onlineathens.com: Amy Ray’s third solo release has multiple influences
Mainstream music journalists can’t often be bothered to write about female performers who do more than lip sync while grinding with a passel of back-up dancers.
When these writers do take time to address the solo work of Amy Ray – the singer/songwriter who for more than two decades has made up half of the Indigo Girls – they can’t get over their surprise regarding how hard she rocks. That’s condescending on two levels:
1. Though known for acoustic guitars and intertwined vocals, the Indigo Girls are no strangers to cranking amps.
2. By obsessing over the punk sound on Ray’s solo efforts, they overlook the strength and sophistication of her melodies and songwriting.
On “Didn’t It Feel Kinder,” Ray’s third solo release which came out earlier this month, she meditates on the challenge of feeling empathy toward people who hold different viewpoints than her own and even folks who, in Ray’s words, make her “brutally angry.”
“It’s kind of like what they say, like, holding someone in the light,” said Ray, who lives in North Georgia. “You just trust that’s what you should do. And I think it feels better sometimes. And I also think anger is an energy and if you use it in different ways (you) can dilute it and create something good from it.”
Ray has become as well known for her activism work – on issues like women’s, indigenous and gay rights, gun control and the environment – as she is her music.
Laying her left-leaning cards on the table has opened Ray up to criticism over the years from folks who see things differently. Heck, even Ray’s parents are Republicans.
“But they’re sort of, what would you say? Compassionate Republicans,” she explained. “But we had a long time of alienation from each other. I have a lot of people, you know, in my experiences and in the communities I’ve lived in that have felt very adverse to my life and disagreed with me.”
Ray tries to digest these differences one person at a time.
“You can’t really come to a place of understanding with each other unless you just sort of open up to why they feel the way they do, even if it’s really harsh,” she said. “I don’t mean you have to accept it. But just, like, hear it.”
After selling more than 12 million albums as an Indigo Girl, Ray could afford to live most anywhere, but she chooses to make her home in North Georgia – a more conservative place than, say, Seattle.
“I like to learn from that,” Ray said. “You get little sweet surprises. You know of people you think are going to disagree, but they don’t, or people that you think are going to be hateful to you and they embrace you. I like that.”
With several songs on “Didn’t It Feel Kinder,” Ray explores characters who hold opinions different than her own – and in the case of her song “Who Sold the Gun,” which takes on the shooter behind the Virginia Tech massacre, have committed unthinkable acts of evil.
“You don’t have to understand it. You don’t have to understand it at all, but I think just having compassion of where they’re coming from,” she said. “And I don’t always do it. I don’t do it all the time. I just think, like, you feel better when you do, and that’s one thing I know.”
For “Didn’t It Feel Kinder” Ray enlisted help from a producer – a first for her solo work.
She chose Greg Griffith, who she met through her friendship with Durham, N.C., punk rockers The Butchies. Griffith knew of the Indigo Girls but wasn’t familiar with their music.
“At first, I was like, ‘Do I need to work with someone who’s, like, a fan?'” Ray said. “That was, like, my ego, you know. ‘Cause you really don’t need that. You want it because it makes you feel good, but you don’t need it.”
Griffith pushed Ray into untreaded water. “Didn’t It Feel Kinder,” she said, would have been a much different record without his help.
“He kind of gives me a sense of arrangement and focus and challenged me and sort of didn’t settle, you know, for things, and taught me not to settle for things,” Ray explained. “And challenged my confidence so that I had to kind of stand up for myself in some way.”
While Ray’s CD calls to mind the Clash, like her earlier two CDs, “Didn’t It Feel Kinder” also has her exploring pop and even hip-hop territory. She lists Al Green, the Pretenders and OutKast as influences on the record.
“I mean, it was a bit of a struggle, but it was a struggle that I kind of asked for,” she said.
In the song “She’s Got to Be,” Ray abandons her deep, sultry vocals for a falsetto – a move Ray said she might not have braved if she hadn’t had folkie/popster Brandi Carlile singing backup.
“I’m not great at it yet. And I had to work on that one a lot,” she said. “I didn’t want it to sound like anything I’d ever done.”
Ray recorded much of the album at Echo Mountain Recording Studio in Asheville, N.C. The late night drives from there to her Georgia home made a mark on her CD. As with all of Ray’s music, geography in general and Dixie in particular show up in the songwriting.
“Just being so rooted in the South totally informs my writing,” she said. “Even if I tried to get away from it, I probably couldn’t.”
On Aug. 6, Ray played the songs off “Didn’t It Feel Kinder” live for the first time at an intimate New York benefit for homeless New Yorkers living with HIV and AIDS. Carlile and Brooklyn/Asheville indie rockers Arizona played with her.
“People were crammed in and we were just having fun. It was definitely not played perfectly,” she said. “But fun was had. We were all smiling and that’s kind of the whole point of it, I guess.”
Ray plans to tour to promote the album in October and November.