out in america: rough songs and soft ones: an interview with indigo girl amy ray
The fact that singer/songwriters Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been around for almost thirty years is no accident. Gifted musicians and driven businesswomen, Indigo Girls owe the longevity of their career perhaps in equal parts to their determination and the way in which they cultivate their musical partnership.
On tour supporting their new album, “Poseidon and the Bitter Bug,” Indigo Girls will hit Madison April 30th, playing a benefit for “Progressive Magazine.” Recently, Ray discussed the joys and frustrations of touring, her favorite Emily song, and how she and Emily both challenge and support one another.
Q How did you get involved with the Madison, Progressive Magazine benefit concert?
A Obviously I have all respect for that magazine–just how long they’ve been around is pretty remarkable. When I was touring solo, a promoter, Tag Evers, mentioned the benefit to me. I talked to Emily, and we decided it would be great to take part in. Looking at where we are now and how many people have paved the way for someone like Obama to become president, the time is just right for celebrating, standing up for radical thinkers over the years. It’s also a hard time for independent and progressive media, in part because different laws were put into place during earlier administrations around consolidation, but also because of the evolution of the internet. The radical voice of independent media is important to protect.
Q Sometimes your album titles pull a word or a phrase from a song and other times they seem only obliquely related. What process do you generally go through in choosing a title?
A While we’re recording, we’ll each throw ideas out, make a big list. This record title was actually Mitchell [Froom], the producer’s idea. He took a word from Emily’s song and a word from mine. He was just kind of joking around.
Q What titles didn’t make the cut?
A I can’t remember actually. At the time Mitchell was like, “God, the songs are so dark,” so he had all these funny titles like “Hopelessness” and stuff, and then the idea of “Poseidon and the Bitter Bug” came out, and we never re-approached the process. We made the record so fast, in three weeks, but we knew we weren’t gonna put it out for a while, so we joked around and then we gave it a rest, but while we were finishing the record we kept going back thinking, “That’s actually a great title.”
Q You released the record as a double disc, recording songs both with a band and as an acoustic duo. Apparently your producer was worried about catering to your fans?
A (Laughs) Mitchell has kind of a sardonic wit, which is one reason we love him so much. He read a few fan message boards and he goes, “Your fans don’t really like me. They get mad at me for putting so many extras on your songs.” Then he said, in all seriousness, “I think the fans would really appreciate acoustic versions of your songs.” We were like, let’s do the band record first, and if we have time, at the end of the sessions, let’s spend three days and record all the songs acoustically. That’s what our goal was and we worked towards that.
Q Speaking of fan expectations, over the course of your partnership you and Emily have operated within this sort of polarized perception: Emily’s the angel-voiced soprano, you’re the dark one. How does that affect your work? Do you ever find yourself railing against it?
A It’s funny, because we sort of fight it, but then all of a sudden there are all these examples of why it’s true. We do try not to fall into the same patterns, like in our arrangements, but that’s our own thing, that’s not really a response to the way we’re described. Obviously, Emily can sing higher than I can, and I can write all the hard, rough songs and she can write the soft ones, but instead we really try to not stay in that pattern. Although we have different influences, so most of the time, she is gonna write something that’s a little more poppy, that people can really attach to, and I’m typically gonna stay in this more rock and roll vein. We try to make sure we don’t keep each other in boxes though. I want Emily to rock out and write whatever she wants to write or just write ballads and not feel bad about it. We do talk about that actually. She’ll say, “I want to write a rock song,” and I’ll be like, “Everything you’ve written has been great, you don’t need to force it.” So we do have a discussion, but just to challenge each other cause that’s the point of what we’re doing.
Q What’s your favorite song of Emily’s on the new album?
A “Digging for your Dream.” I love the melody, the R&B mixed with Joni Mitchell approach, and the story she’s telling. But I have weird taste. I never pick the hit.
Q You’ve logged plenty of road time. What are the best and worst parts of touring?
A As you might guess, the worst part is being away from home. After a certain point it’s hard to be gone all the time. The best is just playing, and getting to visit different cities. I bring my bike and ride around. After all this time, I have my favorite little places to go and favorite things to do when I’m there.
Q Any daily frustrations?
A There’s one thing that bothers me and Emily, and it’s so consistent it’s remarkable. It’s as if radio promotional people and publicists think they have to trick an artist into doing what they want because you’re not smart enough to figure it out for yourself. We’ll get a press schedule from our management with a list of radio interviews and how many songs they want us to play. It always says “play between two to five songs, or play three to four songs.” Never an exact number, but when you get there, they say something completely different, like, “you can play two songs, but we’d really rather you played three.” And you’re like, why don’t you just tell us exactly what you want cause that’s what we’ll do. Me and Emily have been doing this for so long, and this is a job. We’re here to do the work and we’re a team and we want you to be on our team, so just tell us exactly what you need and we’ll do it. It’s as easy as that. I swear to God, out on promotion tours, me and Emily talk about this every day, it’s like a running joke. We’ve even gone so far as to figure out how we can play two and a half songs.
Q Just stop in the middle and say, this is what you requested, right?
A That’s what we’re gonna do next time.
Q Since we’re on the subject of pet peeves, is there any interview question you’re completely over being asked?
A I get tired of being asked where our name came from, just because we’ve answered that questions so many times, and I think it’s even in our bio, but really it’s fine, because it’s just part of the work. My pet peeve with interviews is when it’s obvious that the person didn’t read the bio or get the CD from the publicist and they’re just asking these really big general questions.
Q Interesting. On that note, I’d like to ask, what is the meaning of life?
A There we go, that’s exactly what I mean!