windycitytimes.com: Q&A with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls
This fall, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls will perform more in Chicago than in any other city, with five shows during September and October. But she’s not here just to promote her latest solo album, Prom, or the Indigo Girls’ summer release, Rarities. She’s also here to promote freedom for women’s voices in Chicago and around the globe.
Ray is one of the most prominent activists in the music industry. During this summer alone, in addition to running the not-for-profit independent label Daemon Records, she worked with indigenous rights activists in the Chiapas state of Mexico and went to Capital Hill twice, once for the protection of low-power FM airwaves from corporations like Clear Channel, and once to lobby against the energy bill. Ray will play The Bottom Lounge on Thursday, Sept. 22, as part of The Estrojam Music and Culture Festival—a celebration of women in the arts which takes plac Sept. 21-24 at various venues throughout Chicago. This year, in addition to its live shows, Estrojam hosts panels, clinics, a film festival and an art fair, all while raising money for The U.S. Campaign for Burma and The Chicago Abused Women’s Coalition.
In a recent conversation with Windy City, Ray discusses the influence of punk rock and high school on her latest solo album, the affects of technological advances on the indie scene, and obstacles in the music industry for female artists.
Niki Coate: For those people who haven’t yet heard your latest album Prom, what should they expect?
Amy Ray: Prom is a rock record. It’s totally electric, and there’s some punk influences, definitely.
NC: Where does your inner punk rocker come from? How long have you known about her?
AR: I’ve known about it since college at least … I was into the Clash and into political artists, and I think that the politics spoke to me as much as the melody. It was just how a lot of those writers could talk about their activism in a way that wasn’t dogmatic or overly earnest. It made you feel an energy around activism rather than some kind of hopelessness or too much contemplation rather than action.
NC: What stirred up so much reflection on high school in this album?
AR: It’s just a really formative time. You’re really developing your identity and perspective, and what you think your place is in the world, and how you relate to other groups of people … I don’t think you ever forget those experiences, and they affect everything you do for the rest of your life.
NC: Did you go to prom in high school, and what do you remember thinking about it?
AR: I pretty much went to most of the dances … . Sometimes I had a date and sometimes I didn’t. My senior year, though, I went with a girl. I wasn’t out, like, ‘This is my girlfriend.’ It was more like we just went as friends. I was pretty involved in high school … I wasn’t a cheerleader or anything, but I was involved in student government and activism.
NC: You recorded a couple of songs for Prom in the basement of a house with Nineteen forty-five from Birmingham, Ala. Can you describe that scene for me?
AR: For both of my solo projects, whoever I was working with, I went into their working environment. Nineteen forty-five has a house they practice at, and in the basement they have recording gear, and we just started laying tracks down. It’s very easy to do now with the way recording gear is. You can just find somewhere you’re comfortable and make sure it sounds good and just work. You’re not limited by budget and time. So that’s really why I did that. It was fun. It was really homey. We’d just be down there recording, go upstairs and fix something to eat, go outside and walk the dogs.
NC: How has that change in technology—what you just described about it not costing as much and being able to use different facilities—affected the music industry?
AR: The music industry is really sorting itself out in that way. Midlevel studios are having trouble because what they can offer is not going to be that much more than what someone who knows about recording gear can do at their own house. In a way, there are these advances in technology that are really helping out independent artists and making it possible for us to have this completely different infrastructure and achieve all of these great things for not very much money, but there’s this other group of people that were pioneers before us that opened really great independent recording studios and independent record stores, and we’re starting to cut those people out of the picture in some ways, with digital technology.
NC: Particularly speaking as a female musician, is the music industry still oppressive?
AR: There’s definitely a lot of homophobia and there’s definitely a lot of a lot of sexism still, and the industry is still run by men. There are women climbing the ladder and getting into positions of power, but you have to look at that whole corporate infrastructure and who ultimately makes all the money on it, and it’s still really white men, and until that changes, you’re not going to change the way it affects everybody.
NC: Why are events like Estrojam so important?
AR: Normally when you have punk and rock festivals, women make up a small percentage of who plays. Hopefully that’s going to change over time but even when they’re independent, for some reason women still get left out. I think these festivals give women a place to network with each other and play and get experience because the ultimate goal for all of us is really to have punk festivals where everybody plays and gender’s not an issue. That’s not happened yet, but it will eventually .. . We’re all allies, and it’s better for men in the long run if women are thought of as equals. It’s just better for everybody.
NC: Do you think in the mean time that women-specific events reinforce the stereotypes or the separation at all?
AR: Well, it depends on who you ask. There’s always going to be people who say it … stereotypes women and it makes women seem like they’re all mediocre, but I don’t really agree. If we were at a place where … women had an equal footing … yeah, I think it would be defeating the purpose to have women-only events. … But women don’t get heard. And I think this experience really does make women better musicians, it really does make us better at what we do, and it really does give us a network of people out there so that we participate in all of the other events and we make a good showing for ourselves. I think that’s really important, just from a strategic point of view.