spectrumculture.com: interview with amy ray
Amy Ray may best be known as one half of the band, Indigo Girls, but her ability to transform stories and sounds into something that gets deep under the skin is apparent on her solo efforts as well. She is a deeply impassioned activist, supporting political and social causes such as gay rights, indigenous struggles, women’s rights, and environmental protection. I have always been a fan of the Indigo Girls, the smooth harmony of their voices, and beautiful instrumentation of their sound. In 2001, when I heard Ray’s first solo album, Stag, I was moved in a different way. The grittiness dug its way inside me as I sensed her internal dissection to produce such deeply stirring songs. Her fourth solo album, Didn’t it Feel Kinder was recently released late last year. I was beyond excited to have the opportunity to chat with Amy Ray, who was taking a break from her current tour.
Let’s set the mood a bit. Can you describe where you are?
(Laughs) I’m sitting in our touring van in a parking lot. I’m in Georgia. We haven’t left yet, but I’m in a van getting some stuff done. And, it’s raining.
Do you like touring?
Yeah, I do. I get tired and miss home. So I have that sort of split in my being. I really enjoy it. I don’t think I’d do it anymore if I didn’t.
In your introduction for your new album, Didn’t it feel Kinder, you write that you “wanted it to be a wide-open vista, the prairie at twilight, a mountain road at 3am, a heartbreaking news broadcast.” How did you go about presenting these images?
I think that those are the images that I thought about when I thought about the songs themselves because they grew out of experiences that involved those images. We just took each song as individual and really worked on the arrangement and the vocal style and the sounds, the tones, the things that really reflect what I was emotionally trying to say in the song. I think we took more care and time with it than I was able to do on other solo records.
Were there certain subjects in your head that you specifically wanted to put into this album?
Not before I started writing. Typically, I write throughout the year anyway and I just kind of collect songs. When I seem to have enough or they seem to be falling into place, then I start thinking about how I’m going to record. I really let the songs lead me toward when to start [deciding] what the emotion will be.
How would you say your words are affected by what’s outside your window?
Pretty affected. I mean, I’m aware of my surroundings pretty consistently when I’m on tour or when I’m at home. When I’m at home, I live in the woods and I’m very affected by the images of the rural nature of where I live. When I’m in the city, I’m very affected by the stimulus of that and the sweaty, gritty urban environment. I like that environment sometimes. I wouldn’t want to live in that all the time because I’m in it so much when I’m touring.
In 1990, you founded Daemon Records with the intention to support local artists. How has music changed since then?
The business has changed and the district of it. Radio and media, you could write a whole set of encyclopedias on it probably. The FCC had the Telecommunications Act in 1996 and that really shifted media, radio and TV and a lot of doors were open during that period of deregulation to make things very monolithic and homogenized. I think that really affected music. But I think at the same time, the internet was on the rise and coming into play and radio was getting less and less important on some level. But now I think there are just so many avenues of distribution on the DIY level, there’s so much out there for an artist that wants to figure out how to promote themselves. There is almost so much that you don’t know where to start. Also, there is a lot to weed through for the listener–for what they like and how to discover things and feel like they are really discovering something. That can be harder. Even the social networking sites that used to be so grassroots are now more promotion oriented.
Do you see the internet as a hindrance?
I think it can be a hindrance to a visceral experience but it’s also one of the best things to have happened. I just think we have to be careful because if we spend so much time swimming through all the different sites and hearing new music but we don’t actually go out and see it live, then we miss what it feels like to have a body next to you moving around while you’re moving around and the way the sound waves hit you in a venue physically affect you.
Your solo albums have been described as “urgent, loud, and defiant.” How is your music defiant?
It defies the mainstream and it’s topically subversive and tonally defiant in the way I sing sometimes. And I think I’m this older, masculine woman playing rock ‘n’ roll in sweaty clubs. I’m being myself and it’s very queer sometimes and I think that’s defiant to what is the norm. But I’m not doing it for the sake of it. In a way, it holds me back on some mainstream level, but I guess I just made a choice to completely be myself. If I get scared about that, then I have to just go see somebody else play that’s really rebellious and I can feel their energy and then I feel like I can do it.
Are there musicians you enjoy seeing live that really inspire you?
There are so many people that inspire me. Even bands that are mainstream successful like My Morning Jacket. [They] are very riveting and give me a lot of energy. I feel like Jim James (singer/songwriter of My Morning Jacket) is very much himself and lets other people be themselves. The Shins–when I saw them live, I was really blown away by them. And there are a lot of bands I haven’t gotten to see live like The Distillers or Team Dresch. Folk artists like Ferron–when I see Ferron live, I just feel like there is no reason to not just go for it on any level and just do your thing and be yourself completely.
It’s so exciting to hear someone openly say that they are truly themselves on stage and still be in the spotlight. It’s easy to take on a persona and be someone else because it’s easier and there is less risk involved. As a society, I think we are evolving in many ways regarding the language we use to translate ourselves. How would you define gender in regards to your identity?
I’m very gender fluid. I’ve struggle with what our language calls gender dysphoria for the majority of my life. I think when I met the community of people that were the trans community and trans-affiliated that understood the fluidity of gender or understood feeling displaced in your body, that language really helped me. I think people of my generation didn’t have a lot of articulation for this. A lot of my life I have seen myself as very boy-masculine, even surprised when I look in the mirror and see what I look like. I move in the world where I feel like a guy. I always have. I think it’s great that we have the language that we have. I hope one day that we don’t need any language, that we can just–
Just be, yeah. That you don’t have to define–no one has to. I think we are in the midst of a movement and a struggle for people to have themselves validated in one identity.
Do you feel that it’s important to be a role-model in the queer community?
No. I don’t think it’s an obligation to any artist. But I think your first calling is as a human and to be engaged in some way. If you’re queer and there is a community around you, I think you should be engaged. I just try to accept people for where they are and I try to do that with myself too.
Can you tell me a bit about Honor the Earth and how that impacts your daily life?
That’s kind of me and Emily’s (Salier, of the Indigo Girls) main activism. We started it in the early ’90s after hearing Winona LaDuke speak at an Earth Day show. We met with her afterwards and decided it would be a great idea to combine our efforts and try to build a bridge between the Indian and non-Indian communities and raise awareness about important environmental issues that affect all of us but emanate from the Indian communities and where the battles are really fought. We decided to work with Winona and a few other Native activists and start this group. We’ll fund only Native-run organizations that do environmental cultural sustainability work. We don’t just sit on the board–me and Emily–we go to board meetings and work on raising money and playing shows and raising awareness about issues. But we don’t make the decision about who gets the grants because we aren’t Native so we leave that up to the communities. We’ve probably given away a million and half in grant money and worked on issues around energy policy, trying to move into more of a renewable paradigm with wind and solar. We’ve worked on water quality issues. We’ve worked on uranium mining, coal mining, hydro-electric dams. Basically, there is just a lot of great Native work being done out there. We raise awareness in the non-Indian community to get political support for these groups and we learn a lot. We hooked up with these activists and they sort of taught us what it meant to be grass roots and community organizing. It informed everything else that we did on an activists level, whether it be queer or gun violence or women’s issues or issues around class. Basically, we saw a lot of great work being done and it continues.
That’s an inspiring thing to hear and learn more about. So, if we can use our imaginations for a moment. Envision Didn’t it Feel Kinder as a meal. What is the aftertaste that your listeners are left with?
I can say that I’ve never had that question before. Hmm. I guess I would hope that it’s like, the aftertaste that you have after you’ve eaten a really good Thai meal that’s really, really spicy but nothing is offensive. A mellow winding down of the spiciness.
I like that. Amy, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I really look forward to seeing you perform in Boulder in February. Enjoy the rest of your tour!