{ICYMI} Ray of light: an interview with Amy Ray of Indigo Girls

By Gregg Shapiro

Years in the making, Indigo Girls Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Rounder) is a breathtaking experience. Even if you don’t like live albums, this one is an exception. Comprised of 22 songs, Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) do an excellent job of representing the expected hits (“Power of Two”, “Galileo”, “Kid Fears”, “Go”) and popular deep cuts, as well as a generous supply of more recent numbers (“Sugar Tongue”, “Able To Sing”, “War Rugs”, “Happy In the Sorrow Key”). Not surprisingly, the stunning symphonic set closes with a rousing rendition of “Closer To Fine” (complete with sing-along). As familiar as your oldest friends, you’ll never hear these songs the same way again.

Never one to sit idle, Ray is also releasing a new solo record in September 2018, her sixth. Holler (Compass/ Daemon) continues in a similar countrified vain as 2014’s Goodnight Tender. Featuring guest musicians including Brandi Carlile, Vince Gill, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) and Rutha Mae Harris (of The Freedom Singers), Holler is another powerful musical statement from Ray. I had the pleasure of speaking to Amy in early August 2018.

Gregg Shapiro: Indigo Girls are no strangers to live albums, with at least two such previous releases – 1995’s 1200 Curfews and 2010’s Staring Down the Brilliant Dream. Why was now the right time for a new live album such as Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra?

Amy Ray: Mostly because we’ve been touring with symphonies for about four or five years now. We felt like we’d gotten to a place where we knew the material well enough and wanted to document it. When we came upon a symphony that fit all the parameters that we needed to make a live record with a symphony; that was the University of Colorado Symphony. So, it worked out. It was kind of a long process. We had been hoping to get it done for a couple of years.

GS: What were the parameters that the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra met?

AR: Number one, they’re just really good. The conductor was someone we felt like we could work with on a project like this. Where we could say, “We’re going to need to come in and have an extra-long rehearsal, record rehearsal and then record the show, and may have to do a song over.” They’re grad students and community members. They’re at a university, so it’s not under the guidance of a union, which gives us a lot more leeway on how many times we can do a song and how long it takes. With a union symphony, they kind of changed the rules around. It used to be where you paid one set cost to record with the whole symphony. Now you pay each member individually. For us, we wouldn’t sell enough records to cover that. We had to find a way to record it where we could pay the symphony what they deserve, but it would be a smaller symphony and more student-oriented. In the end, it was probably a better move.

The dynamics end up being a little more engaged in a way. The players are fresher to what we’re doing. Some of them are younger. Every orchestra we played with was amazing! It was already on another echelon from what we were doing. They’re totally engaged. They’re excited about playing. They’re conductor is super-easy to work with. The conductor is the key to everything. They build that bridge. We’ve had quite a few conductors that we really love, and Gary is one of them. For me, it was a no-brainer [laughs]. We talked about it, made the arrangements, and a year later they had the time in their schedule for us to go back do rehearsal, a show and record.

GS: Of the 22 songs chosen for the album, were there any for which the transition to an orchestral setting or arrangement proved to be more challenging than expected?

AR: Yes. I would say that it depended on the symphony, too. There are songs where some symphonies would nail a song and some symphonies wouldn’t. It’s all about people’s preferences and the way they play and the way we’re playing that day. There are certain ones that are inherently more difficult, like “Happy in the Sorrow Key”. “Come On Home” is a pretty hard song. One of the measures of who we wanted to record with was a symphony that landed the difficult songs, too. It’s not a judgment on who’s better, symphony-wise. Some symphonies get some songs, and others don’t. Or that particular night, maybe we weren’t in the right vibe, so we couldn’t get it; and that doesn’t reflect on the symphony at all. Some symphonies are just easier to play with and it’s not because they’re better [laughs]. Is the conductor in the space that you’re in? Every symphony has their own symphony hall and that had a lot to do with things. The way the symphony is in that space and how you can work together as a team.

GS: Your new solo album Holler continues the country-oriented style of your 2014 solo album Goodnight Tender. Is this a direction you see yourself going in for the near future?

AR: I don’t know. This was just what I was writing. I have a band that I’ve been touring with for four or five years. This is really a strong suit for them and for us together. As we tour, and get more and more in the groove with them, we’ve been working in old songs from the rock and punkier stuff. It’s adaptable to that. When I was writing Stag and Prom, I was playing a lot with the Butchies and I was writing to their style. My collaborators typically have a lot of influence over what I’m writing. They’re who I’m creating with, touring with, playing with from day to day. I like a lot of different kinds of music. This record has a little more of the earlier, punky, eclectic style mixed in with traditional country. I think I was crossing over into that line in my writing a little bit.

GS: I’m glad you mentioned collaboration. As always, you have a stellar line-up of guest musicians on the new album, including Brandi Carlile, Vince Gill, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Lucy Wainwright Roche and Rutha Mae Harris of The Freedom Singers. When you are writing a song – “Last Taxi Fare”, for example — do you hear the guest artist’s voice, in this case Brandi Carlile, as part of the process?

AR: Sometimes. On that particular song, as I was finishing it, believe it or not [laughs], I actually did hear Brandi, and I did hear Vince. I wrote that song over a very long period of time. I think I had watched a CMT award show or something and Vince was singing with Taylor Swift and Allison Krauss and a few other people. I’ve always loved him, but in that moment, I was like, “That guy can really sing harmony!” In any situation. I was working on that song and it was in my fantasy that Brandi and Vince would form a trio with me. It’s the weirdest thing, but Alison Brown, who plays banjo on the record, happens to be friends with Vince. It was like one of those moments where it was like, “I can’t believe this is going to work out.” In that case, I was definitely hearing them.

I did hear Justin and Phil Cook when I wrote “Didn’t Know A Damn Thing”. I had played with them, so it was an easier thing to hear. That really informed that song. When I first wrote it, that version was harmony the whole way through, because I was thinking of them. Then I decided to change it up to make it more effective when they came in. Lucy Wainwright Roche tends to be a muse, with Indigo Girls, as well. I’ll be working on a song and, in my head, I’ll use her as a harmony singer for inspiration as to where to go musically.

GS: I love the duality of “Oh City Man”, which features the builders of skyscrapers juxtaposed with moonshine makers, and the image of you walking down Broadway during a Manhattan blackout in “Fine with The Dark”. Even though you’ve long lived outside of a city, would it be fair to see that you feel the pull of urban living?

AR: I think that I’m mostly a country person. But I feel the pull of the dynamics of urban living, and the poetry of it. I’ve spent so much time in New York City, and cities like London and Berlin, places where I feel the darkness and light, the pull of that, the Patti Smith of it. Jim Carroll and The Basketball Diaries and all my great punk rock icons. I feel their personalities and art in those spaces. I often have to have those spaces in my life and get down and walk the streets and spend all night out on the town with myself and the city. It informs what I do. But I find it interesting that, even in the city, and the country, too, you have to think about what came before you; how things got built. What was sacrificed so that you can have what you have. All those things.

That’s the tie between the land I live on in Georgia, which was Cherokee land, and then you go to New York and you’re walking among these incredible buildings built by people that were, in essence, slave labor. Proud artisans working for rich people that were brilliant at their craft but none of it was for them. Do you ever think about this when you’re here? People in New York will say, “They just don’t build buildings like they used to”, when they are around historic areas. I’m like, “That’s because they don’t have a hundred people working for ten cents an hour, slave labor.” It’s like saying, “Why don’t they build castles anymore?”

GS: Or pyramids.

AR: Exactly!

GS: In the four years between the release of Holler and Goodnight Tender, we have had to endure the election of Donald Trump and all that came with it. Am I on the right track when I say it sounds to me like you address that somewhat in the songs “Sure Feels Good” and “Didn’t Know A Damn Thing”?

AR: Yes, for sure! I don’t know if it was so much effected specifically by the presidential election as more of the whole vibe of the country and my own community. The polarization and thinking about issues around being a Southerner. Trying to take on some accountability myself, and to try to understand where people are coming from, as well. “Sure Feels Good” is my song of where I live and the dynamics of people like me that are coming from a different place than other folks. How do we rectify that? How do we understand each other? It’s easy to dismiss people because they don’t agree with you about things because you dogmatically think they’re going to feel a certain way. Or it’s not possible for them to come around to a place of tolerance or understanding. That’s not where I exist.

I exist in a place where you get to know your neighbors and you help each other out, regardless of where you come from. Eventually those barriers start to fall and you begin to understand each other. Hopefully, things change. Racism is the hardest thing to change in the South. But I’ve found that there are still people who do change. I’ve also found that there are people who have a knee-jerk reaction because of the way we’re put into niches and demographics who aren’t being their best selves all the time, and I say, “I know you’re a better person than this. I’ve seen you in my community. I’ve seen the things you do to help other people. And I’ve seen you at church. I know you have it in you to be better than this.” We all can be better than this.

GS: Every year there seems to be more and more queer female country artists releasing albums, including performers such as H.C. McEntire and Sarah Shook in 2018. Because Holler is so steeped in that tradition, what do you think that says about country music and its listeners?

AR: I think country music is opening up. I’m a big fan of Sarah Shook and Heather. Both of those artists have found that they have a place in Americana, which is the progressive side of “country”. It’s the place where people who play country, but don’t fit into a more conservative demographic feel comfortable. Pop country musicians like Sugarland and Dixie Chicks and others probably also feel like they don’t want to be restricted by being expected to have a certain political perspective. I don’t think music categories need to be restricted by political perspectives in any way on any side. It’s great to me that all these artists are getting some play and that they have some place where they can sit comfortably and be honored in a way that makes sense to everybody.

GS: Since we’re talking about female country acts, I recently received a press release about a forthcoming Bobbie Gentry box set.

AR: Wow!

GS: In the pantheon of female country music artists, where does Bobbie Gentry fall on your personal list of icons?

AR: I would say iconic, probably from my youth. A formative person that made me go, “Oh, I can do this! I’m a female!” Like a role model. But for me, I’ve probably looked at someone like Dolly Parton, and stayed with that. Dolly would probably be an icon for me in a bigger way. For her songwriting and longevity and generosity and vision. The pure star-power.

GS: Have you ever had a chance to play with her?

AR: I’ve never played with her, but I have met her. She’s in a class all her own.

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