Exclusive Interview: Amy Ray from Indigo Girls

Amy Ray. Photo by John David Raper
Amy Ray. Photo by John David Raper

Amy Ray. Photo by John David Raper

Lavender had the opportunity to catch up with Amy Ray, part of the famous lesbian duo Indigo Girls. She’s currently touring and promoting her solo album, Lung of Love. Ray will be performing at the Turf Club on Friday, May 18 at 9:00pm. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here or at the door. Read on to hear Ray’s thoughts on making music and coming out in this exclusive Lavender interview.

Lavender Magazine: Before we begin, I do just want to say that I’m really excited and nervous about this because I grew up listening to Indigo Girls secretly in my basement in Nebraska where you can’t be gay. So this is awesome.

Amy Ray: It would have been a dead giveaway, huh?

LM: Totally. When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

AR: I guess I was probably nine or ten and both my older sisters played piano and guitar and sang. I used to go take their records and listen to them. I don’t know, in my family, it was part of the thing. You took piano for a certain number of years. It was a requirement. We each had to take for three years, but I kind of liked guitar better. So I got a guitar and went to the YMCA and did lessons at the Y. I think it’s probably because I wanted to write songs. When I was a kid, I used to write plays and me and my friends used to put them on in the basement. Every few months, we would get together and put one on and write another one. No one came; it was just for us. I think there was a part of me that just wanted to write my own stuff. I started writing songs when I was young, but they were pretty bad. They were just like copies, pretty much like plagiarism for a few years. That’s kinda how you do it when you’re really young. I always tell kids, like my niece and nephews who are starting to write songs, you can write exactly like someone else for a little while until you find your own voice. Figure out how someone else wrote a song first. That’s what I did–emulated what Elton John was doing, and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. And then I learned how to write songs by doing that and took it from there.

LM: Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to come out?

AR: It was a long time ago. It was one of those things where I fell in love in high school my senior year with a woman, a girl. I was living in the suburbs in the south, and I didn’t really know what it meant. We didn’t have the language. I didn’t know what gay meant. I think I thought gay was bestiality or something, just totally completely ignorant. So I didn’t associate anything at all with what I was feeling. I just knew it felt good. And then slowly my mom asked me about it, and teachers. And the girl I was in love with, her parents got mad at me and I realized there was something wrong in their eyes. So I started hiding it. In college, I maintained that relationship for a long time. I think my next relationship was when I talked to my parents about it. I was 18 or 19. Then my friends started to know, and I came out to my grandparents when I was 20 or 21.

But we didn’t talk about it in the press. It was this thing where everyone around us knew, our friends and all that. There was this uncomfortable moment of like, “How do we deal with this in the press? Do we talk about it?” Emily [from the Indigo Girls] and I felt a little differently from each other. I kind of felt like, no matter what, we needed to talk about it. It was going to come up, going to happen anyway. We were going to have to deal with this anyway. I think at that time we were both just so scared, and there was such a negative connotation to it. It was 1988, you know?

It took us a few years, and I did some gay press alone. A few little things here and there, like little zines. Emily was like, “I think I just want to keep it private for now. I just don’t know how I feel, how it would affect us.” I think we were scared about being pigeonholed, all those same things that people worry about now probably.

Around ‘91, we were doing this press conference in the Northeast with a group of colleges, and someone asked us. Emily just out of nowhere started talking about it. I was just sitting there looking at her like, “Where did this come from?” And I was so happy because I was relieved because it was finally out there. And she just walked away and was like, “I just decided that it wasn’t worth not talking about anymore.” From that point on, we started seeking out gay press. I have this feeling that our publicist at the time was kind of turning away gay press and not telling us. After that happened, we went to our publicist and said, “If this comes up, you should take the interview. We will do this, and we don’t mind. And we want to.”

Now it seems silly when I talk about it for myself, but when I put myself back in that time period, we were scared. We were being protested for playing pro-choice rallies. We had bomb threats at venues we were playing at for other reasons completely. So we were like, “Oh, shit. You put the gay thing on top of this and we’re really going to be in trouble.” We had internalized homophobia, and we were scared. We felt like we were “less than” and all the same things that everyone feels in normal life when you come out. We just did it publicly, and I’m thankful for all the help that gave us.

LM: What’s it like being an out musician?

AR: For us, I don’t even think we think about it that much. I think for younger people that are just starting, they still think about whether to come out or not, which is hard to believe sometimes. I mean, North Carolina just passed their own Defense of Marriage Act, so we haven’t made enough progress to where people like they can be out all the time.

I think, sometimes, it’s glorious to be out and honest and who you are and have this vast appreciation for your community and your audience. And then there are times where you think, “Wow, I wish someone would think of me as more than just a gay musician.” I think both things happen. But the reason why you say that to yourself is that you take on all of the negative things that society puts on that. The reality is, do you think the lead singer of Maroon 5 or whatever sits around and says “I wish people would think about me as more than just a white guy playing music?” They don’t think that way because there’s nothing wrong with a white guy playing music. You know, I think when you’re gay or a person of color or whatever your distinction is, you might get tired of people putting that lens on you because there’s so much negative stuff they’re putting on that.

LM: Can you talk a little bit about your solo career and your new album, Lung of Love?

AR: I’ve been making solo records for twelve years, and this is my fourth one. I started doing it because I was really being pulled in another direction that was more in a punk tradition. I wanted to collaborate with some bands I really liked, and I was writing songs that fit into that. So I decided to do a project that was a collaboration with The Butchies and Joan Jett, a couple musicians…just some different people that I knew from the rock community and the punk community. I had such a good time that I just kept doing it. At this point, it’s another side of what I do. I do Indigo girls part of the time and I do this part of the time.

Lung of Love is different from the other three albums. I made it a little more (I hate to say the word) accessible,or “poppy,” I guess. I had a group of songs that I wanted to do something with that was a little more streamlined, and really pay attention to melody and arrangement in that traditional style of the craft of songwriting. I wanted to look at that in my solo work and work on it. This record is what came out of that.

LM: How is your solo work different from your work with Indigo Girls?

AR: There’s country, Appalachian, and soul influence here and there. I think what sets it apart is it’s a different environment. I play with a different group of people; I work on the records in a different way. There’s more of a singular focus because it’s just me. I tour with a full band, and it’s much more rock. It’s all electric, except for maybe 20% of it is acoustic. Definitely less folk than Indigo Girls.

LM: What do you want your listeners to think and feel when they hear your music?

AR: I don’t really care. I just want them to feel their own thing, you know? I think what you want as a songwriter is to simultaneously express something really unique and also something universal at the same time. If that could mean that part of the song has really specific images that are really unique but the chorus is universal, or the other way around. Or that there’s a moment where everyone can relate. You want people to put their own story in it. You want to do that without the song being a cliche, that’s the trick. I want people to have their own story and have some kind of revelatory moment that’s for themselves, not for the praise of us, but something that’s within themselves.

Amy Ray. Photo by John David Raper

LM: Do you have any advice for GLBT people that are struggling to come out or may be struggling to find their place in life?

AR: One thing is to honor the struggle. Don’t’ be ashamed that you’re struggling. I think it’s very important for those of us to have already come out, or live in areas where it’s easy to come out, or have families that are more supportive, to understand that the struggle is ok. There’s nothing wrong with struggling to come out. In some ways, that’s a very honest experience. When you’re struggling, you’re learning. And you’re going to be so much stronger because of that. Embrace your struggle. It’s hard to do when you’re hurting so bad, but it’s important to do.

There’s so much music, books, movies, media, and internet–ways to feel like you’re part of a community. You need to reach out to those and use those to your advantage. Take your time. Don’t rush yourself, and be patient with your friends and family. My parents were super conservative, and they still are in some ways. I’m gay, and both my sisters are gay, so three gay kids in one family. They were just destroyed by it. It took them years, but this constant approach at trying to dialogue made it go from not talking about it at all to talking about it all the time. It made a difference. My parents never put me in physical harm’s way or anything like that. If you have a situation where you just need to be patient, then just believe that it will change. But if it’s a situation where you’re physically threatened, then you need to tell someone and make sure you’re in a safe space. There’s different things on the spectrum of coming out, and it’s important to know that your experience may be different than someone else’s.

LM: What can we expect from the show on the 18th?

AR: Fun. We’re a full band. It’s a rock show, and part of the show I just come out and play by myself, just what I feel like playing at the moment. I’m playing with some really great musicians. Three of the people in my band were in my original group that played 12 years ago, The Butchies. The opening band is this really great rock band  called the Shadowboxers. They’re just a full-out rock band of hot guys. They’re really young, and their music is a cross between Stevie Wonder and Journey and Bon Jovi and Bad Company and Led Zeppelin and soul music. All these harmonies, kind of like the Beatles. They’re really interesting.

It’s our last big show for the whole spring tour, so we’ll be celebrating.

LM: I’m glad you’re spending your last show in St. Paul.

AR: I love the Twin Cities. I don’t know if you know this, but Emily and I started a group in the ‘90’s called Honor the Earth. It’s to support native environmental work. Our office just until this year has been in Minneapolis since 1993. All of our activism came out of the Twin Cities. Minnesota, generally speaking, is an area I spend a lot of time in. It’s really close to my heart, so it’s really fun to play there.

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