stltoday.com: Amy Ray finds inspiration in lonely nights
Amy Ray’s third solo disc was born in those quiet, lonely hours that every touring musician faces on the road.
Staring out a window into the black night, lost in thought as the bus hums down some interstate in the middle of nowhere. Sitting alone in a spare, generic dressing room strumming a guitar and waiting for the load-out to end. Killing time before an Indigo Girls show.
Those were the gestational moments that sparked Ray’s creativity and allowed her solo songs – she’s one-half of the Indigo Girls, along with her longtime songwriting partner Emily Saliers – to grow into the full-fledged arrangements that give “Didn’t It Feel Kinder” its warm, good-kind-of-lonely vibe. The disc, released on her Daemon label, brims with interesting contradictions and dichotomies, reflecting Ray’s interest in holding conflicting ideas about gender, relationships, and politics up to the musical light and exploring them in detail. More jangly and electrified than the Girls, “Didn’t It Feel Kinder” also has a soul music vibe, thanks to producer Greg Griffith’s input and Ray’s collaborative recording process. She spent hours on the road driving between her farm home outside Atlanta to Asheville, N.C., where she recorded the album with Griffith and other musical friends. Those late-night drives helped her fashion the vocals and arrangements, like the bass-heavy ’90s-era Springsteen vibe on “She’s Got to Be.” “Sometimes he can make you feel so lonely in such a good way,” she said a phone interview. “It’s like the loneliness that hurts but you don’t want to let go of it.”
That feeling of being in a car by herself driving all night had a direct effect on several of the disc’s songs.
“On ‘She’s Got to Be’ I did those vocal arrangements by listening to it and singing it on one of those drives. I just came up with all these different parts and put it down on a little recorder very quickly, and it was that 3 a.m. thing that made it come around.”
A committed environmentalist and outspoken advocate for gay rights, Ray’s music is infused with a strong political sensibility often delivered from a personal perspective. “Cold Shoulder” is a bouncy pop song that tackles a seduction, the South’s checkered racial history, and sexual identity, all in less than three minutes. After a long, interesting, and somewhat tangled description of the song and the various angles from which it addresses these issues, Ray laughed. “I’m trying to cover all this ground in one song that’s supposed to be like an old Everly Brothers song,” she said.
On “Who Sold the Gun” she pairs buoyant music with chilling lyrics that make the direct connection between mass murderers like the man who went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University last year and the government’s arms control policies. “I just think it’s important to try – not to empathize but to have some thought, or I guess compassion is a better word – about that person. And I just started thinking about the U.S. and guns and bombs and sort of the military-industrial complex. We’re selling all these weapons all over the world. “We’re selling weapons to governments that have literally child soldiers fighting in their armies. We’re so complicit on every level in this whole paradigm,” she said.
Ray’s secret weapon on “Didn’t It Feel Kinder” is singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile, who handles many of the background vocals. She toured with the Indigo Girls, often joining them on stage and Ray calls her “crazy good.” Carlile is most prominent on the anthemic “Stand and Deliver,” on which Ray said she gave her carte blanche to do whatever she wanted vocally.
Ray is currently on tour with the Indigo Girls, who play in Kalamazoo, Mich., at the Kalamazoo State Theatre tomorrow night. After that, she’ll embark on a 25-date solo tour, which includes a stop in Cleveland on Oct. 31, to promote her new disc and solo material from 2001’s “Stag” and 2004’s “Prom.” And any Indigo Girls fans concerned that her solo work will get in the way of the band can relax. They have a new CD finished and awaiting release in 2009.