lesbianlife.about.com: interview with amy ray
I spoke with Amy Ray in June 2008 via phone from a hotel room somewhere in Ohio while she was on tour with the Indigo Girls. They had just finished playing three dates with the True Colors tour. Amy and I talked about her relationship with co-Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, her new solo album and how the trans movement has influenced her life. Here is the Lesbian Life Interview with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls.
Lesbian Life: Tell me about the True Colors Tour.
Amy Ray: Well, it was awesome, we did the first three shows and we had a great time. It’s an awesome tour. I think people need to check it out because it’s a really, really good show overall. The B52s set is really good. Cyndi Lauper set is really good. The Cliks are awesome to watch.
You and Emily have been together over 20 years as the Indigo Girls. As you both grow and change, how do you continue to find inspiration from each other?
I think it comes from just respecting each other’s space and writing and having faith in the process. That gives us security. I think the inspiration comes from the other person’s songwriting and how it evolves. A lot of it is the people around us and who we work with. People constantly build different kinds of bridges between me and Emily. That’s very important. I’m inspired by things Emily might do outside of the Indigo Girls and vice versa. You have to keep other musicians in your community and play with other people and constantly forge new relationships and seek out people who can teach you things and that’s what we do.
As far as how you work, do you come together to write songs, or do you write separately and then bring them to each other?
We write them separately and then come together and arrange them.
Has that changed over the years?
It’s always been the same.
It seems that over the years, yours styles have changed. It’s more evident what is an Amy song and what is an Emily song.
That’s true. I think it’s just what happens. As people write more they just get into their own language more.
Now you’ve got your third solo album out. (Didn’t It Feel Kinder, August 2008) How do you decide what’s going to be an Amy Ray song and what’s going to be an Indigo Girls song?
It’s just a feeling I have. Usually when I start writing it I can tell, does this feel like a duo song or does this feel like an Amy Ray song? It’s based on the musicians I’m going to play with and what I know I want to experience on a song, solo vs. Indigo Girls. Indigo Girls stuff, I don’t always know what we’re going to do, but I can tell how the harmonies are going to be approached. I can almost hear Emily in it as I’m writing it.
Is there a theme on this album?
Kind of. It’s not anything that I thought about in the beginning. What I’m tackling on this album thematically is ways of having compassion for people who are different from you, who speak a different language, have a different perspective. How to deal with anger and hate and betrayal and all those negative emotions that we have, and other people have towards us, and how to look at that from a compassionate place. I think that is part of the theme. I tried to focus on a certain musicality and a certain groove. My last couple records were more on the nose thematically. I didn’t want to do that this time.
It sounds different to me than your previous two albums.
Yeah. I used a producer, which I’ve never done, so I had someone working with me that really created a lot of challenges in a good way that brought me up to another level. I used a studio that sounded really good. It was a combination of technical stuff and musical stuff that created a different sound.
And you collaborated with a lot of the same musicians from The Butchies, Kaia Wilson and Melissa York.
Yup. Those two. They’ve evolved over time too. The last time I recorded with them was seven years ago and we kept in touch and played together, but Kaia had expanded and Mel had expanded on ways of playing and so their sound has shifted a little bit too.
You’ve been doing this for years and years, does it still feed you?
Yeah, if it didn’t, I think I’d quit. Because I don’t think it would be worth any amount of money to feel spiritually dead. There are definitely moments when I feel so tired of being on the road, sleeping in hotels. And then I feel glad that I even have a hotel, because I have friends who are in bands who are sleeping on people’s floors. As soon as I start feeling negative, all I have to do is think about some of my best friends and think about them sleeping in the back seat of a van and making their meals in a crock pot on the road and I’m like I have it so good. But it wears you down a bit, the traveling does. It’s just something to contend with. It’s the job part of the job.
I think you just find a balance, like how much traveling is too much. Because you don’t ever want to be playing in front of people when you don’t feel energized and present.
Are you going to be touring with the new album?
Yes, I will be going out in October. Indigos are touring through the middle of July and have a September tour too and then I’ll take a week off and start my solo tour. Touring solo is so different because it’s in a van. It’s kind of grueling, but you’re really in control of your destiny the whole time. Being on a tour bus is great, but it doesn’t feel like the thrill of the open road. Being in a van can be a relief in some ways. You can roll the windows down and just go where you want to go. We split the driving. I love driving. I enjoy that part of touring. It’s fun.
You sing about the “trans nation” on your new album. How has the trans movement influenced you?
God, in so many ways. I think it gave me a comfort level with myself that is very freeing. Because I’m older the language of the trans movement is not something I grew up with. I grew up in a southern suburban environment where just being a feminist was a stretch, you know? My language around my own masculinity and my own gender was stilted and I didn’t totally understand it and I didn’t feel comfortable with…I mean I felt comfortable with myself, but I didn’t know how to express to someone else in a language what that meant. One thing the trans movement did was give me a language, an articulation of my own gender struggle in myself. But it also gives the queer movement a certain propulsion that it needs to look beyond mainstream issues and to look into a gender spectrum and to look into the idea of gender and sexuality being separate from each other. And push that envelope. And to look at the queer community as larger than gay and lesbian. For me it was a broadness that was missing from the gay movement. And just on a spiritual level I felt like after I toured with the Butchies in 2000 and really started being exposed more to the trans movement I just felt better. I don’t even know how to put it.
It’s a certain comfort that I hadn’t felt in my queer community. I was from a community that was kind of conservative in a lot of ways. Not by their own choice, just an exposure issue. We were working on the most basic idea around being homosexual. To move beyond that from separating what your sexuality is from your gender is, that’s a whole other thing. The Trans area is just one portal. There are so many other ones.
Yes, it’s definitely a diverse community.
Yeah, and it’s all worthy. I also don’t like when people are so deprecating about the old school lesbians and they talk about it as if it’s a bad thing.
I think in some ways it’s just part of growing up, You have to reject what came before you.
You’re right. I think there are important reasons to reject some of it. But I think it gets mingled with a very deep homophobia and a very deep sexism. It’s so internalized in ourselves. It’s less comfortable to say “lesbian” because it has all these female connotations that just eat at the most sexist part of our core. I think the trans movement has to look at that too.
We touched on some of the queer political issues. Your song writing, solo and with the Indigo Girls has always been political. Looking at some of the issues you bring up on this album and one of them was the Virginia Tech killings. How did you come to write a song about that?
I was watching TV when it happened. I was just really disturbed by it. At the same time the Iraq war was happening. I read deeper into our own military and the way we supply arms and munitions to other countries that have leadership who use children to fight wars. I look at that as one big mess of like, “No wonder this happens.” Not excusing it, but just saying, how can you look at this situation and take something from it that’s not just about the hate and the anger and craziness, but something that is about our own complicity in society.
Where do you find the time to be involved in activism?
On the Indigo Girls website and the Daemon Records website we have a whole resource section these are the groups that we think are doing really good work. A lot of them are groups that we work with directly or people that we’ve done stuff with. We work constantly with a group called Honor the Earth that we helped start in the early 90s. We raise money and help provide political support for Native run environmental organizations. That’s an on-going thing. We work on energy issues a lot now. We’re trying to fund solar and wind projects on Indian reservations and try and shift that paradigm from coal mining, and uranium mining and hydro electric dams to something that is more sustainable. We do benefits every year and go to board meetings.
On this tour that we’re on, we’re doing a lot around voter registration. We’re supporting an organization called Project Vote which works with disenfranchised voters.
We spent some time in New Orleans and raised money for this old blues musician that needed a home. We try to do things that are connected in some way, because everything is. It’s part of how we move. It just fits in.
When you run your record label, has it been hard to honor your political commitments and also run a business?
No because my label is an indie label. I just try to run it with a consciousness.
What about being part of the Indigo Girls?
Not the Indigo Girls operation itself, because we pay a political consultant to help us with our activism. She tours with us to make sure the green touring is happening. It has been harder in the past, because we were on a major label. But we got dropped, so we’re independent now, so it’s easier to be true to that vision.
The Indigo Girls aren’t on a label anymore?
No we just got dropped about two months ago. We just finished a new record and we’re going to put it out in the winter. Not on my label, but through some distribution channels.
How do you feel about that?
We’re totally excited. It was not a moment for me of any kind of regret. I was happy, happy, happy. I was just a little worried because we had already planned on making a record, we had a producer lined up and I was concerned about that working out, but it did. The producer called us and said, “I’m still in.” So we went ahead and did it. In a quick time and low budget.
When is that coming out?
January or February 09. It’s done. Ready to go. We’re playing songs from it live.