Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls’ darker half, has a great new solo CD, Didn’t It Feel Kinder, out August 5. IG fans who haven’t fully embraced Ray’s punk ethos-infused side projects may very well find something to love in this one. It still represents an outsider’s point of view, but does so in a reasonably accessible fashion. Each song is a distinct little world all its own – rather like riding It’s a Small World at Disneyland, you just never know what lurks around the next bend in the river. Musically, Ray leaned heavily on former Butchies’ Kaia Wilson and Melissa York and a band out of North Carolina that she loves, Arizona. Brandi Carlile also contributes a lot of background vocals to round it all out. Going at it all from a grassroots approach, Ray is doing things like Amy Ray TV which features mini episodes of stuff like Emily Saliers and Julie Wolf interviewing Amy about the new CD, Amy and Brandi singing in the tour bus and more.
There are a number of different sonic moods on this record. What is it in a song that dictates its direction?
Part of it’s the lyrics. Then when I write it I have a certain feeling that goes with what I’m saying and it kind of goes from there. It builds on it as I collaborate with people who are playing on it. The producer (Greg Griffith) I worked with had a lot to do with the vision of different songs. I created vocal templates with all different harmonies and vocal approaches I wanted to take and shared those with him. And then we worked with Melissa York on drums. The three of us really worked together and made the songs… sort of wrestled with them a lot to figure out what was the best approach and what reflected the song the best, but was also interesting. And then Kaia (Wilson) played guitar on about half of the record and she definitely influenced a lot, pulling out different parts.
Having Arizona in there and Brandi as sort of a shadow voice really lifts things into a different realm than we’ve heard from your solo stuff.
It’s true. These guys are in one of my favorite bands, Arizona, and I wanted to do a couple of songs with them because I really like what they’re doing. And they have their own thing, so I did that separate from everything else I was doing. Brandi came in because she’s really… I needed someone who could quickly – and in the way that she does – morph and sing a lot of different parts stacked on each other. I love making music with her so it was an obvious fit getting her to come in and do this with me.
Well, it works.
Yeah, I feel really thankful because I think it brought things to a whole different level.
What about the characters that inhabit the songs? Are they all parts of your own perspective or do you ever step completely out of yourself?
I don’t know that I ever totally step outside of my own perspective, not on my solo stuff. Part of the reason for doing it is to have a more extreme perspective in some ways. I think my solo stuff is pretty much me. I try to have an understanding of other perspectives in the songs I write. So that if I’m writing a song like “Who Sold the Gun” or “SLC Radio” – any of the songs that look at social commentary – I’m trying to really look at the different perspectives beyond my own and have compassion for them in some way. At the same time, I’m trying to take our society at large to task. So I think it’s not introspectively my perspective in the way of personal, inner relationship songs, but it’s definitely the lens that I see through. I don’t really try to see through a different lens. You can’t.
That’s just your world view.
Yeah, and I think even when people write in six different voices for a book, like Faulkner or something like that, it’s all still their lens. They’re masters at it, but you still know that every part of them is informing every single one of those characters.
How did you develop your particularly lens or world view? Is it because of or despite living in the South?
Because of. There’s a little bit of despite, but not much because the South is pretty deep. It’s not as one-sided as people that aren’t from the South think it is. There’s a lot of progressiveness here and activism and faith-based movements – and I don’t mean Christian faith-based, I mean faith in a higher being at work – and an attachment to the land that I think I’m pretty much a product of that. I’m not a racist. Well, I try not to be. I’m sure everybody’s got something inside them. But, I don’t feel this fight in me against the South all the time. I just don’t. I feel very much part of the complexity of where I’m from and I feel compassion for it.
See? That’s good. I grew up in Louisiana and I still haven’t gotten to the compassion part. We had separate white and black proms when I was in high school.
I wouldn’t say I have total compassion for racism, but I think I have compassion for people who are part of a system that becomes bigger than they are. And they can change. I think I have an optimism. I have more of a compassion for people that are trying to change things that are still in the South and the minorities – now it’s African-Americans and Hispanics. I just think that it’s amazing, the work that’s done and the stamina of people that live in the South that are progressive. People of color, especially. I think that’s one of the things that I love about the South. It’s soulful in a way that you don’t get in other places.
It’s more like fighting from within the system, or from the inside out.
With gay rights, the environment, free speech and everything else we’re fighting for, how do you prioritize the issues you’re involved with?
Well, I’ve seen all of the issues become connected in some way so it hasn’t been a struggle to choose. We naturally fell into the Indigenous environmental movement through connections and friends that we had and a sense of priority that we had that you can’t really shift the environmental perspective unless you do it through an Indigenous lens. And that led us to grassroots community movement, in general – how you organize. And that led us to put our focus in the queer movement to be more community-based. They all kind of inform each other and you realize when you’re working on environmental issues with Indian tribes that you’re also kind of working on queer issues at the same time because you have to tackle that monster, too. It’s part of Colonialism, as well – the patriarchal, racist, sexist, homophobic system. For me, I just take it as it comes. And it probably seems all over the map sometimes, but for me it feels very connected. And for Emily (Saliers), it does too.
And then, as far as songs go, I’m just writing about what comes out of me. I’m definitely not sitting down and thinking I want to write a song about…
…I need a protest song.
Yeah, or community radio. It just comes out in my writing and I say, “Oh, okay.”
Yeah, I do. I do. I do. Being an activist musician is very ‘self’ still. It’s important when you have access to resources and information to disseminate it, to sort of be an amplifier for the people in the trenches. That’s important. We need it. But it’s really important, I think, to go into the trenches sometimes. You can’t understand what you’re doing unless you do. For me, like taking a trip down to Chiapas, Mexico… actually for one trip they did haul firewood for a couple of days, but we’re not in the trenches the way the Zapatista people are in the trenches, the whole Zapatista community. But we’re seeing the trenches up close… or when we go into all the different indigenous communities we’ve worked in or go to a protest where you’re outside all day long marching or whatever. Those things. I think I hunger for the six months at home when I can volunteer at the women’s shelter or really work within my own community in a very hands-on way. I just am thankful for the people doing that, more than anything.
I think doing hands-on things – like the way you run your business or trying to green this or that – even if it takes a little extra effort doing something environmentally, that’s what it takes.
Or a little extra money, as is often the case.
Always. But that’s going to change.
It already is.
When I look at printing – I’ve had my record label for almost 20 years – and I look at how much recycled stuff used to be. And a company I use, Ross-Ellis, is a great company that’s always been on the cutting edge. But now the normal stuff they have is like 30% post-consumer and that’s just the run-of-the-mill stock. And 100% is not that much more and incredible and feels good. Even the last five years, it’s dramatic how much less it is. I see it changing.
Okay, I have a three-parter for you, but I’ll break it down. It’s a conversation that I have a lot and I blogged about it a few weeks ago, so now I’d love to hear your thoughts. When thinking about politically inclined artists of today versus those of the Vietnam War era, is the problem that not enough artists these days aren’t speaking truth to power or is it that we, the masses, aren’t listening and supporting them?
I don’t know if we can tell because the gatekeepers are so freaking uptight and white. One thing that’s happening is that the Internet is allowing us to see whether or not the masses ARE going to take in revolutionary stuff and respond to it and believe in it. And I think they are. Here’s an example: Last night I saw an ad for a DirecTV channel 101 and this thing for like a week called Havoc TV or something. It’s all punk. The guy who was talking about it was one of the lead guys in a band called Against Me! which is a total independent, kind of revolutionary punk band that’s been around for a long time from Florida. Just the fact that they have an audience – I mean maybe they’re on part of a major right now, I don’t know – but that, to me, speaks a lot. I don’t know if you can speak truth to power anymore and have anything change is part of the problem. But I think there are a lot of people doing it.
So maybe it’s not the artists or the audience, it’s that the power isn’t listening.
Well, I think the system is so locked down and so bureaucratic and so corporate and so run by money in a way that it probably always has been, but it feels like it has all these ways of guarding itself from actually changing. The same thing that gives us the power to revolutionize our own DIY approach gives them the power to profitize the things they’re doing to make them seem green or liberal or populist. So I think that’s what we’re dealing with. We have our two-headed monster, or one-headed monster, or one part’s the monster and one part’s not the monster. I don’t know.
It’s hard to know sometimes.
I see people all the time and I don’t think they are that apathetic. I just think it’s really hard when you have something like the Presidential race when Al Gore was really elected. That makes you go, “Wait a minute. They need to send the Carter Center in just to see if the election was rigged.” You know what I mean? It’s easy to be cynical about it and think no one is listening. But if you talk to a high school kid, they’re changing things. They’re aware. They’re working.
It almost feels like there’s a generation in the middle. Like the high school kids are coming out at 12 years old and embracing counter-culture like crazy. And then I feel like, at 38, I’m just on the edge of a politically involved generation, but in between that – the Britney fans and that whole scene – it just seems so celebrity obsessed. I could be wrong because that’s just my lens, too.
Yeah, but I think there’s a whole group in that generation you’re talking about… that generation is also a part of Riot Grrrl. Riot Grrrl wasn’t just people Kathleen Hanna’s age. It was people a lot younger that were responding to Riot Grrrl. And now they’re doing stuff. So I do think the problem is there’s so much out there that it’s hard for anything to take, to really have a lot of footing. I’m just an optimist, though.
Like this woman Gina who has this website, Riot Grrrl Inc. – they are incredible. They help all of these queer women and punk rockers and folk and jazz – every kind of music – and spoken word. They basically have some projects they put out themselves as a label, and some projects they just help them push their stuff with e-mail blasts and podcasts and press and all the stuff they could possibly do. And they do it for free, just to help. They have about 10 people on their roster that they actually do stuff for. I think Bitch is on there and Michelle Tea’s got something with them. But it’s just this woman who has a vision for doing what she calls Radical Capitalism. I don’t know if she can actually do that, but she’s trying. I think there are a lot of people doing cool shit like that and it’s hard to make an impact because there’s so much going on.
You kind of answered part two then because that was do you think that people don’t really want their music and other art forms to challenge their thinking and inspire them to action? You kind of answered that: Yeah, a lot of them do.
I think some people do. I think within that even the people that want to challenge with their art also just want to make people happy with their art. You want to do both. It would be too heavy to always be challenging people. I think.
Sometimes you just need a love song.
Yeah, you gotta have a long song or something about dancing or having fun.
Part 3 – Are the Katy Perry and Toby Keith phenomenons possible because homophobia, xenophobia and apathy are ingrained in our society as acceptable behaviors?
Is she the one that sings “I Kissed a Girl”?
Yeah, and “UR So Gay.”
That song drives me fucking crazy.
She used to be a Christian singer and then she came out with these songs.
Ohhhhh. Yeah. A friend and I were arguing about that the other day. She was like, “I think anything that makes people relax a little about a girl kissing a girl…” And I said she had to make sure her boyfriend was okay about it. That’s the whole point of the song. So I think that’s a backwards step. And the fact that she’s not gay and… it’s complete bullshit to me. You know what? The melody’s great, the production’s great, if it had different words I would love it. And she’s got a great voice. You know when I’m going to be happy? When a gay girl can sing that song and everybody can be okay about it. Or when a guy can sing that song – I kissed a guy, I hope my girlfriend doesn’t mind. When is that going to happen? That would be radical, too. I hate that.
And you know what’s so funny? I walked into a party at Outfest and that song was playing.
I know. We got into a whole discussion on OurChart because I don’t pay attention to pop music like that and someone sent me a message saying “Why aren’t we talking about this?” And so I introduced that as a topic. Probably 8 of 10 girls said things like “That song is so homophobic. I can’t believe the gay community is embracing it.” And a couple of others said they just kind of liked it.
It’s a well-crafted song. I mean, yeah. Why are we talking about it? I guess because it’s a huge hit and it has nothing to do with gay rights and nothing to do with progress or opening people’s minds. It’s the same old thing – it’s for the guys, the straight guys who fantasize about two girls kissing each other because they’re drunk. And I feel like if you fall for that and you think it means progress…
That’s what we were talking about. It’s basically ingrained homophobia.
It TOTALLY is.
Why would we celebrate that and support that?
Because we’re trying to get scraps. Give us anything that’ll make us feel better about ourselves. And we take stuff that really won’t instead of just creating our own infrastructure and doing it our own way and embracing the community we have and celebrating that.
It’s just also a shame that she named it the same as Jill Sobule’s song because Jill really does kiss girls.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? I’m with you on that. I’d love to just meet her and be like, “What were you THINKING?”
She was thinking “HIT.”
Yeah, I’m so naïve. Of course they’re laughing all the way to the bank.
To me the Toby Keith thing is a similar thing.
Yeah, Toby Keith… there’s not many people I don’t like, but he’s one.
He’s on the short list?
Yeah, and it’s a very short list.