Amy Ray of The Indigo Girls Talks About New Music, Renewable Energy and The Columbus Symphony Orchestra
When I recently spoke with Amy Ray, one-half of the folk-rock duo, the Indigo Girls, I asked her if there was anything she wanted people to know about their upcoming performance with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s a really fun night out,” she stated. “We have some people that come to shows that have never heard a symphony before. It’s a cool way to kind of hear it, you know, because (the musicians are) really present. But, you don’t have to feel as intimidated as a purely classical show. What some people need is an entry point. (laughs) I know a lot of people who now go and see symphony shows just from going to one pop music show that they went to – not ours, necessarily. And they go ‘wow! I really like this!’, and now they’re going to classical shows. I mean, it’s a good thing.”
It’s a perfect endorsement for the CSO’s annual “Picnic with the Pops” series, which aims to showcase the talent of its classical musicians by infusing the broad appeal of eminent contemporary pop, rock, R&B, and hip-hop artists. The Indigo Girls will take their turn in this year’s series on the Columbus Commons stage on Saturday night.
I pressed Ray a bit further about the process of translating their mostly acoustic catalog into a full-scale orchestral experience.
“Well, it’s actually easier for us because we sort of have functioned as a duo – and, I mean we play with a band a lot, too, so we draw a lot from that experience,” she stated. “But, what we did is we basically looked at it like… we’re not going to bring a drummer or, you know, a band, or have a bass player – we’re just going to be a duo and the orchestra’s going to be our band. And that’s where we started. And we hired two people through the agency that sort of does our symphony gigs; they recommended a few different arrangers, and we researched them and listened to stuff they’d done. And then we picked a couple of them – one to work with me and one to work with Emily: Sean O’Laughlin and Stephen Barber. And they’re amazing. Basically, we just sent them more suggestions than they would use and said ‘just pick out of this batch – pick the ones know that we definitely want this, this, and this’. We knew we wanted ‘Kid Fears’ and we knew we wanted ‘Galileo’.”
“So, we kind of gave free reign to other ones and had them pick stuff they thought they could work with really well,” continued Ray. “And then they mock up the arrangements using synthesizers and the full orchestra. Then they send us the mock-up and then we check it out and make changes and work with them on things that we’re not hearing – or things that we want to hear differently. But, they’re so good at what they do and we basically just said to them ‘bring it on – make it as dramatic and full and epic as possible. We didn’t want a symphony that was kind of in the background – we really wanted them to be our band. And so for us, that approach really worked.”
And how about performing alongside a mass of musicians that is several times larger than your usual touring band?
“It was very challenging at first – we’re kind of enveloped by all these voices and all these dimensions of our songs,” Ray said. “The key is that we just had really good arrangers and the arrangements are great. At this point we have about twenty six arrangements, and we pick out nineteen for the night. And then we go in that day and we run through every song one time – and that’s it, and we play ’em. The players are so talented – they’re sight-reading most of the time. And we’re just trying to maintain the steady tempo and communicate with the conductor and the symphony at the same time. And it’s awesome. I just love it so much. And it’s such a challenge. When we first started doing it, I was so nervous that I would throw up all day – it was just really nerve-wracking to me. And now, I can relax – it’s still hard, but I can really just enjoy it and the musicality of it. It’s been great for us and our career and kind of how we work. It’s just teaching us a whole new kind of way to listen to all the different voices and stuff.”
Ray, and her counterpart Emily Saliers, have been performing together since the age of fifteen, releasing their first commercial single (“Crazy Game”) and an eponymous EP as the Indigo Girls in 1985. Their most recent album, One Lost Day, is a continued testament to their individual and collective talents: Ray’s rich alto complementing Saliers’ buoyant soprano in harmony; agile, pungent songwriting that is unflinchingly humanistic and life-affirming; and instrumentation that is lovingly woven into each composition’s fabric. The new release isn’t a radical departure from their previous material, but working with new producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin for the first time required a shift in their typical record-making philosophy and practice.
“We worked a lot more in the digital realm with more editing on some songs than we’ve ever considered or done, where she might piece together a whole string section by playing every part herself and then editing it heavily and mooshing it around and create this whole landscape – sonic-scape, I guess,” explained Ray. “And it’s not that we were against it, it’s just we’d never worked with anyone who worked that way who was also a player. And so that was a big step. We briefly worked with Malcolm Burn – who’s a really good player – and it just wasn’t going well, and so we bagged it. And Mitchell Froom, who is a great player we worked with on a few of our records – he’s a great keyboard player – he’s very humble and he doesn’t want to play a lot on people’s records; we kind of had to force him to do that. He’s very modest – he wants to be the producer and not try and sit in two chairs.”
“But Jordan works that way – she plays a lot of instruments: horns, bass, keyboards, clarinet, guitar, and accordion,” Ray continued. “So, she would hear parts and just sort of play a lot of parts herself. And that’s just not anything we’ve experienced. So, that was something we had to kind of, like, take a leap of faith with and work with her on because it feels like you’re losing control all the time if someone can play so many instruments and just keeps playing parts, you know? (laughing) So, in the growth side of things it was really good for us to learn how to communicate about that and let go a little bit and let somebody really take the helm in some ways. Musically, I think it served us well for this project because we – well, we wanted to work with her because we’ve heard stuff she’s done where she’s played a lot of stuff on it. And we just felt like stepping into her world a little bit – having this sort of different sonic feel and experience and surroundings to our songs would be good for us, you know?”
“So, there are songs on there that are very produced,” added Ray. “And then there are a few songs that are just straight-ahead, like we did them live. They’re just rock songs. And she’s good at that, too. It was a good mix, but I think the thing she brought was this kind of approach that probably comes out of her generational difference with us – she’s a lot younger than us and experiences music differently. And I really loved it. And along with that – the thing that kind of helps that and helps us trust her, probably – was that she knew our catalog from the very beginning. I mean really was familiar with it. And we’ve known her for a long time. And she’s been a supporter – she appreciates what we’re doing and likes our records, but had her own take on what she’d want to hear from us. So, it’s great to work with someone who you know likes what you do, you know what I mean? Like, really knows your history and started out as a fan, I guess, for lack of a better word. And that really helped us trust that she had our best interests at heart and that it wasn’t all about her ego as a player and a producer to make her mark on this thing. She really had a lot of integrity around wanting to bring out something that she’d never heard but she knew was at our core. She just wanted to bring it out in this record. We hadn’t made (one) in four or five years, I think, and so she said ‘don’t do the same thing you’ve done – even though I loved that. Just do this other thing that I hear.’ So, yeah, it was good. And I’m sure we’ll work with her again – and she tours with us sometimes and brings a gazillion instruments and plays a lot of stuff. She’s really fun.”
Those not as familiar with the Indigo Girls’ history might be surprised to learn that Ray and Saliers do much of their creative work on their own before joining forces in the studio.
“We do write separately, and the song is pretty complete when we come to each other – I mean, it is complete,” she said. “We may have questions for the other person – like arrangement…we may say ‘do you think this bridge needs to be longer or shorter?’, or ‘do we repeat the chorus or not?’ And just having someone to kind of help edit, in a way, and sort of give that last little information and advice. But other than that, they’re pretty much what they are – and what we work on is…maybe what instrument we’re going to play. I’ll send her an MP3 and the lyrics and maybe I’ll write out the chord charts – and she’ll do the same for me. Or if it’s in a weird tuning – like, she’s playing in an open ‘G’ or something, I’ll figure out what I would play for chords in a standard tuning. Or if I put a capo on this fret, what will it sound like? Or maybe I’ll play mandolin on it. We’ll kind of go back and forth about the instrumentation. And, then honestly she’ll just say ‘I hear harmony in these parts’ and I’ll work on some audios – and she’ll say ‘I don’t like that, but I do like this. Can you change that?’ Or, she’ll already have an idea of what exact harmony she wants. And vice-versa; sometimes on my songs I’ll map out the whole thing in GarageBand and say ‘these are the parts I want you to sing’.”
“That’s what kind of makes it special is kind of what the other person brings to it,” Ray added. “We might try – easily – three, or four, or five different arrangements of harmonies and record them all…start working on what works the best and piecing it together. And…it takes awhile (laughing). But you know some songs, though, are really simple because we’ll go ‘I just want a straight third on the choruses and that’s all I want. I want it to be really straight-ahead’. And then it’s done, you know? And there might be songs that neither one of us finishes until we get into the studio and work out the harmony parts (there). Which I don’t really like doing; I mean, it’s fun on a creative level, but it doesn’t give us enough time to test it, you know? So that sometimes is more risky. But a long time ago when we started, Emily was just a lot more advanced than I was musically and just really understood harmony structure and how to write (them). She would write all the harmony parts and teach them to me. It was laborious! (laughing). And I would write out – note for note – and learn them as if they were a melody. And then slowly over time, I’ve learned how to write harmonies – just mostly by singing to my solo projects or working with GarageBand – or just working by myself and making up harmonies to her songs on my own that she never hears. Just having stuff to practice on, basically. But over time, we’ve gotten to a place where I can write harmonies that she likes and that are different from what she would come up with. And so, we’ll do it that way a lot of times where I’ll just come up with something and try it out. But there’s still a dynamic, to a certain degree, where I’ll defer to Emily for harmonies because it is one of her complete natural abilities. So, there are moments where I’ll get in a tight spot and go ‘I just do not know what note to sing’ and she’ll be able to come with one pretty quickly. So, that’s how we work – and the songs just gel. And sometimes if it’s not working, we’ll probably just say…if we’ve tried it and tried it and tried it, then it might become a solo song. Like, she might just do it by herself on a record or something because I’m not adding anything. You know, it’s like a ‘don’t push it’ kind of thing. Don’t force it.”
Staying together as a creative unit for three decades is a milestone that most pop music outfits don’t reach. I remarked to Ray that she and Saliers seemed to have evaded major drama over the years.
“We started when we were really young – like, really young… like, fifteen, so… and we knew each other for five years before that,” she explained. “And our families know each other. We sort of have the community thing where they kind of hold you accountable to each other. It’s like a marriage, and the community is beholden to keep you together in some ways and work towards that. It doesn’t happen all the time for bands, you know, but I think when you start when you’re so young and you’re so linked by so many things, you have a built-in groundwork of strength – you’re building your house on a real foundation. That to begin with – and then I just think we’re so opposite of one another that we’ve used it to our benefit instead of fighting over that. Even though we have tension and we might be like ‘I just really don’t agree with you and I’m never going to change my mind about this’, we find ways to defer to each other without wrecking our whole personal infrastructure. I think at the core we have the same central belief system about the sacredness of life, and respect…those things kind of bind us.”
“But, we have tension, you know – we don’t fight,” Ray continued. “Emily will be like ‘I think this is bothering you – why were you weird about that?’ And I’ll say ‘well…this, this, and this’. And that’ll be it! (laughing) That’s pretty much all we say. I think we both realize that it’s just not worth it to blow up the whole thing because we know what we have is really special – and we’ve protected it from the beginning. And we’ve had the same manager since we were twenty-three and the same booking agent since we were twenty-three. The same financial manager for fifteen years – you know? Everything about what we do is long term. Stick with the same people, find people you trust and that have integrity, grow together, don’t let your ego get out of control. And if you do let your ego get out of control, someone in your family or your manager – or somebody – will tell you that that’s happening. So, that’s kind of what’s helped us. Our manager is a good friend and he’s not a high-powered L.A./New York manager who’s all hype-y about things and is going to shove people out of the way for us to get what we get. But he’s the kind of manager that we’d want. He just is who he is. He’s very, very smart, and he’s solid….and progressive. He’s a good lawyer, too – he’s honest…just everything about him. If you had to have the secret to staying together a long time, it really has to do with what’s around you as much as what’s inside you.”
Ray and Saliers have been outspoken human rights and environmental advocates and activists. In 1993, they formed “Honor the Earth”, a Native-led organization focused on breaking the geographic and political isolation of Native communities, and the need to increase financial resources for organizing and change. I asked Ray whether or not she believes we’ve made true progress in conserving and protecting the environment since.
“I think you kind of take a step forward, and then you take a few steps back sometimes – or the other way around,” she said. “It depends on the administration and it depends culturally on what’s trending. It’s at the mercy of a lot of things. But I think generally when we started, the idea of climate change was considered junk science by most people. It wasn’t taken seriously by anybody. And now, at least, it’s flipped and there are a minority of people who don’t take it seriously – but the majority of people know that it’s something we need to address. And I think the question is ‘what mechanisms do you address it with? How do we do this?’ But the fossil fuel industry is still very strong and it’s a strong lobbying power, and the nuclear industry has a lot of nuclear power. There are still those things that are happening on a big sort of scale – that’s still hard.”
“But underneath it all, there is a lot of progress and change and people doing amazing things,” she added. “Renewable (energy) is really starting to take a hold and that technology is getting better and better. And I think people are looking at nuclear energy in a different way. So, I think things are better – but I think at the same time there are things that are just…I don’t know if they’re worse, but it’s this ongoing battle. Like the oil pipelines – it’s an ongoing battle with the infrastructure and how it’s deteriorating and how damaging it can be. Do we really need to pull more oil out of the tar sands when it’s such a labor-intensive process? And so dirty. Should we even be doing that? I mean, I don’t think we should. That’s the conversation all the time – and all those pipelines are for that. And there’s this network of pipelines – and it’s not just Xcel (Energy). The whole network up north and in the Midwest are pipelines that certainly do not need to be extended – and probably not used anymore.”
“So, “Honor the Earth” works a lot on that and on supporting renewables,” Ray continued. “But, we also do a lot of stuff around use empowerment and Native use – and that is so positive because there’s so much traction that it’s gotten and there are so many great things younger leaders have done. And there are a lot of great young leaders who are coming up through the Native movement that are really impressive -and they’re, like, the grand-kids of people we know, you know? And they’re doing great work and they’re doing community-based work – agriculture and projects to expand the economic base of their community. So, we support a lot of that, too. So, I think there are a lot of things that have gotten better – and the internet’s helped a lot, and social media’s helped especially with the younger generations’ Native activists and how they move and how they work. The activists we know tend to use social media in the right way where it’s not in place of showing up physically at a protest – it’s to get more people physically there. But it’s interesting – we’re still fighting some of the same coal-fired power plants and really the same issues. But at the same time, there is more positive we’re able to fund now, too – like more projects that are all about renewables and training for solar installations and just great stuff that happens.”
Outside of the Indigo Girls, each of the members has pursued individual projects both within and outside of the music industry. Saliers is a co-owner of Watershed restaurant in Atlanta, and co-authored a book in the early 2000s on musical spirituality with her father, Don Saliers. Ray has had a much more active solo music career, releasing five studio and three live albums since 2001. She also founded Daemon Records, an independent company through which she recruits and develops new musical talent.
Since she has been intent on cultivating artists, I asked what upcoming bands or musicians she’s heard recently that have caught her attention.
“I mean there are so many people…so many people,” Ray said. “It’s like a long list – North Carolina’s got kind of a hip scene right now where there’s a lot of people there that are cross pollenating and…there are a lot of scenes doing this now with younger bands – like, hip-hop meets-Americana-meets…kind of thing, you know? There’s a great woman that we tour with sometimes named Shirlette Ammons, and she’s a poet and a hip-hop artist. And it’s funny because she works with all these folk musicians, too, in North Carolina. She’s African American, queer. She’s toured with us a little bit and she’s just really good – she’s young and will just do great things, I’m sure. And another North Carolina artist, Heather McIntyre, has a band named Mount Moriah who just came out with a record. She’s young and she’s played with us a lot – she’s on Merge (Records) and I think she’s coming up.”
“I just heard this band in Atlanta that I really love – I live an hour-and-a-half from the city, so I never know what’s going on there and I try and listen to college radio to get a grip on what’s happening now,” Ray continued. “And there’s a band called Man Up, Yancey. They’re so good! And I heard an interview with them and I was like ‘wow, I really like everything they’re saying.’ And so I went online and listened to their music and I was really, like, happy (laughs) that it’s out there because their perspective is so great and stuff. And then there’s this really great black rock band out of Atlanta called Algiers and they kind of mix Joy Division and punk rock and old gospel together. It’s really good, and their record was cool. They’re kind of a band I’ve been seeing a lot that I really like. And then there’s just a ton of Americana artists that are good. Oklahoma alone has poured out all these great writers, you know? There’s just so much – it’s rich out there right now and I just think it’s cool, you know? I love that.”
The Indigo Girls will appear with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra at Columbus Commons, 160 South High Street, on Saturday, June 18 at 8:00 pm. Tickets can be purchased through the CAPA Ticket Office, 39 East State Street, 614-469-0939 ($10 child general admission tickets; adult tickets range from $25.00-$85.00), or they can be purchased via Ticketmaster.
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