popmatters.com: Indie Punk Rock, Gender Politics, and the Bitch of Being Earnest
original publish date: 20 apr 2005
by susan glen, popmatters.com
Amy Ray talks about her solo album, running her own label, activism, and the challenges of public speaking.
It’s gotta be good to be Amy Ray. As half of the Indigo Girls (she’s The Hot One, the brunette with the husky voice), she’s occupied a respectable spot on pop radio for over 15 years, and has held the role of Patron Saint of Faded-Levis-Wearing Lesbians almost as long. She runs a successful indie label even while recording on Epic records, is a committed liberal activist, and commands a nearly cult-like following. As if all that wasn’t quite enough, she’s now launched a solo recording career, beginning with 2001’s Stag and continuing with the April release of Prom, a disc that sounds a lot like what the Go-Go’s reunion album should have sounded like, and has that quality about it that makes you want to roll down the windows and crank up the volume. It’s not quite as punk as punk, not quite as rock as rock, but far more of both than you’d probably expect from the well-worn reputation of the granola-eatin’, humorless lesbian folk singer.
Just a few weeks before the Daemon Records release of Prom, Amy Ray called on me on my lunch hour, and I have to admit that my stomach fluttered a bit to hear the receptionist announce, “Susan, Amy Ray’s holding for you.” But Ray just wouldn’t let me be intimidated by her. She’s laid back, down to earth, and every bit as sexy on the phone as she is on stage. She’s also surprisingly unsure of what to say about her new release, and characteristically eager to give away the lion’s share of the credit for her success to the musicians with whom she works. In other words, she’s humble and charming and delightfully easy to talk with. Just don’t call her The Boss.
PopMatters: Congratulations on Prom.
Amy Ray: Thank you!
PM: What do you want people to know about the new record?
AR: Oh, God, I don’t know! [laughs] It’s a … it’s … well … it’s well … I don’t know! [more laughter] I guess to me it’s just there, you know? I just put it out there. Um, I guess that it’s a rock record slash punk record sorta rockpunk, and it’s a sorta cohesive project that tries to engage the person listening to it to think about their own identity, where they came from and where they’re going, and, you know, struggles to tackle complexities of our development during our formative years. No matter how old you are now, I think we all go through the same things, we just have a different language around it according to what generation we’re from.
PM: Is that why there’s so much high school imagery on the record?
AR: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I didn’t know I was doing that until I had written about three or four songs, and then I was like, “Oh, okay, this must be where I’m at, you know?”
PM: How did you end up working with all the amazing musicians on this album, like Michelle Malone and Kate Schellenbach and the whole Team Dresch posse…?
AR: Luck, pretty much. Kate’s been a friend of mine for a while, and she played on the last solo record I did. I was like, you know, I really wanted her to do more, because she only did one song on the last record. So I thought about it over the last couple of years and she just emailed me or something and said, “I’ve been jammin’ with Jody from Team Dresch and I really want you to come out and play with us sometime.” And I did, just for fun, and it went really well. So we decided that we would start working on songs. And then Donna Dresch came into the picture a little bit later. Michelle, I always call her for everything. She comes in and does stuff no matter what I’m doing. The other band is called 1945, and they’re some friends of mine from Birmingham, Alabama. They’re really some of my favorite musicians ever, so I just incorporated them into the picture as well. It was all just people I know, and I just love the way they play.
PM: People talk about this record as a “solo” record, but it sounds like it was actually pretty collaborative.
AR: Very collaborative! It’s only solo in the context of the fact that I’m not doing it in the Indigo Girls.
PM: So what does Emily [Sailers, the other half of the Indigo Girls] think of all this?
AR: She loves the record, actually. She’s been very complimentary. She’s very supportive. I mean, I don’t know, she may have some secret thought about it or something I don’t know about. [laughs] But she’s always been supportive of it, and I sent it to her as soon as I was done, and wait to get her blessing on it, whether she likes it or not. I ask her questions when I’m in the middle of recording. It’s good.
PM: So she’s not afraid you’re going to dump the Indigo Girls and run off into the sunset?
AR: No, because I’ve already made one record and I didn’t dump the Indigo Girls then, so I thinks she’s pretty sure … we’re pretty loyal to this, to what we’re doing.
PM: So when you sit down to write a song, do you know immediately if you’re writing an Indigo Girls song or an Amy Ray song?
AR: Um, I know once I’ve started. I can feel what direction it’s pulling me. Usually an Indigo Girls song is just, more, I can hear two voices on it, really distinctly. So it just feels like an Indigos song.
PM: Since “identity” is such a prominent theme on Prom, I’d like to talk a bit about how you see yourself. A lot of people identify you primarily as an activist. But do you see yourself as an activist first and a musician second? Or a musician first … or something else first? How does that all shake out to you?
AR: Um, I’m not really good at separating my activism and my music anymore. Everything I do, I do with an activist bias to it. There’s some songs, certainly, that I write that have nothing to do with activism, that are just fun songs. But the way that I live and the way that the Indigo Girls run their business and the way I think about my solo life and what my point is, there’s an agenda. And it’s for better or worse, because sometimes it’s negative, because it feels so heavy to people. It’s just who I am, I can’t really help it. Once you start seeing things through that lens, it’s hard to sorta shut it down and see it another way.
PM: You say it might feel heavy to other people, but does it feel heavy to you?
AR: No, it energizes me. It’s what feeds me. Like, when me and Emily have to go do a talk about nuclear power or something, and the adverse effects of it, I feel really energized afterwards. I mean, I can do anything then, even, just, you know, mow the lawn. [laughs] It just makes me feel good. It gives me energy to live, to be involved in the activism, and to know the people I know who are great activists.
PM: So you and Emily go out and do … talks?
AR: [laughing] Yeah, we try to keep it a secret, because we don’t want to do too many of them. We’ll go to a college and stuff. We just did this symposium on women and leadership. We went and spoke on the organization we helped start, called Honor the Earth. It’s an environmental organization we started with some Native Americans, and we fund front-line grassroots Native American environmental groups. We give them grants, through work that we do raising money and lobbying. So, we’ll go talk about that, and in that talk we’ll talk about … like, recently we talked about energy issues, issues around renewable vs. non-renewable power, the adverse effects of fossil fuels and nuclear energy and uranium mining and processing, as opposed to solar power or wind energy. We just talk about it from the perspective of lay-people, and why we think this is important, and why we do what we do, and it’s just sorta the activist part of us. A lot of time when we speak, we try to have someone with us who’s an expert. It’s part of our Honor the Earth environmental activism. Sometimes we’ll go to universities and talk about being gay, or being women in the industry, or being songwriters. It just depends on what we’re asked to do.
PM: But this is all a big secret?
AR: Well … it’s really hard! [laughs] It takes a lot of preparation, like three days of studying so you can answer all the questions. Um, we’re just not really public speakers. We really enjoy doing Q and A type stuff. When we go play schools, especially colleges, they’ll sometimes ask us to do a Question and Answer with the Gay Straight Alliance or with the women’s group, or with the music program or whatever. And we love doing that, and if we have time, we always do. But these other things are so intense!
PM: So, I should I play that part down, so you don’t get swamped with requests?
AR: [laughing] Nah, it’ll be okay. We’ve got no problem saying no if we can’t do it. [laughs again]
PM: You know, talking so much about such serious politics, are you afraid you’re going to end up like a Saturday Night Live Joan Baez skit? You know, the whole “How dare you laugh when there’s so much suffering in the world” thing?
AR: We already have that label to a certain extent, so it’s too late! [laughing] We can still do fun things too, and my solo stuff is so much more centered around gender identity and gay issues, and if you just heard my solo records, you probably wouldn’t even know that I was an environmentalist. You might know I loved nature, but you wouldn’t know I was an activist. But we’re not afraid of that. It’s already happened: we were called “earnest” from the very beginning. And you can’t go back, once you’ve been called that [laughing] It’s like, “Well, that’s it!”
PM: Well hat’s off, because you manage to be earnest while still making solo records that you can dance to in the living room!
AR: Oh, good! That was actually a goal with Prom. I was like, I really want to make a record you can dance to.
PM: And you’ve managed to create a very lighthearted sound, while kinda sliding some fairly serious discussions in right under the radar.
AR: You know, that’s really about the musicians, too. Like, Kate is a real … she’s a happy drummer! [laughing] She’s got that soul, from the R&B music she’s listened to or something, but it makes her a happy drummer. So she really infuses that in there.
PM: [laughing] Now I have this picture of her sitting behind her drum kit with a big yellow smiley face painted on the bass drum.
AR: [laughing] Oh good, I’ll tell her that.
PM: Let me switch gears here for a minute. I heard a rumor that you went to Michigan last year [The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival], not as a performer, but just a regular “festie”…
AR: Yeah, I did. I mean, I didn’t stay in festie-world … I got to camp in the artist section. I love it. My partner in life works there, and she was on short crew last year, so I enjoy it. I go even if I don’t play.
PM: What is your take on the controversy surrounding Michigan’s admission policy? [The policy reads that the festival is open to “womyn-born-womyn,” and has become a rallying point for many transgender activists.]
AR: I did a series of interviews when I was there, actually, and I’m going to publish them. I interviewed a representative of Camp Trans and a bunch of people on that side of the issue, and then I interviewed a bunch of people on the other side, like Bitch [formerly of Bitch and Animal] and Lisa [Vogel, founder and producer of the festival]. And in the end it was hard for me to know where I stood! In the beginning, I was pretty sure that I felt like the admission policy needed to change. And I felt pretty strongly about it. But then, by the end of it, I was like, aaagh, this is so hard, because I respect Lisa Vogel so much and I respect the need for a safe space and for this issue … with some people feeling like it’s not safe, and not even safe for some of the transgendered people who come on the land as well. And so, I ended up feeling like … the festival has a right to do what they want to do. It was started by a group of women for a certain reason, and we can claim it as a community and claim a certain amount of proprietary right over it, but we don’t have complete proprietary rights over it. But what I wish is that we could have an admission policy that would include transgendered women. That’s what I wish. Because I don’t personally feel threatened by it. But then when I talk to somebody who does, I feel a lot of sympathy for them and for their position. But in my personal life, it doesn’t threaten me But when you talk to Lisa Vogel about it, you can really understand why she feels the way she does.
PM: So, you’re going to publish these interviews?
AR: Yeah, as soon as I get around to it. I made the mistake of interviewing people for like an hour, and having … you know, I payed my sister’s partner to transcribe the interviews, cuz I got so discouraged after I started doing it! We’re going to put it on the Indigo Girls web site, or on the Daemon web site or something.
PM: You mentioned Daemon, your record label. How is it to record as Indigo Girls on a major label, but do your solo stuff on an indie?
AR: I started that label about 15 years ago, and we had gotten signed to Epic. I had some money, and I didn’t want to leave the independent world behind. I feel a real affinity for it and I feel real at home in it. It was like, I’ve got all these friends who are in bands and nobody has any money and can afford to make their own records … this was at a time when it wasn’t so cheap to make your own records. So I signed this punk band, and it was fun, so I just kept going. It’s been a long journey. I have three people who work for me currently, so it’s not just me. It’s truly a labor of love for them.
PM: How involved are you in the day-to-day of the label, and the signing of the bands?
AR: A lot. We talk every day. I know what’s going on all the time. Like, when I was working on this solo record, there were a couple of weeks in there where I was so in the thick of finishing the record that I couldn’t even communicate with them. And they’re fine — they don’t need to talk to me! [laughs] I go to the office when I’m home once a week, and help out with mailings or whatever, and we just sit down and have a meeting and discuss strategy for every record. We’re friends. I say yes or no to things, and they’re all really good at their jobs. They specialize in what they do. We’re a group working on something together. I mean, they call me their boss in a jokingly way, but it’s not really like that. They try to make me feel bad cuz they know I don’t like that word. Like, “Okay, boss!”
PM: I talked one time with Rose Polenzani [who released two records on Daemon, Anybody in 1999 and Rose Polenzani in 2001], and she was beaming over the experience of working with Daemon. It was such a nice change of pace to hear an artist who loved her label.
AR: She’s a great one. She just put out a record on her own It’s an interesting time for indie labels right now. An artist like Rose is almost better off doing her own thing. Because she can make all of the money from each record she sells — it can all go back to her. And she’s already got a base of people who know who she is. Really, the way you get well-known is through touring, and she just keeps building on that, and get better and better. My feeling is that she doesn’t need us. I try to be honest with the artists. Like, I think she can do more for herself right now than we can do for her.
PM: So the place of Daemon is more about helping out new artists?
AR: Yeah, I guess it’s just about how you want to do things. I know Rose’s style, and how she works, and I know she’ll be able to do it just as well on her own. There are some established bands we are still working with, but it’s because there’s something we’re giving them that they can’t give themselves. And it changes from group to group. It could be the way we get press for them, or they’re strictly a radio band.
PM: Do you have a particular style of music you’re more interested in working with?
AR: Just left of center. If it’s folk music, it needs to be someone like Rose, who’s bizarre and totally creative and not doing the same old shit. And if it’s a rock band or a punk band, there needs to be really good song writing. Just something with substance.
PM: So you’re personally involved in choosing who Daemon will work with?
AR: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We all bring different people to the table.
PM: Do you ever get vetoed by the group?
AR: I have gotten vetoed, actually! The way I look at it, if they don’t like it, they’re not gonna do a good job on it. I almost got vetoed this last year with this punk band that we put out. I was really bummed, but I pushed it. I was like, you know what? This is one time when I’m gonna pull The Boss card, and we just have to do this cuz I know it’s gonna work out. And I was right! But I really was sure about it. Usually, if they veto me I’ll let it stand, because it means it’s not going to go well. The same thing has happened to them. But if someone feels really strongly about something, we usually defer to them.
PM: Will the Indigo Girls ever release something on your label?
AR: No. No. I mean, Emily wouldn’t … No. That would not work. That would be like, My Label, and it would be hard for her to get mad at me if I didn’t do promotion right. You gotta have a little bit of separation. And we have to be able to be a united front, you know, me and Emily. We can’t be united against me!