Probably best known for her work opposite Emily Sailers as one half of the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray has spent the past twenty years leading the way for female artists in the music industry, but don’t let Ray’s folkie background fool you. Make no mistake this girl can rock.
For evidence of this one needs only to look at Ray’s second solo album “Prom” released on her own Indie label Daemon Records. Hardly the typical sophomore album, “Prom” finds Ray revisiting similar themes as she explored in 2001’s “Stag” including gender, sexuality, racism and the struggle of equality for all while still managing to make each song sound fresh and innovative. Recently, Ray took some time to speak with me over the phone about her new album, upcoming tour and her past history with Nashville.
DK: Having just come off the Indigo Girls tour and getting ready for another one…Touring as an independent artist obviously is a lot different than touring as a major label artist. How are you personally dealing with that? Is it a harder road to travel?
AR: It’s really interesting because a lot of independent artists that go on the road they have to share motel rooms and everything. I want everybody to have their own room and we’re not going to stay at roach motels. I’m trying to make it comfortable for everyone. Sometimes I get tired of being on a tour bus anyway. We travel at night and sleep on the tour busses and so there’s something to be said for driving during the day in a van and seeing where you’re going and sleeping every night in a room. I’m looking forward to it. I enjoy being in a van as much or more than being on a tour bus. You just roll the windows down and it’s different. You get to see where you’re going and you can pull over to the side of the road and check out the thrift stores or whatever.
DK: What would you say is the biggest difference between your current album Prom and your previous album Stag?
AR: Mainly just the players. Prom has more of a consistent theme in it and it’s a little denser musically. Stag featured the Butchies a lot but also used three or four different bands. On Prom I used two different bands almost split right down the middle. I think Prom is much more melodic. The guitar playing is a little more layered. I don’t think that one is better than the other and I like both directions. It was hard for me when I was making Prom because I kept thinking, “This is different from Stag I don’t know if I like it.” I had to just let it be it’s own project because I don’t think that making the same record twice is a good idea. There are definite thematic similarities to the two. I deal with gender and sexuality issues but Prom is more of and extension of some of the ideas set forward on Stag. Stag does a lot more with my relationship to masculinity and to men as separate entities from myself as well as the male part of me. I think that Prom has some of that in it but it’s from a more feminine perspective and deals with some of the feminine side of men as well as maybe some of the girls that I’ve known in my life and experiences that they have had as well as some of the men that are more feminine and what they have gone through because of that.
DK: I notice a heavy allusion to High School and youth themes on Prom. Why was this so important?
AR: I think that the seeds for that were kind of planted in Stag as well. It just came out when I started writing. I really look back on that time as being very formative and really informed my life since then. There were all of these very new experiences and those initial things that kind of cement the way you respond to the world in which you live.
DK: Tell me about the opening song “Put It Out For Good”.
AR: It was one of the first songs that I wrote for this album and it kind of started me down that path of the heavy allusions to High School. When I started it I had these images in my head of these kids hanging out at a high school and it started actually at this benefit that Emily and I played at a High School for a cousin of mine that had died. We were helping to raise money for a garden to be placed there in her memory. So, all of her friends were these high school kids and there were a lot of punk rock and metal bands that played. After the show we were unloading the equipment and we were all just kinda hanging out. There were all these people that seemed to be the disenfranchised youth there waiting around after. One was a punk and there was hippie and a goth girl and a queer boy and so forth. Those images started to remind me of my high school dances and homecoming parades and float parties. There was a real energy there.
DK: So that was the seed for what would later become your album?
AR: I really think so. When my cousin died she was 15. I had some contact with her during her life and her friends were very compelling to me. They were very sort of goth kids ad punk kids and metal heads who were all into independence and being their own person and dressing in their own way and it was very compelling to me. That seed was planted in me at the same time that I was reliving whatever was fomative to me in High School, which are often archetypical things that we all have to go through: Puberty, discovering your sexuality discovering your body. All that really changes are the mediums that we use like the internet or the phone
DK: Let’s talk about Rural Faggot. There is a lot of interesting imagery in that song.
AR: That was a song that came out of watching other kids. I live in a very rural county and these were some boys in the area. It’s a neighborhood for lack of a better word but its very spread out. They were kinda watching as I moved in and started bugging me…in a good way. They were fascinated because I was having a house built and you know how boys love construction sites. They were there all the time and we talked a lot. They were always getting into trouble or getting hurt. But I watched them grow up from the time they were around eight on into their twenties. Some of them became gay. They did everything together as a gang but they were all different people from each other. There was one in particular that kind of represented all of them to me and the story is sort of told through him. I pulled a lot of the song almost directly from discussions that I would have with him. There was a lot of a gay bashing sort of attitude that he had. I would be talking with this guy and he would tell me all of this amazingly compelling stuff and I would write it all down. Eventually it became the song Rural Faggot.
DK: In the song Let It Ring you seem to be striking back at the Conservative Christians who hate gays and anything having to do with them.
AR: I actually started this song at a pro-choice march. I was watching these pro-life kids march and carry their signs and I thought it was really interesting. They were all very young teenagers who were really hip dressed. A couple of them had Mohawks and so forth and this was just fascinating to me. There was this interesting cross of cultures. Before this if I had seen a kid dressed like this I would have automatically assumed that they were pro-choice. It’s no secret that I’m very left wing and I always tend to assume that people who dress individualistically would also be that way. It kind of took me by surprise. That’s how the song started, but by the end of it it started to turn into a song about the religious right and how they don’t have a monopoly on Christianity. It’s about being gay and what it fells like to have the church tell you that you couldn’t be a part of it. It covers a lot of territory. But the main theme is that the church doesn’t own God. It’s a really sad thing when someone is shut off from God and the church because they are gay or pro-choice or a peace activist.
DK: Having listened to your music as long as I have I have always noticed that there is a heavy use of religious and spiritual themes. Where would you say that your spiritual beliefs fall now?
AR: Well, I was raised a Methodist but now I’m more of a Pagan. And when you are raised in the South as a Christian your relationship with Jesus never really goes away. So, I’m a Pagan that has this strong connection to Jesus still. It’s ingrained in me.
DK: How has it been dealing with a lot of spiritual issues since you come from that background?
AR: I never felt this strong betrayal from the church like so many others did because I never assumed that there would be anything different than that. When I was growing up I went to church three days a week and participated in the youth ministry and then later on I was a religion major in college. My opinion of organized religion as an institution has always been that it was so far removed from the true heart of what spirituality was all about, so I never really expected anything different. The whole point of Jesus to me was that he was already rebelling against an institution that were laughing in God’s face by setting up these false rules and infrastructures. They were sexist and racist and discriminatory towards prostitutes and lepers. So, to me if it had been that way ever since the time of Jesus why should I expect anything less from them now? I always knew that personally I would have to operate outside of the institution. There was never a moment when I thought “oh, my god! I thought it was so perfect but I was wrong.” I always had a cynicism about it. That’s just me. My family is different. They went through a real feeling of betrayal because both I and my sisters are gay and they felt like the church was really against us all. One of my sisters struggled with it and the other tied to just keep going. I just had a kind of evolution for myself. I’m sure that one day I will find an institution that I feel comfortable with but right now that is just a really hard thing for me to try and worship in that space so I worship in my own way.
DK: Do you think that it’s easier for women in music now than it has been in the past?
AR: On one level it is easier. I see more women playing instruments and being studio engineers, sound people, and performers. I see young girls of 13 or 14 years old wanting to become rock musicians. That was totally unattainable twenty years ago. But at the same time we have this other thing going on in the mainstream media world where women are still segregated. Some rock stations will not play women rockers and even if they do it will never be 50% of their airplay. Rolling Stone will only write about women rock musicians sometimes but the majority of the women in those magazines are there to sell sex. In the world of rock it’s as hard as it ever was to gain attention.
DK: Who are some of the bands that aren’t getting the recognition they deserve?
AR: As far as women go, I would say the Distillers are a great example. Magnapop never really got what they deserved, though they have a new record out now. For them especially it has been a long hard road. They have the notoriety in Europe but the system in the US will never give it to them. There is a band called Bambix from Holland that came out on Daemon (Note: Amy’s record company). I put it out because nobody else here would. And they are one of the best punk metal bands around. These bands should be as big as Green Day and they are not because they are women. I don’t think that guys just want to hear guy bands. I don’t think its that way.
DK: What do you think the role of independent culture is now in 2005?
AR: The independent music world is kind of like an ecosystem. Every part of it has to be nurtured and if you are putting out independent music then you should also support independent music stores and independent media and radio stations and printers and on down the line. As an independent music person you have to take into account everything around that and not just the music. Everything about it is affected: What you sell your tickets and merchandise for. You have to have integrity. It can be a real pain in the ass but it’s true because the only way independent music will survive is through supporting that which supports it.
DK: Do you have any plans of making a trip to Nashville in the future?
AR: Yeah, we will probably do it in the fall.
DK: You have a sort of love-hate relationship with Nashville if I remember correctly. Can we talk about that?
AR: *Laughs* Yeah because I spent a year there and it was so hard. It was back in like ’83 and the place was so homophobic and racist. But I love Nashville now. It’s interesting really. The last time I played in Nashville for the Stag tour we played at 12 th & Porter and I remember having to get onto the bartender for making some homophobic remarks when he didn’t know I was standing there. The whole crowd that night, well at least 80% were queer. Everything he was making that night was from gay pockets and he didn’t have any business making that kind of remark. It really bummed me out. The same thing could happen in Atlanta or New York but that wasn’t the point. I actually go to Nashville now for fun. It is a lot different place now than it was. Plus I was going to Vanderbilt at the time so that just says it all right there. *Laughs*
DK: Were you a McGill student back then?
AR: No, but I certainly should have been. If I had been I probably would have stayed. Five years before I went to Vandy my sister had gone and it was great for her. She lived in the philosophy dorm and the concert committee was amazing. They were having bands like Black Flag play on campus, but when I got there it was so conservative and completely different. It’s really amazing to me now that you can be gay in Nashville now.
Look for Amy Ray and her band to hit Nashville in early fall. For more information on Amy Ray or to purchase a copy of her album “Prom” visit www.DaemonRecords.com.