Exclusive Interview with the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray

Exclusive Interview with the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray

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Gay rights activist and advocate of the earth Amy Elizabeth Ray knows a thing or two about the perils and promises that occur within the music industry. Being one half of the celebrated all-female folk-rock duo the Indigo Girls [Emily Saliers makes up the other half of the team], the Georgia-born singer/songwriter delights in sharing her wisdom with up-and-coming acts like out-lesbian singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile and lesbian favorite Jill Hennessy.

The critical object that sets the 25-plus year musician apart from other musical acts out there today is that she is humble and kind in her sharing. She collects musical knowledge from other artists just as much as she hands it out. It’s a mutual love session that continues to enhance both parties and has nothing to do with record sales or popularity. Ray doesn’t speak just to be heard. She raises her voice because she feels the social responsibility to help improve the communities and lives around her effervescent sphere. Amy Ray is a tough chick with a heart of gold and millions of fans to back her up.

Ray and Saliers attended both elementary and middle school together near Decatur, Georgia before becoming lifelong friends and joining forces to create the music that would eventually help shape the lives of millions around the globe. To this day, both talented women write their own songs independently from one another before joining together to collaborate and create the finished project.

The Indigo Girls hit the airwaves in 1985 with their first non-album single “Crazy Game” and have released nearly 20 combined studio and live albums since that time. Notable singles have included, “Closer to Fine”, “Galileo”, “Least Complicated”, “Power of Two”, “Shame on You” and “Get Out the Map”. The pair sang back-up on the acrobat-loving Pink single “Dear Mr. President” in 2007 (the song had a worldwide release and also appeared on Showtime’s The L Word) and traveled with Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Tour that same year as well as the following.  In addition to the Indigo Girls’ success, Ray founded her very own independent label Daemon Records in 1990. Her solo albums (Stag, Prom, Live from Knoxville, and Didn’t It Feel Kinder) were released under the Daemon umbrella and were successful in their own right.

Ray and Saliers have permeated the LGBT community with their activism since first hitting the scene. Both women have inspired change throughout the world in regards to equal rights, women’s rights, environmental causes and Native rights (a cause very close to Ray’s heart being part Native American herself).

I had the awesome opportunity to chat with Amy Ray on the release day for Staring Down the Brilliant Dream and I wanted to share the interview again with her fans here at The Seattle Lesbian. My expectations of Ray were surpassed by miles the moment we began our light-hearted chat about the new album, fame and the desire we both have to interview Angelina Jolie. When things took a more serious turn while discussing the oil spill in the Gulf and the gay community’s love for the “Girls”, Ray was introspective and sincere.

Congratulations on the release of Staring Down the Brilliant Dream! It is wonderful to be able to chat with you on release day! What is this type of day like for you? It’s so funny because I usually don’t think about it that much because there are so many other things going on at the same time [laughs]. We were in New York yesterday doing a bunch of press stuff, so today we got to see our work put together in its final form. We had seen the proofs, but it was our first time to really see it and touch it. It’s a really, really, really cool package and a friend of mine did it so I just feel super-proud. Our sound man mixed it and it was like a real family project. I think that’s what feels good about being independent – when you have a release day like this, you feel really good with everything that went into it and all of your friends helped out. I’m very excited about it.

Your fans can’t wait to hear the new album and experience the journey with you and Emily [Saliers]. They are pretty much in awe of you (just so you know). Well, you’re welcome but you know that, sort of, we’ve had to kind of lean on the gay community to get brave and do the sorts of things we should be doing. So…you know what I mean.

I hear you have a love for a certain sexpot named Angelina Jolie.  I love her and if I ever got to interview her it would be really great. I love her activism. There you go! My hero! You know, she has really done a lot in the native communities, too, but she doesn’t really talk about that as much. Her mom did as well so I have a lot of respect for her, you know.

Awesome. Well, if I ever have the chance to interview Angelina Jolie, I will let her know that Amy Ray has a question or two for her! Good deal!  That sounds good [laughs].

Staring Down the Brilliant Dream features 31 songs in a 2-disc CD package with personal notes on the reasoning behind every chosen song. How important a role do your fans play in the music you ultimately release? Wow. Well, on a lot of records they play probably a big role because the show is sort of really dependent on the energy of the audience, you know. So, the show is better when the audience is engaged and, in turn, we are better, too. You know, they kind of go back and forth with each other. When we put out a live record, they affect it in a pretty big way because of just the energy in the room and what we end up liking. As far as the songs we release on the records, you know, we don’t think about it. We just try to do the best that we can and try to be honest to our music and our songs and put it out there. It’s a live record so the whole point of it is really about that. That’s why there end up being a lot of songs that are maybe more obscure in some ways because it’s our own audience that wants that and there are songs that the record label and radio may not have paid attention to and that is the whole point.

So many of your fans gravitate towards the Indigo Girls’ more obscure music because we’ve been following you for over 20 years and we feel connected to the music the two of you amazing ladies put out there. Speaking of which, the Indigo Girls will be joining the Lilith Fair 2010 this summer. You participated in part of the original tour that ran from 1997-1999 (parts two, three and four). What is different this time around for the Indigo Girls? A lot has changed! It’s a different perspective because we’re probably playing earlier than we would’ve played before and there are a lot more artists. It’s really exciting in that way, but women have not made a lot of huge advances in the industry. There are a lot more bands and women players out there than there were than before Lilith started– a lot more that are recognized, I should say. That’s cool because there are a lot of women out there getting the opportunity, so that’s a really good thing. Just the sheer number of the people on the bills, how many people wanted to play and how many people they had to search through to make decisions, you know, it’s a lot. There’s just a lot more going on. Before it was kind of like, you sort of traveled for a couple of weeks with the same group of people, but this time it’s a little different because there will be a different group of people every time. There will be a lot to hear so that’s exciting to me.

Your name was mentioned in both of my recent interviews with fellow Lilith Fair artists Brandi Carlile and Jill Hennessy.  I understand that you and Brandi are actually very good friends now. How does it feel to be such an inspiration to these extremely talented singer/songwriters that you, in a way, helped shape? Oh, God, I mean, it’s so mutual. It’s hard for me to think of it differently than that, you know, with Brandi, she’s had such a big influence on us, too. We feel flattered that she likes our music so much and that she was influenced by it. Justin Bonhiver was playing some gigs with us and I absolutely love his music so much and the fact that he is a really big Indigo Girls fan is a really big deal to me.  You know what I mean? I just get really excited about it. And then, those people really influence us, you know. I mean, Brandi has definitely influenced me vocally as I’ve gotten to know her. She’s taught me some different things about singing. Justin has influenced my writing a lot as I’ve gotten a chance to sit down with him to talk about his music and watch him play. It’s totally mutual and it’s an ongoing sort of mentoring that keeps going in both ways.

Speaking of getting to know Brandi, I like to call her the third Indigo Girl. Whenever I see your act in Seattle, she jumps on the stage to join you and Emily and so, in my opinion, she is the honorary third Indigo Girl. Seattle feels proud of our “little Brandi” hitting the big time. [Laughs]. Thank you. You guys are definitely a part of her success. The hometown scene is super-important. I remember when I was in Sonic Boom awhile back before her first record ever even came out. I didn’t totally know her yet. Emily introduced me to her music. I was in there looking at new releases and they were like, “yeah, you should check this out”. The girl that was talking to me was a punk rocker and was like, “you know, I don’t usually like singer/songwriters” – the thing people always say before they say something about a singer/songwriter – “but Brandi is really different. You should totally check her out.” I could tell that Seattle was totally pushing her, which is really cool. You’re totally right about that. You’ll make it happen.

Your shows are continuously sold-out across the country. How has fame changed you over the years since you began performing?  How are you the same and how are you different? Mmm, I don’t know. I guess it would be up to my family to have to tell me that [laughs]. You know, it waxes and wanes. I mean, there are places where we struggle a lot for ticket sales. It’s kind of weird, but I think that’s what kinda keeps us somewhat the same. There’s always somewhere where we are struggling to get our music out there and sell tickets and, at the same time, there are other places where we are doing better so we get both sides of the coin constantly. It’s good because it’s humbling. I think the only thing maybe is that it’s made me appreciate more time at home, family and relationships. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people and it’s really helped our activism so it’s changed our perspective on activism, but I don’t think fame has really changed us as people that much – we’re pretty much the same. We’ve definitely gone through phases, though, where we’ve changed for the worse and it’s good to check each other. It’s good to have a partner. They can straighten you out when you’re being a shit. 

Your work with the environment is monumental and notable. What are your thoughts on the current oil spill crisis in the Gulf? Oh, God, it’s a hard thing to even articulate because it’s so devastating and I feel, actually, a little bit paralyzed and I don’t usually feel that way. I am not sure what the right thing is to do. I mean, do I take lessons on how to do clean-up and go down there and actually work? Do I give money or what? What do I do? I think that a lot of people are going through that right now. What I am trying to do is read a lot about it and see what efforts are being done and kind of figure out what place I have in that. Emily and I are working a lot on funding sustainable energy development through our organization Honor the Earth. That’s kind of our reaction to something like this, which is always our reaction – we need to have better ways of getting our energy that don’t devastate the environment and sacrifice communities and public health. I feel like what’s happening right now is that Obama, whom I love, is kind of not paying enough attention to the scientists. He’ll talk about something he’s going to do, like the birms he was going to build out there that he didn’t build. Then the scientists that work on social issues come back and tell him that it would be even worse to do. It gives the perception that the administration that was supposed to put science first is not doing that right now and that’s frustrating to me. I think that’s really important in all of these situations with the environment, public health and all of these issues where science comes into play. We need to regain our respect for that voice and really get it, hear it and react to it. So, that is how I feel about it.

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