Lost and found: an interview with Amy Ray
Wed. July 1, 2015 by Gregg Shapiro
Often when we’re somewhere, that place is informing our writing. I think the idea of movement, the constant propulsion through time and space, really does inspire.
Amy Ray talks about the new Indigo Girls album and more
One Lost Day (IG/Vanguard), Indigo Girls’ 13th studio album is as awe-inspiring as anything Amy Ray and Emily Saliers has released over the course of their nearly 30 years as a duo. Sticking with the formula of alternating lead vocals (and songwriting) throughout the 13 tracks on the album, neither Ray nor Saliers has lost the ability to move us emotionally, on songs such as “Texas Was Clean,” “Findlay, Ohio 1968” and “Fishtails,” or physically, on rhythmic numbers including “Happy In The Sorrow Key,” “Learned It On Me,” “Olympia Inn” and “Southern California Is Your Girlfriend.” I spoke with Amy in the spring of 2015, shortly before the release of the album. [Indigo Girls perform on July 7 at El Rey in Los Angeles and on July 21 at the Vic in Chicago.]
Gregg Shapiro: Last year, 2014, was the 25th anniversary of the Indigo Girls’ self-titled commercial breakthrough 2nd album. What’s the secret to the Indigo Girls’ longevity?
Amy Ray: I think just giving each other space and knowing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Just having the respect for the mystery of that and having an agreement with each other where we agree that we are going to evolve. When we can’t do that anymore we’re going to stop doing it. We know that there are going to be records that aren’t as good. In retrospect, we can’t always know that what we’re doing is forward thinking, but the point is to make the effort. Really make the effort and not stagnate. I think we have a lot of great friends. Our management and our booking agent has been with us since we were 24, for 26 years, basically. That really helps, to be honest. Sticking with the same people, if they are doing a good job; growing up together and respecting each other and having this family and this good groundwork. That helps us stay together.
GS: I’m glad you mentioned consistency. Over the years, with the exception of a few albums, Indigo Girls have worked with producer Peter Collins. However, on One Lost Day you worked with Jordan Brooke Hamlin. How did this come to be?
AR: Peter actually introduced us to her. We talked to Peter before we asked her. He gave us his blessing [laughs]. He’s a really big fan of hers. It felt like she’s a young, up and coming, gifted musician/producer. She’s like a renaissance woman, in a way. We’ve worked with Peter and Mitchell Froom, and John Reynolds being another producer that we really love. We feel like we’ve learned a lot from all those guys. I think we felt like we could work with Jordan and have this completely fresh and different perspective. She’s a fan. She’s listened to all of our records. She has a lot of depth of knowledge of the twists and turns in our career. That’s always hard for us; a producer that knows where we’re coming from. It also enables her to keep us from falling into the some old patterns. Not changing for change’s sake, but don’t do that “because it’s the easiest thing to do” kind of thing. I heard a record that she did for Lucy Wainwright Roche. It blew me away what she was able to do with Lucy to bring something different to her sound. That is what I love in a producer. Someone that can completely change your perspective of an artist; wake you up to something. If she can do that, either for people who haven’t listened to us for a while or have listened to all of our records and were waiting for us to do something that would turn their head a little bit – I thought she would be the one.
GS: Would you say that there was a noticeable difference working with a woman after working with men on those previous albums?
AR: I wouldn’t say (so) in this case. Because when we worked with Peter, for instance, we had Trina Shoemaker doing the engineering, so there was a woman in there. She works very closely with Peter. For me, in this particular case, I wouldn’t say it changed the music or anything like that because of gender.
GS: The songs on One Lost Day are like an atlas, taking listeners from Florida to Texas and Michigan to Singapore in your songs and from Alberta to Southern California to Ohio in Emily’s songs. Can you please say something about the role geography plays in your songs?
AR: I think the role is that we write in a lot of different places. Often when we’re somewhere, that place is informing our writing. I think the idea of movement, the constant propulsion through time and space [laughs], really does inspire. You’re constantly asked to look at things from different perspective. I like that. I like what that does. I think it’s a good thing. For me, I think it informs it in a good way. I live in the south and it informs a lot of the songs that I write. With this particular batch of songs that fell together for me, they were all taken from different places, including where I live. I didn’t actually think about it at all when we were doing the arrangements and stuff. Then, in the studio, I was looking down at all the song titles and reading the lyrics, and I was like, “Wow! This is all over the map, literally.” It’s like a travelogue.
GS: The cover art for the album features pictures of you and Emily in rear-view and side-view mirrors and the song “Olympia Inn” is about one of Indigo Girls’ tour bus drivers. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of her life on the road as a touring musician, what is the most significant lesson you’ve learned from that experience?
AR: To be in the moment. That’s the most significant thing I’ve had to learn. If you’re constantly counting the days you’re going to be on the road or how long until you get home or how many hours until you get to this place or when is this gig going to be over [laughs] – whatever you’re doing because you’re tired or you’re waiting to get home or impatient or nervous or any of the things that are negative or cause you to roll through your time in a different way. Or if you’re excited about something coming up so you miss the things you’re doing. Everybody says, “Be in the moment.” But I really have had to learn that on the road. It’s really a good thing. It’s made me enjoy where I am and what I’m doing. At this age, the passage of time changes so drastically when you get older, it really does move faster. I think even physics says that. Sometimes I’ll be singing a song or I’m in the middle of a show and I’m super-tired, and I think, “Oh, man, I hope I can get through this show before my voice goes,” or this or that. I’ll just say (to myself), “This song or this show is going to be over in the blink of an eye. You’re going to be 80 years old, God willing, and sitting on your bed wishing you were playing this show [laughs]. Be in the show! [laughs].” That really helps me because I can remember all my life, even as a kid, just being mystified by how one minute I’m worried about something and the next minute it’s a year later. Time has gone so fast and it’s always bothered me that it moves so fast. It’s helped me to try to be in the moment and it slows things down a bit and helps me enjoy things more.
GS: Amy, I want to extend my condolences belatedly on the passing of your father. I recently interviewed lesbian writer Leslea Newman (Heather Has Two Mommies), whose latest book of poems, I Carry My Mother, is about the loss of her mother. Can you please say something about the intersection of grief and art in your work?
AR: I’m not sure how to define it yet. Grief is one of those scary things where you don’t really want to open up and write because the floodgates will open. For me, in some ways, what helped me was that I already had a bunch of songs started. My dad died and then 12 days later my daughter was born. In that moment of weird time and space after my daughter was born, I didn’t get much sleep and I was grieving, but I was trying to be a light instead of darkness to my child, not let all of that leak out, but be honest about it. I think kids feel so much. What was easier to me in my writing was for me to go back to things I had started and had struggled with how to finish and let my dad’s passing inform that. Then I didn’t have to open up a whole new can of worms where I couldn’t access my feelings very well because I didn’t have anywhere to start. Grief is so big – where do you start? Where do you start even thinking about it when you’re so sad? What helped my grief, too, was that I could look at words I’d written before he died. I had a place to start, but I put his imprint on those. Stories I knew about and things I felt about his death or his life would become part of a song that I was working on. Or images that I had of him; he’s a pretty strong character [laughs] in my world and had a rich history. Even reflecting on the funeral and the stories that were told; there were like a gazillion people there and a gazillion stories. That’s where the intersection was; what was life before this and what is life now? Art helped me figure that out.
GS: The brass on “Fishtails” and the strings and piano on “Findlay, Ohio 1968” reminded me that when I talked to Emily a couple of years ago she mentioned that, in addition to performing dates with symphony orchestras, she mentioned the possibility of an Indigo Girls symphonic album. Is that still in the works?
AR: Yes. There was a lot of trying to figure out how to achieve it. Most of the symphonies that we play with and love are union. We had started talking with Birmingham, but the union switched the way they do some things and it became cost prohibitive to do it at that time. We were trying to negotiate a way to do it. We just don’t sell that many records, so if you spend so much money on a record up front, you’re not even going to break even. That’s been the tripping up – how to honor the union and the musicians, be supportive. But at the same time be able to make the record within a certain budget so that you can break even on it. Now we’re working on a couple of different scenarios.
GS: The previously mentioned Lucy Wainwright Roche, whose mother Suzzy and aunts Maggie and Terre appeared on Indigo Girls’ Rites of Passage album, is a guest musician on One Lost Day. Does working with Lucy feel a bit like coming full circle?
AR: Yes. She’s been in our lives for a long time. We’ve known her since she was about eight [laughs]. She’s her own entity in the biggest way possible [laughs]. You can tell that she’s the product of Suzzy and Loudon, but she is so much her own person. It feels like this great lineage of musicality that we just get to be part of. I’ve always been inspired by her art – her songwriting and her voice and her personality [laugh], everything about her I love. For me, she’s been a catalyst for a long time. When you look at the trajectory of our records and you see the Roches on earlier ones and then you see her, it’s like, “Yes!” It’s cool.
GS: Although it was a long time coming, Joan Jett was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What would it mean to you for the Indigo Girls to take their rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
AR: I appreciate you saying that, but it would probably mean the apocalypse is coming [laughs] if that ever happened. I don’t think people see us as rock, even though we have all these records that have electric guitars and we totally rock and we love rock, we’re still always going to be seen as folk singers. I don’t mind that. Those are our roots, even though we were influenced by rock. We didn’t start as two people playing electric guitars in a band. We started by playing acoustic guitars. When we go out and play by ourselves, that’s still a majority of what we do, even if it’s rock.
GS: But Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell playing rock guitar either.
AR: You’re totally right. But that’s a different era. We’ve always had that “lesbian singer/songwriters” [laughs] dismissal sort of thing happen with us, so why would we be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [laughs]? But why did it take Joan Jett so long to get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? That’s the question. She’s definitely a pioneer. I’m not holding my breath for that one. It would be so special if that happened, but it’s not that important to me.
GS: We’re speaking in late spring 2015, which means that the 2016 presidential election will be here before we know it. Do you have any thoughts on that?
AR: Oh, wow! I’m like a split personality about it. I really love Hillary Clinton but at the same time, I’m like, “Does it have to be a Clinton/Bush race?” I wish her last name was something different. My thoughts are that I think she’s a genius; an absolutely brilliant person. I think she could do a great job. I hope there’s a challenger to her for the Democratic nomination. Not to rock the boat, but because I think it’s good when different ideas are brought to the table. I think that will shake things up a bit and enable to understand more about her if there’s something she can reflect off of and be challenged by. I think that if it’s just automatically Hillary running for president, it will be a disservice to her. If someone challenges her for the Democratic nomination, pushing her to be more than she is and different, allowing us to see other dimensions of her and how she’s thinking about things.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.