An intimate conversation with Amy Ray
Amy Ray and Emily Saliers went from elementary school friends to the dynamic lesbian duo the Indigo Girls in 1985. Since then, the duo has survived an excess of unpredictable changes within the music industry, sold over seven million albums, and became GRAMMY award winners. As the two hit the road to promote their 16th studio album Look Long, Amy Ray sat down with me to tell all in this intimate conversation.
The Covid-19 Pandemic specifically affected the music and performing arts industries much longer than originally anticipated. How did it affect you, what were your challenges, and what did you either benefit and/or not benefit from?
Amy Ray: We were off the road for 15 months which was the longest time we have been home since we were twenty. In a good way, we were able to spend time with our families and regain perspective on life. On the flip side, there was so much suffering and inequity taking place. While we attempted to find ways to help others, we almost felt powerless because the problems were so huge. We organized live streaming fundraising events which were very successful in raising funds for a food pantry in southwest Georgia which was in dire straits as well as various Native American COVID-relief efforts. It felt good witnessing our audience come through with such large donations. Nevertheless, if you are in a community that suffered a surplus of loss or a small business owner who lost your business, it is difficult to see the upside in all of this. For those who were fortunate enough to dodge loss and use this time to regain perspective, be grateful.
The Indigo Girls have been in the music business for decades. You have had a very impressive career that has weathered extreme changes within the industry from cassette tapes to CDs to streaming. What was the biggest change in the industry which affected you?
AR: I strongly feel it was the legislative decision, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated radio making it very homogenized by enabling many stations to be owned by one company. Immediately thereafter, radio and print media began to experience consolidation by one company where diversity as well as difference of opinions went out the window. This really changed the way people promoted their records in addition to what they had access to. Essentially, consolidation diminished the independent voice.
Fortunately, then came the phenomenon of the rise of the internet which led to podcasts, streaming, and ultimately an outlet for artists to take things into their own hands again with a do-it-yourself approach. Unlike past DIY efforts of going into the record store and manually providing copies of music, this new revolution is more intellectual in that you can do it all from your house through inexpensive recording equipment and varied distribution avenues. This is a blessing because Emily and I became very worried when radio stations and media as a whole began being taken over by huge corporate conglomerates which were monolithic, very mainstream, and anchored by gatekeepers who were all white straight men. It was not our music we were worried about, it was diversity, the voice of LGBT, the voice of color, the voice of other languages. Now, we are reentering a fertile time of revolutionary thought and creativity.
Your 16th studio album, Look Long, was released at the height of the pandemic in May 2020. What was it like working on this album and putting it together with Emily?
AR: It was so long ago pre-COVID it feels like another lifetime. We recorded in England at a studio Peter Gabriel built called Real World Studios in a village close to the city of Bath. The area provided a very mystical setting with hints of pagan, druid influences coupled with mossy streams and fields of cows. Our band is almost entirely from England and we spent the time in England together creating this record. Fun fact: Our band is the same band Sinead O’Connor was on tour with during Lilith Fair. We all met when we were playing the shows together and became fast friends during that time. We approached them to create a record and it was an amazing collaboration. Sometimes I regret releasing the album during the height of the pandemic however we felt it necessary given the dark times and the fact that every other artist was delaying their releases.
You have finally begun touring again and are set for three New Jersey shows this fall. How has it been getting back on the road?
AR: We had a plethora of shows which were canceled a year and a half ago. Right now, half of the shows we are doing are those which were rescheduled. When we started, we were initially playing to pods of people which were very spread out. It was difficult to get used to because we felt somewhat disconnected from the fans. Ironically, by the time we got used to it, the show seating went back to how it was pre-pandemic. With that said, the regulations and mandates between every state is so different, that performing in the states now feels like each state is a different country. No matter what, it feels incredible to finally be out on the road performing these songs!
What’s next for you?
AR: I am in the process of writing a surplus of songs for a new solo record I am working on as well as for the next Indigo Girls record. I have some solo performances lined up with my country band in Atlanta, Asheville, and Durham this Summer. Then, I resume touring with Emily.
Is it significantly different working with Emily as part of the Indigo Girls versus working and touring as a solo artist?
AR: Yes! When I started performing solo it was in 2001 and at the time, I was releasing punk rock records. We were performing in different spaces and I was playing with The Butchies. Later I began creating country records because I always had a passion for that genre. I have had the same country band for the past eight years. When we tour it is literally my van and trailer; I book all the hotel rooms myself and we barely have a crew. It is very DIY and a totally different scene than the Indigo Girls.
Do you have a release date set for this upcoming solo record?
AR: My single, “Chuck Will’s Widow,” was released July 23rd. As of now, the album is tentatively scheduled for Spring 2022.