A chat with the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray: Closest to fine

It’s been over 20 eye-blinking years since the Indigo Girls lyrically asked “How long ‘til my soul gets it right?” on their insightful Top 10 hit “Galileo.” And while the world around them has become increasingly contentious and fractured over the last two decades, it’s become increasingly apparent that Amy Ray and Emily Sailers are two souls that get it right.

The twosome’s insightful songwriting has inspired a legion of loyal fans and prompted Rolling Stone to observe that “they radiate a sense of shared purpose that adds muscle to their lanky, deeply felt folk-tinged pop songs.” But though the duo’s ability to craft an affecting tune has afforded them 14 studio albums, millions of records and Grammy recognition, it’s the Indigo Girls’ ceaseless work championing environmental causes, gay rights, Native American rights and the abolishment of the death penalty that has truly earned them multi-platinum status.

The Indigo Girls’ remarkable onstage and offstage legacy was the main topic of discussion recently as Ray chatted with AXS in advance of their July 27 Red Rocks Amphitheatre show with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Ray was ecstatic at the chance to play at the universe’s premier outdoor venue.

“The fans, the artists, everything’s just great for everybody. We haven’t gotten to play there a while. We didn’t think we would ever get to again, honestly. We thought, ‘Well, that was great. We got to do it. It’s our dream gig. At least we got to do it.’ And then this came up and we were like, ‘Yes! (laughing)’ We play with (Mary) Chapin (Carpenter) that night and play with the symphony. I mean what more can we ask for?”

As long as we’re on the subject, another stellar album would be nice. It’s been awhile since the Girls’ last studio album, 2011’s Beauty Queen Sister. The almost three year gap was not lost on Ray.

“We’re gonna make a record in the fall, October specifically,” she offered. “We need to. It’s long overdue. We’re writing right now and we’ve got a producer we’re gonna work with. Her name is Jordan Hamlin and she produced Lucy Wainright Roche’s last record, which we really loved. We’re gonna work with her and a couple of guys that we’ve been playing with for a while and just really work on focusing on our thing, arrangements and deep into the harmony thing.”

“The thing that we’ve always really loved is harmony. There’s been records where we’ve focused on it more and records where we focused on it less. My favorite moments are when we really pay a lot of attention to it, almost like that Simon and Garfunkel thing where it’s such a big part of what you’re doing. That to me is a goal.”

The demands of the new album have forced both Ray and Saliers to have to learn how to balance the life of a recording artist with the demands of parenthood, although admittedly, children do offer a whole new meaning to the term “inspiration.”

“I already see it (laughing). I already foresee the future and, oh man it’s going to be so hard (laughing). You worry about this, that and the other. It’s so funny because when I was raised, my parents were really good parents but we were risk takers. We were riding our little minibikes when we were six years old around the yard, no brakes, no helmet. And here I'm gonna raise my kids and now I'm just like, ‘No way! (laughing).’”

“But if you run out of your own life to be inspired by, there’s so many great books and TV shows at this point, and movies and it’s just endless. I guess if I'm not being inspired, I don’t want to live anymore really, you know?”

It’s a good thing for all of us that Ray continues to find the creative vision from whatever source. Because the Indigo Girls still have a lot of music left to write – they are still searching for their opus.

“There is a certain songwriting achievement. It’s like feeling like we’ve really hit our stride together on the same record, writing our strongest material. You constantly go back and forth where somebody has strong material on one record. There’s five good songs but there’s a few in retrospect aren’t as strong.”

“For me, we haven’t hit that moment yet. We may have a record that signifies some moment in time where we changed production into this really cool thing that we have never done. And it was really cool and it made a mark for us. But I haven’t had that record yet where I feel like I'm hitting my stride, Emily’s hit her stride and all of our songs are editing well and solid. We’re not gonna look back at it later and say, ‘We could’ve changed this or that about them.’ I don’t know if that ever happens, but that’s the moment that I'm working towards (laughs).”

The quest for musical perfection continues to motivate the talented tunesmith. It helps that even after 30 years and 12 million records, Ray is still evolving as a musician. “One of the things I do is, I'm trying to continue to have discipline about writing and make sure I'm writing five days a week – figuring out how to make that happen with a child.”

“One of the things that I also do is go back and remind myself with a few great books I read about writing. One of them is a book by Stephen King called ‘On Writing.’ The other is a book, ‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamotte. I often go back to those books and read them and remind myself to do the things that they say to do.”

“One of the things they say is you’ve got to remember to read a lot if you want to write. So I had a child and I stopped reading as much because I didn’t have time. Well now I'm including reading as part of my education. I'm making myself read more, but it will help me write more. Emily and I are constantly doing things like that where we remember, ‘Okay we’ve got to work on this.’ It’s a never ending process.”

“There’s always some writer that you hear like a songwriter. I heard this guy, John Fulbright – who I think is great. I heard him on a radio show that we did together and he blew my socks off. So I went back and listened to everything he’d done and I thought, ‘What is it about him?’ I take it apart and look at it and what is it that I can learn from him. That’s the process that we still have going on.”

Surprisingly, Ray is not the first interview subject to mention the King book. “It would not surprise me,” she professed. “He’s a novelist but he hit on something about writing. He’s uncelebrated by part of the literary world that should be celebrating him. He gets reviewed in New York Times Book Review and all that kind of stuff, but there’s something about the genre of horror, they just dismiss it in some ways. But his use of imagery and description and his discipline around writing and how prolific he is, it’s impressive. And it’s very inspiring for me.”

Inspiration is something that followers of the Indigo Girls know a little something about. Their exceptional music has provided them with a platform from which they have helped to foster social change. The power of song has even surprised the involved artist.

“When we started, we were already interested in community activism on a very small level, like a church in our high school or the soup kitchen. Emily’s parents were super engaged and progressive politically. Her dad is a professor of theology and taught a lot about giving to the world. Her mom was a librarian – an activist type librarian (laughing).”

“My parents were much, much more conservative. But they taught us the most important thing was to give back. Even in their conservativeness they taught me a lot. So for me, anything that you did had to be a platform for that. It’s like tithing in your life (laughs) – not in a religious way but more just in a community way.”

“The first few things that we did were for soup kitchens and HIV, raising money for people that we knew were housebound and needed meal delivery services. We did some environmental stuff, but most of the stuff we did was basic community stuff like getting people food or shelter. That was in the early ‘80s when we very first started.”

“We quickly realized that we can gather a couple of friends together and put on a show and charge a very small amount of money but make 400 dollars that night for the soup kitchen and everybody wanted to support it. Everybody felt good about it afterwards and it was a magical thing.”

While other performers have become increasingly involved in community causes over the last two decades, Ray and Saliers represent the best kind of concerned artists – they are doing it even when no one is looking.

“Oh yeah. There are so many artists that fly under the radar that are doing great activist work. There’s this group called Medicine for the People that have a huge following in a certain arena. But they do so much good. I know about them through Honor the Earth. It’s a big organization that funds Native American projects.”

“They do this really cool thing that’s very musical and really good. But they also are constantly raising money and doing community events. They don’t blow their own horn at all. They’ve got a really big audience because of the way they approach everything. They’re not doing things just to get famous. When you’re willing to be there for the community, they community is there for you. That’s the way it works. Sometimes I tell people who are young who are like, ‘How do we get famous? – the first thing you have to do is not even think about getting famous (laughs).’”

The second thing that the aspiring artists should do is to follow the Indigo Girls’ recipe for making a difference in the world – sing softly but carry a big stick. See you at Red Rocks.