Songwriter Interviews

Amy Ray of Indigo Girls

by Dan MacIntosh

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The Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Sailers) have been performing together for roughly 35 years.

They met as fifth and sixth-graders in Decatur, Georgia and began pairing off vocally in high school. With clever, incisive songs and voices that are perfectly paired, they got the attention of Epic Records. The label signed the Indigo Girls in 1988 and introduced them to R.E.M. One of the biggest and most credible bands in America, Stipe and company took the duo on tour, which as Amy explains, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Amy and Emily have a very even partnership and a built-in means of independent expression: they write songs separately, coming together to work out harmonies and arrangements in a process that is built on decades of trust and respect. Amy also records as a solo artist and has released five studio albums. Her latest is Goodnight Tender, which bears a strong country music streak.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I want to just start by talking about your new album, The Goodnight Tender, which is very much a country album. As a songwriter, does it change the way you write if you know you're going to write something country flavored?

Amy Ray: I didn't when I first started writing. A lot of these songs were songs that just came out of my writing process. I didn't have a goal, like I wanted to do a country record. I just would write a song that had that flavor, and I would say to myself, I want to save this song for a country record when I do one that's traditional and has that old-school kind of production and sound.

So the first four or five songs that came to this record over the years since 2005 really, it was just like, Well, sometimes I write a country song. And I knew it wasn't an Indigo song, because songs I've written for Indigo Girls have had a rootsy flavor to them, and the production usually strays away a little bit from what I do as a traditional sort of country production. So it would be a song that I definitely want to have this certain sound, and it's not going to be what the Indigo Girls are doing to do.

And then as I got closer to having enough songs for a country record, there were a few songs that I wrote towards the end that were going to be on the record, so it didn't change the way I wrote, but it probably informed a little bit about the arrangement or motivated me to finish it. But I definitely didn't set out in the beginning to make a country record, because I really just write, then I can tell which way the song is going and I just follow that path.

Songfacts: There's a lot of special guests on the album. I noticed that Justin Vernon is on "Oyster and Pearl." Did you already have a relationship with him before he participated on the album, or was this something where you got to know him through the process?

Amy: I knew him before this. We've been talking off and on for a few years. A while back, maybe four years ago, I asked him to come out and play some shows with us just for fun - I knew that he knew the Indigo Girls music, and we got to be friends.

Two of the guys that I was working with on this record are Phil Cook and his brother Brad from Megafaun. They do a lot of projects with Justin, so I was like, "Phil, we're putting together a little group. Let's do four songs with whoever you want, who you envision."

And Justin was not in that at first. And then Phil said, "Well, guess who's going to be down in North Carolina when we're in the studio?" And he wanted to know if he could come by and hang out. So he emailed me about it, Justin did. He emailed me and he was like, "I'm going to be hanging out with Phil, can I come to the studio and just hang out or sit in or whatever?" And I was like, "Totally. Just play whatever you want to play."

And I had no idea what he was going to do, because you never know with him. I had never actually heard this side of him, but he played on about five songs. I've seen him play live and I played with him, but I'd never heard him play country music, and it fit like a glove. Everything he played was perfect and adding something really special. Then he did a bunch of vocals on the song that he didn't play on, but I had recorded earlier that week.

So it was a great surprise. I love him as a person and I find him to be an incredibly compelling as an artist, and it just made the experience that much better to have him there and just to be around him. He's really a great person, very special.

Songfacts: A couple of the songs are really like gospel tunes. We started out by talking about how maybe the songs you write that are country are a little bit different than songs that you write for the Indigo Girls. When you wrote songs like "Let the Spirit" and "The Gig That Matters," did you feel like they would be great for a country album?

Amy: Yeah, because when I think of country, I also think of Gospel and mountain music, like the Carter Family. And it's all together for me in the same... not genre ‑ it's like different aspects of what I like about country music, and gospel is one of them.

I had written another song that was on an earlier record called "The Rock is My Foundation" that was definitely gospel and probably would have fit on this record even better than it fit on the record it was on. But I just couldn't wait to record it, so I went ahead and put it on this other record.

I knew I was writing songs like that, but the production of it really appealed to me, so I thought of it as a model in some ways for the next record.

Songfacts: "The Gig That Matters" sounds to me like it's a song about Heaven.

Amy: It is, yeah.

Songfacts: And I don't want to get too deeply theological, but do you believe that there is a heaven after we die?

Amy: I think there's something. I'm not sure what it is. We might just become part of the ether-sphere, you know. But I think that I used that metaphor because I was raised in the South as a Methodist, and I was pretty steeped in religion. I went to church about three days a week until I was 16, so you can't really shake that, you know?

But there's metaphors and stories and ways of talking about trials and tribulations, and what saves you, and redemption, and the things that are important in life. They're in this model of a cosmos that I can't really shake, that's just part of my culture and part of my language.

So I'm sort of like a Pagan who has a relationship with Jesus in some ways. And I love the traditional gospel songs. I love mountain music and I love the imagery of heaven, and Jesus, and St. Peter, and all the things I was raised with - the fire and brimstone, and just everything. All that is so rich to me. I also love Buddhism, but I wasn't raised a Buddhist, so I don't have all the metaphors at my fingertips.

Songfacts: So you can't write a Buddhist song very well, because you just don't know it.

Amy: It wouldn't do the same thing for me. These gospel‑type songs, they just come out of me - it's not something I work on that hard. These are the ones that come out of me the most natural of everything that I write, which is funny because I'm so radical left‑wing to the tradition that it comes out of. But that's just the way it is, and I guess I'll have to live with it.

But I like gospel music a lot. And I love black gospel, especially.

Songfacts: Have you heard the song that Steve Martin does about the gospel song for Atheists to sing?

Amy: No, I need to hear that. Is it with Steep Canyon Rangers?

Songfacts: It is.

Amy: I'll have to look it up.

Songfacts: It talks about how the Christians have their gospel songs and all these great things they can sing about, but there's not really anything for atheists.

Amy: That's hilarious. That's very funny.

Songfacts: One of the songs that doesn't really fit stylistically on the album is "Duane Allman." Is there a story behind writing that song?

Amy: Oh there is a reference to the angels weeping, I have to say. But I couldn't help myself, I had to throw that in there.

But I love southern rock, and I love the Dixie Chicks and that kind of thing. Stylistically I can hear some production on this like the Dixie Chicks do.

I started the song, then it went a whole 'nother way. Because when I started jamming on it with my guitar player and drummer, I was like, "Oh, this is a southern rock song." Because my first recording of it, this acoustic demo that's got all these harmonies on it, that's totally like Dixie Chicks or Indigo Girls, even. But I didn't really want it to go that way, so I jammed on it with the people that I was making the record with, knowing that they would pull it off. And they did, which is awesome. Because it really ended up being what I wanted it to be in that it's about Duane Allman. I wanted to strum it up to the southern rock soul that I felt.

I'm a big Allman Brothers fan. I was especially a Duane Allman fan when I was a kid. I'd been listening to them for a couple of years when I was really young before I realized that Duane was dead. It's not something that had occurred to me.

So that was kind of a moment, kind of like when you realize Jimi Hendrix is dead when you're a kid. When you're in third grade, you don't know. You're listening to music, you don't know who's alive and who's dead. You're just listening to music.

So it was a wake-up. Duane was a virtuoso, and his death left a big hole.

But it occurred to me because I was talking to this friend of mine who is in and out of addiction. We were talking about that, and then we were talking about music, and I was thinking about what it is to have this hole inside you that nothing will fill. And it's just like being an addict.

So I think it's also this thing where you lose someone significant in your life or you lose something in your life and nothing ever feels the same, and you constantly go back to that place. It's like, This is the hole in my heart. I've never been able to fill it with anything and it was left by this. There's different musical people in your life that left that hole, and Duane Allman has certainly been one of those for a lot of people, me included. You are never quite going to be the same without him.

So it's a metaphor for all the things that you feel like you lost or you'll never be the same without. I just call it filling the God‑size hole, and he's made the God‑size hole.

Songfacts: Let's travel back in time a little bit and talk about some of the Indigo Girls music. The Indigo Girls has a connection with R.E.M., and I noticed that Michael Stipe sings on "Kid Fears." Then also, members of R.E.M. played on "Tried To Be True." Looking back, what kind of an impact did that relationship have on jump‑starting your career?

Amy: It was a huge relationship in starting our career. There's no way to overestimate or overstate how important they were. When we got signed to Epic, we were making a living actually, and selling records and doing really well. But we were on a certain level.

And when we got signed, the guy that signed us hooked us up with this producer that had worked with R.E.M., and also we had already recorded our Indigo record with John King, who was working with R.E.M., as it happened. So we had these two different connections. And Scott Litt got involved with us and then he pulled in R.E.M. and introduced us to Michael, Peter, Bill and Mike. At first, it was this sort of set‑up thing. They were into what we were doing and everything, but we were introduced to each other. It was definitely Scott Litt saying, "Hey, R.E.M., do you want to get involved with this?"

And then we got to know each other, we became friends with Michael and did some acoustic stuff - it was successful as an acoustic trio, and it was really fun. And R.E.M. took us out after our first record as an opening band, as a favor, really, because of Scott Litt and John King, and the connections that we had, and the fact that they played on the record.

I don't think we would have the listenership, the audience that we have, without that tour, because so many people who I've talked to over the last five years or so have said, "Oh, the first time I heard you was with R.E.M." at some big shows that we played at these big arenas when we were opening for them. It launched us into this whole other realm and grew us exponentially as far as the live music scene. At that time we didn't have the Internet and YouTube and everything, so the way that people heard you on a bigger scale was to open for someone that was bigger than you so you can get the word out. Now, if you have a successful YouTube video, it does more than opening for a big artist. But at the time that was the thing. I mean, that was it.

Songfacts: And I didn't realize you had that connection with Pink. You've done a couple of songs with her.

Amy: Yeah, we sang with her on "Dear Mr. President," and then we invited her to come sing on our record because of that.

Songfacts: Did she contact you and want to work with you or was it the other way around?

Amy: I think her co-writer, Billy Mann, who has produced and co-written with her a lot, they came up with the idea together of having us do "Dear Mr. President" with her and approached us. And we were big Pink fans even then, so we were kind of flabbergasted, actually, like, Wow! We didn't even think she knew who we were. It was a big surprise.

But then it all made sense. We got together with them and did the song. And Pink's an awesome person. She's just really a really great person and such a great artist. When you're in the studio with her and you hear her sing with no band and no effects - there's nothing else going on except for her voice - it's just quite amazing. Her voice is tremendous.

It was just really cool. And they were like, "We've been listening to Indigo Girls for 30 years." Who knew? And then I had a song that I wanted her to sing on, so we invited her to the studio and she came and met with us at our studio when we were working in Santa Monica.

Songfacts: It's interesting, because I saw her concert one time and I wasn't really that familiar with her. And before I saw her I kind of put her in that category of pop divas. But after seeing her perform and realizing how truly great she is, she's really kind of the best of that group by far that I've seen.

Amy: And it's funny, because a lot of those songs are actually better than you think they're going to be. It's almost like they take this person that's so gifted and brilliant and works so hard, and they have to make it sort of lowest common denominator stuff. So we're not receiving as much talent as they have sometimes. I think there's more people like Pink than we know.

Songfacts: You're probably right.

Amy: A lot of times all the gifts are sort of hidden under these layers, and you sit down with one of those people in a room when they're singing, and you're just, like, Oh my god, this person is a powerhouse, and a really good writer. It's just one of those things where they go a certain path and sometimes people don't understand how great they are.

Songfacts: Let's talk about some Indigo Girls songs you wrote. The first one is "Shed Your Skin." When you think of that song what comes to mind?

Amy: Usually I think of that band, Ulali - they did background vocals on that and influenced the direction of that song so much. And then I think of Tom Morello because he did a remake of it. It's really cool.

But I just wrote that about evolution and growth in a person. Just, break free. It was also to dissolve myself stylistically into another realm of music that I really like: rock and punk, Patti Smith, and all these artists that are not in the Indigo Girls world. I wanted to experiment with that stuff. That was one of the first songs that was written that way.

Songfacts: And the song "Shame on You," was that about somebody in particular?

Amy: I started that song just out of hanging out with this friend of mine named Kate Harris. She's my best friend, and we always have a lot of misadventures together. But it ended up being about immigration issues.

We were at my house in North Georgia and I was moving from this little cabin to another house I was living in, and I didn't want to do it. I just didn't want to work that day. And she was like, "You need to work. You've got to get this done." It was that message of, Shame on you for wanting to just have fun all day.

And then it turned into this thing. We went into town that day, and it was this little neighborhood where you're hidden away from everything. It's a Hispanic neighborhood, and it was a summer day and there was music playing and it was very provocative. I was like a little kid: I was wanting to discover what was going on in this neighborhood that no one knows about. And then it made me think about immigration, because I live in an area where there's definitely been a lot of roadblocks and sting operations to pick up undocumented workers. I think Georgia's got a terrible perspective on immigration, so it became about that, rather than what it originally started out as. That's where it grew into a vocal song.

Songfacts: That's interesting how songs kind of evolve as you're writing them and probably as you're singing them too, right? I'll bet they kind of change a little bit as they fit different issues that you never imagined they would have fit.

Amy: Yeah. I totally agree. I think that does happen.

Songfacts: The last thing I wanted to ask about, I was just thinking about how you have such a great country album. I was just at this festival called Stagecoach out here.

Amy: Oh, yeah. I've heard about that festival.

Songfacts: I'm wondering why you weren't there this year and maybe why you can't be there next year.

Amy: And no one asked me. Maybe they did and I was playing, and that's why I couldn't go.

Songfacts: You would fit right in.

Amy: I just heard about it and I'm trying to remember who told me about it.

Songfacts: Have you ever played any country festivals?

Amy: You know what, I haven't. Because this is my first country record. Emily and I have played MerleFest and Telluride and a couple of other things that cross over into the acoustic world, but I've never as a solo artist or with a straight‑up country festival.

Songfacts: Well, that's something you need to do, because I think you would fit right in.

Amy: Well, I would really love to. And sometimes they don't ask you. It just depends. I'm so associated with Indigo Girls, who are still going strong, and this is my only country record - I just put it out. I'm not sure a lot of people know that I'm doing it. And also in the past, if you're gay and political, it became strikes against you, but I'm hoping that that's not the case anymore.

February 27, 2015. Get more at amy-ray.com.
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