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Amy Ray Does It Her Way

Indigo Girl Amy Ray talks about her new solo album, Stag: a tangle of genres that includes folk, rockabilly, punk and riot grrl righteousness.
 
 
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Back in November 1999, Amy Ray told Girlfriends she would be working on a solo punk album in 2000 to be recorded on her 11-year-old Georgia-based indie label, daemon records. It didn't help my nerves that Ray was also talking about her new girlfriend and how she was considering settling down and starting a family. Of course, I was thinking: "Oh no, it's the lesbian equivalent of Yoko and John. God save the Indigo Girls."

I needn't have worried. Ray's solo album is out, the Indigo Girls are working on an acoustic album to be recorded this summer, and Ray is still baby-free. (She's also still with girlfriend Jennifer Baumgardner, a 30-year-old New Yorker who co-authored the recent overview of third-wave feminism, Manifesta. Sorry, girls.)

The new album, Stag, is a very lesbian record -- from the cover art of a butch/femme couple dancing, to the lyrics within. But the most interesting thing is the richness of the material, drawn from a tangle of genres: folk, rockabilly, punk, and riot grrl righteousness. Guest musicians include The Butchies, Luscious Jackson, some of Daemon's own bands (Rock*A*Teens and Mrs. Fun), and punk legend Joan Jett.

If you're expecting Stag to be a 10-song marathon of the angry thrash that was "Compromise" -- a song Ray wrote for Indigo's last studio album, Come on Now Social -- you'll be disappointed or pleasantly surprised, depending on your taste. The album is radical more for how it was made than how it sounds.

At its center, Stag is about values and politics, as is just about everything Ray does or says. And the freedom of going solo and working beneath the corporate radar seems to have calmed and focused this part-time Indigo.

I won't say 'so much for that; what do you do when it's done?' 'Cause I know we grow when it's over.

How was it for the 36-year-old Ray to write and record without using her Indigo Girls partner Emily Saliers as a sounding board and collaborator, as she has for 20 years?

"It was strange. I did try to keep it separate, but she would always ask how it was going, which was cool. And I'd tell her, 'I'm having trouble with this one thing,' and she would be supportive and sympathetic, but she didn't get involved in the specifics."

Saliers recently told Ray she loves Stag and has been playing it constantly. I can hear in Ray's voice the pleasure that idea gives her, and the mutual admiration that makes these two work together so well. Ray likens it to the early days of the Indigo Girls when they would record their own songs on cassettes and trade them. "We'd wear out each other's demos."

Says Saliers, "I love it. It's very raw and honest and emotional. I keep skipping around to a new favorite song. They stick in your head. Right now, I've got 'Late Bloom' in my head." "Late Bloom," evocative of early nineties Seattle grunge, isn't exactly an "Emily" song.

"Amy has really turned a corner in her songwriting on this album, but also on songs [from the last Indigo Girls' album] like 'Gone Again,' and even 'Go.' Those songs are really well constructed," said Saliers. "I'm really proud of her."

Ray says writing for her solo album was a new experience. "When I would be writing for an Indigo Girls album, I would be thinking about leaving space for harmonies or counter melodies, for Emily to come up with a riff, things like that. But there is a self-consciousness about the way I write for the Indigo Girls, that I can't put my finger on, that dilutes the intimacy. I need to be less self-conscious."

Going solo has helped. Although collaborating with Saliers is enjoyable, challenging, and productive, Ray says the relationship creates undeniable tensions -- who's playing or singing lead on a given tune, for example. "Writing for this album, I could be less like a dog on a chain. I didn't have to protect my territory."

The final product shows the differences in relief: Amy's voice and guitar are so prevalent, you hardly notice -- outside the obvious stylistic influences -- that anyone else of note is even on the album. "Unlike with Emily, the harmonies on this album are really just harmonies. I mean, it's strictly background."

And sometimes that's exactly what Ray needs. The punk rhythms stitched together by experienced punk babes like The Butchies' Kaia Wilson and Luscious Jackson's Kate Schellenbach are precisely what Amy's shrieks need to give them context. Who hasn't gone to an IG concert, seen Emily walk offstage to let Amy cut loose, and wondered, "Where did thatcome from?" Ray is obviously in her element free from the narrow confines of the Indigo identity, and it's a relief to hear.

Stagsounds unfinished, like a demo, or one of those session tapes that established artists put out to buy time between studio albums. But in Ray's case, that feel is exactly the point. The unfinished edges are part and parcel of the underground charm of indie music. Case in point: as soon as the Indigo Girls were signed and started producing their albums in state-of-the-art studios, critics were on them like vultures for selling out. In the punk world, if even one yuppie has heard of you, you lose your street cred.

The album works in part because Ray tried to preserve the raw, organic sound she and her collaborators achieved in the chilly basement studios where they put down the tracks. That was easy enough, since she was quickly running out of time and the $10,000 she'd allocated for the project.

"I put limits on myself financially, because it's just not fair to spend five times more on my record than we do for the other artists," she says. Daemon has put out albums for a raft of Southeastern bands, including lesbirock icons like the Ellen James Society (with Amy's ex, Cooper Seay) and Michelle Malone. Amy herself was born and raised outside of Atlanta and currently lives on a ranch in the country on the outskirts of nearby Athens, Georgia.

Ray says the production of Staghas taught her something about running an indie label. For once, she could see the process from the other side: as the musician instead of the CEO.

The time and financial limitations also helped Ray resist her tendency toward perfectionism. Still, she admits, she sometimes "fell back on an obsessive need to overthink a mix, or I mistakenly rerecorded songs. But the music that I kept coming back to was the music that came out unlabored and spontaneous and organically rebellious."

Lucy stoners don't need boners, ain't no man could ever own her; with the boys she had the nerve to give the girls what they deserve. -- "lucystoners" from Stag

There isplenty of identifiable, Clash-evoking punk rock on Stag,but there are also some of the most sensitive and gentle melodies, arrangements, and lyrics Ray has ever recorded. "Lazyboy," for example, could have been a Simon and Garfunkel song, with its whispered vocals and spare, single guitar. This is punk?

"Punk is as much an approach or philosophy as a musical style," Ray says. "Punk is a grass-roots movement; recording an album on an indie label for less than $10,000 is an implicitly political statement."

Whether Staggets high-profile press or succeeds commercially doesn't concern Ray much, although the better it sells the more profit she can reinvest in Daemon, a not-for-profit business. She says she already considers the album a personal success, simply because she finally did it.

The album's birthing process not only gave Ray the freedom to explore some of her own creativity which doesn't get airtime with the Indigo Girls, but also forced her to do some personal soul searching. "The songs on Stagdeal frankly with my confrontations with the oppressive elements of the music industry, my frustrations with imposed standards of gender all around us, and the shortcomings I see in myself."

As far as shortcomings go, Ray has always been frank about her musical ability. She once told a music industry magazine that when she and Saliers were playing coffeehouses in the early eighties, Emily would work on ever-more sophisticated chord changes and fingering, while she was practicing the same three chords. Recently, Ray has been pushing herself beyond her own perceived limitations.

"On this album, I wrote all the harmonies and I played lead guitar -- things I didn't know or maybe didn't believeI could do before," she said.

But the album's lyrics also have to do with other personal shortcomings Ray was feeling. "You know, the songs 'Hey Castrator' and 'Black Heart Today' -- they're about that solitude and doom that are important to me somehow."

"Hey Castrator" is bound to be misinterpreted as a man-hating dyke anthem. But it's really about Ray's struggles with her inner guy.

"I can sometimes identify with things our society sees as stereotypically male, the male part of myself," Ray said. "You know, when I would catch myself objectifying my girlfriend or leering at women on the street. I was offended by myself for relating to that kind of energy." That inner struggle, she says, is expressed in the song's haunting refrain: "Hey, castrator, take this strong out of me." (Strongrefers to aggressive or exploitative male energy.)

Still, there is a gut kinship Ray feels with her inner -- and, let's face it, outer -- masculinity. As she says in "Mountains of Glory," "I'm gonna miss being the boy, I'm gonna miss being the man." She adds with humor, "Of course, a small amount of objectification never hurt anyone. We all want to be objectified a little."

While conceiving Stag,Ray says she was frustrated by the sudden collapse of the riot grrl movement of a decade ago. Bikini Kill, Luscious Jackson, The Breeders, Team Dresch: they had all broken up and most had fallen off the radar. Not only was Ray feeling alienated from her masculine side, she was hungry for a woman-friendly arena she could funnel some creative expression into.

"I was feeling like I wanted that riot grrl sensibility back, and wondering where it had gone, that punk, tough, female energy. That energy that was tough, but not exploitative," she says.

To capture on tape the sound and sensibility she heard in her head, Ray drove around the Southeast with a guitar and amp in her trunk, hooking up with the famous and not-so-famous progenitors of the riot grrl movement in dingy, brick basements. A raw, powerful female sensibility informs the finished product, one that resonates with sexuality.

Janny Wenner, Janny Wenner, Rolling Stone's most fearless leader; gave the boys what they deserved, but with the girls he lost his nerve . . . . Testing 1, 2, 3, in the marketplace, it's just a demographic-based disgrace, and a stupid, secret whiteboy handshake that we1ll never be part of. -- "Lucystoners"

The most rebellious moment on Stag is the raucous "Lucystoners," in which Ray vents her frustrations with the corporate music industry. The lyrics castigate Rolling Stoneeditor Jann Wenner -- who, it's worth noting, is gay -- for his complicity in the music industry's institutionalization of sexism and homophobia.

The title "Lucystoners" comes from Lucy Stoner:a woman who doesn't take her husband's name, from the 19th-century feminist Lucy Stone, the first woman to keep her maiden name after marriage. Back in the Bikini Kill era of riot grrl punk, there was a band named the Lucy Stoners.

Last year, before Stagwas recorded, Ray and Saliers expressed the same anti-Wenner sentiment in my interview with them for this magazine. But Epic asked that Ray's opinion that Wenner is "sexist and homophobic" be stricken from the interview. Aren't they nervous about this song?

Ray might not admit it, but she enjoys throwing down the political gauntlet, particularly when it comes to the industry. She says she recently played "Lucystoners" for Saliers and their publicist at Epic. "They smiled and laughed a little nervously and said they loved the song. Then they never said anything about it again. I thought to myself, 'The song sucks, they hate it.' But after a while they started joking about it."

Saliers says she had no reservations about the song when she heard it, and no love is lost between her and the magazine. "It's aimed at teenage boys, certainly not me," she says. "Women have it hard. There aren't any alternative women in their magazine. The only women they profile play up their sexuality and conform to traditional gender roles."

And if Wenner is provoked, so much the better. "Any press is good press," Saliers laughs.

Of course, Rolling Stoneand Wenner are just flashy symbols of a music industry both Ray and Saliers are simply fed up with. Ray admits that straddling that line between indie and big-label music is an ongoing inner struggle for her. On the one hand, major labels "have this incredible infrastructure that can't be matched" in the indie world. But she chafes at the homogenization of mainstream music and vacuousness of labels' efforts to market artists.

"Just because you work for [the major labels] doesn't mean you can't criticize them," Ray reasons. "I mean, that's what unions are." She says she'd love to see the big artists at major labels unionize, as session musicians already have, to put some of the soul back into the industry. But she won't hold her breath.

And all that faggot-bashing poetry but the boys are just saying 'love me, please.' -- "Lucystoners"

I'm still on the phone with Ray when over in the living room I catch the flickering of MTV, which is showing for the umpteenth time this week a fictionalized movie about Matthew Shepard's murder. MTV has been on self-imposed probation all week in response to the outcry over its willingness to promote the women-hating, gay-bashing artist Eminem. I ask Ray for her thoughts on the white rapper and the critics who would censor him. She quickly channels her dislike for the man onto the corporate structure that makes such a phenomenon possible.

"I don't think he should be censored, but I think he's a pig," she says. "But it's pointless to argue what MTV thinks it should or shouldn't do. It is just responding to what it perceives to be what the public wants to see. Anything they have ever done that might have been groundbreaking they only did because they thought it was a trend they could make money on."

Ray makes it clear that after the Indigo Girls' next two albums are done and their commitment to Epic is satisfied, they'll be seriously considering going to an indie label themselves, although probably not Daemon, because of Ray's closeness to the label. Ray has mentioned similar women-run, queer-centric labels such as Kill Rock Stars as possibilities, but holds out the possibility that some new label may come along that would be a perfect fit.

In the meantime, she looks to the artists who have advanced the cause of indie music while taking advantage of corporate largesse. "I give Rage Against the Machine heat," she says, because they preached an anticorporate, anticommercial message while promoting themselves on MTV and other commercial outlets. "But we're always hardest on those who are trying to do the most good."

Ray is careful to distinguish message from method. It isn't enough, she says, to talk about revolution; you have to put your mouth where your money is. She points to Fugazi as a role model. That band refused to sign with a major label and puts on all-ages shows where tickets are never more than five bucks a pop. "They really set the standard."