A Conversation With Amy Ray
Mike Ragogna: Amy Ray, we are very happy to have you here, thanks for your time.
Amy Ray: Happy to be here!
MR: Lung Of Love?
MR: What's behind that title and song?
AR: The title I got from the song that's on the record Lung Of Love. It encompassed the song for me because it refers to my voice and our ability to be in the world and express ourselves through song or through breathing or through whatever you do and what keeps you alive as well as what hinders you. Your physicality is this great thing, but it is also the thing that makes you clumsy and limits you in the world, so to speak. That song was about that, and then I thought that would be a cool album title that reflects some of the other songs as well, or reflects the human condition, for me anyway. I'm not fully clear yet, sometimes I have something in my head and I can't quite articulate it yet, and it takes me a few months to figure out what I meant in some ways, or to explain what I meant. I'm still working on it.
MR: Personally, I think some of the best works have an evolution in interpretation.
AR: Yeah, I think that's true.
MR: With "Little Revolution," what's that revolution in your heart all about?
AR: That song is just about trying to remain vibrant and vital in life as you move through and things change, and constantly being willing to stay open to new inspiration and people, new music, whatever it is that keeps you going. I think I was just trying to write myself a song to encourage me -- like a pep rally song -- to keep going on sometimes. A lot of times, there are people that are a source of that for me -- people that are in my life, loved ones or friends, or musical inspirations, or neighbors or the kids that are out in the street to piss you off but are alive at the same time, you know? You see yourself in them sometimes. That's that song, like a little poppy song.
MR: Let's also talk about "I Didn't." We're in relationships, we're with people and there's a lot of acting out can go on, sure. But your concept rings true. It's like, "You know what? Someone broke your heart, but I didn't. Someone else did all these messed up things to you, but I didn't. Let's have our own relationship."
AR: Yeah, it's funny because in some ways, it can be seen as passing the buck. But in other ways, it's honoring the fact that we come to each other generally after a childhood and teen years, and all the things that happen to you before you end up with somebody that sort of formed you in some ways. I think it's good to be careful not to let these things weigh you down, to add to you instead of subtract, not to be constantly looking for reasons to be in conflict and that song was about that. You can always find a reason to be mad at each other if you look deep enough, so let's try for higher ground.
MR: I remember my mentor Tommy West's mother-in-law Gramma Gretch once said to me -- referring to my not having grown up in the best of family situations -- "Michael, it may not be your fault, but it's your responsibility."
AR: Hahaha, great saying.
MR: She was right on. No excuses, you have to work on your stuff.
AR: Yeah it's true, and it's hard. I definitely wrote that song in a place of realizing that, and trying to evolve past that place in myself where I can just finally be in a relationship in a way that was, not mature, but more realized and less weighed down by drama. It was a song to work things out for myself in a way.
MR: Beautiful. Amy, in "Glow," you talk about having the best day you ever had. Let's be goofy, can you think of the best day you ever had?
AR: In that song, it's coming from a place of irony in some ways. I have so many moments... I am extremely passionate about life and at the same time, I'm always depressed, so everything's always happening at the same time for me. It's the best day and the worst day too. It's like not having filters or something like that. The best days I have are usually days where I'm out in the woods and something happens, like I see an amazing animal like a fox, or I get a glimpse of a wild pig or something that I never see. Or crazy things happen. I live in the rural area of North Georgia, so for me, those are these best days. It has little to do with humans and mostly to do with nature and what surrounds me.
MR: Humans are horrid, aren't they.
AR: Yeah I guess so. (laughs) I mean, they're worth it. Dogs are easier, and hiking around in the woods and looking at weird plants are easier too, right?
MR: Yup. Hey, I love what you said earlier about not having filters. Some of the best artists and some of the wackiest but worthwhile people that I know have no filters. You hear what they've got inside, you get what you see. It can be harsh, but it's the truth.
AR: I mean it's good to be open like that, no doubt about it. I think you just have to take the bad with the good and you're going to get hurt more, but it's worth it.
MR: Amy, let's discuss "When You're Gone, You're Gone." I have about 30 different interpretations of that one.
AR: Yeah, I had a couple of interpretations of that song too because I wrote it from different places. I wrote it from a place of... I was actually at a friend's wedding and going through this whole scenario in my head, while waiting for everything to start, of what would happen if someone at this particular event stood up and protested, because that's a rarity at weddings when that happens. But I don't know, it was really based more on my friends' lives rather than my own and some past experiences in my own life and that idea that you get to this place with somebody and the other person is out of the relationship for a while and you realize that they are gone. And it's that moment of, "Oh yeah, I guess, all these things I was thinking, we finally arrived," and it was more like a dream sequence instead of a real day-to-day life kind of thing. We finally arrived, and then you're actually gone, and I didn't realize it. That's where I was at in an abstract way with that song. For that song, it came out of this dreamy, lyrical story, and I was playing it almost like a rockabilly, pretty fast, almost like Buddy Holly or a fast Everly Brothers song. When I was in the studio, the producer Greg and my drummer Mel were all working on it and laboring on it, and he said, "Let's just slow it down really slow and play the Michael Jackson "Billie Jean" beat." That's exactly what we did. We stayed up all night and taped it, so it was like one of those songs. I don't typically work that late into the night in a studio, I'm more productive during the day. But for some reason, that night, we got the take of it on our old analog tape machine and it has this voice quiver in it because the tape was warping, and all these things that went into it. For me, that song is as much about the experience of recording it and what happened during the process as it is about what the song is about. It just came out of this place of trying to look at something in a completely different way, which is sort of what the song is about too, so it worked for me.
MR: And it being the first song, it sets up the album with a real openness, it's a great introduction for what's coming after it.
AR: Yeah, it's so funny. I didn't even think of the song in that way, I thought of it as a song that we did just for ourselves, in a way. We experimented with everything and it would just go in the record somewhere. Trina Shoemaker made the record, and when she was mixing it, she really hooked into that song. I was like, "Wow, I never heard that song as being an opener or anything like that on this record. I thought of it more as a sleeper." She was like, "I think this defines the record." It's so funny when someone else is working on something with you and they see it so completely differently, and that's why it's good to work with other people, because if I'd been trying to be in charge of everything and have it be all my vision, I might not have done that, and it wouldn't have turned out as well. I think having her take the record away from me and Greg and mix it and see her own vision before we had input, that's the best way to do it. She would work on mixes and we would revisit it with her, but let her do her thing first. I think that's the way to collaborate.
MR: Who were the musicians who played with you on this album?
AR: Julie Wolf played all the keyboards and synthesizers. She came in and did an amazing job. She plays with Indigo Girls a lot and so many other people like Bruce Cockburn. She tours with five different people, she's an Indigo Girl touring person. Typically, I don't mix who plays with Indigo Girls and who plays the solo, but she really can morph into different things, so she played on the record. Greg Griffith produced it and played bass and guitar. Kaia Wilson and Melissa York from The Butchies played guitar and drums. So I was teamed back up with my old punk band The Butchies, and Greg produced and Julie came in. And I had a few players from North Carolina that we did the Appalachian song, "The Rock is My Foundation." We brought in a different team of people to do that. We were in Greensboro, NC, in Greg's studio. It was a long process of going up on the weekends when I wasn't touring with Indigo Girls or working on Indigo Girls record, and got it done over a long period of time.
MR: Do you miss playing with The Butchies?
AR: I do. I really do, actually, because I get to tour by myself every couple of years for a few months at a time, and then weekends, here and there, so it's definitely one of those things where I get to get back with them and my band. Maybe if I did it more, I wouldn't feel the same way, but I probably would. I mean, I really, really love playing solo. Definitely, it's like a labor of love, it's not a huge career. It's not that successful, but it's something I love so much that I'll do it regardless.
MR: That raises the obvious question, is this a break from the Indigo Girls?
AR: I mean, it's a gap. I work in the gaps. It's a gap of time where we're off the road for one reason or another. I'll take that time and take advantage of it, but it's usually just a break. But this time, with the solo stuff, I request those breaks as well because I want to do on my own project, and I feel like it just makes me better for Indigo Girls too. It used to just be that if we happened to have a couple of days off, I would work on something else. But now I'll say, "Is there a time period when you think you don't want to tour or we might be off the road," or right after the record's done, when we don't have as much to do, I'll map it out for myself. This project, I've been thinking about for a long time, writing for and then working on it. When I started on it, I just needed to start and I didn't know how it was going to work out. But I just needed to get things done, and I thought, "I'll get it done if I start, but if I don't start, I'll never do it." It worked out and it fell into place that we had time off for me to tour as well, so it was good that it worked out that way. I was glad that I actually started instead of waiting until I could see clearly that it could happen.
MR: When did you start writing for the project?
AR: Probably a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago. A year ago, we started putting down tracks. It took a while before we laid down all the tracks to actually mix it. Actually, probably I started writing two years ago, and started recording a year and a half ago, that's what it was.
MR: You know, I don't think I ever asked you and Emily the last time we all chatted what your creative process is like? What's your writing process like?
AR: When I'm writing, which is 8-9 months out of the year, I'm in a concerted writing pace, where I work 5 days a week for at least a few hours a day, maybe a little bit more. But I won't work for more than 2 hours at a time. I'll work for a couple hours and take a break. I'm basically in a room, or when I'm on the road, a hotel or the dressing room or the tour bus, and I usually have a recorder with me or my computer, or Garage Band. I have a lyric journal that I write in a lot. When I'm going to play, I just sit down and have my books with me and my notes and tapes and whatever I need to refer to. I just play and try different things. It's a kind of discipline. I sit down and draw from my lyric book. I sit down and start looking through it and see if there is anything that strikes me that I've written. It's like a journal in a way, but not a journal, like a lyric journal where I can write my ideas down. I'll play around on the guitar for a while and see if there's anything coming out that seems good. Usually, I tape while I'm doing everything. I'll record it or use my computer or a digital recorder. Periodically, I'll go back and listen through to everything that I've been working on and try to find where the songs are, and then I'll pull those out and then I'll have 4-5 things that I'm working on at one time.
MR: It's funny you use the word "tape" when referring to "recording." I do the same, it's just an old habit.
AR: I don't even know what to call it! (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Amy, what advice might you have for new artists?
AR: Oh God, it's such a big world right now for artists. There are as many possibilities as you can have time for, getting your music out there with the internet, and Youtube, Vimeo, Facebook, and everything that you have, there is a way to spread the word. To me, the first thing you have to have is substance and content and real depth. I think just because there is access to so many ways to get your stuff out doesn't mean that you should immediately be getting stuff out and spending all your time on that. That kind of stuff can take a lot of time and take away from your creative time. I suggest balancing it; if you're a songwriter, really spend time on your song-writing and balancing that with spending the time promoting yourself or whatever you would call it. Playing live is still really important. If you're a pop artist like Lady Gaga, into the iconic image and all that stuff, that's a different road. It still takes a lot of work and you still have to have substance if you're going to last. But if you want to be a songwriter-based musician, whether you play punk or rock or country or jazz, whatever, you have to work on your songwriting and you have to work on being able to play in front of people, I think. That performance is how you create the groundwork for a lasting career. If you don't get out there and do it, people don't stay with you. You don't touch them the same way. I think that even though there are all these new ways to get your stuff out there, it doesn't mean that you don't need to go out and tour and play live shows and really earn that kind of communication and connection with people.
MR: It's all about the connection, isn't it.
AR: Even with all the social networks in the world, it doesn't really work if people start to figure out that you don't have the substance. People are smart, they're smarter than we think. (laughs) At some point, they're not going to stay with you or hear what you're doing if there's not some integrity behind it. I don't mean like you're a good person, but I mean integrity like you really "do it."
MR: Before we go, I wanted to ask you about Honor The Earth. How's that going?
AR: It's going great. We have this process a couple times a year where we have a docket of grants that we give out that are based on a bunch of different Native organizations, environmental organizations, and cultural sustainability groups. We go right in and turn in these grants that say, "We need $2000 for this project," and they explain it. The board votes on it, and the money all goes out. We have a meeting to disburse the money, which is always the most fun thing to do. Making it is not as easy, but giving it away is great! We are still going. We just had an event in New York, a fundraiser, and we've been working a lot on solar and wind-powered stuff still, trying to fight bad power like coal-fired power plants, as well as different ways of capturing energy that are bad for the environment and not sustainable. We worked really hard to stop the Exxon pipeline and the tar sands issue in Canada as well. Both of those have gone really well and are ongoing. You think you've won, and then new people come into the administration and you have to reassert yourself. There are contentious energy issues going on because the economy is so bad too, and it's hard because people's jobs depend on this or that energy production. I think you have to be careful when you're working on something to understand the dialog from the other side as well, why a lot of people feel the way they do, and offer solutions when you're fighting something. Offer a solution so you're not just shutting everything down right and left and not showing concern for the community. In another way, it's like saying, "Yeah, we can replace this thing, which is a public health hazard with this other thing that is really actually sustainable and will provide jobs and be good for the community." That is our perspective -- having some kind of positive thing instead of just everything always being like we have to shut this down, get rid of this and get rid of that. We also talk about how we can build things up and how we can provide. It's through the voice of the different groups that are working. We do some project work where we do projects for ourselves, wind projects or solar projects. But most of our energy is going into funding the people who are doing great work out there that are native.
MR: By the way, do you remember from last time that KRUU is the only solar-powered radio station in the Midwest?
AR: I think that's super cool!
MR: Thanks. We're also community base and low powered... a one-two punch.
AR: Yeah, you've got it all. You're like the poster child for what we're trying to get accomplished.
MR: Thank you so much for your time. It's always fun to talk with you.
AR: Thanks so much for having me, I really, really appreciate it.
1. When You're Gone, You're Gone
3. I Didn't
4. From Haiti
5. Crying In The Wildreness
6. Little Revolution
7. The Rock Is My Foundation
8. Lung Of Love
9. Give It A Go
10. Bird In The Hand
Transcribed by Narayana Windenberger