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Happy Birthday, Amy Ray!

| April 12, 2011 | 0 Comments

Although Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met in elementary school, they didn’t start playing music together until they became teenagers. Even at that young age, their differences—both musically and temperamentally—were readily evident. The daughter of an Atlanta radiologist and a homemaker, Ray was the more extroverted of the two—not surprisingly, she gravitated toward post-punk bands like the Replacements. Saliers, on the other hand, was quiet and studious (her parents were professors), and her tastes ran accordingly toward singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell.

When the two joined forces with their acoustic guitars, they quickly discovered that their differences in personality and musical preferences coalesced into something musically magical that has lasted for over 25 years.

In addition to her work with the Indigo Girls, Ray has also released four solo albums; launched and run the independent and not-for-profit Daemon Records for 21 years, giving dozens of artists a leg up and the chance to be heard; co-founded Honor the Earth to create awareness and support for Native American issues; and is a tireless and hands-on supporter of countless political and social causes such as women’s rights, gay rights, gun control, anti-death penalty work and environmental protection. And that’s just for starters.

For Amy’s birthday today, here are bits of an interview we had with her back in 1998 where she talks about not only her music and the Indigo Girls, but her commitment to grassroots activism and independence. Happy birthday, Amy, and thank you for your life spent walking the walk and showing us the importance of lending a hand, supporting our communities and giving voice to those in need. You’ve made an immeasurable difference in this world and we’re so glad you were born.

Who did you listen to while you were growing up?

Mostly I listened to albums my sister had: The Jefferson Airplane and Strawberry Alarm Clock … a lot of ‘60s and early ‘70s psychedelic music. I also liked Neil Young, James Taylor, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But then at a certain point I heard Patti Smith, the Replacements, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions, Aztec Camera, The Clash, and the Sex Pistols. When I heard those types of bands, everything turned inside-out for me in a way that was really good. It was a feeling of, “Oh, this is what I’ve been waiting for.” The post-punk bands really liberated me in a sense. Whenever I go back to things I listened to before then, I just can’t even relate to it. There are a few exceptions, like James Taylor and Neil Young, who I can still relate to as a writer. But as Emily and I started doing more original music, that’s when the differences in our influences started to become more obvious.

The two of you signed to Epic in 1988. That must have been an exciting time, but you’ve also said that you became a bit depressed afterwards.

Yes. It was a situation where we had this thing going—managing ourselves, booking ourselves, that kind of stuff—and, when we let go of all that, we were excited at first because we had been working so hard. We were tired and thought, “Oh good, someone’s going to share the load.” But then we took a step back and thought, “Oh shit, did we just give up something we shouldn’t have—the control, our independence, our autonomy?” But the reality is that Epic has been very supportive of us all along, in both our political agenda and our creative freedom. It’s been an asset to have them, and it’s really freed us up to do other things with our time. It’s kind of a give-and-take thing.

Let’s talk about some of the causes you and Emily have championed. How do you go about determining which ones to support?

We work with a lot of activists, and it has mostly to do with disenfranchised communities or issues that have come about because of the basic corporate structure of the United States. The fact that multi-national corporations are in charge of things at this point is pretty scary. They have more money than the government. These issues have to do with everything from pro-choice advocacy to gun control to environmental issues. It’s those issues Noam Chomsky talks about: how manifest destiny created all this disenfranchisement.

A lot of things we do stem from an attitude of trying to spread out and help communities. And one of the most important things is we don’t go in to someone’s movement and tell them how to run things. We try to support what they’re already doing. That’s the nature of grassroots activism: to support and give voice to people who are trying to change things in their own communities.

Our involvement in Native American activism is a good example. We have a campaign called Honor the Earth in which we fund indigenous environmental groups. Native Americans within their own communities make all the decisions about how the funding is used. We don’t have anything to do with those decisions, we just give them the money. And that’s kind of the model for how we do other things. We tend to work with small groups in which we can see the direct results of what they’re doing, and with groups that don’t have a lot of administrative or bureaucratic costs.

Has your involvement in these issues tended to make you more optimistic or more pessimistic?

I feel optimistic. I feel inspired by certain groups we work with. We funded a group that’s part of the Zapatistas—in Chiapas, Mexico—and just seeing their discipline, and how they’ve become politicized within their own communities, and how they’ve done things for themselves [is] extremely inspiring. They’re so big-hearted and so hopeful. And they have so much grace, which is really hard to find. Seeing that in someone else can teach you a lot, and then you can come back to your own struggle and bring what you’ve learned to the gay community or to environmental issues.

In what ways has your association with various types of cultures had an impact on your music?

It’s certainly put us in touch with different types of music. But also, in a way that’s obvious to me but probably subtle to some people, it’s given us a sense of freedom. We’ve seen a lot of people who would risk their lives for what they’re fighting for and who have so much less than us. And that triumph of the spirit makes you look at your own music kind of differently. You start taking more risks, and you get a sort of feeling of, “What have I got to lose in view of the larger scope of the world?” You stop being so precious.

—Interview by Russell Hall, excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 31

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Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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