to have a really healthy attitude about things that are out of your control.
AR. I used to have a much worse temper and it didn’t do me much good.
Q: One more question for you. I think kids have really specific ideas about their adult lives. Like, I always thought I’d grow up to be blond. What sort of vision did you have for your life when you were say ten? How is the life you live the same or different?
AR: When I was ten I pretty much thought I was a guy, so that was shocking when it didn’t happen. But you know I’ve been able to come full circle on that. I really wanted to be a musician so I sort of pictured myself living in a rural area and playing music and that’s what I do. I got really lucky.
Except that she didn’t. No way is Ray’s success luck-based. Sure, Indigo Girls gained visibility in the Tracy Chapman-fueled half second during which folk music was marginally cool, but Ray’s continual presence on the music scene, her growth as an artist, the evolution of her songs and voice, none are accidental. Her success is a direct consequence of her ability to both channel her will-power and sustain an objective distance. In discussing the breadth of her singing range Ray says humbly, “I’m totally not there yet,” meaning she hasn’t fully attained the vocal goals she’s set for herself. However, Ray is striking in that while she has her sights set on further landmarks on her path toward self-actualization, she’s adept at harnessing her ambition, has perfected the art of letting go; she’s already farther along then most will ever be.