An interview with Amy Ray of Indigo Girls
by Gregg Shapiro
Almost 25 years after Amy Ray and Emily Saliers released their first album under the Indigo Girls banner, it’s safe to say that they continue to get better with age. The out duo’s new album Beauty Queen Sister (Vanguard/IG Recordings) ranks among their very best work. Their trademark folk-rock style is augmented by bluegrass and Irish music influences making for a varied and gripping listening experience. I spoke with Ray shortly before the disc was released in October 2011.
Gregg Shapiro: The moon figures prominently in Beauty Queen Sister’s opening track “Share the Moon,” which you wrote, as well as Emily’s “We Get to Feel It All,” and it rises again in your “Mariner Moonlighting” and “Yoke.” Why do you think that is?
Amy Ray: [Laughs] I have no idea. We didn’t even notice, believe it or not, until after we were recording. We were like, “Uh oh, there are a lot of moons in here. We’re being very moony women.” [Laughs] Emily and I, we don’t even talk about what we’re writing at all while we’re doing it. We’re usually pretty apart while we’re writing. We write on the road a lot. We used to play songs during soundtrack, but we don’t really do that anymore. We don’t hear what each other is doing, so I don’t really know how that happened. It kinda feels a little redundant, but then we just have to let it be. Maybe it’s our age or something. We’re waxing poetic.
Something else that plays a significant role on the album is Luke Bulla’s violin.
We met him through Peter Collins when we did our holiday record. Peter heard him in Nashville playing at the Bluebird one night. He plays with Lyle Lovett, and he plays also in a band called WPA, which Glen Phillips from Toad The Wet Sprocket started. He does the singer/songwriter thing, he sings, too. He’s a blue grass player. He plays guitar, violin, mandolin, everything—you name it. He’s a great flat-picker, too. But his violin playing is way beyond. Most of the stuff he did on the record is live, like “Yoke.” I don’t know how he accomplished it. [Laughs] He is special. He’s a new addition. Also, the bass player, Frank [Swart], plays with Patty Griffin a lot. We just happened on him, and we were really lucky because he had huge input on this record. He produces, too, so his ideas from that perspective, even though he didn’t produce this record, were very production-like and added a whole lot. And we went back to our old friend Brady Blade who is, for me, the drummer who pulls it out of me when we are recording stuff live. I just bond with him, I guess. We sort of combined our world and the bluegrass world for this one.
Another interesting addition is the backing vocals by The Shadowboxers [Adam Hoffman, Matt Lipkins, Scott Schwartz] on the title cut and “We Get to Feel It All.” How did you come to work together?
They’re friends of Emily’s. She met them at Emory, our old alma mater. They all went there; they graduated from there last year. They were just these guys that started a band. She met one of them at a Seder, and she said, “God, your voice is beautiful.” He was singing at the Seder. They played guitar together later and he said, “I’ve got this band.” And it all went from there, and they opened for us. The band is quite amazing and their voices are stunning.
A familiar aspect of the disc is that the Indigo Girls have been reunited with producer Peter Collins, who you mentioned, who did “Rites of Passage,” “Swamp Ophelia,” “Become You,” and “All That We Let In.” How did that come about?
We always keep in touch—he’s a good friend. When we were thinking about doing our holiday record last year, his name came up because he has a knack for things like that. We had so much fun working with him on that. Basically we said let’s do our next new record with him and it was the team—Peter teamed with Trina Shoemaker, the engineer who is very amazing. I think that team really struck us as being something we wanted to experience on a record where we wrote the songs.
I always love literary references in songs, and the title track to Beauty Queen Sister is said to have been inspired in part by S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Are you a voracious reader, and what are you currently reading?
I am a voracious reader and so is Emily. She probably reads more than I do—she’s quick. I have stacks of books by my bed. You know what I just read that actually has been out for awhile, but I really got a lot out of it—it’s a book called Zeitoun. Dave Eggers wrote it, and it’s about a Muslim-American family during Hurricane Katrina and what they went through. I was scared that it would be too hard, because it’s such an upsetting thing; then I read it, and it was amazing. I read old history books. I like to read books that were written in weird times—like a book from the 1930s about the Civil War—to hear the differences and see how they looked at it and the difference from now. I just read that biography of Cleopatra that Stacy Shiff wrote. That’s a great read. A lot of times I go back and forth between that and a novel. One of my very favorite writers of all time is Louise Erdrich. If you read her last five books, you would just be blown away. She just gets better and more mature.
I think that the disc has some of your and Emily’s best love songs, “Birthday Song” and the aforementioned “Share the Moon” and “We Get to Feel It All.” After all this time, do you find that love songs get easier or harder to write?
I think it depends on the time period that you’re in. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to write a love song to save my life. Sometimes, for some reason, the way I’m looking at my own relationship or my best friend is in a relationship that I’m sort of picking apart and looking at. [Laughs] I often use my friends as my fodder, and they’re very sweet about letting me do that. I think it’s the time, and Emily feels the same way. She definitely goes through moments where writing a love song is right at her fingertips, and she can access that easily. And there are other times where you just can’t. This was one of those times for both of us when we were in that space.
Not surprisingly, politics and social issues make an appearance in “War Rugs” and even a bit in “John” and the single “Making Promises.” With the presidential election a little more than a year away, what are your thoughts on the current state of things in this country?
I guess I feel they’re so polarized. We all talk about how polarized that they are, but they really are. I don’t know which came first—that the media told us it was and we became more polarized, or if the media is reacting to the fact that we really are. I don’t like that. It bums me out. I’m patriotic in that way. I really believe it takes all different kinds of people and from all different parties to make things work with lots of different input and ideas and that we need to respect each other, the convictions that we have. If we can have democratic conversation and that civil discourse, I really believe we can do better and solve problems. I guess I’m kind of an idealist, and that’s not what’s happening. [Laughs]
Emily’s wedding song, “Able to Sing,” made me wonder if you have written or been asked to write a song for a same-sex wedding or civil union?
I’ve never been asked to write a song for a civil union. I have been asked to sing at some, but it’s never worked out. Emily has written a song. Her dear friend got married to another woman and she wrote a song for that, and it’s quite a nice song, but no one will ever hear it because it was a gift. But I haven’t done that actually. That would be hard. I think it’s hard to write a song on command for that kind of thing.
Are you aware of existing Indigo Girls songs that have been used for that purpose?
Everybody says they use “Power of Two.” That’s the most used song, straight or gay marriages.
Will any of the Nashville musicians heard on the disc be joining the Indigo Girls on tour?
I don’t know when, but at some point we’re going to try to get that band together and do a special run of shows. It won’t be the immediate fall tour, but at some point we’ll have the bluegrass band together as a special run. Probably if we do holiday shows, we’ll mix it up.
You have three solo studio discs under your belt. Is there a fourth in the works?
Yeah, I’m mixing it right now. I made it right before I went into the studio to make the Indigo Girls disc, but I had to wait for Trina Shoemaker. She’s doing a killer job. I don’t know when I’m going to put it out; probably the winter.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.