amy ray interview

original publish date: 14 nov 2008
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Amy Ray, sharp-dressed champion of the (wo)mandolin. (Photo courtesy sayyesnet.)

Amy Ray, sharp-dressed champion of the (wo)mandolin. (Photo courtesy sayyesnet.)

Queer icon Amy Ray takes the 9:30 Club stage tonight in support of her third solo studio album, Didn’t It Feel Kinder. Yesterday, she kindly indulged a half-hour’s worth of questions from someone barely able to conceal that her senior high school yearbook quote was an Indigo Girls lyric (and that she saw the band 17 times, over a span of three years).

TNG Coach: How’s the tour going? You guys were in New York last night–did you catch any of the protest, or were you working during that?

Amy Ray: It’s going great. Yeah, we were working, but we had some people that’d come from there, so a lot of excitement.

TNG: It’s kind of interesting, because you have that song “SLC Radio” on this album . . .

AR: [Laughs] I know! Awww, I didn’t know this was gonna happen.

TNG: So, are you still (as the song goes), “sending love to all the Mormons”?

AR: Yeah, I am. I believe in that. I think you have to just love ‘em to death. Yeah, kill ‘em with kindness. I think the point of that song, as far as the Mormons go, is that you have, as in any religion, you have good things about what you do, and you have a base of goodness in some of what you do, and then you have a lot of bad stuff, and that’s the stuff you need to get rid of. You know, so I’m just kinda saying that there’s nothing wrong with changing your ways.

TNG: In a way, the whole thing’s been kind of galvanizing for the queer community . . .

AR: Yeah, yeah. I mean, hopefully, it’s galvanizing for everyone–allies and such. It’s fascinating that that church actually got away with funneling so much money into that, with all the laws and stuff, separation of church and state, it’ll be interesting to see how that pans out.

TNG: You played up in Ontario on election night, right? Were you on stage for the Obama win? Did you play a special song or anything?

AR: Yeah, we were in Toronto.Yes, it was amazing–totally amazing. We played around with changing lyrics just for fun, and after we heard he won, we played, but it was very hard to focus on playing. Because you know you just want to go run out in the streets and celebrate.
TNG: And even when you get back from tour, your home state will still be deciding a big race.

AR: Yeah, Jim Martin. That’s going to be amazing, if Saxby Chambliss gets thrown out. If Jim Martin wins, that’ll be a huge victory. He’s been plugging away for awhile, he’s a really good man–it would just be so wonderful because Saxby Chambliss, besides me disagreeing with him, he is just not doing a good job.

TNG: It’s nice to see red states shaking it up.

AR: Yeah, Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina–it’s great that she’s out of there!

TNG: Okay, so that was the obligatory political portion of any D.C. conversation–sorry for all the nerding out.

AR: Oh no, I love politics–as you know.

TNG: Okay, so your new album. Your first solo album was Stag, then came Prom, and now Didn’t It Feel Kinder, with the two horses together on the cover–am I reading too much into this as symbolic of some sort of happy ending?

AR: [Laughs] Um . . . that’s funny. It’s definitely a more relational record than the other ones. Relationships, uh, well not just being love relationships, because I’m talking about compassion and taking the high road, and how to have dialog with people that are coming from a completely different place than you are, and how to love the parts of yourself that are hard to love. Those are the themes that the record deals with. So, I don’t know why a picture of two horses makes sense to me, but it does. Because there’s something about the relationship with horses, especially, because they’re such emotional beings, where you don’t really know what’s going on between those two horses, but there’s something connecting them. It just made sense to me for some reason.

TNG: The songs “Bus Bus” “She’s Got to Be”, and “Cold Shoulder” were kinda standouts to me, as far as that relationship / two horses in the pasture together theme goes. Especially “Cold Shoulder” has a sort of Replacements “I Will Dare” feel to it.

AR: Ah, “I Will Dare”–I love that song–it’s a great song.

TNG: Generally, this album seems to have a range of influences–would you say more so than the previous two?

AR: It’s definitely more rangey and diverse. I think some of it is working with a producer and challenging myself in that way, different musical input. And I was writing the songs in a lot of different locations, with different influences in what I was listening to or whatever bands were playing on the stage before us. There’s a lot of stuff leaking into the songs, musically. And then working with the producer to push the musical arrangements and musicality up to a different level, and really stretch vocally and rhythmically to bring in some other ideas. It’s definitely a step in a different direction than Stag and Prom, but I guess the thing that ties the records together is I just try to focus on songwriting, and that’s the core. My solo records have a certain way that I write, topics I hit on, ways of telling stories.

TNG: And this album was mostly written on the road?

AR: A lot of it yeah, mostly. I probably finished a few things at home, but yeah, I was on tour a lot, when I was writing for that record.

TNG: When you’re not on tour, you live a pretty rural life, right?

AR: Yeah, I mean it’s unfortunately not as rural as it was ten years ago, cause there’s so much development everywhere. But yeah, it’s rural. I live on eighty acres in the woods, in a conservative town, with a small contingent of progressive people. But we all get along. I mean even the people that disagree with each other. I’m from Georgia, so I just understand the different aspects of being from Georgia–taking the good and the bad. There’s a lot of really bad bad, but there’s also a lot of really good good. It’s extremely gothic in that way, very southern gothic.

TNG: It sounds like the place you recorded the album–Echo Mountain–was also this sort of Flannery O’Connor gothic setting, too.

AR: Yeah, it was this big church, with huge stain glassed windows and a big room, like an old, old church. And I’d drive from my house which is kind of in the foothills of the mountains, up into the hills, and then into Asheville, and stay in this big old house with a ton of rooms and go work in this big church. It was very spiritual, I guess [laughs].

TNG: And for the gear heads out there, you were working on som
e pretty vintage equipment up there, too.

AR: Yeah! We recorded a lot of it to tape–the majority of the basic tracking to two-inch sixteen track tape, which is really fat. Then we’d load the tape into ProTools, and then tape over it again, so we could save money. And then we did some overdubs in ProTools, but the majority of the initial recordings were to tape, which is great. It’s a great studio–they have a really great vintage mic collection, and great amps.

TNG: I want to go back to the rural thing for a second–for some, this sort of setting might seem at odds with a punk aesthetic. Is it for you, or what’s punk about the country?

AR: For me, punk is like folk is–it’s music of a community–whatever community you’re in, and how you express it. When you listen to a lot of old Appalachian field recordings, it’s pretty rowdy. Really old country, like Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn–some of the older stuff–it’s got that punk leaning in it. There’s a certain rawness–a kind of murder ballads and songs about hard life, challenging authority–in early country, there’s a real aesthetic that I think punk rock picked up on and incorporated into what they did, too. It’s why you have labels like Bloodshot Records where you have John Langford from the Mekons writing country songs. There’s something that ties those together.

TNG: For the show tomorrow night, out musician Jennifer O’Connor’s opening, and you seem to work with a lot of queer musicians. Is that something you seek out as an artist and with your label, or is it just sort of happenstance?

AR: It’s mostly happenstance. My label’s been a place for outsider art–sometimes that’s because they’re queer, and sometimes it’s because the music they’re making is funky and too eclectic for the mainstream. But I don’t limit it in that way, cause I don’t think that helps any. I do definitely extend a sense of camaraderie to my community, and anyone that wants to be a part of that community.

The other band I tour a lot with is a band called Arizona that played on this record, and they’re four guys that are just so open to life, and in that way they’re queer. It doesn’t even occur to them that, oh we’re playing in front of an audience that’s got a lot of gay people in it. We’re really good friends, and it’s just music. I really appreciate that about them because a lot of guys and girls that are straight are worried about being associated with queer music because it might damage their career–even at this early club stage, which is such a stupid thing to be thinking about. But you think about it–everybody does, it’s a fear we all have inside us. They [Arizona] don’t do that, they just play cause they want to play. And I know other bands that won’t, because they’re like I don’t want to develop that kind of audience. And I’m like, okay, well then develop no audience, because you’ve got to take your opportunities where you can get them. But, a part of me understands, though, why people hesitate, because I see what it does, because I’ve had a long look at it, you know? [laughs]

TNG: I have some lighter, TigerBeat-style questions, do you have time for those?

AR: Oh yeah–TigerBeat.

TNG: You know, like who’s the cutest Jonas Brother, that sort of thing.

AR: Yeah, yeah.

TNG: Okay, so what are you reading?

AR: Right now, I’m reading a book called Iodine, by Haven Kimmel. It’s a great book, a crazy book. And I just read The Tyranny of Oil, which is, uh, quite a bear to get through.

TNG: That sounds like a light read–a real beach book. Do you have a guilty pleasure on tour–like favorite junk food, t.v. show, or listening to Van Halen right before you go on stage?

AR: [Laughs] My band seems to like to listen to Leo Sayer and Journey, in the van, but not right now. Junk food on tour . . . well, the night Obama won . . . I hadn’t had a candy bar in so long, cause I’ve been on this try not to eat a lot of sugar thing, and we went to this gas station and food store in Canada, and I got a chocolate milk and a Twix bar, and it was like the best thing I’ve had in months [laughs].

TNG: Yes! Thank you Obama for all the candy bars had that night. So who are you listening to right now, besides being forced to listen to Journey and Leo Sayer?

AR: You know, I’ve just heard this new folk artist that I really love. He’s really totally raw, and really folk. His name is Gregory Allen Isakov. He’s out of Boulder. Somebody just turned me onto him and I went and downloaded all his records and was like, man, he is a really great writer, and really raw. His voice is just putting it out there. There’s no affectation or pretension. It’s like punk folk. I like that a lot. Sometimes when I’m playing electric stuff for awhile I like to listen to something really different from what I’m doing, just to get my ears wrapped around something different.

TNG: When you’re on tour, do you call home and ask to have your pets put on the phone?

AR: I do iSight, with my pets [laughing].

TNG: Oh really? Is that like Skype?

AR: Yeah, like on computers that have the little cameras in them, I have a Mac. And when someone’s at home that has one, I get them to show me the dogs and the cats in front of the computer. They can’t see, they don’t know it’s me, but I talk to them.

TNG: Do they talk back?

AR: One of them recognizes my voice, and does his head kind of weird and stuff. The rest of them don’t, they don’t really know. It’s like, I have 12 animals–five dogs and seven cats–and a full-time pet sitter, and a girlfriend, who is home some of the time–so they [the animals] just want love, they don’t care who it’s from. I like to think that I have a special connection with them, and I’m sure I do, but I also know them. I get home, and if they’ve had a good time without me there, I can tell. They’re just like, hey, how you doing? There’s one dog that gets really excited and just goes crazy. You know, I adopt strays and take the best care of them I can, and try to let go and realize, as long as I’ve got someone lovin’ them up all the time, and they’re just getting total love, that’s what they want in life.

TNG: So you also just answered another one of my questions–whether you’re a Mac or a PC.

AR: I’m a Mac, all the way!

TNG: Elitist!

AR: [Laughs] I can’t help it, I’m a musician–Garage Band!

TNG: Do you have a favorite D.C. band or musician?

AR: D.C. band? Fugazi. Ian [Mackeye] is so important to me as an activist. And Bad Brains, I’m really into Bad Brains.

TNG: Would you rather watch the L Word or Rachel Maddow?

AR: Oh god, it depends on what kind of mood I’m in. I mean the L Word is kind of like trash, I hate to say that . . .

TNG: It’s kind of like the Twix and the chocolate

AR: Yeah, and sometimes it makes you feel sick, like the Twix and the chocolate milk. I mean there are moments when that show’s been good, and then there are moments when I’m like, this is not relevant to me at all, as a political activist queer. So, Rachel Maddow, probably. She is quite brilliant.

TNG: Yeah, and they seem to be toning down her hair. It’s like slowly descending to normal heights.

AR: [Laughing] Yeah.

TNG: How many f-bombs do you drop on this album?

AR: I don’t know, I haven’t counted them. But I know I had to make four clean versions of songs.

TNG: How do you hear about bands? From press, internet, friends?

AR: I’ll read Venus, and the reviews in that a lot, and then I’ll go down to the MySpace pages for the artists, and listen to it and go out and get it. So mostly press and MySpace. I used to get all my music from Punk Planet, and I was really bummed when that magazine shut down.

TNG: If you weren’t a professional musician, what would you be doing?

AR: Uh, teaching.

TNG: Any particular subject?

AR: Um, I’m an English major, but I’m really bad at it, so I’d probably want to teach history.

TNG: So tomorrow’s an early show–will you get to take in any of the city, or is it all go-go-go? We’ve also got a big Prop 8 protest scheduled for Saturday . . .

AR: It’s pretty much all go-go-go, but Saturday we’re going to be in Richmond, and they’ve got a protest down there too, so we’re going to go to that. Typically, on the solo tours, we’re in a van, and we’re all doing everything ourselves, so there’s not much time between the driving and loading out and checking in. It’s like, every time you check into a hotel you have to take all your guitars in . . . Basically, touring is packing and unpacking, all day long, and then you get to play for an hour and a half–and it’s worth it. We sort of enjoy the process of it.

TNG: Are you going to come back into town for the inauguration?

AR: You know, I think we’ll be on tour, the night of the inauguration, which is a bummer. But I know there’s a lot of shows being planned, and I got an email from the Future of Music Coalition about playing a show. It’s such a historic thing, we’ll be watching it.

TNG: Is this tour in support of the new Indigo Girls album?

AR: No, I’m doing a solo tour on the West Coast, in mid-January for like three weeks, then come home for a while, then the new Indigo record comes out at the end of March, and then we’ll be hitting the road with that. And that record is going to be independent.

TNG: Yeah, twenty years ago you guys had your first signing with Epic, and now you’ve come full circle–does it feel good?

AR: Oh god yeah. I’ve been trying–I don’t want to put it like that–but I’ve kind of been trying to talk Emily into this for years [laughs]. And I just think she has her own reasons, you know, and I respect them, totally. She’s a really clear thinker, and I often am very emotional in my business dealings. I think that we temper each other because of that. I gave up on the bigger label system a while back, and sort of from the very beginning I always had real mixed feelings about it. But I had my indie label on the side, and that fed my soul and allowed me to do my thing. I’m really, really happy though. I just think it’s going to be refreshing, just to know that you’re independent. It’s refreshing and it’s a good time for it.


~ by Erin on Sunday, June 14, 2009.

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