The Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray On Her New Record And What It’s Like To Be A Lesbian Icon

Amy Ray will be coming to New York City on May 25th with her band to play a live show at (le) poisson rouge.

Good news, everyone! Amy Ray, of the iconic duo the Indigo Girls, has put out a fantastic new record, ‘Holler’ that blends Southern roots music with a rock ’n’ roll vibe and a spectacularly groovy horn section. The album features Ray’s incredible band, as well as some phenomenal guests such as Brandi Carlile, Justin Vernon, Phil Cook, and Kofi Burbridge. I had the pleasure of chatting with her about the new record; her upcoming tour; and life as an activist, musician, and mother.

GO Magazine: Why did you choose to record this album live to analog tape instead of digitally and one instrument at a time?

Amy Ray: I just think it’s rootsy, you know? We’re using all vintage mics and instruments, and I wanted to capture the depth of that. The studio that we like to work at is super good at that—at having a great tape machine that works, basically. I think, for me, for this kind of music, [it’s] the only way to go. … When Indigo Girls work, we work to Pro Tools, because we like to layer stuff and have a million vocals going on. Half the time, we don’t know what the song arrangement is until we get there. So, we’re sort of on the fly sometimes. We didn’t always work that way, but we enjoy [it]. We like that tool. It just depends on the kind of music. Some music sounds better on Pro Tools, some music sounds better analog, I think.

GO: What drew you to work with producer Brian Speiser on this record after creating “Goodnight Tender” together in 2014?

AR: Well, we’re friends, and he used to do front-of-the-house sound for the Indigo Girls. … We‘ve always been—both of us—really into talking about engineering and production, and just different ways of making records. Both of us are really into tape, you know? [As in,] analog tape being a good thing for this kind of music. We have a lot of similar perspectives on making this kind of record. So, after we made “Goodnight Tender,” I just wanted to work with him again, but we both wanted to make something that was slightly different, that would take us into a different realm. … One thing that we had talked about was using horns and strings—’cause we hadn’t done that—and combining a Burt Bacharach vibe with a country soul vibe and then going from there. And, so, that was one goal. And then I think the other thing was just expanding on my songwriting. The core of the band was who I had been traveling around with. That changed the sound a lot, too, cause we were so used to each other. So we had a little bit more freedom, I think, to experiment.

GO: How did ‘Holler’ become the title track?

AR: My violin player, Adrian, suggested calling the record “Holler.” I think the drummer wanted to call it “High Enough to Holler,” and I just felt like it was gonna be a jam band record if I did that, ’cause that sounds like a stoner album. We tossed around album names over and over again and just decided that “Holler” was what we wanted to call it. It wasn’t the one song necessarily, it was just a title. “Goodnight Tender does have this sort of this softer sound, even on the rock songs. I don’t know how to put it, but the edges aren’t as sharp [as “Holler”].

GO: Can you tell me about the choice to include musical interludes on the album?

AR: The interludes were written just because Brian had always wanted to do interludes on a record, and I thought that sounded fun. He wanted to make the interludes feel a little bit reminiscent of the vibe of “Goodnight Tender”—a softer kind of feel so that the prelude to this record is kind of moving from one record to the next. It’s not anything anybody would notice much of, but it was fun to do. [For] the intro, he just kind of riffed off Burt Bacharach, but the other interludes were based on other versions of [songs from the album]. “Sparrow’s Boogie” is a rock song, but I’d started it out as a ballad. So, we used the ballad version for part of an interlude. And then we used part of a lullaby that I had written for my kid as another interlude.

GO: Why did you want to work with your touring band instead of building the band from the ground up as you’d done on previous records?

AR: I just felt like we weren’t done yet. I really love playing with these guys, they’re really good players, and we had developed a way to play together. Also, there were one or two songs that I had written as we were touring a lot, and we worked on arrangements for those songs [together], and I liked the way they approached them. I wanted to make another record that was a Southern roots country-style record, and this was the band to do it. The only [differences were that] Phil Cook had played keys on the last record and he just wasn’t available. But I was really lucky to get Kofi [Burbridge]. Kofi’s passed away since, but he was a friend of mine. He played with Tedeschi Trucks, and I really loved him as a person. I was lucky to get him at all on the record; he was just a brilliant magical man to play with. And then Alison Brown played banjo, and I had always wanted her to play on my [record]. She played with Indigo Girls a lot, but I had always wanted her to do more of the country stuff with me. So, it was like the core band with these two other people who were really special, and then horns and strings. Then, all the vocalists that did harmonies were all people that I really love. It was a great entourage.  

GO: In the promo video for this record you say you want “curiosity, not preaching.” Can you tell me more about that vision and how it played out in the songs?

AR: Yeah, I don’t want people to feel knocked over the head with a hammer all the time. I want it to feel like, “oh, ok, that’s an interesting perspective” or something. I try within songs also to not make it so didactic but to make it more like asking questions or giving people the benefit of the doubt sometimes. Or telling a story from the perspective of someone who is trying to figure themselves out and do the right thing. So, yeah, I think that’s important.

I think in some ways I was forced to look at myself and … not be judgmental about people, because I had to survive where I am. Because I really wanted to live in the country. I like rural life. But, to do that, you have to reckon with your own judgments about people who are around you as well as their judgments about you. So, it’s a constant lesson that you’re learning, and it’s a constant dialogue, but I like that. It can be scary, but I like that. I learn from it, and so it has made its way into my music in a pretty big way.

GO: Is one example of that mentality “Jesus was a Walking Man” off the new record?

AR: Yeah, I mean, I’m taking a gospel tradition, which is kind of a strong tradition where I live. I was raised as a Methodist going to church a lot, and so I took this tradition that I know and that is part of my cosmos and made this song out of it that’s [asking], “What would Jesus do?” which is what everybody has on their bumper sticker up here.

GO: How has your touring life changed since becoming a mom five years ago?

AR: Well, Emily had a child, too, and what it’s meant is we go out for shorter times. You know, we go out for two weeks—two and a half weeks at the most. But, we still have a lot going on, so we’re just learning how to balance it all. It’s definitely changed just the way we tour and everything. I mean, I have to write when I’m on the road—that’s when I have more time. Then, when I’m at home, it sort of [gives] me a little more discipline so I had to write in shorter spurts, but I had to really make sure I was blocking that time out to do that, you know? My time management is better, ’cause it has to be. But, you know, if you love having a child, it’s really great and gives you a lot of energy and a different way of looking at the world all the time. … In that way, it’s really good for you, you know? And in some ways everything is a tapestry and it all works together for me. What I try to most do is to be in the moment all the time, ’cause that’s how you can be most effective in whatever you’re doing.

GO: Your tour is going to take you all over the east coast and even as far West as Colorado, but I notice you’re starting in Georgia. Is there a symbolic reason behind starting in your home state?

AR: It was gonna start in Maryland, but [someone asked me] to come out and play this benefit thing [in Atlanta]. It’s a community event that one of the guys from the Blind Boys of Alabama was putting together, so it wasn’t anything symbolic at all. I always start in Georgia in my van wherever we play. So, when played in Portland, I drove my van across the country. … And then we went from there and I drove home. That’s what we do.

GO: Does playing in NYC have a different energy to it? Do you like it?

AR: Yeah, I mean, every city’s different, every venue’s different, every crowd is different. New York City is one of my favorite cities. New York and Berlin, those are places I love, for cities, you know? And London. So I love playing in New York ’cause it’s just got that vibe. You’re trying to find a parking place, and having to hustle, and then you’ve got to get out of the club before the disco starts. It’s exciting! I love New York, so it’s gonna blast. Looking forward to it.

GO: Your career has led you to be quite an icon for the LGBTQ community. Do shows in places where the LGBTQ community faces more discrimination feel different or more meaningful?

AR: Yeah, it’s interesting. ‘Cause, like, when we play in Texas there’s people there that are from very rural backgrounds and the show’s pretty intimate ’cause it’s a smaller crowd. So, there’s a conversation that happens sometimes. It’ll be like, somebody will talk about their life and ask me questions or something. It’s a different vibe, ‘cause there’s obviously areas where people just still have a harder time in that world. And they love country music, but they don’t really get to love it openly the same way, or it doesn’t tell their story the same way. So, to have a big old activist left-wing dyke playing country music in Texas is fun ’cause we get to hang and make our own rural music and own it. And that’s a good thing. It happens with the Indigo Girls, too, actually. If it’s a really big crowd with Indigo Girls it won’t happen the same way, but, if it’s a small theater and it’s really quiet and somebody yells something out and they want to know something, or Emily says, ‘does anyone have any questions?’ then, yeah, we will talk about it.

GO: Has increasingly becoming a lesbian icon had an impact on how you write songs? Or on how you view your role as a musician and a visible figure?

AR: I don’t feel a burden or anything like that or even more important than anybody else, because everybody’s providing representation when they walk through life. I feel pretty strongly about that. No matter what you’re doing, we all sort of have that mantle and yoke because we’re still in a movement. Everybody does things in their own time and comes out in their own time. That may sound crazy, but, you know, there’s people where I live—which is a rural area—that are still in the closet ’cause they’ll lose their job. It’s crazy, but it’s true, and it’s everywhere. And there’s people in other countries that’ll get put to death. So, I take it seriously as a human, to walk through life in a way to try to help people’s human rights and social justice. But, I don’t feel like I’ve gotta say the right thing right now just because I’m gay and I’m singing country music. I feel like our shows are fun. I mean, there’s serious moments ‘cause I’m singing about racism or capital punishment or something, but, generally, the vibe is joy. Because that’s what bringing people together to play music should be in some ways. So, generally, we’re just having a really great time, and people are playing crazy solos. My band’s really fun to listen to ’cause they’re interesting and they play really well. So, it’s generally just a good time.

Amy Ray will be coming to New York City on May 25th with her band to play a live show at (le) poisson rouge that is not to be missed. Tickets are available here.

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