Riot Grrrl CEO, Gina Mamone, chats with Indigo Girl Amy Ray about going green, going indie and Ray’s powerful new solo project.
How were the seeds of inspiration planted for your new solo album, Didn’t It Feel Kinder?
I knew I was going to do a third solo record, and I was on tour a lot with Indigo Girls, so I was writing in different cities and different places, hotel rooms, dressing rooms and on the bus. I started thinking about who I was going to play with. I knew I was going to reconnect with Mel [Melissa York from The Butchies] and I knew I wanted to play with some friends in a band called Arizona, but I didn’t really know anything else until I called Mel up. She talked me into jamming with this friend of hers, Greg Griffith, as a possible producer—the guy who produced The Butchies and had been in different punk bands with Mel.
Right, like Vitapup and Le Tigre.
Yeah, so he was into it and we jammed and it went really, really well, so I made an agreement to work with him. I was also still touring and finishing up songs, and then it culminated in a flurry of activity at the very end.
In your last solo studio albums, Stag and Prom, there wasn’t a producer, so in the traditional sense this is new for you.
Yup, my solo records are like collaborations, but I’m in charge of the focus, and where to go and the final word on arrangements. I felt like I needed someone to help me take it a step further, and that’s why I asked Greg to do it. I wanted a challenge.
What was that new process like, having never really done that with your own solo work before?
It was hard for me to adjust to being more disciplined, since the solo record is an arena I reserve for just having fun and getting my yayas out. I had to get used to just letting go and working harder at getting everything up a notch. By the time we got really deep into it, I had gained a new focus that matched Greg’s.
What were you listening to when the album started taking shape in your mind?
I was definitely listening to Arizona, who played on the record with me. Also The Shins’ Wincing the Night Away, and The Butchies and Team Dresch. I listen to Personal Best probably the most, and The Distillers, I tend to listen to them a lot when I’m recording, to free me up a little bit. I was listening to The Coup, a hip-hop group, and Outkast, and some older soul music, which is obvious on a couple things. I have certain touchstones that inspire me. It’s not even an engineering or a technical kind of thing, it’s more like, what inspires me to finish my writing, you know? Like The Clash. I always listen to The Clash.
What can true-blue Indigo Girls fans expect when they buy this album or come out to your solo show?
I think this most recent record is the most likely of my solo stuff to resonate with Indigo Girls fans. Some of my earlier stuff might have been too rough in some ways. There’s a percentage of our fan base that likes it and a percentage that definitely doesn’t, and it’s okay with me. I like people to be open-minded, but I also want to find my own fan base.
Do you consciously set out to write about the intersection of politics and social change, or do you feel that just happens naturally when you’re just writing?
It just happens, like when the Virginia Tech shootings occurred with the Iraq war going on at the same time, and I was reading articles about wars in other countries where there are so many children fighting. “Who Sold the Gun” came out of that from a lyric journal I write in constantly. When I sit down to write, I go through that journal, and I start editing and coming up with melodies.
So you have this crazy back catalogue of all these lyric journals? Where are they and what do you do with them?
They’re in my rehearsal room and I always refer back to them. There are so many things I’ve never used, but I often go back five or six years and look at stuff that’s hanging around, and I mine them for gold. I use tabs to mark the subject matter. As I’m writing, I record everything, then go back and review the tapes and pick out stuff that works. It’s a pretty deliberate and disciplined process. There’s a place where it’s completely stream of consciousness, and that’s when I’m just taping and writing, but then it gets really brutal and I edit like crazy.
Wow. What a cool process. You have a herstory of assembling dream-team musicians for projects, especially from a queer perspective. This album has former Butchies Mel and Kaia, Three5Human, Brandi Carlisle, Arizona….How do you decide which musicians you want to bring in to collaborate?
It’s really who’s inspiring me. I’ve worked with Mel and Kaia for years. I’m a huge fan of what they do and I’m inspired by their ideas and their approach. With someone like Brandi, Indigo Girls had toured with her quite a bit and knowing her voice the way I do…I was writing a lot of vocal arrangements that were complex, and I needed someone like her with a really excellent voice to do it.
Does your rig [instruments, amps, etc.] change when you’re touring solo?
Yeah, when I’m with Indigo Girls, it’s pretty much acoustic unless we have a band with us, which is rare. But my electric rig is my electric rig.
With this project you wrote songs out of your range and decided to keep them there. How at this stage in your career are you deciding to do things like that?
I want to stretch my voice, and I was listening to a bunch of different singers that were singing in [voices out of my traditional singing range], and falsetto. I decided to force myself to get up there and do it.
This album is a lot about growth and evolution, rEvolution with a big E. That’s how we spell it.
Yeah, that’s how I spell it.
One of the recurring themes is hearing with your heart. What inspired that theme?
I was writing a lot and realized I was looking at ideas of compassion and having allies, and I was learning how to deal with things that don’t go your way, and people that don’t agree with you, and parts of yourself that really rub you the wrong way, and how to have compassion for all that.
You’re one of the artists giving voice and providing a soundtrack to the genderqueer subculture. Do you think about that when you write?
Only in that it’s who I am. I see things through that lens, through the activist genderqueer lens. The way I look at it is that the queer and genderqueer subcultures have really freed me and allowed me to express myself in a way that’s more accurate to who I am, and to express my gender and my confusion about my gender. When I hooked up with The Butchies, a whole new world opened up for me. The Indigo Girls’ context was more of that generation’s gay culture rather than today’s queer culture. The conversation that I wanted to have was one that was more around gender. So musically, it just gave me myself in some ways, you know?
Yeah, I can definitely understand that. I also celebrate the culture for giving me a place to land on my feet. You have a tour coming up for Didn’t It Feel Kinder. Tell me about it.
I’m touring mid-October through mid-November, and then again in January. I have a lot of Indigo Girls things to do before then. I’ll probably do the western half of the United States in January and the eastern half in October/November.
What’s next for the Indigo Girls?
We just finished recording a record. I finished my solo one and I went right into practice with Emily. We spent a couple months arranging songs and finishing up our writing, then we got dropped from our record label…
…which was a blessing.
Are you sure? That doesn’t make sense.
They didn’t know what to do with us. They were really nice people and they felt like we made a really good record, but they weren’t sure if they could [do us justice], so they dropped us. And we were pretty happy about it because we felt it had been a struggle and that we should just be indie, which is what I wanted all along, it just took awhile for it to manifest itself. We’re going to put it out in February ‘09. We’re excited, and it felt good to make that record right on the heels of this other one.
How is your environmentalism coming into play with this record?
I’m sure the Indigo Girls will do green packaging. My solo record is in a 100 percent recycled—you know, plastic package—and I’m sure the Indigo Girls will do something like that too. That’s something that we take into consideration in everything we do, even the paper we use on tour.
It really is amazing, the stand you’re taking, and the body of work you’re putting out that is defining a subculture…
I love making records. I’m usually thinking about the next CD before I’m done with the one I’m working on; it’s a process I’ve grown into and crave. Even in the midst of collaboration, there’s a solitude that goes along with making music, a loneliness that feels right. This project happened over the course of a year, in between Indigo Girl shows and taking care of life….We mixed and remixed, mastered and re-mastered, and after 10 months had a record of what we created, experienced, played and sung. It absorbed every struggle and clumsy human relationship. I always say it should be fun, but in the end I learned the value of not having fun, too.
Visit amy-ray.com for music, videos, tour dates and more.