Amy Ray: An Indigo Girl gone solo — but only temporarilyBy Ricardo Baca | March 30th, 2012 | 2 comments
If you listen to enough Indigo Girls music, you know that it’s not all frilly harmonies and plaintive contemplations. Fans of the 27-year-old duo know that each of the singers, brunette Amy Ray and blond Emily Saliers, bring vastly different sensibilities to the mix — and that is perhaps the reason for their continued popularity.
Before 2001, fans didn’t know what that chemistry would sound like when broken apart, even temporarily. But that year’s solo debut from Ray, “Stag,” provided a stark and penetrating portrait of an artist, an album of love and discontentedness. And even though the Indigo Girls have remained an active force, writing songs and releasing records in the past decade, Ray has made three more records since her first solo outing — including the new “Lung of Love.”
At first listen, it’s clear that Ray — who brings her solo band to the Bluebird Theater on Sunday — has specific intentions with her stripped-down writing. This punk-rooted, pop-loving assault isn’t something she can comfortably do within the confines of her other, more famous band.
“When I first start writing a song, I have a sense of what I want to do with it,” Ray said earlier this week. “After I do the melody and lyrics to a certain degree, I know where it’s steering me in the writing process. When I write stuff for Indigo Girls, I can hear space for harmonies and another guitar part and room for Emily. When I write my solo stuff, I can hear what the other collaborators who play with me a lot will do.”
Another difference between Ray’s worlds: venue size. The Indigo Girls used to headline Red Rocks locally and have since found homes at series at the Denver Botanic Gardens and Chautauqua.
“I love both formats, but when I’m doing the solo band thing, the club feels right,” Ray said. “It feels intimate and immediate and rough around the edges and all those things you want rock ‘n’ roll to be.”
And while few would ever reference the Indigo Girls’ catalog as rock ‘n’ roll, fans of Ray’s solo output — and her band’s blistering live shows — know it’s a fitting title. From the well-placed anger of “Stag,” with its songs of sibling betrayal (“Johnny Rotten”) and anti-woman, anti-gay sentiment in the music industry (“Lucystoners”), Ray, took her activist-oriented Indigo Girls voice to the next logical place.
“That disconnect is still here (in the industry),” Ray said. “Playing rock as a female artist is hard enough, because there are only a few who are allowed in. The disconnect is larger because of age and being gay. As I get older, and I’m still gay, ha, there’s even more of a disconnect. But trying to get mainstream radio play on more commercial Triple A stations that might have played the Indigo Girls, it’s like they only allow one thing through the gate.”
It’s a frustrating position but one that Ray understands. Her other band has seen nothing but support from Denver alt-rock station KBCO, and yet it doesn’t play her solo material.
“KEXP in Seattle will tell me I’m too Triple A, and then KBCO will say I’m not Triple A enough,” Ray said. “But I’m not trying to be anything. I’m just trying to be a rock band. I’m stuck between two things.”
After “Stag,” Ray expanded her repertoire with the softer-edged “Prom” and the more melodic “Didn’t It Feel Kinder” in 2005 and 2008, and together with the new “Lung of Love,” Ray has created a collection of songs that rivals her output with the Indigo Girls in meaning and listenability. Ray’s solo songs bring the spirit of her own Indigo Girls tracks into a modern, indie-rock setting — an impressive feat, given her longstanding presence on radio and stage.
“I think they both inform each other a little bit,” Ray said of her two worlds. “I’m not able to imagine one without the other. But I’ll change my solo stuff; I have my eye on doing a country record and doing some different stuff in my solo life that’s different than the rock stuff I’m doing. The solo stuff allows me a certain kind of adventure.”
Ray gets the world out of her indie life, but concerned Indigo Girls fans need not fret.
“Emily and I have never talked about quitting,” Ray said.