cherrygrrl.com: the indigo girls deliver again – amy ray talks to cherry grrl
original publish date: 16 mar 2009
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Two words come to mind when an Indigo Girls fan thinks about Amy Ray and Emily Saliers: “Thanks, y’all.” It’s the way they have been transitioning from one song to another at their shows for decades and it’s the most accurate way to acknowledge what they have done throughout their career. But with 10 major-label studio albums, a Grammy win and 6 nominations, a steady delivery of tours in all areas of the world, and an unwavering commitment to social, political, and environmental activism – thanking them doesn’t seem nearly good enough. The Indigo Girls truly are one of the most genuine, hard working, kind, and talented duos to have ever existed in the music industry and they have achieved all of their success by following their own unique and inspirational path. Now, with their first studio album in three years, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, and first release on their new independent label, they have once again given their fans a reason to be thankful by delivering the effortless harmonies, passionate lyrics, and infectious melodies that only they can. Amy Ray recently took the time to talk to Cherry Grrl and share with us her thoughts on recording independently, performing at The Dinah for the first time, Katy Perry, and more…
Cherry Grrl (CG): What can you tell us about the new release, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug? What can fans expect from this one?
Amy Ray (AR): Well the thing that we did with this to sort of stand out was we recorded the whole record with the band and then we went back at the very end of the recording and spent three days just doing the songs acoustically. So it’s a double CD and one CD is just all the songs as an acoustic duo, live – no over dubs – with an extra track. And then the other CD is the band version of everything.
CG: Why did you decide to go that route this time, in providing the two versions?
AR: It was really the producer’s idea because – I think he had been reading some blogs or something – and he said, “I think your fans want you to make a record just you and Emily alone.” And we were like, “well we want to do it this way,” so he suggested we record it both ways. So, we did. And it was fun… I mean it was definitely harder than I thought it would be (laughs). Emily said it was easier than she thought but for me I was like, wow, it’s like I’ve never played an acoustic duo before. It felt strange because I think I’m not used to doing it in a studio like that. It’s different when you’re live because if you mess up it just goes by really fast but when you do it in the studio you have to just keep doing it over and over again and you have to go through the whole song and get everything exactly the way you want. And so I was just over-thinking it and getting nervous about it and then when I let go of that, it was fine.
CG: This was the first release for you and Emily under IG Recordings. What has that change meant to you?
AR: We were making plans to make a record and sort of knew who we wanted to work with and everything and then we got dropped from Hollywood Records, from that record deal, and I think we were both pretty excited actually because we were like – now we can just carry on and sort of just do what we want to do. And you know we just decided – and it wasn’t even a question – that we were going to make it ourselves and create a little label for it. Mitchell [Mitchell Froom is the veteran producer, arranger, and keyboardist who worked on Poseidon and the Bitter Bug] called us and he was like, “I still want to do the record, you can pay me less,” and everybody came to us like, “we know you’re budget’s lower and we’ll cut you deals.” So it felt like a community experience and exciting to kind of be on our own. And then Vanguard came and said they wanted to distribute it and they have such a great distribution system and they’re still independent as well. So it just felt like we kind of got the best of both worlds. We got this great distributor who has a legacy of really important folk recordings and we got to have our own label. So it’s real exciting.
CG: Are there any particular songs on the new album that stand out as your favorites?
AR: There are a couple. “Sugar Tongue” is a song that I worked on for a really long time and was pretty important to me because it was kind of a different direction for me vocally, and melodically as well. And lyrically it was something that I just really worked hard on. And then I think “Second Time Around” is another one for me, just on a sentimental level, because of the subject matter about sort of community and women and being allies and stuff. So probably those two songs for me, for my own writing, are standouts. And for Emily’s, I love the song “Digging for your Dream.” It’s a really different direction for her and it’s a great song – it’s a particular favorite. And the song “I’ll Change” is another particular favorite of mine. And that one just because it’s so beautiful, the melody is just so beautiful.
CG: You and Emily will be appearing at The Dinah, Club Skirts Dinah Shore weekend in Palm Springs, this year. Is that a first for you?
AR: Yeah! It is (laughs). I feel like I might have been out there before just to hang out – I’m not sure though. A lot of my friends have gone out there and hung out and I didn’t even know they had. I didn’t realize it was such a… a thing. And now I get it – it is a thing… I get it now (laughs). I kind of catch on late. But I’m excited, I think it’s gonna be fun.
CG: Well you will certainly have a lot of fans there. Can they expect to see you and Emily maybe collaborate with any of the other artists who will be out there performing – like Uh Huh Her (Leisha Hailey and Camila Grey) or Katy Perry?
AR: Well I’ve heard Leisha’s music but I don’t know that configuration that she’s doing right now, and I’ve never met her, I just know of her because we have people in common. So, what is likely to happen is that we’ll approach them and be like, “Do you want to sing ‘Closer to Fine?’” (laughs). Because that’s what we always do and then we’ll like, go from there, and see what else happens. We love just like meeting people through that – through singing that song together. And we usually teach someone the verse, if they don’t already know it, and give them the lyrics and then put them on the spot – see if they’ll do it.
CG: Well I hope Leisha and Camila do. That would be great!
AR: It would be so great. And you know it’s good that Katy Perry is going to be there because I just played Seattle as a solo rock thing and The Seattle Stranger, which is an independent art newspaper that I really love, did a really screwed up thing and printed a fake editorial that looked like I wrote it – about the Katy Perry song, whatever that song is… that “I Kissed a Girl” song – and it was like this really graphic political kind of rant that took her to task. But it was done in a way that was really homophobic and kind of stupid, and the language was really bad, and it wasn’t anything that I would have done or anything that I probably would have said to Katy Perry. You know I would definitely discuss that song with her, but not in that way. I would never do that to another artist. And they did that and people thought I wrote it. They didn’t make it look enough like it was a parody and it really pissed me off – like really pissed me off. And I asked The Stranger about it and said, “Why did you do this?” I had even taken an ad out in that paper to do a retail co-op ad with a record store, because I like to support the independent papers, and then they did that and I was just bummed. And I was also bummed because my friends kept calling me and being like, “Why did you write this?” And like… it’s just one of those things…it’s already done. It’s not a battle I want to fight but I also don’t want to make some other artist feel trapped, unless there is a reason. I mean I don’t even know her! But actually I think that will be good to be able to – in case she knows about that – to be able to say something to her. But I don’t even know her… like I have no idea. When that song came out I was just like, “huh.”
CG: Yeah well it seems like a lot of lesbians have mixed feelings about that song.
AR: Well it’s funny because I think the lyrics are a little bit homophobic, in a complex kind of way that someone might not at first think. But it’s a step back. That’s how I felt about it. But you know, whatever, it’s a pop song. And then I was in different gay bars recently doing different events and it would be playing as part of the dance music. So obviously there is a facet of the community that thinks about it differently. It would be interesting to hear what she’d have to say about it now though, in retrospect.
CG: Well maybe you’ll have the opportunity to discuss it with her?
AR: Yeah, maybe (laughs). I don’t want to scare her – this old lady coming up to her like: “I’m your elder. Why did you do this?!” (laughs). No, I mean, I don’t care. It’s good for a dialogue. Its good for us to have something to talk about and look at what our agenda is and our motivations are and how we get acceptance in the world as who we are.
CG: Along those lines, a lot of your fans look up to you and Emily for your activism and all of the work that you both do – all of the efforts that you have made in so many areas with your advocacy. What would your advice be to someone who wanted to get started in making a difference and getting involved in that kind of arena?
AR: I think working locally is a good way to start because it’s where you’re at and you can see the impact of what you do. What I do in my little community – I live in a small little town – is I go to the community meeting section of the paper and I see who’s meeting and what groups are around by that. You know, who is having meetings and when they are and the topic, and I sort of start there and I see what I want to get involved with. And that’s a good thing. And on IndigoGirls.com there’s a great resource section for people if they want to do something that’s more regional or national. And also there’s grassroots – these groups that we talk about in our resource section are all really good and it’s divided up into topics. So it’s like – okay, I’m really into animal welfare issues so you go and you look under that or you want to work on women’s choice issues or whatever. And a lot of the groups that we deal with are connected to smaller groups and smaller communities, so you can start there. And there’s another thing, for people who are sort of established in their communities and have their job and their career together and have some time, something I never thought about – something Winona LaDuke was telling me about that she thought was a good idea – is that if you live in an area that has a power company that is like a co-op power company, and certain smaller towns do, and they don’t have a green power program, one way to get that going is to actually get on the board of that co-op. And so what she was saying is that one way to influence your community is to be on the board, the zoning board, the electrical power company board – you know, just different involvement like that. And I had never thought about that idea of just serving on the board as a way to influence… I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me. But sort of just working from the inside out. So that’s another thing that people can do. It’s kind of hard but really, really effective.
CG: Indigo Girls concerts are known for being tons of fun for the fans out there in the audience. What would you say is the most requested song that you hear shouted out from the crowd?
AR: “Galileo!” Hands down, the most requested song. And I’m glad because I love that song – I never get tired of playing it.
CG: Do you have a favorite song that you play?
AR: Umm, no – it changes from week to week. Like, when we put a new record out we’ll be like, “Oh we love playing this song!” We were playing “Sugar Tongue” and “Fleet of Hope” for a while, before we even recorded them, and those were fun to play. But like I love playing “Galileo” and “Closer to Fine” – because everybody sings, and you can stop singing, and everybody sings. And it’s really moving to hear that. You know, we love what the audience loves, because it’s all like a big party.
CG: Then I think I can speak for a lot of your fans when I say that that’s awesome to hear because I’ve often wondered if you and Emily find that annoying at all, when everyone sings along.
AR: Oh no, no! No way! It’s not annoying at all. It’s not to us – I mean it might be to someone in the audience… but not to us at all.
CG: In terms of your fans, is there something you can think of that was maybe the craziest thing a fan has ever done for you to get your attention?
AR: Wow, well for a while people were baking chocolate chip cookies for us, which was awesome. And like, when we go play in Northern California people always leave us bags of pot, which I think is so funny. And I find somewhere to put them, give them away or something. I’m so like… I don’t have any vices anymore. And one time these fans organized a bus and all got together and traveled from one show to another, which I thought was really cool. And that definitely got our attention. It was cool, it was really cool.
CG: We try to cover a lot of up and coming bands on Cherry Grrl and get them noticed. From your many years of experience in the music industry, do you have any advice for groups that are just starting out on how they can move forward and find more success?
AR: You know, it’s really like simple advice like play as many gigs as you can and if you don’t have gigs, create them – like house parties and just gatherings when you get together in a garage space and just borrow a PA system or something and like, create your own events. Because it’s hard to get gigs sometimes but that’s what you want to do. If you want to have an impact you have got to play a lot and create a community around you and collaborate with other people and ask to open for other people. And trade gigs. Like, if you’re big in one town and you know a band in another town that’s big then offer them an opening spot in your town and then go to their town and do an opening spot. That’s how me and Emily did it, to start. We traded gigs and gave other people opportunities where we had more clout and then where they had clout they gave us opportunities. Things like that. But I still think the visceral sort of live experience is really important to build a community. And I think the internet is great. I think you should put your stuff up, like everybody is doing, and don’t think that’s not important because it is. Even though everyone else is doing it and it’s hard to get noticed, it’s a good thing. If I hear about a band I immediately go to MySpace and find them listen to their music and it’s really important to keep that content updated and fresh – because people are going to it and looking at it. And if you’re a band that writes I just encourage you to spend as much time as possible writing because the bands that really differentiate themselves are not differentiating themselves because they’re good players – that’s important – but mostly it’s because they have good songs. If I go see a band and they’re really good at what they do and they have really good stage presence but they’re songs aren’t really that great, I’m not going to be invested in following them. But if I see someone who has great songs but technically they’re not as good, I don’t care technically at all, because a songwriter is unique. That’s something you can really make yourself stand out as no matter how good or how bad you are at what you do. Like, I’m not a great musician, so I focus on songwriting and I practice my guitar but I know I’m never going to be as good as like, Nancy Wilson. But I know if I work on my songwriting I can get better and better at that and I can differentiate myself that way.
CG: Well you certainly have. But what if you didn’t have the musical talents that you have, what would you be doing instead?
AR: I’d probably be working with animals. I would do some kind of outdoor animal conservation type stuff. Or I’d be a teacher – but I might end up doing that (laughs) so I shouldn’t say that’s what I would do instead. That’s probably what I’m going to do at the end of all this… after I retire.
CG: I hope you don’t see retirement anywhere in the near future?!
AR: No…but I think at some point me and Emily will have to tour a little bit less – just because of our physical limitations. But I’ve always wanted to teach school – so I really want to do that later.