Indigo Girl Amy Ray is feeling kinder solo

Perhaps best known as one half of seminal folk-rock duo The Indigo Girls alongside Emily Sailers, Amy Ray has in recent years started forging a niche for herself as a solo artist.

Having already released three solo efforts previously (two studio albums and one live album), Ray is now taking time between gigs with the Indigo Girls to gear herself up for the Aug. 5, release of her fourth solo effort Didn't It Feel Kinder on her own indie label Daemon Records.

For this outing, Ray tapped producer Greg Griffith who in the past has produced such acts as the Butchies and Le Tigre. Griffith's presence is almost immediately noticeable as Ray's previous solo efforts have been largely self-produced. With Griffith at the helm, Ray's trademark in-your-face dynamism is harnessed and channeled into a solid, powerful direction that seems a natural progression for the artist.

Where her earlier albums were explosive and at times aggressively raw and edgy, Wouldn't It Be Kinder maintains those elements with Griffith serving as a conduit through which the power of Ray's songs are distilled and re-directed with intent without sacrificing any of the inherent punk-rock power that she tends to lean toward in her solo work.

As different as the sound is this time out, there is also a strong sense of familiarity to the tracks on this album, despite all Ray's distinct work. Adding to this feeling of familiarity is the return of Melissa York and Kaia Wilson of the Butchies, who recorded with Ray on her first solo venture Stag.

In addition to the August release of the solo record, Ray and Sailers have also finished their latest as yet untitled Indigo Girls release produced by Mitchell Froom, which will also mark the duo's first ever independently released album in their twenty-plus years of working together. Look for Ray to begin touring solo in October/November between Indigo Girls tours.   

During a break from touring, Amy Ray took time to talk with O&AN about the new album from her home in Georgia during an exclusive interview.

: You are certainly no stranger to working with producers having worked closely with Mitchell Froom for years with the Indigo Girls but your solo albums have traditionally been self produced until now. For this album you tapped Greg Griffith who also produced the Butchies, Le Tigre and Loudspeaker. What was it like working alongside Griffith and how did his presence help to shape the sound you were shooting for?

Amy Ray: Any time I play with other people on my solo records it always becomes a collaborative effort. The biggest difference this time around was that I really put Greg in charge of many different aspects of the album and I looked to him for direction. So, even though we were collaborating with other artists he sort of had the helm creatively and in a lot of other ways which was really what I wanted even though I really had the final say on things. There were certain areas of the album that were my territory and there were certain areas that were his. He truly molded the record in such a way that it is truly his handprint.

: Have you avoided working with producers in the past because it’s difficult for someone as driven and comfortable in your skin as yourself to give up a measure of creative control to an outsider?

AR: I really can’t figure out if it’s that I have trouble giving up control or if I just have a hard time articulating to another person what my vision is so that when they are explaining what their vision is there is some sort of common language. A lot of times you may be going for the same thing but you’re just expressing it differently. When I think about working with a producer I think not just of someone who is putting their handprint on my work, but someone who has a certain “bedside manner” that generates a kind of optimism that fuels the project in an energetic way.

O&AN: Greg Griffith has a certain reputation for being almost as driven as you are. What was it about Greg’s “bedside manner” as a producer that made you decide to entrust this huge responsibility with him?

AR: Musically, he’s very challenging and he knows a lot and brings a vast amount of knowledge to the table. It can be a bit intimidating at first but it’s also a great way to work. In some ways having confidence in myself is the hardest part of making a record.

Sometimes the producer can really help you with that and sometimes the producer doesn’t. You really have to find that for yourself and I think in the end its better because you really have to work for it and find that confidence within yourself but during the project you find yourself really frustrated. Greg is a lot like me in that sometimes he is so inside his own head that I would be craving feedback and he just would not be that person for me so that created my only real struggle which was with my own ego.

Sometimes I would want something and I wouldn’t always get it so I kind of had to depend on myself and my trust in my own ability. At the same time he was always open to hearing any ideas I might have had. I was willing to hear most of his ideas but there were a few that I just had to put my foot down and say “I can not do that!” but then a week later I would give in and be like “Okay, let’s try it.” I think generally speaking we learned to work together and I think that’s as much what the project is about as anything else. He’s also in my touring band so obviously, it worked out well or else he wouldn’t still be around.

O&AN: What was the specific result you were trying to accomplish by pushing yourself in a different direction than usual this time out?
AR: In some ways I think this album fell together in much the same way as I like my solo records to fall together but the initial impulse of what people I wanted to be in position to work with was there before. I play with the band Arizona on a couple of songs and I really think their music is amazing and hopefully people will check it out.

I had a feeling a while back that I wanted to record a couple of songs with them. I also knew that I wanted to work with Melissa York and Kaia Wilson (of the Butchies) again because I missed working alongside them a lot. I worked alongside them on the first record but didn’t on the second one because I wanted to do something different, but they have grown a lot now too, so I wanted to kind of go back and check in with them this time out to kind of see where they were. Mel brought Greg into the picture because he’s her best friend and they play together a lot.

O&AN: How did Greg’s presence help to achieve the goals you had set for yourself with this recording?

AR: I think this album is more focused and I think there are a lot of ways that it’s better. I feel like I wanted to make a record that had a little more focus to it and a little more dynamic and a little more nuanced sometimes and vocally was a stretch for me. That was kind of the point.

It was not just a matter of getting it out but also getting it out in a way that was different that the way I’ve done it before. For me, especially vocally, if I don’t stretch myself a little and do something different it will make me feel like I’m in a rut. So I really tried hard to sing out of my range and push myself to be different and not just loud. *laughs*

: We’ve talked a lot about the people who helped create the record itself. Can you tell me now about the genesis of the songs themselves before anyone else came on board?

AR: Part of what was going on during the time that I was writing the material was the fact that I was touring a lot. You can really hear in a few of the songs where I’m kind of moving from one place to the other and I’m kind of talking about it and missing my girlfriend. What I hear on the record is a lot of longing in some ways and then a lot of struggle to understand what longing means and what love and compassion are.

My writing was affected a lot by the fact that I was constantly moving from one place to the next and writing and rewriting a lot and refining the song in reflection of what things are constantly happening around me. I’m trying to write songs that people can hear and get their own thing out of. In some ways they are very universal but in others they are very specific.

Melodically as time went on I was forced by being on the road so much to look at the melodies more closely that I would have had I been in my own space. Touring with the Indigo Girls I’m always hearing Emily as well as whoever is opening up for us so it really forced me to confront my melodies and tighten everything up.

: In the context of taking your work in a direction you had yet to really achieve for yourself yet, how do you feel like your songwriting has most evolved between your last solo release and here?

AR: When I wrote Prom I was at home a lot of the time for whatever reason working on these songs and I can feel them now being a little limited melodically and I didn’t know really how to solve that. I love the record. It’s a great piece of work, but I can really feel the limitations that it had because of the way I wrote this record.

O&AN: It is a well known fact that you are a very prolific songwriter. When you are writing songs do you know when you write them if they are going to be Indigo Girls material or not? How do you decide which direction to take each song?

AR: If I hear Emily in my head when I’m writing then usually that means it will end up being an Indigo Girls song. There were a few that I thought would be solo songs but they ended up Indigo Girls. “Rock & Roll Heaven’s Gate” is a great example of that. Sometimes they can work both ways, but a lot of times it can’t.

Many times it has to do with the kind of personal lyricism of the piece that I may use in that if Emily were to sing it with me it would completely change the meaning of the song because something just happens to any song we do together and sometimes I don’t want the lyrics to be colored by that duo thing. It’s always about what makes the song the strongest.

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