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From Hall & Oates to Freddie Mercury, countless artists have recorded solo albums that pale before the achievements of the acts who made them famous. A noteworthy exception to this rule is the activist folk-rock duo Indigo Girls, who have maintained the same high standards, whether working individually or collaboratively, for more than three decades
That point will be driven home once again as Ray and her band tour to promote her latest album Holler. An Atlanta native with a religious upbringing and a punk-rock past, she recorded its 14 tracks live-to-analog over the course of 10 days. The resulting collection has a warmth and spontaneity that brings to life Ray's experiments in a variety of musical realms. There's "Gracie's Dawn," an instrumental prelude that's intentionally suggestive of Burt Bacharach. "Dadgum Down" serves as a stark contrast, with a neo-Appalachian approach that finds Alison Brown's plaintive banjo picking set against an ominous string arrangement. Other tracks on the album embrace country-rock, soulful pop and numerous points in between.
Meanwhile, the Grammy-winning, harmony-driven duo is as active as ever. Following the release of last year's critically acclaimed live album with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Ray and musical partner Emily Saliers are wrapping up a new Indigo Girls collection while continuing to serve as high-profile representatives of the LGBTQ community.
Ray recently took a break from tour preparations to talk about Holler's music and politics, her admiration for Jesus and Stacey Abrams, and what it means to take on the role of left-wing redneck country artist.
Indy: Watching Stacey Abrams' State of the Union rebuttal earlier this week, I was struck by how she manages to tackle harsh political realities in such a calmly reassuring way, and I feel like your new album does something similar. Do you think you're bringing something to your work these days that you couldn't have back when you were a decade or two younger?
Amy Ray: Well, first of all, Stacey Abrams is a total hero of mine, and she's taught me a lot about that. I live in a small town in north Georgia — I've lived here for about 25 years — and it's a very white, conservative mountain town. She has come up here twice to speak and manages to draw a crowd with a lot of people who are definitely not Democrats. And it's just because of what you're talking about: She has a way of relating to everybody, she respects everybody's opinions, she doesn't judge people. And I just think that's incredibly important right now.
So I think that, on this record in particular, I'm definitely dealing with a lot of issues around race and my history as a Southerner. But I don't think I could have written those songs the same way 15 years ago, because it wouldn't have been as easy for me to be open about it and not have everything be so black and white. I've just learned, the more I've lived up here, not to judge a book by its cover, to try to see the good in people, even when they feel really differently than you do. I mean, I still have the punk-rock spirit [laughs] and I don't want to temper that. I just want to give people more room, and recognize their capacity to grow and change. I mean, I've grown. When I was in high school I was sort of a Reaganite.
I would not have guessed that.
Yeah, I was very preppy and conservative and kind of following in my parents' footsteps. One of my relatives was an itinerant street preacher, and around 11th grade I had these kind of "come to Jesus" talks with a couple of my teachers. And I remember how my history teacher was just like, "You're doing all of these things, but you need to look deeper into it, to learn more about the history." And after that, I began to realize that I was just trying to follow the role model of my parents and my church, and I had to grow past that. Because it wasn't matching what I felt inside, and the way I felt about humanity and society.
Did you ever get a chance to tell him the influence he had?
Yeah, but he already knew. He'd see me in school all the time, and I'd started wearing dashikis, and bandanas around my knee, and turned into a complete hippy. So he knew very well exactly what he had done. And then I was gay in my senior year, so it was kind of like all bets were off forever with me. Having a good history teacher, and a good English teacher, that'll go a long way for you. You can learn a lot from those two things.
Otherwise, you might be doing redneck right-wing country right now.
Yeah, and instead I'm doing redneck left-wing country.
Being a left-wing Southerner who loves Jesus makes for an interesting marketing campaign.
It's just the truth. I grew up in the South and I was in the Methodist Church. There was a lot of religion in my family and I did everything: Bible study, Wednesday night supper, choir practice, Friday night youth group, regular church service. I still believe in the historical Jesus, but I filter out this idea of Jesus as a patriarchal figure. I see him more as a rebellious hippy dude who made a real mark on society.
On the current album, you have a song about immigration with the line "Jesus woulda let 'em in." As a songwriter, when a lyric like that becomes even more topical than it was when you wrote it, what does that feel like?
Well, I mean, the issues of immigration and undocumented people — and all the incredible racism around that — have been around for a long time. It's not that new of an idea. I started writing that when all the refugees were coming over to Europe, and then I just felt like I've got to write about the southern border too, because it's all of the same ilk.
The song also has Rutha Mae Harris delivering a kind of sermon. At what point did you go, "That's who I need for this song."
Well, I knew I didn't want it to be me. I wanted it to have more gravity, and that I needed someone who had a track record and made sense when it comes to talking about civil rights and humanity and stuff. And she was one of the founding members of the Freedom Singers. So I got her number and called her, and she was really great. I drove down south to Albany, Georgia, picked her up at the house she's lived in for a long time, and took her to the studio. And we just did it, you know? But I was nervous about it, just to be this out-of-context white person. I didn't want to be seen as coming in to get "the black voice."
Which I was doing, but not in that way, you know what I mean?
You wanted to be more like Folkways Records.
That's right, I wanted to be more like Alan Lomax and less like I was exploiting somebody.
- With Indigo Girls songs, “you have to have harmonies. ... We can’t do an album that sounds like two solo records.”
So when you started writing songs for this record, did you take a different approach than you would have with Indigo Girls?
Yeah, I feel like, with my solo stuff, I've got this group of people now that can be a catalyst for me, and a muse in a way. And of course, with Emily I've always had that, and it's even more open now because we've gotten to this point with Indigo Girls where we know we're never going to be like this Grammy-winning band that's played all over the radio. We are who we are, so we just get to be honest about what we're doing. And so that also means not having a lot of boundaries, which feels really fun.
But with Indigo Girls songs, you do have to write harmonies.
Yeah, you have to have harmonies, that's the only thing. I mean, that's what I've discovered, too; it's like that's our thing. We can't do an album that sounds like two solo records.
Only Outkast can do that.
Yeah, and I love Outkast. If we were Outkast, we could do that. But with Indigo Girls, harmony is the thing that makes it magical, so I definitely write with that in mind. I'm thinking about the space you need to leave for the harmonies, and the ways you can develop counter-melodies if you have a chorus that's a little more simple.
You seem to be covering a lot more musical ground lately, especially on this album. Are there any particular reasons for that?
Well, for this record, I just didn't want any boundaries. It was like, "I've written the songs, now let's just turn them into whatever we want them to be." This is a band I've played with for five years now, so we can work together and really listen to each other. A couple of the musicians play jazz on the side, and a couple of them are bluegrass players. My guitarist plays with everyone from [grunge pioneer] Mark Lanegan to straight-up country musicians.
And then I wrote "Dadgum Down" on banjo. I cannot play banjo to save my life, but I'm trying to learn how. So I asked Alison Brown to come in and play on it. She's a crazy banjo player that can do anything.
And most of all, there's Brian Speiser, who produced the album and is a good friend of mine. He had done an album with me called Goodnight Tender, which was almost like a soft lullaby record with a country-rock rhythm. So this time we wanted to start on that soft kind of a note and then segue in an abrupt way. So this is what you get when you put a Beatles kind of guy together with a redneck rocker like me.