Inspirer is celebrating inspirational and influential women in music with in-depth interviews. This project will share the stories behind the trailblazers and pioneers who paved the way for female artists.
Amy Ray, one half of the folk duo Indigo Girls, has always been an ally for music and human rights. Born and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, Ray developed a love of music from an early age. In high school, she met Emily Saliers and quickly formed a personal friendship and musical partnership. The duo began playing for anyone who would listen, later evolving into Indigo Girls.
With a career spanning almost 30 years, Amy Ray has used her platform and voice to help others — most notably being a vocal ally for the LGBT community by fighting for equal rights. Ray also offers guidance to other artists by assisting them in releasing their music with her independent record label, Daemon Records.
We caught up with Amy Ray during a day off from touring to talk about what it was like growing up as a gay youth, the early days of Indigo Girls, and what the future holds for them.
You grew up in the South and were raised in a religious family. That must have been a tough time as a young gay woman.
I grew up in the suburbs, in Decatur, which is a small town outside of Atlanta. When I was growing up, it was the ’70s and the ’80s, and in the South, feminism hadn’t even taken hold. So being gay — I didn’t even know what it meant. When I was falling in love with a girl in high school I didn’t know what any of it meant. I was raised in the church, a sort of moderately conservative Methodist church — went about three days a week. I loved it; I love religion. But there were a lot of things I didn’t like and had to work through. I just had to find my way through it. You know, keep the good parts and toss out the bad. It took a long time, but I don’t regret how I was raised. Even though my parents were conservative, they have three gay daughters. It was bad for a long time and they disagreed about it. Eventually, they evolved and made it work with their faith. They began to understand and we are so close now. I knew they always loved us. Even if it was a weird kind of love that I felt at odds with, I knew they loved us.
How did you and Emily [Saliers] come together as Indigo Girls?
We were in high school, I think I was 15 and Emily was 16, we were in chorus together and had mutual friends. One day we just decided to hang out and play together. We ended up having so much fun together and would play for classes or just for people hanging out. Shortly after that, we started playing a sandwich shop or open mic nights. After graduating high school, we went to different colleges for a while but would still play on the weekends and breaks. We finally both went to Emory University in Atlanta and that’s when we got serious — playing original music. We started calling ourselves Indigo Girls in ’85, we did a lot of independent releases in ’87, and got signed in ’88. We’ve been independent artists for years now. That’s our story!
Is being an independent and self-producing artist important?
I think it’s important to do what fits. For us, we weren’t really a major label situation and found it better to do it ourselves. Every artist is different and has different needs where a major label might be a good thing. Rarely, but maybe. If you’re a pop band and doing commercial pop then you sometimes need the “big machine.”
How is the new Indigo Girls album “One Lost Day” different from previous records?
We used a new producer, Jordan Hamlin, that we’ve known for a long time. Jordan is much more into arranging and piecing things together. She helped us approach most of the record in a way we never have before — it made for an interesting combination. This record has more layering and more of a sonic atmosphere. We spent a lot of time on arranging and on harmonies, but I think its all paid off. We haven’t done a record in three or four years. It’s fun to have something new and different.
With a career spanning decades, you must have quite the following.
It’s not like we have a lot of 20-year-old fans or teenagers, but we maintain a certain following. Part of that following are younger people who have found us through activism or being gay. So, we have them, and the fans who have been with us for a while and are older. Parents brought their kids, and now those kids are older.
What inspired the creation of your label, Daemon Records?
I wanted to help out other bands. I took the money I made from being signed to a major label and used it to start a label. It was a way to keep myself in the indie world. I have a passion for promoting music and had bands that wanted to put out records — I had access to those things. I haven’t put out others’ records in a while, I’ve just been putting out my stuff. I’ve been focusing on giving advice and promoting over releasing.
You religiously played the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival until they were refusing to acknowledge transgender women. Why was it important for you to take a stand against the exclusion of all women?
It was an important thing for us [Indigo Girls]. I would go to [the festival] whether we played or not, but at that point the “Womyn Born Womyn” intention just wasn’t shifting. We had all these conversations about it with trans activists. For me, if it wasn’t going to evolve into a trans welcoming space, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I love the people who run the festival and have such respect for it, but this was a human rights issue for me. So, we played it one last time and said “This is it, we can’t unless there’s some real movement on this.” It’s hard being a woman, and we should support trans women. In 10 years, we will be having a different conversation.
What does the future look like for Indigo Girls?
The future looks good for us! We have a lot more touring to do this year. We’ve been playing with a few symphony orchestras, along with a band and just the duo. We are planning on releasing a live album with the orchestras, but there’s a lot that goes into it. But we are really excited for it.