Sandlin Gaither

Amy Ray – DIY on the Side

By touching on a little bit of everything, this empowered musician has created a community that shares ideas and values as much as they do stories and songs.

Music fans will likely know Amy Ray from her longtime work with Indigo Girls, her Grammy award-winning folk rock duo with Emily Saliers. But Ray also has a solo career, for which she fronts her own group, the Amy Ray Band. In this capacity, she has released seven studio albums so far (including If It All Goes South, which came out last September). With this band, she’s set to play a show at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City on Friday, May 12. 

Although it’s her namesake band, Ray says there’s a collectiveness to Amy Ray Band that makes it quite different from her work with Indigo Girls, especially during live performances, “because there’s a lot going on that’s not about me, that’s really about the musical prowess of the other players. It’s seven people onstage, and there’s just a lot of dimension to it. It’s not as singularly focused on the lead singer. Indigos, in some ways, can be more vigorous because I’m full-on playing and singing all the time, as opposed to when there’s so many other people playing instrumentals. It’s just like a different fabric.”

She says she’s been playing with these particular Amy Ray Band bandmates for 10 years now, noting, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, although the band are seriously good players.” And they need to be, because Ray’s solo work has explored a wide range of musical genres, all of which will be on display at their upcoming New York show: “We’ll be doing all the country stuff, and then we dip into the earlier rock, punky kind of stuff, as well.”

Ray has also built herself a strong reputation as a stellar lyricist with Indigo Girls – a skill that is evident in her solo work. She frequently uses songs to examine the South and all its good, bad, and complicated aspects.

“I guess it’s just what’s in me,” Ray says of this tendency to focus on her native region (she was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, and now lives in the mountains north of that city). “I write about the things that I know and think about. I think it’s been important for Southerners that are anti-racist and anti-classism and anti-homophobia to speak out and try to make change, and make a new South, in a way. I find that to be compelling and important, so it comes out in my songwriting often, especially my solo stuff.”

This is, she adds, why she named her latest album If It All Goes South. “I meant, on one level, ‘If it all goes south, you’re not alone: there’s allies and community and we’ll be there.’ But also meaning, the South became this epicenter of a lot of important work around elections and voting and an inflection point geographically, in some ways, of changes that need to be made around racism and homophobia. And also just the idea of making the best of where you are.”

Ray says her interest in speaking out about sociopolitical issues started at a young age. “I was always interested in activism and civil society and being engaged, even in high school, so I figured whatever I do for a living or whatever resources I have, those are the ones you use for activism.”

Ray, with Saliers, have used Indigo Girls’ fame to promote their liberal take on a wide variety of issues, urging listeners to save the environment, oppose the death penalty, and give equal rights to women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, among many other causes. They both recognize that not everyone agrees with their views, but she tells us that she’s fine with this. “I like having people from different political persuasions in the audience, to be honest – I think it makes for a more interesting show,” she says. “But, to me, there is a really big difference between someone that is for certain kinds of conservative values, as opposed to all these really stupid things that hurt kids, like anti-trans[gender] bills. I think our audience, even when they’re politically in disagreement with how we would vote personally, are open to the idea of music building a bridge between people that don’t always agree.”

She admits that she’s learned a lot from her audience, too – especially because she and Saliers started Indigo Girls when they were still in high school together. “We started so young that a lot of people were growing up with us and we were informing each other. We were learning from the people that were listening as much as they might have learned from us, so it feels like an exchange, where there is not that barrier between the stage and the audience. I think that can feel good and is a different experience,” Ray says.

Indigo Girls went on to find huge success for their introspective, intricate folk rock songs, winning a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording for their self-titled sophomore release in 1989. They’ve released 15 studio albums so far, all of which have earned widespread acclaim.

Even so, Ray decided to start a solo career on the side. She released her own debut album, Stag, in 2001. “I think it was just something I wanted to do for fun. It started out as an itch that I needed to scratch and people I wanted to work with, and then it became something that grew into just really enjoying that path of staying in a DIY space just because I like it.” Also, she adds that “it’s this constant reminder of this other perspective, for me, that’s just super fun and interesting and always informs everything else I do.”

More than two decades into this part of her career, Ray is still thrilled that she made the decision to strike out on her own. “I really love it. I’m so happy when I’m playing with them – it’s very joyful and fun. It really feeds that part of me, musically, just to have a really good time, and be in a club and hanging with everybody. The stakes aren’t as high and you’re doing it for the love of it, and that feels good.”