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Interview: Amy Ray (of Indigo Girls)

Amy Ray
15 October 2022

Photo by Sandlin Gaither

Amy Ray is best known as one-half of the pioneering folk rock duo Indigo Girls, who have earned international acclaim for nearly forty years now. Since 2001, though, Ray has also enjoyed a thriving solo career, releasing ten albums so far – including If It All Goes South, which just came out in September via her own label, Daemon Records. On this release, she’s accompanied by her own group, The Amy Ray Band, and it also features an array of guest musicians, including singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile. Calling from her longtime home in Dahlonega, Georgia, Ray discusses what inspired her to write this album, how she became a songwriter in the first place, and the way she has always used her work to create a community.

How did you know it’s the right time to do another solo album?

AMY RAY: Usually, if it feels like a group of songs is coming together, I’ll start looking at the Indigo Girl calendar and figuring out where a gap is, basically. But this is a little different because the pandemic was going on and my country band had released a few singles, just to keep the thread going – we would record stuff from home and share the files around and make a song and release it. And that had me going towards writing a whole record. It just felt like I had the songs, and we had the time. Once I got the ball rolling, I was like, “It doesn’t really matter what Indigo Girls are doing, I’ll just try to make it all happen at one time and pray that it will work out.”

How do you know, when you’re writing a song, that it should be for your solo career, Indigo Girls, or something else?

AMY RAY: When I’m writing an Indigo Girls song, I can hear Emily [Saliers, the other half of that band] in it in a strong way. Then [Amy Ray Band], I’ve been with them for about ten years, so I can usually hear that, too. And if I write something that’s like punk rock, I usually put it aside and think about that being another collaboration or something. So I’m always putting [songs] in little boxes until the time is right.

On this album, you’re trying out a bunch of different musical styles, but it still sounds cohesive. How do you pull that off?

AMY RAY: It’s all about the band. And the producer. The guy that produced this record, Brian Speiser, also produced my other two more country records, Holler [2018] and Goodnight Tender [2014]. And the engineer and the mixer, Bobby Tis, mixed [Holler], too. They’re both with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, so they both have that thread in them, too. My band, they all play with a lot of breadth and can do a lot of different styles naturally. And we’re based kind of in a country tradition, sort of, like Americana-ish, but it’s more like Southern music.

It seems like your lyrics must take a fair amount of time to create because they seem very thoughtful. How did you learn to write like that?

AMY RAY: Well, I’m pretty slow, so you’re right, it takes me a long time. I mean, I’ll rework a lyric so many times. When I first started with Indigo Girls, there’s a lot of things that I would go back and rewrite. I didn’t edit enough, and I wasn’t willing to stand back from it and lose some of the things in it that weren’t as good but were sentimental to me. So I learned from reading books. There’s a book by Stephen King called On Writing. It’s an amazing book. And Writing Down the Bones [by Natalie Goldberg]. That’s a great book. And Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott. So for about three years, when I started working on the solo stuff, I started reading a lot of stuff about writing and I tried to be more disciplined about it. And it really changed the way that I write. I mean, I still write really spontaneously at first. I try not to censor myself and let it all come out, and that’s like a journal, in a way. Then I’ll go through it when I’m playing guitar and working on music and find something that feels good. And then I’ll just start reworking it. Most songs, I’ll have ten or fifteen drafts. It’s like a crossword puzzle, trying to get that last thing filled in. Emily in the Indigo Girls can sit down and write a great song all at once. And I just can’t do that. I’m not natural at it, so I really have to work at it and make sure that I’m really saying what I mean. And look up definitions of things, to be really exact. So I just very painstakingly make it all work together.

Were there any particular ideas or themes that you were trying to get across on this album?

AMY RAY: I think this record came out of the need to reach out to people, and myself as well, that need some kind of redemption and healing and joy in their life. I kind sum it up like, “No one’s alone in it.” I wanted to say, “Let’s talk about joy and healing and redemption and those big ideas, but let’s have fun while we’re doing it.” Just be really musical and playful. That’s what I went into the studio thinking about.

How did you know that “If It All Goes South” should be the album title?

AMY RAY: That was a lyric from the song [on the album] “Chuck Will’s Widow” where I said, “It could all go south kind of is a blessing, that’s where you are.” It just felt like, in that moment, things were going down with the pandemic and all the [protest] marches and everything. There was just so much stuff going on, and it could feel really chaotic. And this urgent need to get out there and solve everything at once and feel paralyzed by that. Or it could be like, “Count it as a blessing that you can participate in this way that’s so concrete.” I think that’s the way life is, generally, if you can just see it that way. When things are going to shit, you can be like, “Yeah, but I’m here. I can turn it around.” I mean, not for everything, obviously. There was so much suffering during the pandemic, people that just did not have resources to use it like I could, being in the woods and being like, “Well, I’ve got a lot of space and I can just run around so it’s great.” I worked in a food pantry for a short stint here. All the people that had lost their jobs, it was incredible – people signing up for free food were people that I knew. Everybody was losing work and no one had any money. I had so many reasons to feel blessed by my life, and when I turned around and saw what some other people that I knew were going through, I was just like, “Oh, my God.” So I thought, “I’m here, I have time, I’m not touring, I’m going to make the best of it and try to change things.” So I went to marches and volunteered and did whatever I could do. I thought, “I’ll try to do things that add to the world.” And I was writing in that vein, too, just from my own learning curve.

Amy Ray cover art

How did you first discover that songwriting was the best way for you to express what you want to say?

AMY RAY: I was just always compelled, as a kid. When I started writing, it was just something that I had to do. At first it was like, “This makes me feel better.” Because I was kind of a dark child. Got depressed real easily and stuff. So I just did it to make me feel better. It was like a personal thing. And then I had an older sister that was kind of a hippie and I used to hear all those records from Woodstock, “peace, love” and all that stuff. And I think through church, too. I was like, “Music is really this thing that can bring people together: you can get the message out with it.” So as a really young child, that’s what I was looking at. It became part of the thing that I wanted to do.

What do you think it is about your work overall that’s enabled you to connect with people so strongly through the years?

AMY RAY: Luck is probably the main ingredient in this. Luck and a lot of sweat. Emily and I started [playing together] when we were fifteen years old, so we weren’t thinking long-term anything. We were thinking, “This is fun,” and that’s about it. We ended up going to the same college [Emory University in Atlanta] after a couple of years of being away at different schools, and kept doing the music. All of our friends would pile into our cars, and we would drive to Charleston and play gigs and just party. It was totally a good time. So for us, it grew out of the tradition of community and a really good time. And I think our audience has always been super open. In the beginning, [they were] always passing [recording] bootlegs around to everybody. Then we would have siblings pass them down to younger siblings, and parents to their kids. And it’s just been that way the whole time we’ve been playing. So I think it’s our audience who we really owe that [success] to, more than anything.