international musician: amy ray: standing up and speaking out
original publish date: december 2008
by amy dunn williams, amydunnwilliams.com
Amy Ray has never been one to mince words.
As one-half of the enduringly popular folk-pop duo Indigo Girls, Amy Ray of Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA) has spent more than 20 years penning and performing songs that are both emotionally compelling and politically aware. She and musical partner Emily Saliers, also of Local 148-462, are known for their activism in support of myriad causes, something their fans admire as much as their music and energy-fueled performances.
But it is in recent years, as Ray has branched out into a solo career that now spans three albums, that she has established herself as an artist who is willing to lay herself bare, tackling new musical genres and deeply personal subjects that resonate long after the final track has played.
Learning to be ‘Kinder’
Her newest record, Didn’t It Feel Kinder, was released in August. Featuring a heavy emphasis on rhythm and drums, and encompassing styles that range from punk to acoustic, Ray describes the record as “eclectic rock.” She says, “Overall the record is more musical than my previous two. Vocally, I came from a more diverse place. I wanted to develop the ability to move between a high, fragile sound and a strident, punk sound.”
The result is a collection of songs that embody the universal human experience—a constant struggle to be true to ourselves, while being kind to and accepting of each other. Ray’s lyrics address issues as diverse as global warming, misplaced fame, and the growing dangers of media consolidation.
Through it all, she keeps a firm hold on the listener’s heartstrings, weaving tales of hard-won love and the challenges of a life on the road. Ultimately, she says, the album is about learning “how to love and be kind, even when we’re brutally angry.”
Exploring New Sounds
Though her solo work has always been a departure from the Indigo Girls’ two-part-harmony folk roots, Ray still approaches her music from a collaborative place, enlisting the help of trusted friends. On this album, she also chose to use an outside producer for the first time.
“I felt I had come to a place where I needed help stretching musically,” Ray recalls. “I wanted a visionary at the helm throughout the whole process, someone who would challenge me and teach me more about how music and arrangement works. I think it really paid off.”
That influence greatly shaped elements like the soft-around-the-edges feel of “Stand and Deliver,” and the bass line in “She’s Got to Be.” The song “Bus Bus,” an upbeat, pop-punk song about lonely nights spent on a tour bus, also benefited from the inclusion of guest musicians. “The collaboration really gave the song a deeper, nuanced, more hip sound than what I’d originally written, and made it an overall better song,” Ray says.
This approach gives Ray an opportunity to work closely with musicians she admires and enjoys, but also allows her to explore a more “singular voice,” something she isn’t able to do as a part of a duo.
“With Emily,” she explains, “our sound is folk-based and it’s all about the magic of harmony; there is a constant awareness of the person you’re next to and how you’re working together. In my solo work, everyone in the band is important, but I’m allowed to kind of forget them and just lose it in some ways, and tap into something in myself that is raw.”
Still, a cross-over between Ray’s two musical worlds is inevitable. Much of Didn’t It Feel Kinder was written while on tour with Indigo Girls, and one song, “SLC Radio,” details a tour stop Ray and Saliers made at a favorite community radio station, KRCL, in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2005.
Ray was fascinated by the stark contrasts of the city—strict religious conservatism existing beside a very active progressive movement. The song is a tribute to the power of community radio, and the important role it plays in reaching diverse audiences.
As artists whose own careers were launched by—and continue to be nurtured by—community radio, both Ray and Saliers feel strongly that the time has come for artists to step up in support of small stations. And with lyrics like “All the songs/And all the words/That don’t get played/That won’t get heard,” Ray deftly taps into the fear that diversity on the airwaves is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
“When you lose that diversity, you lose the richness of music,” she says. “This particular radio station in Salt Lake City is important because, being in a religiously conservative part of the country, it’s really at ground zero for the dialogue that’s been building between fundamentalism and progressivism. This station presents both sides in a way few others do; it really takes those discussions seriously.
“Emily and I are gay women who play folk music and are politically-minded—we’re not going to get a lot of coverage in mainstream media,” she continues. “Our core support group is made up of noncommercial radio stations, where it’s all about the music and very diverse playlists.”
Ray now sits on the board of the Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the rights of musicians. The FMC, of which the AFM is a member, works to restrict media consolidation, protect performance rights, and find ways to reduce incidences of music piracy. “A friend of mine introduced me to the Future of Music Coalition,” says Ray. “And both Emily and I realized that it was time to start paying attention.”
Currently in the early days of a solo tour in support of Didn’t It Feel Kinder, and looking forward to a spring Indigo Girls tour, Ray sums up her near-constant touring schedule by saying simply, “It’s what I do.” She says that playing live in front of an audience feeds her creatively, and that as an artist, creating a feeling of community among her fans is important.
She likens her love of the road with the always-on-the-move mentality of bands like The Grateful Dead. “I don’t think you can evolve as a musician if you don’t tour,” she says. “You can’t live your life in a vacuum of your own private experimentation.”
Radical, outspoken, and unabashedly honest, Ray could hardly be accused of existing in a vacuum. She is supported by a fierce fan base, which welcomes her willingness to take risks, and a community of artists whose own music serves as constant inspiration.
For this veteran musician, the road will always call, and the fans will always comfort. “I never want to fall into a pattern where I’m just going through the motions,” she says. “I like to keep it interesting.”