bostonphoenix.com: Stag party: Indigo Girl Amy Ray takes a solo trip
Few successful recording artists would, in their right mind, turn even temporarily away from a thriving mainstream career to chase down an indie dream. But Amy Ray, half of the immensely popular folk duo the Indigo Girls, has done just that with her new solo debut, Stag. Just about any major label (and almost certainly the Indigo Girls’ Epic) would have been happy to hand Ray a blank check to make a solo album. But she chose to follow her heart and her instincts by releasing Stag on Daemon, the indie label she founded 11 years ago. Recorded with friends and cronies ranging from veteran tough girl Joan Jett to alterna-country belle Kelly Hogan to the dyke-rock trio the Butchies, Stag also lays to rest any lingering doubts about whether girls with acoustic guitar can rock. “When I was younger,” says Ray, phoning from her home in rural Georgia before setting off on a tour that’ll bring her to Lilli’s in Somerville next Saturday, “I was listening to the Clash and Patti Smith. I didn’t really fit in musically with them at all, but it was really inspiring music. So the way I approached this record was to follow that energy.”
From the mandolin-based folk punk of “Johnny Rottentail” to the nostalgic, straightforward guitar rock of “Late Bloom” to “Laramie,” a song Ray wrote in response to the murder of Matthew Shepard, the songs on Stag are a showcase for her gifts as a songwriter. “I started playing with [Indigo Girl] Emily [Saliers] when I was 15. But I don’t think that I tapped into how to get my feelings out until much further into our career. I wrote in a folk way and moved into writing rock songs. When I first listened to Patti Smith and Neil Young, I thought, ‘That’s the way I feel, but I can’t figure out how to write that [kind of] song.’ It took me a long time to figure it out.”
As Ray grew as a songwriter, she also came to realize that a solo album might be something to consider. “Sometimes I’d start writing a song and think, ‘This isn’t an Indigo Girls song.’ ” As her stash of non-Indigo material grew, so did her cynicism and dissatisfaction with the commercial music business. “I felt completely burnt out with my association with the major-label industry. I just needed to get my music out into the indie world.” So after years and years of steady touring in support of successful Indigo Girls albums, and a long-time involvement in the day-to-day running of Daemon, Ray found herself ready to begin a new project.
Setting off with guitar in hand, she began her “drop-by” recording sessions in Durham, North Carolina, home of the Butchies, whose albums Are We Not Femme? and Population 1975 (both on Mr. Lady) are modern-day DIY dyke-punk classics. The band had toured as an opening act with the Indigo Girls in 1999 and were eager to work with Ray. “We’re not the band that a normal promoter person would even think to add to an Indigo Girls bill,” admits Butchies guitarist Kaia Wilson, who also runs her own Mr. Lady label. “But they have a lot of control over what they do, and they want a lot of different people opening for them.”
By the end of the tour, Ray and the Butchies had bonded both on stage, where the Butchies were invited to blast through Joan Jett’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me” in encores, and off. “I don’t know why that strikes me as so funny,” says Wilson. “I guess it’s just the idea of the Indigo Girls singing, ‘Do you wanna touch me there?/Where?/There!’ ” As for Ray, her confidence in the Butchies was one of the things that inspired her to begin work on her own album. “When I first started working with the Butchies, we thought we’d do three songs because we wanted to be realistic about our schedules. But it worked so well and they were so well versed, musically, that we did half the album together. Most bands have a specific sound and that’s their sound. But the Butchies were able to morph into different things. It’s really a tribute to their musicianship that we could work together so well.”
The next stop on Ray’s project itinerary was New York City, where she was joined in the studio by Joan Jett, Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach, and Breeders bassist Josephine Wiggs. The foursome had met in 1998 on a one-off tour Ray and Saliers had put together called “The Suffragette Sessions.” “We sort of created this band with 12 women and went on tour in clubs. It was incredible fun. I’d have these jams with Joan and Kate and Josephine as a way to get out of the normal way of playing I had in Indigo Girls.”
In New York, Ray recorded “Hey Castrator,” a darkly sexual rocker with a brassy vocal coda by Jett, who joined the recording session after her rehearsals for the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Jett had been a big influence on the adolescent Ray: “She was kinda that bridge between all kinds of people in high school — the football team, the girl jocks, the cheerleaders . . . everybody loved her. It was such an adventure to work with her.”
Returning to the South, Ray finished her album with songs she recorded with Atlanta garage-popsters the Rock-A-Teens, Birmingham’s lushly melodic 1945, and the droll South Carolina singer/songwriter Danielle Howle, all of whom have recorded for Daemon. Working with such a variety of musicians could have resulted in a collection of recordings that don’t cohere, but the focus and tenor of Ray’s songwriting remained consistent throughout the scattered Stag sessions — in large part because of the consistency of her personal and political beliefs. Throughout her Indigo Girl career, Ray has been as open in her support of ethical business practices and philanthropy as she has about her sexual orientation. And as an out lesbian, she’s been an icon to thousands of women and men who have searched for gay role models among rock’s major-label stars and come up largely empty-handed.
The political outlook on Stag is always in tune with Ray’s personal integrity. In “Laramie,” the song she wrote in response to the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard, she focuses on the nature of hate crimes rather than the event itself. “On a general level, I empathized with someone getting killed in that way. As a gay person, that really touched me. I read a lot of articles about it, and the most interesting one I read was about classism, and how his murder was a symbol of something wrong in a community.” In the song, Ray rails against the prejudiced attitudes that are fostered in small-town America by groups like the Christian Coalition. “It’s over for me,” she says, referring to the intolerance that she believes helped foster the crime. “I’m going to stand up to it.”
Ray’s anger also comes across in “Lucystoners,” which is about the male hegemony that holds sway both in mainstream music and in the media. Taking a shot at Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, the song sums up her view of the prevailing atmosphere in the music industry: “a demographic-based disgrace/And a stupid, secret white-boy handshake/That we’ll never be a part of.” But Ray remains aware that, as an Indigo Girl, she’s part of that world. “I definitely recognize the hypocrisy of constantly touting anti-corporate philosophies and being on a major label. But I’ve been able to use my partnership in the Indigo Girls to benefit the things that I’m interested in benefitting. Rolling Stone happens to be a symbol in the rock world and in the press world of a form of sexism that people like me have to deal with all the time. A lot of people would like to believe that gay people are automatically politically correct, but Jann Wenner is part of an old-boys network, and I don’t think it has anything to do with his sexuality. It’s just sort of a happy accident that I was commenting on an industry and I happened to choose Jann Wenner as the symbol.”
Elsewhere on Stag, the songwriting is more reflective, as Ray deals with issues related to her childhood and the path of self-discovery she has made through both her music and her struggles with sexual identity. Songs like “Late Bloom” and “Measure of Me” look back to a time in her life when she was trying to understand the tomboy impulses that were guiding her behavior. “The best time of my life was when I was pre-pubescent. It felt like I could do anything, like I had some autonomy in the world. When your sexuality kicks in, a weird thing happens — your parents treat you differently, your friends treat you differently, and there are all these complications. I had a very confusing time in my 20s, when I went through a lot of struggles with my sexuality. I think in these songs I’m just yearning for a simpler time.”
She may have found some version of that in her partnership with the Butchies, who are joining her on her current East Coast tour. They’re the opening act, and they’ll also join Ray for her all-electric set. But is she nervous about what staunch Indigo Girl fans will think of her in this quasi-punk incarnation?
“There will be some Indigo fans that won’t like it at all, but that’s fine. Our crowd is pretty open. A lot of times our opening bands will be like the Butchies. So our audience is used to that. I don’t think they’ll be all that surprised at what I’m doing.”