When the Indigo Girls hit the music scene, a queer folk duo from Atlanta was quite the departure from the kinds of role models, female musicians had. Now known for their heart-wrenching, gritty lyrics, warm vocal harmonies and social commentary, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers complement one another like no other duo and they have made their mark on the world of social activism just as intensely as they have on the world of music.
The duo was coming of age, so to speak, in the ’80s when other female-based bands and performers such as 10,000 Maniacs, Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman were finding success in the mainstream media. It left an opening for the the duo to shine into the lives of a flurry of listeners who would soon become loyal fans and admirers of their music.
While they continue to produce albums and tour together, they each have created individual careers for themselves as well. Saliers is a restaurateur and author and Ray has a solo musical career that rounds out her musical experience.
Recently, Ray sat down with Street Roots to talk about road maps that have led her to where she is now, the music industry, activism, gay marriage and much more.
Sue Zalokar: You and Emily have been forging the way for not only yourselves, but also the legions of female musicians who have and will come behind you. In your experience, has the music industry evolved at all for women?
Amy Ray: Definitely. It’s not perfect, by any stretch. There are steps forward and sometimes you step back. Sometimes it feels like it’s not getting anywhere. It has evolved though, and there are more opportunities for female artists — more exposure. Part of that is the Internet. There are so many avenues that are free and are open from the normal gatekeepers.
There is some representation in the world of country music, but women have to be a different thing in that world. In Top 40, there is a lot of women, but it’s in a really specific way too.
In the world that I’m in — rock and folk and alt Rock — women are just not given the same representation. We aren’t archived as well, we’re not represented in the Top 100 guitar players (with the exception of Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt). We’re not mentioned as much in a historical context either.
Female musicians are often treated as anomalies with the “wow” factor. “Wow! Can you believe a woman can be this good?” That kind of thing is still happening. It’s a mixed bag.
S.Z.: You and Emily have always had a reverence for your audience. As you have grown up, so has your audience to some degree. From your perspective, has the audience changed at all over the years?
A.R.: Our core audience that have been with us since the beginning, they’re older like we are (laughs). But people always brought along their younger sibling and kids, so their audience has stayed more diverse in some ways than we had expected. We go through times when our audience is really small and it’s just a core group of people. When our audience gets bigger, it definitely brings in more people that might be different from us.
There are certain cities where our audience is mostly women. And then other places where it is completely mixed, men women, straight and gay. Our audience is not as mixed racially though. You’ve just got to do what you do. You can do things to make sure people are not alienated. But you don’t want to fetishize a person’s race.
S.Z.: The Indigo Girls have no policies against audio recording live shows for personal use and enjoyment – a treat for your fans, to say the least. What led the Indigo Girls to the decision to allow taping?
A.R.: When we started — in the ’80s — people taped shows and passed them around and that’s kind of how you got the word out about who you are. It just seemed silly to not let people do that. The whole point of music is creating this community around it. You can’t really do it any other way or you won’t really evolve and you won’t have any continuity or longevity.
When I was kid, I took a cassette player to all of the shows I went to and taped them. I taped everything — I have this five-hour radio special on cassette that was a tribute to John Lennon the day he died. I still have that. I treasure those tapes and I treasure all my bootleg records too.
S.Z.: Your fourth solo album, “Lung of Love” came out this spring on your label, Daemon Records. I read that you collaborated on the songwriting with producer Greg Griffith — a first for you as you and Emily write separately and then come together to arrange. Can you talk about the experience of co-writing?
A.R.: Yeah. I never do it. I’ve tried it with a couple of other people, but it never worked. Greg produced my last album, “Didn’t It Feel Kinder” and it went really well. We fought a lot — like a brother and sister — but in a creative way and I really respect him. He really pushed me — hard — that’s probably why we fought.
With this record, I decided to be open. We would sit together and throw back and forth chord progressions. He didn’t collaborate on the lyrics with me, we worked on melody and chords. It was exactly what I needed, someone to teach me. He’s a very good teacher. That partnership brought me so many ideas about songwriting that I use now, even when he’s not around.
S.Z.: You have a band that backs you when you tour that features Portland-based musician, Kaia Wilson who was a founding member of the queercore punk band, Team Dresch and of The Butchies. How does this departure from the folk-style of the Indigo Girls round out your musical experience?
A.R.: I’m a big fan of punk — a big fan. I always have been. At some point, I had written a bunch of songs that just didn’t fit in with Indigo Girls, so in order to feel great about life and music, I wanted to explore that. I was a HUGE Team Dresch fan. Kaia and I just started jamming and we have played together ever since. She brings a lot into the room — Kaia does. She’s got a lot of history and experience. Musically, she’s a punk rocker, but she’s also kind of a pop writer. I always like the way it feels to have a punk song with a pop melody going on. It’s infectious.
S.Z.: Having said that, “Lung of Love” has a whisper of a country (bluegrass) music influence. On the new album the lyrics of “The Rock is my Foundation,” you sing “The rock is my foundation/with Jesus is at the base. /God is on the kidron / and the Holy Spirit sings. / All my life, I’ve been a sinner / all my life, I’ve gone astray / now sinner hang on, my sinner hang on / you gonna have your judgement day” Do you identify as a Christian?
A.R.: (Laughs) I’m sort of a pagan with Christian roots. I was raised Methodist. It stuck with me. I was a Religion major in college. Spirituality is very interesting to me. Religion is specifically interesting to me. The ‘industry’ of religion — what we have done to our spiritual beliefs through religion — is fascinating. When you’re raised Christian, especially in the South, I’m not sure you can ever get away from it, unless you’re fighting against it — which is a hard road. So, instead I’ve incorporated it into my cultural references. It’s part of my metaphor in life.
S.Z.: Have you any thoughts about groups who believe that being gay and being Christian cannot intertwine?
A.R.: Sure. From which perspective — the gay perspective or the Christian one?
S.Z.: Either, or both.
A.R.: You can get specific with specific churches and say, “Well this church has a very specific set of rules and one of them is anti-gay and I just can’t be part of that.” Or you can recognize all of these things that the experience taught you and decide, I’m gonna take a high road. I’m gonna be a part of the church still and try to change it from the inside out.
Cynically, I feel like there are things that affect institutions that have nothing to do with religion — economics, church attendance, social evolution and so on.
I was just raised a certain way. Those symbols and metaphors and the spirituality of them is very important to me and so, I hang onto it.
I definately go to a Methodist church sometimes in Atlanta that is VERY openly gay. I’m surprised they can be what they are and still be in the Methodist conference because they are sort of defying their own conference.
S.Z.: What’s the name of the church?
A.R.: St Marks Methodist in Atlanta. There are a lot of reasons why any of the world religions are hard for us as women, as gay women. I just don’t want to give it away. I want to have a piece of it still for myself.
S.Z.: What is the importance of passing gay marriage legislation?
A.R.: Well, I don’t care that much about marriage because that institution is one that I don’t relate to that much. Even as a straight person, I probably wouldn’t.
S.Z.: Amen sister. I always want to know why my gay friends want a piece of something that is so patriarchal. I support it, because from a civil rights stance, you have to.
A.R.: It’s a civil rights battle — a very important one. There are a lot of legal issues that are solved by being able to marry and have at least civil unions. We should call it something different. We should own it and have it be ours.
Even if I don’t want it for myself, I’m gonna fight for it. It has definitely been denied to people for the wrong reason. It’s very important to me but at the same time, this is an institution steeped in patriarchy and a paradigm that has to do with ownership. We need to reinvent it somehow and own it for ourselves in a way that’s really beautiful. I just don’t know how to do that yet.
I do know that we should fight for access to it.
S.Z.: Social awareness and activism have always been a part of your songwriting, your individual persona and the Indigo Girls public persona. You have said, “Musicians can become the amplifiers of the people that are working in the trenches”. What have been your most successful or fulfilling moments as a social activist or amplifier?
A.R.: Oh God, there’s a zillion of them. A lot of the work we do is environmental work. There are specific projects: We worked with a group in New Orleans, Sweet Home New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that helped put musicians back in houses who had left the city and had nowhere to live and were homeless. That was pretty fulfilling to see that happen.
There are a lot of people who are disenfranchised and they shouldn’t be. As a community, it enriches us to re-enfranchise people. And to have them in our communities in a functional way so that their voices count because it creates a richness.
Our goal, me and Emily, is about that. Bringing more voices into the community, building the community, having this diverse space where there are so many different opinions and voices and perspectives. In that way we can achieve more and create more and build a better society.
All of the social activism that Indigo Girls do is to that end. So it can be working in feminist realms or Native realms or housing or queer issues or really specific projects like hunger.
S.Z.: In 1993 you, Emily and Winona LaDuke began the organization Honor the Earth. Can you talk abit about the organization and your connection to Indigenous People of the Americas and the work that Honor the Earth does?
A.R.: This project probably has the most continuity in our career and the most longevity as far as one project that we have worked on for so long. This is some of the most rewarding social activism work we have done. We have been able to see the connection between all of the different battles and all of the activists we have known over the years. We have seen the way it helps for them to get press when they wouldn’t normally get it.
Music brings people together, so the Honor the Earth project has been incredibly fulfilling. And it keeps going.
S.Z.: If you weren’t playing music, what would you be doing?
A.R.: I would probably be a teacher, a high school teacher. (laughs) It might be what I’m doing later. I’d have to get my teaching certificate. I had one at one time, but then I got a bunch of gigs and didn’t end up teaching.
When I was in high school, the people that really made a difference where my high school teachers. I lived in a very rural community and I just feel like there is a need. There is always a need in rural communities and even urban communities that don’t have as many resources.
There is always a need for good teachers and people that really care and will really connect in the classroom and it’s hard to do that in places where it’s hard to draw those kinds of people or it’s hard to get enough teacher to work. It’s something I could do later in life and be really happy with.
The Indigo Girls will be performing Nov. 9, with the Oregon Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall.
Photo by John David Raper