Curve Magazine: Amy Ray Interview
original publish date: jan – march 1998
by shirley liu, curve magazine
For more than a decade, the Indigo Girls’ gentle harmonies and stirring lyrics have given voice to the anger, love, fear and confusion of our community. Today, their mainstream popularity brings that message to the masses, but their passion remains intact, augmented by their maturity and a still-growing sense of activism. In the following interview, Amy Ray speaks with down-to-heart charm and candor about her relationship with Emily, the Honor the Earth Tour and her own spiritual path.
In Shaming, it seems that for the 1st time you and Emily use gender-specific pronouns.
I’ve been gender-specific on records before, In “Chickenman” I’m very specific-I went looking for a girl. And then in “Fugitive” it’s obvious I’m talking about a girl. I’ve been gender-specific when I’ve wanted to talk about one particular relationship or incident. A lot of our songs are about several different people, so I haven’t been able to be as specific. On this record, our Indian activism spurred a feeling that we dont have any time to waste-you better just say what you feel and be as blunt as possible. I think I used to write a lot more abstractly in the past. The older I get, the more outspoken I get, the more blunt I get, because I just dont feel its worth it anymore not to be that way. Our activism, especially with the Zapatistas [rebel fighters] in Chiapas, Mexico, has been an impetus to just stand up and say what we feel and be very direct about it.
We’ve seen people in the gay community that have suffered for their preferences and their beliefs. But sometimes when its right around you in your own community, it doesn’t impact you as much. When you step into somebody else’s community and see something, and then go back to your own community, you go, “Oh wow, okay.” That’s one thing about the Zapatistas I liked so much. They’re very interested in people learning from them and going back into their own communities and working on what they need to work on.
Emily and I spent several years focused on activism, and in our year off, we mulled it all over, thought about it and wrote songs. Emily especially. I’ve always been pretty outspoken and pretty willing to talk about everything, but Emily had a tendency to be more scared about privacy issues. And now she’s just like WHATEVER. [laughs]
Have you been out since you were young? What was your coming out experience like?
[chuckles] I never knew I was doing it. I never thought about it. I actually fell in love with a woman in high school but didn’t consummate it until a year later…we had a very long courtship. By the time our relationship became physical, my mom had already asked me if I was gay. At the time, I had no reference to what gay was. So I said, “Well, if I’m in love with this woman, and if it means I’m gay, I guess I am.” But I still had just broken up with a boyfriend and I dated guys after that too. I just didn’t know what I wanted. I felt that whatever you fall in love with is what you are. My family was slow to accept it and feel like talking about it, but now they’re in a great place.
How were your friends?
There was a small period of time, early in college, when I was scared to tell anybody. I was at Vanderbilt the first year. Then I transferred to Emory. I told my close friends. I told people as soon as I figured it out. I wasn’t willing to commit to anything- out of fear, and growing up and having all sorts of problems, not just who I was in love with. I finally felt like I had completely come to terms with it when I told my grandmother, which was only about 4 years ago. My grandmother knew, but we had never talked about it. She’s one of the most important people in my life. So until I could sit down and talk with her and say, “Can I have your blessing on this?” I wasnt going to feel completely honest with my family. And I did, and she was great.
I was so out to everybody and in magazines, etc., but we had never sat down and talked. That to me is the ultimate. If you haven’t sat down and talked with people that you’re closest to about this, then you are not really out yet. That’s how I feel.
Emily was always a little bit behind me. I told her I was gay and she wasn’t gay yet. [laugh]
There’s always the question, were you and Emily ever involved?
No. Everybody always asks that but no one believes me. You think we would have stayed together this long if we’d ever been involved in a relationship? NO WAY. [laugh] We have the perfect relationship — a great business relationship and a great friendship. And she’s not my type and I am not hers.
I’m sure our readers would like to know what your type is.
I dont know anymore. I’m single and I just had an 8 years relationship. It was a very heartbreaking moment of my life to break up with that. I dont know what my type is, I’m searching. But I want someone…[gently] who’s kind. That’s what I found out.
Who is your ex-girlfriend, if you don’t mind saying?
Who is she? [pauses, laughs] Cooper. Her name is Cooper. She’s in a band called Viva La Diva.
Going back to your relationship with Emily, you both work independently and then come together musically. How did that system evolve?
Since the beginning, we’ve been so different from each other and our musical styles have been different. From the start, there were very distinct roles, musically and businesswise. We never talked about it. It just fell into place.
When we first started, Emily was much more knowledgeable musically and still is. But I’ve caught up a little bit. Businesswise, I had more business acumen, so I was the one who said we should do this and that.
Over time, we’ve crossed into each other’s worlds.
We collaborated once when we were really young and it didn’t work out very well. It was kind of forced. I think we realized that we needed to write in our own separate worlds in order to have identity. Thats what’s kept us together. We can express ourselves without having to compromise too much. It’s like 2 separate records sometimes.
Have you ever considered doing a solo album?
When we both have a lot of time off, we do side projects. Its fun for us — it’s nothing that would threaten us. I’ve considered making more of a punky record. But every time I think about it, I ask, “Now who would I want to play with me?” and its always Emily. Its true! Because Emily can adapt to that style. It would be fun to do a side project that is me and Emily but its called something different, and its really different. The problem is, I could never do Emily’s side projects. Hers would be something like jazz or blues, which I couldn’t do. I think she’s interested in writing with other people and doing movie soundtracks. The problem is, we don’t have time. Between all the politics and our touring, when would we do a solo album?
What kind of political projects have you been involved in lately?
We’re doing the Honor the Earth tour again. We started with the idea in ’91. We did a few shows called Honor the Earth back then, geared towards trying to work with the Indian community for environmental changes. On a purely pragmatic level, Indians are on the forefront of a lot of environmental battles because many resources are on their land — uranium, coal, timber. And because of their sovereign state, a lot of state regulations and environmental laws can be bipassed by big corporations. The multinationals try to take advantage of that and use Indian land for waste storage, but they don’t follow safe practices with their factories, mining, logging, etc.
Most of the problems that we have right now in the States derive from a system of imperialism — meaning sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance. I think all of that grows out of the way the country was started — the Manifest Destiny, colonization. Until we get right with the Indians and start over with our whole way of thinking, as far as who deserves to have what and be where, I dont think we’ll be able to change all the other things. We need to go back to the beginning and refocus.
When you wrote about your Honor ’95 experience in the journal “Indigenous Woman,” you refer to the song “Shed your Skin.” It seems there’s an intertwining of the message of activism and shedding our skin.
I wrote “Shed Your Skin” after my breakup with my ex about how important it is to go do your thing and celebrate it and celebrate yourself. The growth we experience through all that pain is really important. The Indian stuff enters into it, because it was happening at the same time and there were some of the same sentiments. My dedication to activism took away from my relationship. I found it important to say, “Look, what I’ve been involved with has given me some freedom in my heart and soul that I’ve never experience. You should find the same thing.”
That song is my favorite on Shaming. Do you have a personal favorite?
Well, “Scooter Boys” was a really important moment for me. It was completely improv. I hadn’t finished the song, Emily didn’t know it at all, Andy Stochansky [Ani’s drummer] was playing drum with us that day and had never heard it. We just started playing and all of a sudden we got into this groove. I said, “turn the tape recorder on” and we recorded it – that’s the song you hear on the album. So there are sentimental reasons why that song is really close to me.
I also love “Everything In Its Own Time,” because it’s so different. The writing reminds me of old Emily, when we first met. It’s a certain kind of ballad — melodramatic, with Hispanic-sounding chord changes. She used to write more like that in the old days, when we were first playing together.
I heard a rumor that you wrote “Hey Kind Friend” for Ani DiFranco.
[Laughs heartily] I don’t know if I should say that. Ani would probably kill me… Yeah, its a friendship song. It’s not just to her, though. I hooked up with her for a few days because our bassist Sara Lee was playing with them. I got to know Ani better through that experience. It was a hard time in my life and I went out with them for about a week. They kind of saved me, that whole group. And I didn’t know them well. Sometimes what you need is the company of strangers. So that song was written in reflection of that time…Ani, she’s a good girl.
Have you ever thought about collaborating with her?
Oh, I’d love to collaborate! But I think she’s a lone horse. She and Andrew, her boyfriend, locked in that little studio like mad scientists with all their clothes off or something … like they’ve gotten down to the most primal aspect of their being and they’re creating art. That’s what I picture. I don’t know how I could fit into that, you know? [laughs] Her self-determination is very inspiring though. It was an inspiration to watch her work in the studio. Technically I saw her do some cool things — different tricks with sending your vocals through the speaker and singing again, having a weird background going and using loops in general, vocal and drum. What happens is you hang around with some artists and you trade ideas and thoughts without even knowing it. You inspire each other to go forward with what you’re doing.
In Shaming there’s an almost palpable spiritual element that underlies your songs.
I’m very spiritual and so is Emily. We were both raised as Christians, although neither one of us really claims that anymore. I’ve always had this weird relationship with being raised to believe in Jesus and respect Jesus as a historical figure, but feeling a pull towards something else, ever since I can remember. I find my idea of God to be infused in everything, animate and sometimes inanimate. It’s around me all the time. I feel like its a part of me and I feel the strenght of that. Its more like a Creator; its definitely a sexless being. I don’t go for the Goddess or the God, I go for the Creator. My spirituality has always been the richest part of my life.
With each stirring song and tough political stance, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have touched our hearts and brought us all a little closer to fine. In the last issue of Curve, Amy talked with Assistant Editor Shirley Liu about coming out, her relationship with Emily and the Honor the Earth tour. Now the conversation continues, as Amy discusses the lesbian community and our culture, the Girls’ new activism with the Zapatistas, and the folks who inspire their passionate words and sounds.
Do you have any opinions on the new highly visible, more widely-accepted lesbian culture?
You mean like Ellen?
Yeah, the single-name people like Ellen, k.d., Melissa, Martina…
[Laughs] I love lesbians. That’s funny. People start calling you by first names; it’s very familiar, you know? I like it. I had this construction guy over at my house and he was trying to bond with me, so he told me he loved Ellen. I looked at him and I thought, “This is great,” because Ellen is a point of context for everybody.
Anything that’s helping the mainstream see things more clearly and be more open-minded is great. I don’t look deeper into that and worry it might be hurting us in the long run; I don’t see how anybody could feel that way about it. I don’t think it’s homogenizing lesbianism; people tend to homogenize things themselves in their minds. They put things into categories and stereotype them and it takes a while for people to evolve and figure it all out.
It’s similar to when people talk about Indians-they think it’s one big tribe. I can get frustrated about that or I can think that the first thing to do is to open their minds up to it, and then teach that there are five hundred differed tribes.
The same thing exists with gay issues. We should open people’s minds to the fact that we’re all different from each other- that there are Republican gays and Democratic gays and Independents, that there are some gays who like porn and S/M and some who don’t. We’re all different people, but the one thing that we’re all fighting for is the right to sleep with who we want to.
Are there any particularly influential people in your life?
God, there are so many. The people that influence us the most, Emily and me, do so on a day-to-day basis. Most are activists, form environmental to gay rights. People that are doing hands-on work and fighting battles are the people that influence me the most. I usually just sit there and listen to everything they say and try to learn it all.
In the August 1997 Spin article on Ani Difranco, it said that you two felt that the Lilith Fair wasn’t pushing the envelope enough. What exactly did you mean by that?
The style of music. There were no punk bands, black bands or World Music. On the second stages, there were some, but at the time I was speaking, I was talking about the main stages. After talking to Sarah about it, I found out that she did make an effort to get people from the punk and alternative communities but wasn’t successful. I don’t know if she could have tried harder.
When you look at the main acts, like Sheryl Crow and Jewel, they have radio hits that make them seem a certain way. Then you see them perform and realize how diverse and incredibly gifted they are.
You need to see the different dimensions of women because women tend to stereotype and be sexist about other women. We say, “Ah, she’s blonde, she can’t really do it.” Things like that are really bad, really negative.
I think Lilith showed people that, yeah, these artists have had big hits, but give them a chance to see how diverse they are. So that’s what I learned from the tour-that yeah, maybe there aren’t punk bands and maybe Sarah didn’t get a good soul act, but she did show us that artists like Jewel and Sheryl Crow are gifted and versatile.
I do think that Lilith needs to be more radical though. At the press conferences, there was a tendency at first to shy away from calling it feminist. But I was like, “Look, I don’t mind being specified by gender; I’m proud to be a woman.” I don’t consider it ghettoization. I can’t separate being gay or being a woman from anything that I do, because it influences everything I do. By the end of the tour, I think Sarah came around that too. She was being much more outspoken about it. It was cool to see that evolution.
Do you see Lilith evolving that was in the future?
Yeah, now that Lilith has more clout too, it’s probably going to be easier to get Sleater-Kinney or TLC. Or Queen Latifah. You know she’s hard to get. I’ve asked her to do stuff for me and she doesn’t respond. I don’t think it’s her fault though.
When I put together the Honor the Earth CD, I called every band I could think of from the black community. No one responded. It wasn’t because the black community doesn’t want to support it, it was because there are barriers. We have to continuously work to break them down.
What do you think those barriers are?
It hasn’t been that long since everything was so segregated, and still is. I think that we put up barriers and they put them up and we both need to work on it. I don’t think it’s malicious, though; it takes time, you know.
Can you talk about your involvement with the Zapatistas [Mexican rebel fighters]?
We funded a program through Honor the Earth in 1995 that supported a women’s art co-op. These women are comandantes (commanders) in the Zapatista army. They needed to stockpile and store supplies for their art, textile, weaving-the things they do to bring some money into their village.
Before, they would make continuous trips to other villages and the main town to buy supplies. They would be harassed by the Mexican military, which is stationed in the area all over the place. Women were raped and verbally abused; they’d have to go through a lot just to get their art supplies. Basically, we funded this project to build a place to stockpile everything so they wouldn’t have to make so many trips.
When I went down there to meet these women, it was an incredibly eye-opening experience. At the time, there was an international conference going on that was hosted by the Zapatistas. They had five different locations in the rainforest and you went to whatever location was talking about the issue important to you. So I went to the “Women’s Table.” In this particular village, they talked about women’s issues and how women had been affected by NAFTA. People from all over the world talked about women’s issues in their own countries. They also dealt with gay rights.
Yeah, I was sitting there in the middle of the jungle in this meeting on gay issues hosted by the Zapatistas. It was fascinating to me!
What did they have to say?
Different people from different countries talked about the disenfranchisement caused by NAFTA and the people who are affected. Gay people are included because as cultures become homogenized, the profit-ridden companies become very powerful; gay issues become less important and tolerance goes down.
They also talked about how in traditional communities, gay people are accepted much more than in colonialized societies. I’ve experiences traditional communities (like the Indian community) where it was so open-minded. And then I would go into areas that had been destroyed by colonization, where the people were just down-trodden with suffering, and there was much less tolerance.
Why do you think that is?
Traditional values in the Indian community are based on something much more accepting. They have a place for people in their community who are different from other people. There’s not room for that in an industrialized society; I think it’s because of God and the Church, probably a lot of it is Christianity. But my experience is more traditional the community, the more open-minded.
Emily and I went down [to Chiapas] recently. We hung out for a few days and met with different comandantes and learned as much as we could about the situation. Every single day, the Mexican military would drive through the village with giant tanks and machine guns pointed at everybody.
How do you educate yourself on all these different issues?
Sometimes I find things out from people in the audience who send me booklets or send stuff up to the stage, or from other bands. I go to environmental conferences now and then and find out who’s doing what. Greenpeace is a really good resource. And Honor the Earth is a network, so basically, all the different Indian communities report to us on what’s going on. I read the Nation magazine. I spend a lot of my time reading.
In the midst of all this activism and creating music, what do you do in down time?
Daemon, my record label, takes a lot of my time. And I hike a lot and spend a lot of time outside. I kayak, canoe and mountain bike. I really enjoy outdoorsy, mountainy sporting activities; that’s what I do during real down time. It’s always in the woods. I don’t socialize much actually. I’m sort of a hermit at heart.
You were signed in 1988, so it’s been ten years. Any thoughts?
[Laughs] How much longer is this contract?! No, I love Epic. Emily and I keep having the “what’s going to happen when our contract’s up?” thoughts. Should we go independent or stay on a major label? We have three more albums left to do, so we’re fine. We love our company; they don’t have any agenda for us. They’re just like. “You gals do what you need to do and we’ll support it.”
Do you have anything to say to you lesbian fans and lesbian readers? Any final parting words?
[Laughs] Oh, god…You know, people on the lesbian community move from one relationship to the next without sitting back and taking the time to figure out what’s going on with themselves-jumping from one thing to the next.
I would advise against a continuum. [Laughs] but I would advise against a continuum in the heterosexual world too-I just don’t know if it exists because I’m not in that world. I would advise against the continuum, but I would still suggest watching Star Trek and the X-Files. [Laughs].