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Amy Ray: The Fiercer Side of Folk

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All photos by Patty Michels

Most know Amy Ray as half of the enduring folk group Indigo Girls; however, it’s Ray’s solo work, ardent and propulsive, to which I’m especially drawn. Often erroneously described as the dark or angry Indigo Girl, Ray seems neither, though her newest album, Lung of Love, continues to cultivate a punk rock ethos, the perfect backdrop for Ray’s frenetic messiness. Yet like much of Ray, that messiness is in part painstaking. An apt example: years back, we discussed the fact that she uses a voice lesson system to refine her rock n’ roll scream. That’s Ray in a nutshell; a performer who knows herself well enough to consciously become herself, a sort of disciplined discovery. Her slant on punk, though more melodious and sometimes Appalachian influenced, is loyal to the genre’s stripped-down essence. Punk’s hard-edged ferocity, Ray’s easy access to passion, both are born of heartfelt engagement. So in a way, maybe Ray’s angry rep isn’t unfounded. Maybe anger is the consequence of earnestness met with life experience, and punk is the fiercer side of folk; like Ray herself, still questing and earnest but rambunctiously so.

Our Town You’ve been writing songs for years. Can you pinpoint a moment when you became more meticulous, for example, about imagery or word choice?
Amy Ray Yeah. When I started making solo records [it] freed up the Indigo Girls avenue a bit because it [didn’t] have the burden of expressing every part of myself. I had this other road and I got excited by that compartmentalized vision [but] I had to figure out a way to be prolific. Emily is a pretty prolific writer, so if I wanted to meet her in the middle I had to work harder. I started talking to other songwriters about their writing, reading books about writing. A few really changed my discipline. One was Stephen King’s book, On Writing. Even though he’s a novelist, his discipline, his approach, the way he looks at creativity, that had the biggest impact on me. And then Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. I started taking those things to heart and really created a discipline. I’d be like, this year I’m going to write five days a week, a few hours a day--and I really did it, stuck to it. And then I started working on imagery and melody. If I couldn’t get somewhere on the melody I would go to Mitchell Froom, a producer that works with Indigo Girls and talk to him about a melody, or Greg Griffith, my fellow producer on the last record--he co-wrote four songs with me because I got to a wall. I started being willing to reach out for help to learn more. It was gradual, but my first solo record just opened up my world because if I wasn’t going to sit down and have a discipline, I was never going to be able to write enough songs for Indigo Girls and solo work.

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With Matt Lipkins

OT Writing prose, you can’t just shift the point of view midstream, not without reason anyway, and it makes a statement when you do. But songwriters seem to do that. For example, you do it in Beauty Queen Sister and Dairy Queen-so maybe point of view shifts are acceptable in songs with the word queen in the title--but I’m wondering are there rules governing point of view shifts in songwriting?
AR That’s a really great question. I think about that when I’m writing; can I change perspectives and how do I make it clear that a different voice is coming in? In a story, the author points out the perspective changes: a person speaks and you recognize in quotation marks that that person is speaking. Or there’s a chapter that’s from this person’s perspective and the next is from another’s. Faulkner does that a lot. But in a song it’s important to be short-spoken instead of long-spoken so I might do that without using ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’ Maybe instead the tone of voice changes because the perspective is changing. I don’t think of “are there rules to this?” because I think songwriting--or even all writing-- should be free in that way. The point is to get the story across, not to obscure. Sometimes if there are different perspectives in a song someone can find themselves entering into the song in a different place, which I like. But there are probably really accomplished songwriters, maybe Nick Cage or Joni Mitchell who don’t do that. I’ll have to think about that. That’s a great question.

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OT I don’t think it’s necessarily negative in songwriting. Sometimes it provides--like you’re saying-- space for people to understand a song in a lot of different ways.
AR Although the negative part might be that sometimes as a songwriter you just want to say so many different things and you want to say them so bad that you get lazy and you just plop it all into a song and don’t worry about how it shifts. I mean, I know what you mean, but when friends pass demos around and I hear a perspective shift in their lyrics if it’s not something that is smooth or has a point, it feels lazy to me and I’ll say something about it. If they ask me.

OT I asked Facebook fans to submit questions for you. First one: What are your favorite local restaurants when you tour, places you return to?
AR It’s funny you’re asking that because... Chicago Diner. I always go there.
OT They have the best guacamole.
AR The guacamole and chips, I know, it’s incredible. There’s a place in San Francisco called Gratitude I always go. In Seattle there are a million amazing Thai restaurants so I try different ones. I usually go for either Thai, Indian or some kind of specialty vegetarian place. And I like Mexican restaurants that are like, number menu type places. In New York there’s a place called East Village Thai I always go. Every city I have places I go if I’m there long enough.

OT Wait, now I have a question. Are you weird about eating before shows?
AR I’m not weird about that. I don’t have any needs around that. I do like to make sure I eat but it doesn’t matter when and it doesn’t matter what. I’m sort of hearty that way. I can eat a big meal and go right on and play and it’s fine. As a singer, I should worry about cheese, but I don’t. I take care of my voice in other ways. When you’re on a solo tour it’s an accomplishment if you get dinner--you’re loading and sound checking and trying to make all these things happen. It’s really great when we play somewhere that has a restaurant as part of the place, cause then you can just order off their menu and it’s sitting there in your dressing room.

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OT One more fan question. You’ve mentioned making a country album next, is that true and what would it entail?
AR It is true. It’s probably going to entail a couple of years cause I’m so slow and I’m probably going to want to do another Indigo Girls album before that. I have a tape machine at my house and some really great mics and I’m probably going to track a lot of it here. I live in an area where there’s a lot of bluegrass players. It’s probably going to entail that tradition-- Appalachian, country sound. I take my inspiration from early Americana, artists like Townes Van Zandt. And then country people like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. I’ll probably listen to a bunch of Dolly Parton before I do it.

OT As a performer, there’s a way that you have to be deliberate about packaging, and promoting yourself. How do you balance that and also maintain a healthy sense of self?
AR Right, like at this moment I’m working on “Amy’s” bio. Especially now when so many artists have their own labels and are putting themselves out, they have to step out of themselves to package and promote. And also be detached from criticism and praise both; don’t get led astray one way or the other. I’ve always put out my own records so I have a little trick I use inside my head, because I hate self-promotion. You have to look at it as if you’re a different person from the person you are. I don’t like looking at photos from a photo shoot [or] trying to write a bio so I’ll get friends to do my shoots and sit down with them, work on it as a team. For my bios, the same thing. I get someone who is a friend and a really good writer, hand it over and then I kind of edit after that. I look at it like, I really want to play music, I love writing songs and I love touring, and in order to do all that I have to do this other thing to keep it in that sweet spot where it sustains itself. As long as I’m honest about it, give back to the community, look for ways to help other people, that makes me feel like I’m doing it for the right reasons so I can work really hard because I’m not achieving just for celebrity. That would be an empty pursuit for me. And ultimately that would catch up because at some point you’re not famous anymore and if you’re too caught up, you grieve it. I’ve been through that part of things with Emily, where we toured with REM and everything was really heady and my ego definitely was inflated. I went through a period where my goals and my intentions got a little screwy and I had to kind of come back down to earth.

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OT You brought up being detached from criticism. Do you read reviews?
AR I used to when I was younger and I noticed it made me either too sure of myself when it was good or too insecure when it was bad. If it’s a writer I really love and I’m curious because I love their writing style and I love the way they talk about things, I’ll read it, and any criticism that’s in there becomes constructive because I respect that writer so much. I’m strong enough to not read [reviews] and be like, ‘whatever somebody writes or thinks is okay, I love what I’m doing and I do my best and I can’t be anything else than that,’ but if I start reading all that stuff, I know me; I’ll get all petty and I don’t want to be that way. Till I get strong enough to just read things out of curiosity, I probably won’t.

OT I know your solo work is more punk than folk, but we often hear of musicians with radical politics or liberal views in folk music; it’s obviously a genre steeped in social justice. So are radical types attracted to it, or does one’s political awareness grow out of one’s involvement?
AR You always have such good questions. I guess artists tend to be more left wing although that’s not always true. I know plenty of actors--my partner teaches directing and filmmaking at a small college and a lot of her kids are military ROTC kids and they’re very conservative but they’re very into acting and it kind of opened my mind about like, oh this is where Charlton Heston came from. As far as musicians, in folk music in particular, you’re right, that’s usually a more left wing set. I think it’s the history of [the genre]. I just finished reading this Woody Guthrie biography by Joe Klein and it made me think about that a lot--the trajectory of folk music. It came out of such a populist place--people kind of sat around and played music together and then it became a point of gathering, and then why would we gather? We’re gathering because of a union or labor laws, or maybe it’s a church-- although that’s a whole different avenue for music. Folk music, maybe because that’s where it came from, is always going to have that populist, music of the people, music of the community, you pick up your guitar and walk down the street to the labor meeting and play a bunch of labor songs quality.

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Amy Ray and the band. Left to right: Alison Martlew, Amy Ray, Kaia Wilson, Melissa York and Jenn Stone

OT I just interviewed Dar Williams and she said she learned from Joan Baez to find ways to keep herself emotionally healthy, not to become too self-centered. I guess Joan feels there’s a connection between that socially conscious quality of folk music and emotional balance. Do you have thoughts on that?
AR Wow. Maybe so. Joan is such a master at that. Even the nature of punk is like that, really. It came out of the same place. It’s more strident, but the philosophy of punk is like the philosophy of folk; it sort of demands that you take a higher road, meaning that it’s not so self-centered and that you are serving the community in some way. That can bring strength to you when you’re feeling tired or weak and it can also keep you balanced so it’s not all about celebrity and profit and ego and who’s more famous and competitiveness, because inherent in what you’re doing is the idea that you’re serving the community.

OT In terms of the public’s relationship to music, technology has been a game-changer. Although an artist might conceptualize an album as a whole, now most people pick and choose songs to download. I’m wondering if that’s changed the way you think about your work.
AR It is true. We’re even different about the way we listen to live music because all of us are such documenters now. We’re not as present in an experience because we’re constantly youtubing or tweeting or texting friends or whatever. I do it too. But yeah, recorded music, I know that I probably should adapt, but I still record a record thinking of it in terms of the sequence. I even think of vinyl, side A, side B. I haven’t moved to that next place, the idea of maybe a subscription where you make a song a month and people get a song at a time. I’m still in that old mode: thinking of a record and writing toward that goal.

OT You mentioned that new distractibility audiences have. Is that hard for you? Is it something you even notice?
AR I notice it. I’m not totally used to it yet. I try to figure out how to get past that so the audience can move into that place of engagement. Like, what does it take to get to that place where you can feel everyone, feel that critical mass having the same experience? It used to be that you could feel that more often, like pre-cell phones. But it just makes it harder in a good way. Cause now when you have a night where you feel like everyone’s forgotten about tweeting and put their phones in their pockets and they’re dancing, that’s a really good night. That means everyone came to the party--you included-- and it’s really magical.

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The only pic in which one of us did not resemble a perplexed bird.

Check out behind the scenes pics, outtakes, and more concert pics here. Catch Amy Ray TONIGHT May 15th at Lincoln Hall.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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This page contains a single entry by Sarah Terez-Rosenblum published on May 6, 2012 12:40 PM.

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