Girl talk

April 6, 2001


Though she's been half of the mostly unplugged duo the Indigo Girls for more than two decades now, Decatur, Ga., native Amy Ray has always hidden a punk-rock heart beneath a Lilith Fair facade.

On her new solo album, "Stag," released on her own Daemon Records, Ray cranks up the volume and rocks out with a passionate conviction, raging at sexism in all its forms in songs such as "Lucystoners" and "Hey Castrator," and paying homage to activist friends who've passed away in "On Your Honor."

Ray is touring with backing from the Atlanta punk band the Butchies. I caught up with her at the start of the tour, after a hard-hitting performance at the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference in Austin, Texas.

Q.I saw you guys the other night at the Rainbow Cattle Company, and it was a really great show. Is it fun for you to be playing with a loud punk band?

A. Thanks; that was our first show. We're still working out the bugs, but I think we're gonna get there.

I've been playing with [fellow Indigo Girl] Emily [Saliers] since I was 15, but I was in a band before that that was a rock band. I got kicked out, actually, and I think it was 'cause I was a girl. But Emily and I were always part of this [do-it-yourself] movement that encompassed a lot of different kinds of music, and the bands that I was drawn to were more of the punk bands. A band like the Night Porters, I was really drawn to them in 1986, and the first band that I put out on my label Daemon was the Ellen James Society, which was in the spirit of the riot grrrl movement, though we didn't have a scene like that happening in Atlanta. Basically I was always into Patti Smith and Husker Du and the Clash.

Q. It just took you 15 years to start making music in that vein.

A. I guess. Part of it was that my very earliest days were Neil Young and Rickie Lee Jones. The things that stuck with me developmentally when I was first learning guitar were very folk-based sounds, and I think I was really entrenched in writing a certain way for a long time. I struggled for a long time with, "I'm writing songs but I'm not really getting to the core of what I feel." At some point even with the Indigo Girls I started being able to get it out more, and it wasn't just a function of being more electric; sometimes it was just an acoustic song like "Johnny Rottentail." I think when I started listening to field recordings by Alan Lomax, probably about 10 years ago, that really changed the way I saw songwriting.

Q. It's supposed to work the other way, you know. As you get older and more respectable, you're supposed to slow down and get quieter.

A. Not if you're a woman! I think women actually do it the opposite way. I don't know why; maybe it's because your hormones kick in.

Q. In addition to being a powerful and catchy rock song, "Lucystoners" is a damning indictment of Rolling Stone magazine and its publisher, Jann Wenner, whom you accuse of a sexist bias against female artists.

A. Jann Wenner is definitely a symbol in that song of a large problem, and it was easy to attach him because Rolling Stone is such a notoriously sexist and misogynist magazine. It's a magazine that has probably always had the same kind of stance as far as sexism goes, though at times it's had more nurturing writers; even though it's always been a boys club, at times the boys it was nurturing were really good. Now it's a fashion magazine; it's controlled by its advertisers. So it was just this thing where I'm very familiar anecdotally with how the Indigo Girls have been dismissed by them, and so it was an easy thing for them to be attached to. But it's a bigger problem. How many writers do these magazines hire that are women, and what do the women get to write about, and how are the women treated?

Q. Well, that's one of the problems I had with Lilith Fair: It seemed too willing to ghettoize female artists. I'd rather have seen the Indigo Girls perform as part of Ozzfest.

A. Lilith was what it was. To me, there were so many digs taken at it because it was an economically successful women's venture. Lollapalooza made more money than Lilith, and no one ever said they were being greedy. I think Lilith was a response to the fact that women weren't getting billed at Ozzfest. Now, I wouldn't have done it the same way, because I think that feminism gets commodified to the point where it becomes a fashion statement instead of a reality. I had problems with some of the corporate stuff, but I think the good outweighed the bad with Lilith Fair.

Q. You're working with some extraordinary people on "Stag." There are producers Chris Stamey of the dB's and Dave Barbe of Sugar, and in addition to the Butchies, you're backed on some tracks by the Rock-a-Teens and on others by a supergroup comprised of Joan Jett, Kate Schellenbach and Josephine Wiggs. Was this pretty much your dream team?

A. These are all people that I'm really influenced by and really into. This is my world; it's like a star trip in my head, because this is my dream team. It's like all these people that I have a reference to in my life and they meant something to me, and they're part of this Southern scene that's really different from a lot of other places. They're all pretty different, but they all have this thing in common, which is they're willing to work on a project like this. They see the musicality or the passion of it.

Q. The Indigo Girls are still a going concern. This is just your paid vacation, right?

A. Yeah. Or my unpaid vacation! The Indigo Girls are doing a record that we'll probably start in early fall. It'll actually be an acoustic record--we're going back to ground zero to do more of an Appalachian acoustic record.

Q. As the owner of an independent label, how do you see yourself fitting into the current spectrum of the music business? In many ways, the mainstream has never been more bland or corporate. The Indigo Girls have very little to do with Britney Spears.

A. I think Daemon is a label that has constantly struggled because we have not had a niche. People do not know how to take us because we'll do Rose Polenzani one week, and the next week we'll do a little garage band from Birmingham, Ala. It's hard. In the punk community, we weren't accepted for a long time because I'm on a major label and there's automatically a mark against me, no matter how much activism I do. But in the last few years, I think we've finally gotten to this place where people understand what we're trying to do, and we're starting to build coalitions with other labels, like Kill Rock Stars and Merge and Bloodshot in Chicago. Daemon's whole perspective is that we have to nurture the infrastructure of the counterculture. I'm actually encouraged that things are so bad in the mainstream, because it's like there's more space now in the underground.