Amy Ray is one half of Indigo Girls.
She also has an impressive string of solo albums.
And she gives good interview…
Now the water is up to her waist, and rising. Amy Ray – the dark-haired half of Indigo Girls, stands in the centre of the creek as the floodtide swirls around her. On the back of the album the water’s up to her chin, and she’s swimming, ‘head just high enough to holler.’ Was that water cold? ‘It was a little cold. But we did the shots during summer, so it was just a little chilly. We started out trying to get pictures of me totally underwater, but I kept slipping, tripping and laughing, so we just took it the way it is.’
Amy Elizabeth Ray, was ‘born in the grist of a rebel yell, swaddled in the song of the Whip-poor-will’ – her spelling. Is that the kind of thing she used to do as a child, playing around Decatur, Georgia, in the local creek? ‘It’s the kind of thing I did, yes. And the kind of thing I do now. That little river runs below my property, from where it flows down from the foothills of the Appalachians. It varies from only six inches deep to around five feet. In summer we swim there and get kayaks too.’ Her voice is clear and bright. She laughs a lot in an easy relaxed way. She’s driving her car along the freeway, using her hands-free to tell me things across the Atlantic. A first for me. The first time I’ve conducted an in-car interview! But in other ways Amy Ray is not an easy artist to keep a focus on. While, in another sense, there’s nothing smoky, ethereal or other-worldly about her energies either.
For the Indigo Girls – Amy’s duo with Emily Saliers, the major-label breakthrough happened with their self-titled 1989 album on which they were joined by R.E.M and members of Irish band Hothouse Flowers. It’s an intense collection of acoustic ballads and Country-Rock flummery that claws at your carefully-contrived cynicism with its acrid wit and labours of lyricism. Their first UK interview had them sniping good-naturedly at each other. ‘Emily is earnest and soft-spoken with the wide eyes that come from smouldering conviction, rather than naivety. Amy is slightly more pugnacious and superficially tough. As Emily puts it, ‘Amy is Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (‘Melody Maker’, 10 June 1989). The two met at elementary school, but started taking the band seriously at Atlanta’s ‘Emory University’, where Amy was studying religion and English, and Emily majored in English. In the Neve Campbell slasher-flick ‘Scream’ there’s an Indigo Girls poster tacked to the bedroom wall.
But when I first saw the Indigo Girls I promptly thought of a female Everly Brothers. After all, Don & Phil spent so much time touring and recording together that they ultimately fell out and didn’t speak to each other for ten years. Are these solo spin-off projects a way of letting off that steam? So that they divide to conquer? ‘That’s a great question. You’re right. Maybe it is,’ as though she’s mulling it over. ‘With Emily we do spend a lot of time together, but we also spend a lot of time apart. My first few solo records were different from Indigo Girls records, more like Punk-Rock bands – ‘Stag’ (2001) with Joan Jett and Breeder Josephine Wiggs, and ‘Prom’ (2005) also with the Butchies. They were on my own Daemon Records label. We were playing in clubs on the Indie level, a DIY way to get my ya’s-ya’s out. The energy tends to get diffused in big venues. A small hall or bar is obviously our forté, where we can really relate to people, have a closer contact. And then we just kept doing it. We decided to tilt in a more Country direction. And with the band we got together for ‘Goodnight Tender’ (2014) we toured a lot. It’s now just a thing. There’s a whole other side to my creativity, with a different set of collaborators. I like the difference. It’s a whole different thing.’
Recorded on analogue-tape, ‘Holler’ (2018) is Amy’s sixth solo album, and there’s human experience etched into each song. A legacy, rooted in mythic rural southern-fried Americana, informed by its tradition of protest, toned with the redemptive power of language, music, and the natural world, compassion and fine-grained observation. A meld of place and history that ticks away beneath the contemporary surface of texts, taxis, on-the-road songs and Velvet Elvis. She writes about how Appalachian poet Byron Herbert Reece ‘gave words to the wordless’ (the jumpy-picking “Sparrow’s Boogie”). Vince Gill and ‘Firewatcher’s Daughter’ Brandi Carlile add harmonies on the gentle waltz-time “Last Taxi Fare”, while the Wood Brothers crop up most notably on “Tonight I’m Paying The Rent”. “Jesus Was A Walking Man” (‘some would build a wall and say send ‘em back from where they came, but you know who would’ve let ‘em in? Jesus would’ve let ‘em in’), even manages to capture the stirring gospel power of Georgia-born original SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) anti-segregation singer Rutha Mae Harris.
‘We draw on Biblical images. We know’ admits Amy. ‘But the spiritual thing is a universal thing. It’s not a definite denomination, or even a Christian thing – it’s, like, spirituality, a higher being… The principles of America, which were founded correctly, got lost straightaway. Now they talk about freedom of religion, yet you have a President who is definitely of the Christian doctrine and would push that to its limit.’ Then there’s “Fine With The Dark”, just meditative Amy and exquisite acoustic guitar. ‘Yes, some are just love songs’ she laughs. Comparisons have been made to Jim Ford’s 1969 album, ‘Harlan County’. I don’t really see that. ‘For me, that record was influential on me for the horn arrangements. And the strings. That was the biggest thing. My ‘Goodnight Tender’ album didn’t have any strings. Sonically, that was a real inspiration for me. It spurred us along. Of course, we have our own spin on it. Just by our way of miking of the drums.’
With the Indigo Girls they operate as two equal co-existing parts. They’re blowing ideas into each other’s minds, mapping songs and arrangements between them, even though they’re mostly writing separately. They’re instinctively so close it’s easy to think of them as chalk-and-cheese sisters. Now, from the Power of Two, she’s starting clean-slated. Is it different with her own band, is Amy her own boss now, or is it just a bigger democracy? ‘I’m the boss, to a certain degree. I pay everybody. The buck stops with me. But it’s a collaboration too. And in the studio, the producer is boss. I love to have someone directing me in the studio. I count on him to edit me, if I need to play something over, or if I need to rewrite something. I am a diehard collaborator, I enjoy being part of a team, I pick them because I like what they do. As with guitarist Jeff Fielder, I know what he does is gonna be great. There’s no way I’m gonna tell him what to play. I love what they do. I love working that way.’
No-one can play like Amy either. I love Amy’s “Duane Allman” song on ‘Goodnight Tender’. ‘I grew up being a big Allman’s fan. My older sister had their records. I wasn’t even aware that he was no longer with us. So I was listening to the music of ‘Woodstock’, you know. These rock ‘n’ roll people were iconic to me. Janis had already passed. And when was it Elvis died… 1977? I was talking to a friend who has addiction problems, and it’s like that sense of something missing, something gone that’s irreplaceable.’
Do you think about god and sex? ‘There’s a ton of things I think about!’ She talks about the Indigo Girls maybe coming across to the UK to make a record (which turns out to be the duo’s fifteenth studio album ‘Look Long’, 2020). She talks about the Indigo Girls promo-touring their “Galileo” hit single from ‘Rites Of Passage’ (1992) along with Siouxsie Sioux – ‘one of the most amazing people I ever met.’ Amy was looking out from backstage and seeing Goths in the audience. Budgie played drums. ‘Siouxsie came out and sang on a couple of our songs. It was just fun!’ On “Galileo” she asks ‘how long till my soul gets it right?’ So how does it work? Do some of her best songs come in the shower? ‘Some of them do. Or some of them come in the car. Or on a dog-walk.’
Amy writes ‘I ain’t afraid of being lost, but I am afraid of doing no good’ (in “Oh City Man” – ‘come to the wilderness, where you can be free again’). Amy and the Indigo Girls have always been activists in social and political issues, from environmental campaigns to LGBT Rights. Has that ever resulted in negative reactions? The way the Dixie-Chicks – or, as we must now call them, the ‘Chicks’, were pilloried when they criticised George W Bush’s Iraq intervention. ‘Yeah. The Dixie Chicks… that was a long time ago. They were in a different situation to us. But we get that. We get some negative feedback. It is what it is. It alienates some parts of the audience. But I’m never going to get that hard-core country audience anyway. And a lot of country musicians have come-out as progressive. People like Steve Earle are a little more progressive. Politics is so polarised. It’s where we’re at in the states. With Race, migration, the refugee crisis. I live in a town that’s very conservative. I’ve lived there twenty-five years. I do benefits for things we have in common, Animal Welfare, Battered Women’s Refuge. And the barriers start to come down. They listen to the music. Some of them like it, and some don’t. One guy came across and told me he was a staunch Republican, but he liked what we played. So for me, let music transcend that. It’s easier for us. We’re white and middle-class. If we were non-white it would be harder.’
Back to ‘Holler’. “Didn’t Know A Damn Thing” – dedicated to African-American Lit-activist Toni Cade Bambara, is a tour-de-force double-vision of young Amy on the schoolbus, unaware of the atrocities as ‘bodies were hanging, bodies were burning’ across the South. ‘It’s just the truth. It’s just my truth. I was born in 1964. As I was growing up there was still a great deal of unrest. With segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, the American Indian movement. It was just horrible. But we were sheltered in middle-class suburbia at the time. There was a lot going on. ‘I sang my heart out for the land of the free,’ we learned our history ‘but it didn’t say nothing about what was right in front of me.’ I just think about it now, and WOW! At the time, I didn’t even see the tip of the iceberg. Even by the time I got to go to college. Of course, the kids are much smarter these days. More informed. If they want to find out something beyond what they’re told, they can seek it on the internet…’
Amy Ray corners. Accelerates. Heads on down the freeway.
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
Expanded and revised from an interview
originally published in ‘R’N’R: ROCK ‘N’ REEL’