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Kim Ruehl's Q&A with Amy Ray

February 15, 2013

amy-ray 600.jpgBy Kim Ruehl,

Twenty-six years into a career that has spanned two dozen highly acclaimed albums (if you count her solo stuff and that with the Indigo Girls, holiday recordings, live albums), Amy Ray can still fly under the radar. Even many Indigo Girls fans don't realize she's had a robust - and decidedly not-Indigo-Girls-sounding - solo career for more than a decade. Much of her work outside of the duo has been heavily influenced by some combination of her punk and soul influences, though she'll be heading into a New York studio this May to start recording a classic-style country album.

In her spare time, whatever that is, she dedicates her energy and celebrity to a number of social issues, from eradicating poverty and racism across the South to LGBT rights and environmental justice. Recently, I spoke with Ray about her work with groups like the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Southerners on New Ground, and Project South (if you visit her website, you can order a live concert DVD she recorded as a fundraiser for Project South). Naturally, our conversation inevitably led to the music.

Here's an excerpt:

Kim Ruehl: Are you hearing an increase in socially-minded songwriters lately? For a little while there those folks were harder to find. It seems to be coming back into the foreground.

Amy Ray: Yeah, It seems like a lot of people around me are socially conscious. I don't know who gets attention and who doesn't. But...I think the environment [for music] right now is, to a certain extent, more progressive because Obama's in office...the gay rights movement and the immigration movement, the environmental movement. There's been so much...I don't want to say progress, but [there's been] movement. I think when that happens songwriters who are in that context get talked about more.

It's still hard to write the modern day protest song. It's hard to write a Woody Guthrie song now. I'll work on something like that and it seems so simple to do. But, it would definitely take me longer to write that than it does to write [other stuff]. It's not for lack of inspiration. I just think it takes a certain knack. You borrow heavily from other writers and melodies, as did many of the protest songs. You do it in the spirit of what the song is for. You're not worrying so much about crafting the song as you are about writing for the cause. There's a difference. When you sit down to write songs, it's which realm you want to be in.

I know a lot of writers who have songs that comment on something that happens... Lindsay Fuller may write about asbestos poisoning, but writing that song that everybody can sing at a rally? That's what I've been thinking about lately. How do you do that?

KR: Do you think it has to do with the fact that we're so informed now? I mean, Woody Guthrie wasn't working from a 24-hour news cycle. He got the news in little snippets and then had time to work on it. Now, there's always something happening - it's a little overwhelming if you're a songwriter.

AR: That works for me. Definitely. I think you're right. There's so much at your fingertips. You feel like if you don't include everything, you're not doing it justice.

I still think Zack de la Rocha is one of the greatest political writers of our time - from Rage Against the Machine. I think he knew how to write lyrics everybody can sing, but it's not like you can go do that at protests with an acoustic guitar.

I was hanging out with some people from SONG [Southerners on New Ground] and we were talking about that - how do you write the modern day Woody Guthrie song? I haven't done it yet. I definitely have been thinking a lot about that. What does it take to write a song like "We Shall Overcome"? It's very simple. And you're right, it may be that we just have too much information.

KR: Changing gears, I'd love to hear more about the symphony tour [the Indigo Girls have been doing]. How did you get the arrangements done for that?

AR: ...We've been thinking for a long time about playing shows with a symphony orchestra. Years back, we did a show with the Atlanta Ballet and their orchestra played with us. There were 10 songs they did the charts for, and the dancers choreographed. We played live onstage with a band while the dancers were dancing. It was really fun, and kind of crazy. We thought it would be fun to play with a full orchestra but we just didn't know how to approach it, because of the money - it costs a lot to write scores. It's a very big investment. We had friends who had done it but we didn't know how we'd go about it. Then we got a call from an agency where that's all they do...we hired a couple of amazing arrangers who did 19 charts for us. Over the course of a couple of months, we emailed back and forth, heard synthesizer mockups of what they were working on and we commented on them. It got finished and the agency went out there and got offers... little by little, they stream in.

The symphony sizes are anywhere from 65 to 115 players. They get the charts a week ahead of time. I don't think they have time to practice. We show up on the day of the show, do a little baby sound check, run through one song, and that's it. Then we play that night. It's really fun and challenging. You never know what's going to happen. It's so new for us. When we first started we were so nervous, we didn't know how to find our bearings most of the time, but now we understand it better. Every night is different - all the orchestras are built differently, the conductors interpret things differently. It's a totally new musical experience.

KR: Have you recorded any of those shows?

AR: So far, the symphony we resonated with the most was in Birmingham, so we're going to go back to Birmingham and do a show - probably a free show - and we'll take the time to record with the symphony live. If we mess up, we'll go through it again, so we don't have to fix things with ProTools, and can get a really solid live recording that [hasn't been] fixed. We're going to do that in May and then put something out in the Fall, maybe.

Posted by Linda Fahey at February 15, 2013 2:13 PM

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