illinoisentertainer.com: interview with amy ray: Together Apart
Anyone who has followed Amy Ray’s solo career since it sprouted from the Indigo Girls in 2001 can vouch that it bears little resemblance to the group’s cozy, folk rock stylings. From her Stag debut to 2005’s Prom and now Didn’t It Feel Kinder (all on her own Daemon Records), she has steadily increased the volume, added unbridled urgency to her songwriting, and is even more outspoken about social and political causes. In spite of the fanfare and critical praise she has earned along the way, Ray refuses to rest on her laurels or buy into her own hype.
“When I look back at the last record, I don’t really have any regrets, but I could’ve developed it more and worked harder,” she says. “I hadn’t taken enough time to flesh out how I was playing guitar or asking others to play their parts, which is really the main thing I would’ve changed. I also didn’t mix it as well as I wanted. I could’ve done it in less time and had it a little more raw, but instead got to the halfway point of being polished and it wasn’t polished enough.”
Nonetheless, Ray regrouped for Didn’t It Feel Kinder and reconnected with the drummer from her first solo record, Melissa York (The Butchies). She also rounded out the rhythm section with Kaia Wilson (a past collaborator, also of Butchies fame) and enlisted producer Greg Griffith (The Butchies, Le Tigre). Ray self-produced her first two records, so this was the first time in her solo career she sought outside help. “He immediately came in with good ideas, took a good look at my overall musical perspective, and helped channel my melodic structure,” explains Ray. “I’ll tell you, a good producer really helps whittle things down, and while it’s valid to work alone and learn from that, I wanted to learn what it was like to collaborate with somebody.”
Between those core musicians, guest guitarist Tomi Martin (from Three5Human), and backing vocalists Brandi Carlile and Arizona, Ray’s outpourings are among her most insistent and aggressive to date, loaded with fiery melodies and super-charged electric guitars. “All of my solo records have been pretty electric, but this one is really strident,” she affirms. “For me, ‘She’s Got To Be’ is extremely tight, smooth, and soulful as far as guitar sounds go and really a stretch for me vocally and musically to write. ‘Bus Bus’ to me is one of the louder songs that was really fun to write and seemed to come out of nowhere. Each song really exists within the space of itself and I really paid attention to all of the transitions.”
Yet for every intense lick, there’s an equally soulful underbelly that comes from her affinity for Sam Cooke and Al Green. Though Ray has rarely keyed into those interests before, she cites Griffith and York as catalysts in those unexpected explorations. “They’re really attached at the hip and they sort of come as this package that can play really soulful rhythms,” Ray gleans of their frequent session work together. “Greg knows a lot of the late-’60s and early-’70s soul that’s really had a lot of influence on him and comes out when he plays. Melissa is into a lot more R&B, urban, and hip-hop because she’s a punk rocker who DJs on the side. And I was already listening to the giants from that era because I’ve always loved how they could sing with such beautiful melodies, yet talk about feelings of oppression in a love song.”
Lyrically, the new project is loaded with Ray’s signature blend of deeply personal reflections that are equally thought provoking, especially considering none of the topics wrap up with a neat conclusion. But the tunesmith makes a valid observation when suggesting issues as weighty as war, gay rights, and the economy are much more complicated than the current political administration likes to spin. For starters, the sobering “Birds Of A Feather” addresses estrangement, the melodic soul of “She’s Got To Be” assesses gender, the scorching guitars of “Bus Bus” discuss climate change, and jarring indie rocker “SLC Radio” lampoons religious conservatism.
Even more compelling is the garage punk of “Who Sold The Gun” (inspired by the Virginia Tech shootings), which may only span three minutes but is packed with enough twists and turns to provide a week’s worth of discussions. “The media started figuring out the back story of the guy and where he got the weapon, but then as the funerals were happening, there were all sorts of news reports about what was happening in Iraq,” recalls Ray. “So amidst everything, there was this picture of a crazy guy being painted and I could see how that happened in this society. Some people are going to slip through the cracks and turn to violence because we live in a violent society. Everybody acts so shocked by this big funeral, but at the same time thousands are dying of bombings in Iraq. So I wrote the song wondering who sells these ideas of violence and it wasn’t so much a judgment as it was a question.”