The Indigo Girls' Amy Ray goes Stag with a rocking solo debut
On a Saturday night in Texas, Amy Ray takes the stage as she has hundreds of times over the past decade as half of pop's most enduring folk-rock duo, Indigo Girls. She's dressed in her standard uniform: jeans and a T-shirt, with an unbuttoned long-sleeve shirt hanging over. This time, however, she's not standing in front of thousands at an amphitheater, and her equipment has not been arranged for her by a crew of roadies. She's at a gay bar in Austin, setting up her own gear for a showcase during that great convocation of indie bands, SXSW. She'll be accompanied by post-riot-grrrl power-trio the Butchies, a hard-rocking lesbian punk band from North Carolina.
When the Butchies join her on stage, they're dressed in all black, and Ray stands out even more strikingly as frontwoman. It's impossible not to notice that her Indigo Girls cohort, Emily Saliers, is nowhere to be seen. This is Ray's live debut as a solo artist, following closely on the release of Stag, her first solo album. And if she's not exactly going stag tonight, at the very least it feels a little like Girls' Night Out.
Of course, Ray and Saliers are not married, but having spent more than 20 years as musical partners, it often can seem that way. Part of the process of growing up together, though, has involved allowing each other to grow apart, to explore their differences. For some partnerships, increasing independence is a sign of trouble, while for others, it's an indication of strength. At home in Atlanta, their contrasting associations — Saliers as the proprietor of an upscale eatery on Decatur's main drag, Ray as the head of a low-budget, non-profit record label hidden down a dirt road in Kirkwood — have allowed their public identities to evolve separately over the years. Starting as the sisterly harmonizing metaphysicians of "Closer to Fine," they now seem just as much like an odd couple.
Until Stag, however, neither partner has ever publicly explored their musical differences. While Indigo Girls records, most recently 1999's Come On Now Social, alternated Ray's harder-rocking, more strident songs with Saliers' sweeter, easier material, the many exceptions to that rule point to how contributions blur when collaborators produce a larger, unified whole. Stag, though, is all about Ray and the stuff she keeps entirely separate from Indigo Girls.
More than anything else, Stag is shaped by Ray's world. Her label, Daemon Records, released the CD; current or former Daemon acts — the Rock*A*Teens, 1945 and Danielle Howle — appear on it; and the indie/activist sensibility associated with Ray and Daemon can be heard throughout the disc. Stag also involves like-minded friends Ray has met on tour — mainly the Butchies, but also other alternative-oriented, often feminist and lesbian-identified musicians such as Joan Jett, Josephine Wiggs (formerly of the Breeders) and Kate Schellenbach (formerly of Luscious Jackson).
"There's a need to be completely separate for me," Ray says. "It's my other life. It has nothing to do with this other thing that me and Emily do."
Saliers, who says she's a big fan of the record, recognizes that the "very raw and personal" nature of Stag's songs lent them more to Ray's voice, distinct and independent of Indigo Girls. "I think it could be that Amy might sometimes feel fettered by arrangements. I have sort of a high, sweet voice and these songs are very angst-ridden or emotionally exorcising. She just went in with different bands and friends, and blasted through the songs really low-budget and indie," she says. "A lot of that spirit is Amy. I'm more of a person who likes to get in the studio and fix things. I want my pitch to be perfect and so on. We're a little bit different in that way. So I think it must've been a very freeing thing for Amy to just do this on her own."
In some way, the record represents an evolution for Ray that has culminated in a sort of musical breakthrough: from the Indigo Girls' pop stardom in the late '80s to her heavy involvement in activism in the '90s — which saw her focusing less on music — to a musical re-emergence that accounts for Stag's best material.
While a social consciousness has always informed Indigo Girls' music, early on it was mainly driven by a general sense of wanting to give back — through playing benefits or doing a token cover of the hippie anthem "Get Together" — rather than any specific focus on problem solving. By the mid-'90s, however, "activism took over everything," Ray says. "When we started doing Honor the Earth and all these gun control and pro-choice things, our lives were basically being activists."
During this time, in addition to getting deeply involved in women's and public health issues, Ray visited the Zapatista movement in Mexico and spent time living with Native American activists in the U.S. "I think the music might have suffered a little bit because I was in shock from all the stuff I was learning. I couldn't figure out how to articulate it on the guitar."
A number of factors eventually got Ray's creative juices flowing again. First, the end of an eight-year relationship, she says, "kind of kicked me in the butt, and music became the only thing that could save me."
At the same time, as Ray came to understand her role in activism, she felt less frustrated by it. More importantly, Ray came away from that intense period of political involvement with a better understanding of her music and of how activism fits into it. "My songwriting, I feel, has gotten better as my activism has gotten better," she says. "It's a matter of being able to find specific metaphors and find a specific way to do activism."
By learning to integrate political sentiments in ways that go beyond sloganeering, Ray's songwriting not only improved, in some part it also shifted toward a style that lent itself to a solo record. "Hey Castrator" and "Measure of Me," for instance, reduce gender politics to an intimate level, where what's often defined in black and white gets painted with more subtle shades of gray. And "Lucystoners," which has raised eyebrows by charging Rolling Stone magazine's founder Jann Wenner of sexism, is actually a lot more clever and finely detailed than that one sentiment would suggest. It also happens to be very catchy and, with its singalong line "Lucystoners don't need boners," it's pretty funny, too.
"I don't think Emily felt as comfortable about 'Lucystoners,' and I couldn't see her wanting to play it," Ray says. "I kind of know what her limits are. It's not like she's a prude, but thematically, some of it is really about gender identity or has this kind of anger or personal reflection. 'Hey Castrator' also doesn't seem like a song Emily would sing on, and as soon as you put our voices together, it automatically has a certain personality that doesn't fit in with this record to me."
After considering the possibility of a solo record for a while, what finally got the process in motion was meeting the Butchies on tour. "I wanted to play with different people to ... break away from having that comfortable thing to fall back on — Emily, her musicality and talent," Ray says. "When I met the Butchies, and I started learning songs from them, I think that really sealed it for me, because I had something like a starting point."
While Ray initially hoped to section off a chunk of time to dedicate solely to the solo record, Indigo Girls' tour schedule didn't allow for that. Instead, she ended up squeezing in recording sessions between tours, driving back and forth between Chris Stamey's studio in Chapel Hill (where she recorded with the Butchies), Dave Barbe's studio in Athens (where she recorded with the Rock*A*Teens, including former member Kelly Hogan) and a studio in Birmingham (where she recorded with 1945, formerly known as Three Finger Cowboy). And when she could coordinate a day they were all free, Ray trekked up to Brooklyn to record with Jett, Schellenbach and Wiggs.
Once the process had started, though, Ray was determined to push ahead until it was done. With Indigo Girls' near-constant touring, that took nearly a year of maximizing every moment of off-time. "It was a lot of work," she says. "After I finished the whole thing, I had this sense that I had been in this tunnel for a year and I couldn't believe I had actually done it."
Sitting on the couch in the unfinished warehouse loft space Daemon calls its office, Ray keeps busy in between appointments by attaching mailing labels to packages being sent out to press and radio. It's not the only world she knows — Indigo Girls being, along with Michael Jackson, one of Epic Records' longest lasting acts — but it's clearly the world she prefers.
Still, she also recognizes the double life she leads, being on a major label while crusading against the corporate establishment with Daemon and her activism. "We struggle about it a lot," Ray says. "Me and Emily even had different perspectives on it. I think Emily feels different now, ... but there was a time when she felt like if we have an important thing to say, she'd rather it get out to more people."
Of course, if Amy Ray wasn't on Epic with Indigo Girls, a lot fewer people would hear about Daemon and her indie solo album. In fact, one final impetus for getting Stag done was the probability that Ray's notoriety would drive CD sales and thus raise money for Daemon, enabling the label to continue releasing other, less commercially viable records.
"At some point it was just like, 'We gotta put some records out that will fund the label,'" she says. "It's got to be self-contained. It can't just be this thing where I'm putting all this money in and it's basically a granting organization."
As a by-product of making a record on her own label, Ray says she's reconnected with her own past as an indie artist. "I understand some things better, like havin' to deal with my own artwork or my own pressing, things I'd kinda lost touch with over the years because someone else might have made it happen," she says.
Though she eventually sees even Indigo Girls headed to an indie label once their contract with Epic expires, she admits that right now, "I've kind of got the best of both worlds. I get to do this indie thing but I still have an infrastructure to fall back on, of all the experience with Indigo Girls, people that have helped Indigo Girls."
As with any partnership, success requires compromise. And if the partnership is strong enough to allow a little independence, there are benefits to be reaped, too. "Making a solo record is important for growth," says Saliers, who plans to embark on her own project. "It's sort of like a marriage. What's good for the individual is good for the whole, because it's all about growing and experiencing and bringing more to the table. At this juncture for Amy, it's really important to do that, and I completely celebrate that. And when it comes time to make my solo record, she'll be the same way for me."
Amy Ray and the Butchies play the Echo Lounge Thurs., March 29. Advance tickets for the show are sold out. For more information, call 404-681-3600.