Whether out singer/songwriter Amy Ray is performing with longtime musical partner Emily Saliers as one half of the Indigo Girls, as she has since the mid-1980s, or going solo as she did with her solo debut “Stag” in 2001, you can recognize her instantly.
Her distinctive vocal style, which suits whatever genre she’s performing – folk, punk, Americana, or gospel – has become as much her trademark as the outspokenness of her lyrics.
“If It All Goes South” (Daemon), Ray’s exceptional seventh solo album is a welcome addition to her singular output, touching on themes of queerness and social issues, all performed in her warm and welcoming manner. Amy was gracious enough to make time to talk about the new album around the time of its release.
Indigo Girls perform on April 19 in the Au-Rene Theater at The Broward Center.
Gregg Shapiro: Before we get to your new album “If It All Goes South,” I wanted to go back in time a little bit. Your 2001 solo debut album “Stag” and its 2005 follow-up “Prom” are firmly rooted in a punk rock/riot grrrl aesthetic. While the Indigo Girls are more than capable of rocking out, did you feel that the songs on those albums wouldn’t have been a good fit for what you do with Emily (Saliers)?
Amy Ray: Yes. I think it was because of two things. One was the collaborators. Those were people I’m a fan of, most of them are people that Daemon Records (Ray’s record label) had an association with, in some way or another. It was kind of like this other camp of people that were different from the collaborators that the Indigos would typically play with. It tended to be more studio accurate, in some ways. As opposed to that punk rock ethic which is music being from a different place, and accuracy maybe being less important than technical prowess.
GS: A little more DIY.
AR: Yeah! And I also think the subject matter, the songs were just a little more singular in a way that was hard to do them as the Indigo Girls and not dilute the message. As soon as you get us together, we really shift the other person’s song, it becomes a duet. The subject matter to me was so specific and gender queer and punk rock edge, that it didn’t feel like it would work. At that time, when I wrote (the song) “Lucy Stoners,” Emily wasn't interested in doing some of those songs. She wasn’t down with the attitude. Now, she would say, I'm sure just knowing her, that [laughs] she’d do it now. Because her attitude has changed. I was hanging out with and influenced by people that were from that DIY movement, and there was lots of gender queer conversation. It was a different place than Emily was in as a gay person. Emily can play any song [laughs] and I know. Now, I look back on all of it and I think I was, all the time, reaching around to different collaborations because I love collaborating with different kinds of people. It always teaches me something. It’s also a different itch that I get scratch.
GS: In terms of trajectory, to my ear, your most recent three solo albums – 2014’s “Goodnight Tender,” 2018’s “Holler,” and the new one, “If It All Goes South” (Daemon) – in addition to being alphabetically titled, feel like an Americana trilogy. Do you consider them to be linked?
AR: Yeah. I mean I didn't say to myself, “This is the third one and then I'll stop.” But “If It All Goes South” was definitely a record where there was a thread from the other ones and some things that I wanted to achieve that I didn’t feel like I was able to do on the other ones. I think I didn't even know that until we started making this one. This is more successful at combining a few of my punk-abilly influences into an Americana world. Also, some of that spontaneity we were starting to get on “Holler.” Now that we've played together as long as we have as a band, it was at its peak on this record. I think we just needed to make a couple of records to get to that place. I like them all, but for different reasons. They do different things for me. This one gathers up all the loose ends of “Holler” and “Goodnight Tender” musically and ties them up and puts them in a different context, and almost raises the bar. Lyrically, I wanted to have songs that were about healing, a “you're not alone” kind of vibe, because of the time period that we had just been through. It's also the same producer (Brian Speiser) on all three, and we’ve worked together on projects. It started off casually – “Hey, I've been wanting to do this country record with these songs. Let’s do this together.” We also had Bobby Tis, who had engineered the last one, and mixed this one. That made the whole experience like a closed loop in a good way. Because he engineered and mixed it, he got to bring his own sounds to fruition. We also went full-tilt on the tape, where the last two records we had, for budget reasons, had to transfer everything to Pro Tools and then mix in a Pro Tools session, and then transfer it back to half-inch tape. Trina (Shoemaker) did that. But this time we mixed to tape.
GS: Am I reading too much into the album’s title “If It All Goes South,” or is it a play on words, as in “goes south” as a direction and as deterioration?
AR: You're not reading too much into it. There’s even more you can read into it, politically. When I was writing (the song) “Chuck Will’s Widow,” Georgia was the epicenter of some big political movement. When Warnock got elected and Abrams declared running for governor again, I was like, “Oh man, I'm in the right place for once.” But we knew it wasn’t always going to be easy. My perspective in that song was a couple things. “If it all goes South, count it as a blessing, that’s where you are.” Yes, it's directional, and also like, if things get really shitty, try to make the best of it, of course, it’s what you tell your kids all the time.
GS: As any Indigo Girls fan or follower of your solo output knows, you have a history of playing well with others, in addition to Emily (Saliers), “If It All Goes South” is no exception with guest vocalists including Brandi Carlile (“Subway”), H.C. McEntire (“Muscadine),” Allison Russell (“Tear It Down”), Natalie Hemby (“From This Room”), and the trio I’m With Her (“Chuck Witt’s Widow”). When you begin the recording process for an album do you have a wish list of musical guests or how does that work?
AR: I usually have a wish list when I'm writing the song. Alison Brown, she's part of the band, so I always think about her banjo playing when I'm writing. She doesn't tour with us, but she’s in the band. I started writing “From This Room” a long time ago, and I started writing it as a duet. I didn't have anybody in mind at that point, but I hadn't finished it yet. When I was finishing it for the record, I had just seen Natalie Hemby with The Highwomen and had also just had met her and Emily writes with her sometimes. So, I knew her and I was thinking about her voice. When I wrote “Subway,” in part, in tribute to (the late DJ) Rita Houston, who had been so crucial. She and Brandi Carlile were super close. She really helped develop Brandi’s career in being such an indicator station, getting other people on board. So, I was thinking about Brandi and the chorus vocals that would be there because I was writing kind of an ambitious chorus for me [laughs]. I'm like, “I'm gonna have to have Brandi in here!” For “North Star,” that kind of gospel song at the end, when I wrote it and Jeff Fielder, the guitar player, and I were demoing it, I was like, “This is not right. There's another ingredient. I don't know enough about the kind of music I'm trying to write to do it.” I got Phil Cook to come in, as a co-writer really, to finish the song musically. Fill out the chords and make it the gospel song I was trying to write. The only person I wanted to do this was Phil Cook. I am just very specific. Like Sarah Jarosz -- on this record in particular I wanted to get a mandolin player and I wanted Sarah to play mandolin. We're always covering the parts ourselves. Jeff’s a great mandolin player, but Sarah Jarosz is a fucking prodigy [laughs]. Jeff’s a prodigy on the guitar. He could play any instrument, including a great mandolin, but he'll say he’s no Sarah Jarosz. It's like I envisioned who would be this group of people that would be together live. It’s never like a wish list of, “Who’s famous? Who can we get?” It’s more a case of who are these songs geared towards, so that when they come into the studio, you don’t tell them anything, really. They just do what they do great, and it works.
GS: You mentioned the late, queer, influential WFUV DJ Rita Houston, and I was wondering what you think the loss of Houston means for new artists?
AR: It's a huge hole in the universe of people that would take a new artist and sort of help develop them, take chances at radio, and give people that space. She also was a mentor to artists. She wasn’t ever judging your art by whether you were gay or not, or what color your skin was. If the song wasn't a fit for the station, she would tell you why. It wouldn't have anything to do with whether you're this or that. If it was a fit, it also didn’t have anything to do with this or that. She was a mentor in shared musicality. Being able to trust her and understanding how that taught you about the terrain that you're in and who you can and can’t trust in that way. The people that one day build you up and the next day cut you down because of your politics or who your audience is; those are not the people to look to for advice. Someone like Rita, who you can trust, was a very important barometer for the other kind of people you should be looking for. All of a sudden you find this human and you're like, “Oh, that's the way it's supposed to be. I'm going to make sure that when I’m moving through this musical ecosystem, the people that I try to be around and get to know and trust and look up to are like Rita Houston. Without that, the younger musicians have one less person in that arena who was a huge influence on so many people, and so many people in the radio and journalism worlds. You can’t fill her shoes. You have to hope that there's enough other people out there that were influenced by her, that came up through the ranks that can do what she did and share that mantle.
GS: “Subway” ends with the line “This Georgia girl has got it bad for New York.” With that in mind, could there be an Amy Ray or Indigo Girls musical on Broadway at some point in the future?
AR: [Big laugh] That's Emily’s territory. She’s working on some things. A couple of different musicals, and I'm not working on them with her. She's developing two different ones, and I think one of them has actually gotten some traction and some workshopping that's pretty important. There is a musical that a friend of mine from high school has been writing that's really interesting and it's gotten a lot of workshops. It's still in the early stages. It uses Michelle Malone’s music and my solo music. Then there's a movie coming out called “Glitter and Doom” which is a movie musical that's just Indigo Girls music. It’s coming out next year, I think. We're still working on the final credits song.
GS: After the current Indigo Girls tour wraps up, is there a possibility of an Amy Ray solo tour?
AR: Yeah. We’ll head up to the North in May.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of eight books including the poetry chapbook Fear of Muses (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.