Amy Ray's voice does it for me every time. Whether it's delivering a pounding indictment of Holocaust complicity or letting her heart bleed all over an old lover, the sound that claws out of her throat is by turns plaintive, playful, violent, and raw — never passive or ambivalent. It is folk rock's molten core.
Ray is half of the durable and remarkably drama-free duo, the Indigo Girls. The Indigos play a sold out show at Hochstein Performance Hall on Saturday, March 2, as part of the Greentopia Music series.
Ray's musical partner is sweet-voiced soprano Emily Saliers. The two seem equally matched in songwriting prowess and focus, often taking on religion, politics, and civil rights in sometimes nearly impenetrable — some would say overwrought — lyrics. The difference is that with a Saliers' song, you know you learned something. With Ray's, you take a beating.
Saliers and Ray met in elementary school in DeKalb County, Georgia, and began performing together in high school. They became the Indigo Girls in the 1980's, and have since sold more than 12 million albums. Ray also founded the independent label, Daemon Records, in 1990 and has put out several solo albums.
Ray and Saliers are longtime activists for LGBT rights (both are openly gay), and many other political, social, and environmental causes.
Ray called in recently for a chat about music, sexuality, and politics. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
CITY: Do you think people experience your music through the lens of your sexuality? And, if so, do you find that limiting?
Amy Ray: I'm sure people experience the music through the lens of our sexuality. I think that a lot of the time, and in rock 'n' roll, too, even if it's a straight person you experience their music through the lens of their sexuality. But I think the beauty of music is when it can transcend that. And I think there are moments when people take a song or a performance and they're in it, and they're so in touch with it that they're experiencing it through the lens of their sexuality, instead of yours. And that's the ultimate. That's what you want.
Obviously, being gay has a special sort of limitation attached to it in the eyes of the world. Maybe some people feel, "Well, I'm not going to be able to relate to that," or something. I think it's presented as a limitation by the media, often.
I guess there are times when it's frustrating to me. But I think at this point with me and Emily, we just kind of do what we do. We don't worry about limitations.
Many of the Indigo Girls' songs have a political, religious, or social-justice bent. But your songwriting is darker than Emily's. Have you ever had a song that she just refused to do?
I've definitely had songs that she didn't really want to "go there" with, that I did as a solo song because of that. I think "Lucystoners" was a harder one for her, but it wasn't for political reasons. [The lyrics criticize an editor of Rolling Stone.] I think she just felt like it was casting aspersions at Rolling Stone, and sort of unnecessarily.
But we're pretty aligned. I'd say there were moments when one of us felt a little stronger than the other about something; I might've just been more extreme than her.
I've read that music has gotten increasingly bland since the 1970's, and it sure feels that way. Where's the energy? Where's the anger?
I think there's always been the homogenized kind of pop: acceptable artists who are manufactured and marketed. But there have always been these great artists who come along and do something different than that.
Now I think it's just harder. We haven't figured out where those artists are, necessarily. They're there: on the Internet, all over YouTube... I don't know if people have time to weed through everything to find them.
People have this sense that all they're getting is this homogenized, boilerplate... [It's] what they're being served by the gatekeepers of the music media.
There are a couple of records coming out that I think are really good. There's a band called Mount Moriah, on Merge, which is a great label. They're an interesting band because they're rooted in a lot of different [genres]. Their players are from punk and hardcore and all these crazy scenes, but it's like an Americana, beautiful, soft record ["Miracle Temple" is out February 26].
What are your thoughts about music reality shows like "American Idol"?
When "American Idol" first started, sometimes I'd be like, "God, these people aren't that good. I heard someone at the local bar who was better than that." But it's like the ante's been upped and [the contestants] are getting better and better. I think there really are some special vocalists coming out of those arenas.
But it changes the perspective that I think people have of what it takes to make it. It's like this one shot of instant fame when really, the people who have long careers work really hard and for a really long time — they build something.
Even people in pop do it that way. So sometimes I think it just kind of sends the wrong message.
You guys have seemingly done it all. What's left to accomplish?
I think Emily and I just want to keep making records and try to hone our songwriting even more.
And I'd like to see a more successfully integrated music festival, in terms of gender and race. I don't know if I could put that together myself. We played one a long, long time ago called Gathering of the Tribes. It was Queen Latifah, The Cramps, Soundgarden, Indigo Girls, Sinead O'Connor...It was this crazy bill: people of color, different kinds of music. It was a great idea, but then it kind of went away.
I think there are really big music festivals that do that over a weeklong period, but they're still not as integrated as they could be. I'd love to see that in my lifetime.