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Art for heart's sake

Indigo Girl Amy Ray answers to a higher calling



Creatively speaking, Amy Ray has a lot on her plate right now, including a current tour backing her fourth solo set, Didn't It Feel Kinder, on her own Daemon Records imprint. Then there's Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, an upcoming return to folk-harmony form with her Indigo Girls bandmate Emily Saliers. Produced by Mitchell Froom and issued on their new IG label, it's divided into two discs, one with full-band versions of 10 new originals, the other acoustic and live.

All well and good, says Ray, but she feels there's much more to do.

"For me, music is a very immediate kind of vocation where I have a mutual exchange with the audience or listener," says Ray. "But there are so many artists though time who've been great geniuses, and that's a realm that I really don't feel a part of."

Ray's humility isn't a put-on.

"What I want to be remembered for isn't my art," she explains, "but the activism that I've been involved with and the places I've worked that's the legacy that's much more important to me."

Pals since grade school in Atlanta, Ray and Saliers were taught to give back to their community. And once they started performing as a duo in the mid-'80s, the Indigo Girls, she says, "always did benefits, playing for soup kitchens, homeless shelters, other organizations. And then we started getting into environmental work, and that led us into working specifically with the Native American activism paradigm, because we felt like that was more effective than the white mainstream approach."

The duo's nonprofit, Honor the Earth, has simple goals, which are all mapped out on its Web site.

"We work all across the Americas, and a lot of what we've done has been with energy policy," she continues. "Trying to look away from negative policies like coal, uranium and logging and replace them with wind, solar and other renewables for a more sustainable system that can also be a part of the Native American infrastructure and economy. So we're still trying to build a bridge between the Indian and non-Indian communities, and initiate political and financial support."

Everywhere she's toured, Ray has stumbled across societal ills: Mental hospitals losing their funding. Reservations with no access to crucial resources. Even the plight of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, where she's often visited, "with the military surrounding their villages and helicopters constantly overhead.

"In any city, you see people down and out, living in abject poverty," she says. "And you feel blessed, but you also think, 'How can I make a difference in this?'"

Ray's Poseidon is scheduled for March release. On it, she perfects the protest song with "Silver Tongue," which denounces everything from Darfur to the oil industry's callous disregard for nature: "Our fine feathered friends are singing 'til they bleed / How will we replace that symphony?"

But you'll have to wait a while to fully appreciate her activism, she cautions, "because some of the things I've worked for won't even show themselves until after I'm dead."

So what does this good Samaritan want inscribed on her tombstone?

"'I tried'," she answers in a heartbeat. "Or maybe 'Be joyful,' because that's really what you have to be, no matter what."

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