Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray talks tours, country music and performing live with a symphony

By : Gregg Shapiro
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Years in the making, “Indigo Girls Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra” is a breathtaking experience. Even if you don’t like live albums—you weren’t there, were you?—this one is an exception.

Comprised of 22 songs, representing nine of the Indigo Girls’ (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) baker’s dozen studio albums, the Indigo Girls do an excellent job of representing the expected hits like “Power of Two,” “Galileo,” and “Kid Fears.” They also showcase popular deep cuts and a generous supply of more recent numbers like “Sugar Tongue,” “Able To Sing,” and “Happy In the Sorrow Key.” The stunning symphonic set closes with a rousing rendition of “Closer To Fine,” complete with sing-along. As familiar as your oldest friends, you’ll never hear these songs the same way again.

Never one to sit idle, Ray released a new solo record in 2018, her sixth. “Holler” continues in a similar countrified vein as 2014’s “Goodnight Tender,”another powerful musical statement from Ray.

Watermark caught up with the singer-songwriter to weigh in on music and more ahead of the Indigo Girls’ stops in Clearwater May 3 and Orlando May 5.

WATERMARK: Indigo Girls are no strangers to live albums, with previous releases like1995’s “1200 Curfews” and 2010’s “Staring Down the Brilliant Dream.” Why was now the right time for a new live album?

Amy Ray: Mostly because we’ve been touring with symphonies for about four or five years now. We felt like we’d gotten to a place where we knew the material well enough and wanted to document it. When we came upon a symphony that fit all the parameters that we needed to make a live record with a symphony, that was the University of Colorado Symphony. So, it worked out. It was kind of a long process. We had been hoping to get it done for a couple of years.

What parameters did the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra meet?

Number one, they’re just really good. The conductor was someone we felt like we could work with on a project like this. Where we could say, “We’re going to need to come in and have an extra-long rehearsal, record rehearsal and then record the show, and may have to do a song over.” They’re grad students and community members. They’re at a university, so it’s not under the guidance of a union, which gives us a lot more leeway on how many times we can do a song and how long it takes.

With a union symphony, they kind of changed the rules around. It used to be where you paid one set cost to record with the whole symphony. Now you pay each member individually. For us, we wouldn’t sell enough records to cover that. We had to find a way to record it where we could pay the symphony what they deserve, but it would be a smaller symphony and more student-oriented. In the end, it was probably a better move. They symphony was made up of grad students, community members and professional players, running the gamut of different styles and approaches. The dynamics end up being a little more engaged in a way.

How so?

The players are fresher to what we’re doing. Some of them are younger. Every orchestra we played with was amazing! It was already on another echelon from what we were doing. But the thing that makes it special with this particular symphony, and we had played with them before … as soon as we played with them, to Emily I was like, “This is the one!” Their dynamics are incredible. They’re totally engaged. They’re excited about playing. Their conductor is super-easy to work with. The conductor is the key to everything. They build that bridge. We’ve had quite a few conductors that we really love and Gary is one of them. For me, it was a no-brainer [laughs]. We talked about it, made the arrangements, and a year later they had the time in their schedule for us to go back and have the time to do rehearsal, a show and record and work it all out.

Of the songs chosen for the album, were there any for which the transition to an orchestral setting or arrangement proved to be more challenging than expected?

Yes. I would say that it depended on the symphony, too. There are songs where some symphonies would nail a song and some symphonies wouldn’t. It’s all about people’s preferences and the way they play and the way we’re playing that day. There are certain ones that are inherently more difficult, like “Happy in the Sorrow Key.”

“Come On Home” is a pretty hard song. One of the measures of who we wanted to record with was a symphony that landed the difficult songs, too. It’s not a judgment on who’s better, symphony-wise. Some symphonies get some songs and others don’t. Or that particular night, maybe we weren’t in the right vibe, so we couldn’t get it; and that doesn’t reflect on the symphony at all. Some symphonies are just easier to play with and it’s not because they’re better [laughs]. Is the conductor in the space that you’re in? Every symphony has their own symphony hall and that had a lot to do with things. The way the symphony is in that space and how you can work together as a team.

Your new solo album continues a country-oriented style. Is this a direction you see yourself going in for the future?

I don’t know. This was just what I was writing. I have a band that I’ve been touring with for four or five years. This is really a strong suit for them and for us together. As we tour, and get more and more in the groove with them, we’ve been working on old songs from the rock and punkier stuff. It’s adaptable to that. When I was writing “Stag” and “Prom,” I was playing a lot with the Butchies and I was writing to their style. My collaborators typically have a lot of influence over what I’m writing. They’re who I’m creating with, touring with, playing with from day to day. I like a lot of different kinds of music. I don’t prefer this to that, it’s where I’m at. This record has a little more of the earlier, punky, eclectic style mixed in with traditional country. I think I was crossing over into that line in my writing a little bit.

You have a stellar line-up of guest musicians on the album, including Brandi Carlile, Vince Gill, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Lucy Wainwright Roche and Rutha Mae Harris of The Freedom Singers. When you’re writing a song like “Last Taxi Fare,” do you hear the guest artist’s voice as part of the process?

Sometimes. On that particular song, as I was finishing it, I actually did hear Brandi and I did hear Vince. I wrote that song over a very long period of time. I think I had watched a CMT award show or something and Vince was singing with Taylor Swift and Allison Krauss and a few other people. I’ve always loved him, but in that moment, I was like, “That guy can really sing harmony!” I was working on that song and it was in my fantasy head that Brandi and Vince would form a trio with me. It’s the weirdest thing, but Alison Brown, who plays banjo on the record, happens to be friends with Vince. It was like one of those moments where it was like, “I can’t believe this is going to work out.” In that case, I was definitely hearing them. Vince was an “if you could have anything in the world” kind of thing.

I did hear Justin and Phil Cook when I wrote “Didn’t Know A Damn Thing.” I had played with them, so it was an easier thing to hear. That really informed that song. When I first wrote it, that version was harmony the whole way through, because I was thinking of them. Then I decided to change it up to make it more effective when they came in. Lucy Wainwright Roche tends to be a muse—with Indigo Girls as well. I’ll be working on a song and, in my head, I’ll use her as a harmony singer for inspiration as to where to go musically.

I love the duality of “Oh City Man,” which features the builders of skyscrapers juxtaposed with moonshine makers, and the image of you walking down Broadway during a Manhattan blackout in “Fine with The Dark.”You’ve long lived outside of a city but would it be fair to say that you feel the pull of urban living?

I think that I’m mostly a country person. But I feel the pull of the dynamics of urban living and the poetry of it. I’ve spent so much time in New York City, and cities like London and Berlin, places where I feel the darkness and light, the pull of that, the Patti Smith of it. Jim Carroll and “The Basketball Diaries” and all my great punk rock icons. I feel their personalities and art in those spaces. I often have to have those spaces in my life and get down and walk the streets and spend all night long out on the town with myself and the city. It informs what I do. But I find it interesting that, even in the city, and the country, too, you have to think about what came before you; how things got built. What was sacrificed so that you can have what you have; all those things. That’s the tie between the land I live on in Georgia, which was Cherokee land, and then you go to New York and you’re walking among these incredible buildings built by people that were, in essence, slave labor. Proud artisans working for
rich people that were brilliant at their craft but none of it was for them. Do you ever think about this when you’re here? People in New York will say, “They just don’t build buildings like they used to” when they are around historic areas. I’m like, “That’s because they don’t have a hundred people working for ten cents an hour, slave labor.” It’s like saying, “Why don’t they build castles anymore?”

Or pyramids.

Exactly!

In the four years between the release of “Holler” and “Goodnight Tender,” Donald Trump was elected. Do you somewhat address that in the songs “Sure Feels Good” and “Didn’t Know A Damn Thing”?

Yes, for sure! I don’t know if it was so much affected specifically by the presidential election as more of the whole vibe of the country and my own community. The polarization and thinking about issues around being a Southerner. Trying to take on some accountability myself, and to try to understand where people are coming from as well. “Sure Feels Good” is my song of where I live and the dynamics of people like me that are coming from a different place than other folks. How do we rectify that? How do we understand each other?

It’s easy to dismiss people because they don’t agree with you about things because you dogmatically think they’re going to feel a certain way. Or it’s not possible for them to come around to a place of tolerance or understanding. That’s not where I exist. I exist in a place where you get to know your neighbors and you help each other out, regardless of where you come from. Eventually those barriers start to fall away and you begin to understand each other. Hopefully, things change. Racism is the hardest thing to change in the South, but I’ve found that there are still people who do change. I’ve also found that there are people who have a knee-jerk reaction because of the way we’re put into niches and demographics who aren’t being their best selves all the time, and I say, “I know you’re a better person than this. I’ve seen you in my community. I’ve seen the things you do to help other people. I’ve seen you at church. I know you have it in you to be better than this.” We all can be better than this.

Every year there seems to be more queer female country artists releasing albums, including performers such as H.C. McEntire and Sarah Shook. Because “Holler” is so steeped in that tradition, what do you think that says about country music and its listeners?

I think country music is opening up. Sarah Shook and [H.C. McEntire], I’m a big fan of both of them. Both of those artists have found that they have a place in Americana, which is the progressive side of “country.” It’s the place where people who play country but don’t fit into a more conservative demographic feel comfortable. Pop country musicians like Sugarland and Dixie Chicks and others probably also feel like they don’t want to be restricted by being expected to have a certain political perspective. I don’t think music categories need to be restricted by political perspectives in any way on any side. It’s great to me that all these artists are getting some play and that they have some place where they can sit comfortably and be honored in a way that makes sense to everybody.

The Indigo Girls play at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater May 3 and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts May 5. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit RuthEckerdHall.com or DrPhillipsCenter.org.

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