musiciansatlas.com: artist profile: amy ray
as a songwriter, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, producer and activist, Amy Ray belongs to a select group of artists who pursue challenges as much for themselves as for their music. Like all of us, she lives in a world that’s constantly changing. But rather than adapt, Ray takes pleasure in bending change to suit her world view.
Nowhere is this approach more evident than in her role as the owner of the Daemon Records label. Ray runs Daemon as a non-profit whose goal is to support artists whose music and vision may not be in-step with commercial tastes. Established in 1990, Daemon is a trailblazing champion of indie and underground artists. Throughout the label’s history, Ray allows artists to create and control their own recordings. And in fact, the label’s mission statement reads like a rallying cry: As Indie As We Want To Be!
To be certain, her non-stop success as an Indigo Girl raises the label’s profile and helps her raise funds to fuel Daemon’s mission. She openly admits that her first Daemon solo album, Stag, (released in 2001) was as much an attempt to raise operating capital as it was an opportunity for her to showcase the rougher and grittier side of her personality.
Ray’s latest album Prom (slated for release on April 12) includes songs whose stories focus on dislocated high school youths who are either edging their way toward doom or graduating to adulthood. Since Ray based the characters and situations on her own high school experiences, many of the songs convey the same raw intensity and inevitability present in Larry Clark’s photo essays. Though unlike Clark’s disturbing, frozen images, Ray has the advantage and the power of music to keep her tales engaging and accessible.
In her first Atlas Plugged interview, Ray offers insight into her role as the owner of a trend-setting, innovative record label. And she talks at length about one of her more recent signings –Girlyman, a winner in the 3rd annual Independent Music Awards who she discovered while serving as one of several celebrity artists who helped evaluate the final round categories.
Atlas Plugged: What do you want to hear when you’re considering signing an artist or band to Daemon?
Amy Ray: As far as the demos go, I’m super-critical. So there’s the pile of them that I enjoy listening to just because they’re fun. Then there’s the pile that I think, there’s something magical about this. It’s going somewhere. They definitely have something really compelling about them and [the artists] are driven by something other than the industry or ambition.
AP: How do you know it when the real thing comes along?
AR: For me, Girlyman was something that I kept picking back up again. That’s the sign that it’s something magical. It’s when I keep picking it back up again, and I can’t tell why. I can’t tell what it is about it that I like or anything. I just know that I keep putting it back in my CD-player. Out of 100 demos, I get probably a couple that are like that.
I may go through 400 demos before I end up having six records that I want to put out, that I think are amazing, and I get frustrated if WFUV won’t play them, or if KBCO won’t play them, or some other big station, like WXPN.
But a lot of times, those stations will come on board and try to put something out for a little while, just to give it another shot.
AP: What other artists have you recently signed?
AR: I heard this Americana record, and I immediately took it to Daemon and put it out this past December. The quality of it is like, it should be playing on commercial Triple-A Radio. Why isn’t it? Because there is so much out there and this band didn’t necessarily know what to do with themselves and how to get it out there.
I think that people feel overwhelmed. There is so much great technology for getting your music out there, that in a way it’s hard to. Artists still don’t know what direction to take, or how to make it happen, or how to solicit themselves or their music.
AP: What’s the name of that Americana band?
AR: They’re called The Great Unknowns. [LAUGHS] And they would have remained that way probably.
AP: Yes, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
AR: They just love music, and they made this brilliant record, and three of the people in the band were Harvard students, and the other one, is like a curator at a museum in South Georgia. They are really brainy, incredible songwriter/musician people who are just satisfied with making incredible records.
They are compelled by the music. They’re going to do it, whether they’re successful or not.
AP: In terms of Girlyman, what was it that you heard, apart from the songs? Were there any other components to the band’s sound and music that struck your fancy?
AR: Well, it’s really the blend, I have to say. They have a certain kind of harmony. I remember when I heard The Roaches, it reminds me of the same thing, where there’s a little bit of a choir element in there, you can tell that somebody in the band has been classically trained. Either that, or they’ve all sung in choirs.
[Their songs] move in a way that is like a movement of music, you know? And that is the first thing that struck me, and then as I learned more about them, I was attracted to the difference in their personalities, the element of their identities, and their gender. How their genders create a real identity.
They sound like an organ, and it sounds like they’re related to each other. It’s the way their voices blend.
AP: Now that Girlyman is on Daemon, and the label’s involved with putting out the “official” release of the first album, what is the next step in their relationship with the label?
AR: The way we do it, I called them and asked what their plans were. They were like, “What we’d really like to do is have you work on this first record.” I was like, “Well, I don’t think you need me for the first record because you guys have already sold 5,000 records on your own.” And they were like, “Yeah, but we want you to be involved.” So I made an agreement with them that I would work on the first record if they gave me a second record, because that’s what I really wanted from them, was their next record.
AP:Did the band feel that Daemon legitized the first album?
AR: I loved the record, but I wanted to make sure I could do the next one because this one has already laid groundwork. They’ve done all the work, you know? And they’ve sold themselves to a large fan base, whatever, and have done all this footwork, and toured so much, and done a great job, and they didn’t really need me, but they wanted to go ahead and start the relationship if I was going to do the second record.
So that’s the agreement that we made, and it made a lot of sense. Because I’m getting used to how they work. I know radio-wise, I did a little bit of promotion myself on this record, to get a feel for who is already receptive to them, and put out phone calls and e-mails and stuff. And press-wise, I can tell who is receptive.
So we’ll be able to focus really well on what they’ve already built when we release the second record, while filling in what they haven’t done.
AP: When they’re out on the road with Indigo Girls, how do the Girlyman band members make the most of an incredible opportunity to engage your audiences?
AR: After their set, they sign and sell CDs and they collect names, email addresses, and just talk to people. They’re very good at that and it’s funny, out of an audience of 1500 people, a show, they’ll sell a couple hundred CDs. Those are amazing numbers.
If a band can sell 200 CDs at an Indigo Girl show, that’s phenomenal. Just out on tour with us, they sold a couple of thousand CDs. It’s remarkable.
AP: You were very kind to allow them to make the association with Daemon while they’re out on tour with the Indigo Girls.
AR: Yes. It’s an audience that’s going to be receptive to them because they’re already receptive to harmony, because that’s what me and Emily do, but they are different enough from us so that by the time we play, you’re not sick of hearing harmony. [LAUGHS] There’s a similarity to us, I think in the way that they’ve built their audience and what motivates them to do what they do.
But there’s a difference. Three people sound different than two people. Later in our set, Emily and I bring them out and meld [our harmonies], and at the end we do a song, like a five-part a cappella song, together.
It really showcases them because they just bring something to the table that we haven’t heard in a long time.
AP:What song did you do together?
AR: We did an a cappella five-part song by Sibelius. The words are about peace. Wishing peace for other countries besides your own. It’s sort of against nationalism.
Something to add about Girlyman that I just noticed — because they’ve been playing some of their new songs that are going to be on the new record which will be out on May 24 — is the harmonies are the thing that struck me at first. Then when I saw them live, I realized their instrumentation is so good.
AP: Their musicianship?
AR: It’s much more complex. They’re out there, playing banjos and mandolins and baritone guitars and regular guitars and drums. It’s all acoustics but it’s even more complex than the instruments on their last album.
So I think one of the important things for any band, is to evolve. And really challenge yourselves constantly from one record to the next, and I think they’re doing that, so it’s good.
AP: Well, how do you feel that you and Emily have done that?
AR: We’ve learned instruments all along the way. Emily will start playing piano. I picked up the mandolin a long time ago, and harmonica, and she picked up the banjo. Then we might play a bouzouki or we might high-string a guitar. We’ve learned new tunings, constantly challenging ourselves. But the most important thing is trying to be a better songwriter.
In our arrangements, our harmonies, we pay a lot of attention to what we’ve done before and compare it to what we’re doing now to try to make sure we’re not just falling back on the same old tricks. We explore new ways of singing together, without doing it just for the sake of doing it, you know, but really trying to find meaning that’s magical.
AP: Are there any contemporary influences that you listen to and say, oh, that artist is really taking songwriting in a new direction, or they’re taking production into a new direction and you’d like to investigate that area as well?
AR: Yes, I mean it’s funny because usually it’s music that sounds nothing like us, but gives us ideas. Outkast is one. The way they layer their harmonies and their vocals over each other, or they call and answer — things like that. Cat Power is someone who does a lot of interesting things in production who works in the acoustic arena a lot. I often listen to her for ideas when we’re making a record.
AR: A kind of band like The Distillers, this punk band, I go to them for lyrics. A lot of times I’ll listen to the way she [Distiller’s front woman, Brody Armstrong] talks. I look at the way she might have written a political song, because political songs are hard song to write.