An interview with Amy Ray

Originally written for No Depression

“I don’t really have any clout in the industry,” says Amy Ray, with zero irony or self-deprecation. She’s just being honest, and maybe she’s right.

Who has any clout in the industry anymore?

Still, that’s a funny thing for me – an admitted fan – to swallow. After all, for 25 years, Ray has been one half of the Indigo Girls – a Grammy-winning duo whose intricate counterpoint harmonies have influenced…well, anyone who writes harmonies anymore. They’ve dropped more than a dozen albums, charted a few singles, built a freakishly loyal following around the world, started an environmental and indigenous justice foundation headed by Winona LaDuke, and – no small task – have been one of the most visible and universally respected queer bands in the world.

Next month, Ray will be heading to Austin for South by Southwest, where she’ll play solo for that industry crowd for the first time in almost a decade.

She explains: “If I approach things like I’m trying to have clout and work my way in and network and figure out what I can get in this music career…you’re always a loser when you do that. There’s always someone cooler than you, there’s always someone less cool than you. You’re either being an oppressor or you’re being oppressed.”

She laughs, but we both know it’s true.

“I figure  – let go of the ego and just go as a person; enjoy the music scene and all these people who do really interesting things. That’s a festival where, as crazy as it is and as commercial as it is now, there are a lot of cool people who do really innovative things, who end up there. If you just look at it from that angle, it’s a fun time. You don’t get all depressed because not enough people were at your showcase.”

This year, in addition to going both to play and hear the music, talk to strangers and friends alike, she’ll be appearing on a couple of panels. One will have her and some of her peers judging new technology aimed at helping independent artists.

Helping independent artists is something Ray knows a little bit about. After all, back when the industry was healthy and she and Saliers had started making waves – and money – she dropped some cash to open an indie label called Daemon Records. Since its inception in 1989, Daemon has been especially focused on Southern independent artists whose music Ray personally believes in. Through the years, she’s funded and otherwise given muscle to projects by artists as variant as Girlyman and Danielle Howle. Most recently, she’s taken up with Alabama native Lindsay Fuller who’s now based in Seattle.

Ray’s passion for various subjects is not easily hidden. There’s a fire in her eyes when she talks of indigenous issues, clean energy, queer rights, her music, the work of folks like Fuller. “[Lindsay] doesn’t really need help,” she told me back in December during an interview for another publication. “She’s brilliant, you know.”

Indeed, Ray has sunk a ton of time in recent months into helping spread the word about Fuller’s music. The two (along with multi-instrumentalist Jeff Fielder) did an acoustic song swap-style tour of the South this winter, which they’ll reprise in the spring out West. Once that tour is over, before she rejoins Saliers for a summer of Indigo Girls dates, Ray will come back east to tour further behind her new solo album, Lung of Love, which drops this week (Feb. 28, 2012). That East Coast tour will have her playing these new tunes and probably also some from her previous efforts, backed bythe Butchies (Kaia Wilson, Melissa York, Allison Martlew) plus Jenn Stone (most recently the touring keyboard player for pop star Ke$ha). For that leg of the tour, Wilson will open, playing solo acoustic tunes from her forthcoming solo album.

Lung of Love, meanwhile, is a remarkable record of its own. Recorded in Greensboro, NC, and produced by Greg Griffiths (who has toured with her as a bass player), the disc is easily Ray’s most solid solo statement yet. No longer does it feel like her solo albums are an extension of Indigo Girls music. Fans will surely recognize themes and energies in the music which may strike them as familiar. But, sonically, it’s a whole different beast. For one, the album includes some of Ray’s first ever co-writes (she and Saliers write separately, at least initially). And, in general, it juts a rougher edge than anything the Indigo Girls have ever touched.

There’s a punk rock spirit to it – something more along the lines of Patti Smith or the Clash, as opposed to the Indigos’ quasi-Dylanesque aesthetic. It’s the energy Ray’s work has been hinting at for years, but this time it’s simply more well-pronounced. Somehow it’s both grittier and more exact. It’s also a bit of a community effort, with appearances by folks like Fuller, A Fragile Tomorrow, Brandi Carlile, and Jim James (of My Morning Jacket).

It’s quite a musical feat, dropping just a matter of months after the Indigo Girls’ most recent release, Beauty Queen Sister (another strong disc, of course).

And, because all of this is not enough to jampack into a year, she’s excited to talk about some restructuring taking place at Honor the Earth – an organization she and Saliers helped start in 1993 with “a bunch of Native activists.”

“We needed to streamline because of the economy. We had a few outstanding projects we needed to finish. There’s a wind energy project in Kili on the Pine Ridge Reservation – KILI radio – and then a couple of solar things. We’re working on the tar sands issue . . . ” They’ve also done some work in Chiapas, Colombia, with the Zapatista movement. But this new era of work with Honor the Earth will see a renewed focus on empowering indigenous young people and funding emergent Native projects.

“We’ve always done a  lot of youth initiatives,” she says, “but it’s always hard for the youth leadership to happen without it being forced. The people who need to feel empowered are coming up through the ranks.”

At a time when it’s all so many indie artists can do to just play shows and get their music into the world, that Ray is able to divide her time between so many passions and pursuits is notable in itself. Forget that the music she makes in the process is – all at once – provocative, imaginative, accessible, and catchy.

Maybe that doesn’t translate to music industry clout; but what use is clout in the world, anyway?

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