BREATHE DEEP Amy Ray

The Indigo Girl
launches her latest solo album,
Lung Of Love, and continues to navigate the waters of a dual career.

 

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

In many ways, Amy Ray seems to operate in two parallel
universes, each of which lean towards opposite poles. In one, she’s the
reassuring earth mother, part of the duo known as the Indigo Girls, whose
lengthy and prosperous career has spawned legions of devotees and a goodly
number of best selling albums. In the other, she’s the hard-scrapping indie
rocker, who takes a back-to-basics approach that draws a modest fan following
on its own merits.

 

The first world seems to take care of itself; after all, the
Indigos have been a well known entity for the past twenty years, given the
advantage of record company support, a well-stocked canon of anthemic material,
and a core audience that assures them headliner status. As for the other,
suffice it to say that Ray’s recognition factor on her own doesn’t even come
close, and for every main stage she and Emily Saliers fill as the Indigos,
there are dozens of dives and seedy out-of-the-way watering holes that don’t
come close to equaling their draw potential.

 

Still, six albums on, Ray’s solo ambitions have yet to
falter. If anything she seems to have grown more tenacious along the way. The
Indigos may tend to embrace and inspire, but on her own, Ray’s a raucous rocker
who’s etching a career by her own devices and strictly on her own terms. “It
takes a long time to etch you own identity,” Ray concedes. “I think especially
when you’re a woman trying to play rock ‘n’ roll. And being in the Indigo Girls
is such a strong identity too. So to depart from that and do something that’s
very different — that’s more rock and more underground and stuff – it’s hard
to break out of that. You can’t force people to identify you a certain way, so
really you just have to keep playing the music and let people make their own
decisions.”

 

It’s appropriate then that Ray’s new album is titled Lung of Love, an expression she uses to
describe her attempt to communicate and share her art and ideals. Yet, while
she still grapples with the exact meaning and explanation, its clearly the best
set of songs she’s issued on her own to date — its rugged, reliable melodies
assuring it an immediate accessibility. BLURT recently spoke to Ray during an
extended break from the road and got a quick lesson in how to multi-task when
it comes to dual careers.

 

 


02 Glow Amy Ray by AngieFigure8PR

 

 

BLURT: So tell us –
how did this album come about?

AMY RAY: I actually didn’t think of a concept and I guess
there’s something that makes everything hang together but I’m not even really
sure of what it is. The title’s is taken is from a song but I also felt the
whole record could be represented by that. Initially the idea for the record
came about when I got together with Greg (Griffith), the producer, and the
drummer, Mel – pretty much I start with them first and start working on
arrangements and flushing out songs, and there was stuff I hadn’t finished
writing that Greg ended up co-writing with me, and some things I hadn’t even
started yet, so we had a handful – probably four or five songs to start, and
so, as we work, I’m also writing, so the beginning of our work kind of inform
as what I’m writing next. But really, I thought I’d make a record with ten
short power pop songs on it, but it totally didn’t go that way. So much for
concepts I guess.

        I think the
main thing was we were going to record on two-inch tape and get as much stuff
on tape as possible. That’s kind of what our main goal was to start with and we
did a lot of that, so that was good. And musically, whatever served the song
was kind of the way we were looking at it.

 

That gospel song,
“The Rock is my Foundation,” was an interesting inclusion.

I hadn’t actually planned on including that on there because
I write because I was going to put our a whole record that was country and then
have some Appalachian songs, but I was playing it to warm up one day and Greg
said, ‘”I really want that on the record.” And I said I didn’t think it would
really fit in, but then I thought, that doesn’t really matter. Because other
records I’ve done have been the same thing, I had songs on my earlier records
that were kind of like that too. So, as time went there were things that were
included that I thought might end up on a different record. I just kind of
decided to go with it and I’m glad for the way it hangs together now.

 

When you write songs,
is there a clear idea which will go on an Indigo Girls record and which will be
reserved for your own projects?

I pretty know what I’m writing for as soon as the song takes
shape. And I think I can hear the harmonies and how the guitars will take
shape, and I think it’s pretty much a function of who I collaborate with. With
Emily, there’s a certain way I hear it, but if I know I’m going to work with my
band I’ll hear that a certain way too. It used to be about subject matter,
where the stuff that was a little more intimate or raw would be the solo stuff,
but then that kind of changed and became more like who the collaborators were
going to be.

 

With six solo albums,
you’re well along into your solo career, Are you finding it easy to juggle both
your won efforts and your work with the Indigo Girls?

It’s a challenge this time, but I think it’s because I’ve
had a label for a long time, and the way you run a record label nowadays as
opposed to 15 years ago is really different. I don’t have a staff so I’m doing
a lot of stuff on my own and delegating or hiring other people for press or
this or that. And there’s so much you can do on the web. It’s kind of like
putting out two different releases with the extra stuff you have to do. So
there’s a ton of footwork to do and that’s the kind of stuff that takes me
aback, where I’m going “Whoa…!” And it’s the same thing with the Indigo Girls,
because now we’re putting the stuff out ourselves and it’s kind of up to us as
well. So it’s a little bit of juggling. Fortunately I got a little bit of a
break so I’ve had some time to get things organized for this, because I don’t
know if I could have done it if I was out on the road touring. Yeah, I think
I’ve learned a lot with this record, just in terms of set-up time and what to
plan for and everything. I enjoy it. It’s something I enjoy doing, so thank God
for that.

 

It always seems to be
an interesting proposition when you have a duo, it’s basically the two of you,
and one person decides to do some solo work. Is there resentment from the other
person?

Emily is kind of a different bird in that way. I don’t think
she was threatened and I don’t think she had a desire to be a part of it
either. I think she saw it as kind of an outlet for me for, things that didn’t
fit in and she knew it would make me happy to collaborate with a different set
of people. She’s always been super supportive and she’s even come to my shows.
Sometimes she’ll even get up and play guitar. So I think I’m lucky because
she’s kind of different from most band members, She definitely has never said
something negative, or had a moment where she was jealous or envious or
anything like that. I think she’s pretty satisfied with what we do and she gets
her artistic ya-yas out with what we’re doing. If she was to do anything solo,
it would likely be to express those kind of R&B influences that she has,
kind of the more soul, urban, hip hop world which we can’t really do as an
Indigo Girl. So I think that would be the one thing she would want to do
different from what we do. I think the expression of the Indigo Girls is a lot
of Emily and in a good way, it’s a lot of me too, but I think there’s a big
chunk of me that doesn’t come out in that. I started realizing that and just
wanted to do something different. It’s been good for me because it’s made me a
better songwriter so when I come back to the Indigo Girls, it makes me better
at that too. I can see how for a long time how I needed to maybe grow.

 

What is exactly is a
“lung of love?”

I guess I was maybe equating it to your breath and everything that comes out of
you – the singing, the art, the whatever. It’s very hard for me to articulate
because I was kind of talking about the clumsiness of our bodies compared to
the grace we want to have in everything – in our love, in our lives, in our
art, in our activism, in the way we handle ourselves in the world. So I was
saying I have this way to express myself, but at the same time, I get tired, I
run out of breath or I have a heart murmur,,, all these physicality’s that sort
of slow you down in life, no matter how old you are, there are these things you
have to deal with…

You’re too young to have all those
concerns…

Everybody has them. Even when you’re on the road when you’re
in your twenties, you get tired. You can’t play more than eight shows in a row
without losing your voice, and then you get frustrated because that’s your form
of expression. And I think I was saying I can’t really be there for my loved
ones as much as I want to be – for my partner, my family, my parents – but the way
I have to offer myself is like this — the performing, the singing… using my
gifts like everybody should do in their way.

 

Yet now that you have
this solo career, and with all the activity that comes with the Indigo Girls,
do you find it even harder to reconcile all these needs and responsibilities?
It would seem like the challenge would get even greater.

I’m home now for a couple of months. I toured for a couple
of weeks in January and a week in December, so there has been stretches where
I’ve been away. For the most part though, I’ve been working at home to set this
record up and I’ve done a bunch of stuff here to catch up. And the Indigos
don’t start up again until June. I think after this record and after we tour a
little bit, I’ll step back from it and go, hey, I need to organize this a
little better to give me more time at home. I think I’m just kind of in the
middle of a frenzy right now. Things got heaped on and I didn’t realize it was
going to turn out this way.

 

And then there’s
always the need to go back into the studio and start on the next record, right?

The Indigos probably won’t go back in the studio for awhile,
because we really didn’t tour much on it to begin with and we’ll definitely
have a lot left to do on that, as far as touring in concerned. They just put
out another single from the album this week I think. But for my next solo
project, I’m going to record it here at home. I have a little eight track
studio that I kind of put together and it sounds pretty good, I’ve been
tweaking it for the last couple of years and I’ve done a few things in it just
for me. So I think my next project will be more like a country project and it
will be done here, so that will be good. The Indigos will probably wait another
year. There’s time, ya know? You got to write. We spent a lot of time writing
for this last record and we’ll probably want to do the same thing this time.

 

Where is “here”?

Up in north Georgia, kind of near the mountains. I’ve lived
in the same place for the last twenty years. There’s a college close by, and
there’s a lot of artists and musicians and bluegrass players in the area, so
it’s very rich in that way. It’s like in the foothills of the Appalachians, in
a town called Dahlonega. It was the site of the first American gold rush. (chuckles)
It started here and then they moved. (laughs)

 

Is the audience that
you get for your solo shows the same audience that comes to see the Indigos?

It’s different. It’s a lot smaller for one thing. (laughs)
But it’s not just a subset of the Indigo Girls. There are definitely a lot of
people that go to my solo shows that don’t go see the Indigo Girls. Maybe a
little more of a rock crowd for lack of a better word. There are definitely
Indigo Girl fans who don’t love this (laughs), but that’s okay. I’ve weeded
them out. When I first started playing solo twelve years or so ago, there were
a lot of people who came out just out of curiosity, but slowly it’s become
people who know what it is, and people come who just appreciate it. But we do
get a small crowd. (laughs)

 

But after six solo
albums, one would think you’re starting to etch your own identity.

Well, we’re starting to.

 

Do you do any Indigo
Girls songs in your solo show?
No. Although I did do several acoustic shows with a singer/songwriter named
Lindsey Fuller – a great songwriter – and we went out for two weeks together
where we did songs back and forth and then did one long set. We did do a couple
of Indigo Girls songs because she wanted to cover them, so I did some obscure
ones that we never play any more. But when I play with my band, I never do
Indigo Girls songs. There’s just not time anyway. If I have my band with me I
just want to use them to play everything that I want to play that’s solo stuff
that I just don’t get to play very much.

 

But do you have
people calling out requests for Indigo Girls songs anyway?

It’s mostly beyond that, but every now and then I get a
drunk, and they’ll start requesting something like “Closer to Fine,” something
I can’t play myself. I just laugh about it because I know where it’s coming
from. (laughs)

 

It would be nice if
at least that drunk would request something you wrote.

Nope. That’s what’s really funny about it. When people start
requesting “Galileo” or “Closer to Fine,” it’s just kind of one of those
moments where you go “Okay.” It’s pretty absurd. It usually happens at a bar
where it’s half-filled and those people are drunk and no one really knows who I
am. And it’s usually this gig that I’m trying to play for the first time, sort
of like I’m trying to start over for the first time, And it’s one of those
moments that really humbles you. (laughs) So it’s good for me and that’s the
truth.

 

That must be an
interesting dynamic considering the fact that the Indigo Girls are really so
huge. It must take you back to your roots in a way.

Yeah, definitely. I keep going back to them. My solo stuff
has some areas, like New York, where it’s built up and it’s in a really good
place and you get a bigger crowd because it’s in a bigger city. And there’s
places where I go back every time I put out a new record, but I have to go back
and redevelop that city and try to get people back out to hear me. So it really
keeps you on your toes.

 

Do you have to
caution the promoter not to put “Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls” on the marquee?

It’s funny because we used to put that on there. This year, me and my agent and
my manager were talking about it. It’s one of those double-edged swords where
we use it sometimes in cities where people don’t really know me. We use it to
get people out who are interested. But the flip side of it is that they expect
something similar to what they’re used to from the Indigos. So we decided if a
promoter really wanted to use that, they could, because it provides a
connection. But we would prefer that they didn’t so I can just step out under
my own name. And it was a funny conversation, because it’s weird talking about
myself in third person. But then I decided that when I go out and do my
acoustic shows, I am going to do some Indigo Girls songs because I’m out with
other songwriters and I’m just going to have fun. Then we would put Indigo
Girls songs in it because it’s a context that’s appropriate. But when it’s me
and the band, it has nothing to do with that, other than I’m the same
songwriter.

 

When did you know
that you had made it as a musician and you could make it a career and you
wouldn’t need a day job of some sort to support yourself?

Well, you never know. (laughs) Even before we got signed, we
were playing so much. We had our first indie record out, our first full-length
record, and we were touring up and down the east coast out to Texas and back,
and we were definitely making enough money to make a living and didn’t have to
work other jobs. Emily for awhile was working, and for awhile I worked, but it came
to the point where we were making enough money in Atlanta where we could fund
the other gigs we were doing and we were also living in really inexpensive
apartments. I mean, my rent was like $325 a month. So I had a very low overhead
in my life, I was living a very simple life, I was like 21 and I knew there
might be times when I’d have to get a job, so right before we got signed, I had
filled out an application to be a substitute teacher in the county I was living
in, just for those times when we didn’t have a gig. Then we got signed to Epic
and I could throw the application away for awhile. Once we got signed, we got a
big advance and those were the days when the record companies spent a lot of
money and gave a big advance and all that jazz. So we were set for awhile. It
remained to be seen whether we had staying power but we knew that for the next
couple of years, we would be okay and we could live on what we made. We were
free to tour and do our thing. It was really lucky and a lot different from
what bands experience now.

 

Amy Ray’s Lung Of Love
tour kicks off this week in Atlanta. Tour dates at her official website. She’ll
also be playing the BLURT day party March 16 in Austin during SXSW – check
details here
.

 


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