Indigo Girl Amy Ray, who’s moonlighting solo these days, recently performed a high-energy show at St. Louis’ Duck Room that was quite a departure from the folksy, down-home feel of the Indigo Girls. The show was unquestionably a lot harder than one might expect, with a really rich punk sensibility. Whether or not the new sound was a surprise, it was certainly welcomed and enjoyed. Nighttimes.com caught up with Amy to talk about it:
Amy: I think a lot of people do know that [the sound is] different than what I do with Indigo… and they really don’t expect to hear that. We’re really still reaching out to try to find the people outside … that aren’t necessarily of the Indigo camp but might like to hear this.
NT: Tell me about your title, Didn’t It Feel Kinder [Daemon Records]; It’s intriguing, particularly the use of the word “kinder.”
Amy: Well, really, I felt like on the record I came to a place where I was writing a lot about how to sort of take the high road and have compassion in hard situations. It’s kind of an open-ended question. You know, didn’t it make you feel kinder to do … whatever … to make you think about it? It came from the last song on the record [“Rabbit Foot”]. All the songs are kind of about that on some level.
NT: Last night onstage you said that sometimes you are too honest for your own good. What does it mean to be too honest? What is the cost to yourself and what are the gifts to yourself and to others, as you see it?
Amy: I think it is more important to look at what the cost is to other people. I think if you’re in a relationship with somebody and you are processing something that you haven’t finished really getting clear about it … it might be painful for the person … it is not necessarily a good idea.
NT: So what you’re saying is that it is easier for people to connect to, perhaps, our perceived failings, our imperfections, as opposed to “perfections.” Your music and lyrics originate from a place of rich tension —a fertile tension which births a kind of spiritual questing, but also a kind of hard core, raw, reality. How does it feel to live in that tension?
Amy: Well, I think that’s just being a Southerner, really [chuckles]. When you grow up in the South your upbringing can typically be very spiritual and very church-based. Even if you become really progressive and Left …in the best way, your activism is rooted in spirituality. Then, sort of the rest of your life is seen through that lens, too, ‘cause you take stuff out of your youth; and you take what you want to keep. But it’s like you have this root in … being raised in this super-religious kind of environment. Even if you don’t partake of all of it, you put that up against the reality of what really happens in the world … and people really coming from hardships and religion not being able to explain everything. Anyway, I think like there’s this rawness and anger and hurt and pain and graphic-ness of life that, to me, is so much a part of spirituality, you know? So it doesn’t rub for me at all.
NT: It sounds like you have reconciled yourself to that tension—the tension between what is and what isn’t. A creative ambiguity—and music comes out of this space, I think.
Amy: Yeah. I think it’s a good place to stand, you know? And I think it’s a more honest place to be; and, to me, it’s a more open place, you know?
NT:Yeah, I totally agree. So what are you going to do with your religion degree?
Amy: Well, at one point I thought I was going to go to theology school but I totally bagged that so—.
Amy: Yeah, I mean I decided to become a musician, you know? But I mean I’ll never do anything with it; this is what I’m doing.
NT: With “Didn’t it Feel Kinder,” you’re exploring, I think you said, a different voice and new territory. How you would describe the terrain; what are the landmarks; what are you finding, what has the inner journey to that place been like for you? Has it been exhilarating? Scary?
Amy: It’s exhilarating to do it in the studio because you’re in a closed, kind of safe environment and you can experiment … and erase things, you know? But I guess the test—the hard thing is when you get out to do the songs that have all these different voices, live; like last night, when I’m so hoarse and I can’t sing in some of those voices, and so it’s frustrating. I guess you just have to know that you can access things when you’re supposed to.
For a writer, it’s much more abstract because you can’t … it’s so nuanced, the tone and language and phrasing. I just try to take those types of things and reflect them with how I sing a song and focus on lyrics and rhythm and the characters that I’m singing about. Try to assign a different place, so it isn’t just the same presentation over and over again.
NT: This is kind of an esoteric question but where do you think your talent comes from?
Amy: I mean I believe you know that gifts are a part of the greater universe or something … but that’s very spiritual, I believe, and … I don’t think I own it. I mean, I just think I … I get to use it. You know? It’s humbling, you know … when you get something right. It feels good.
NT: What do you want written on your tombstone?
Amy: Sheesh. Um, [pause] nothing, really. I guess I just want to have more of a natural space that my loved ones can stand in, that reminds them of me … the words are somehow … I don’t really have an epitaph. Maybe just … “I tried.”
NT: Does your going solo mean that your work with the Indigo Girls will start waning?
Amy: No, no, no we have a new record coming out in March. Yeah. It’s already done.
NT: Do you have a title for it?
Amy: We don’t know yet –we’re just right now emailing each other constantly to decide.
NT: What do you think is the purpose of your life?
Amy: Ohhh [sigh]. When I think about purpose, I think about activism, usually, and I think about how you can never really win the whole war—you know, the whole battle, you can’t win the whole big thing; there’s probably never a complete shift in the paradigm that you’re looking for. But I sort of feel like I’m here to keep things in balance and keep trying, you know? I think, for me, when I see that someone is touched or helped or feels better because of my music—that makes it all worth it, you know? So, to help … for me … I just want to help.
Amy Ray is a kind person. And as for her latest release, Didn’t It Feel Kinder, there’s a little horse on the back cover, and right now I’m listening to the song “Rabbit Foot,” and thinking, “Hmm, I think I need to take these lyrics to heart. I need to pay attention to what she’s singing. I think this song is helping me.”
Maybe these words will help you:
“It’s a choice to feel the heavens rejoice … didn’t it feel better when you were being bigger? Didn’t it feel kinder when you were walking beside her? Didn’t it feel stronger when you let love grow? Didn’t it open you up inside? Hey let love abide