Concert Review: Amy Ray

The Indigo Girls are Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. In Amherst on May 13, Ray performed an excellent concert at the Drake nightclub. She had a full band, and the show was sold out. The Indigo Girls have sold more than 14 million albums and won a Grammy award. Ray and Saliers live near Atlanta, Georgia. You can hear Ray's solo music at

Ray spoke with the Valley Post by phone in 2015. She talked about the challenges she and Saliers set for themselves on their 2015 album; about Vermont; and about her hopes for an end to mass incarceration. A version of this article, and a 2015 Valley Post interview with Saliers, appeared in the Rutland Herald and several other newspapers. The Saliers interview is at:

VALLEY POST: Did anything unexpected happen when you were recording the new album?

AMY RAY: We were working with a new producer, Jordan Brooke Hamlin. We heard a project she did with Lucy Wainwright Roche and we loved how she produced it. We wanted someone who could approach us in a new way with a different process. Jordan has that. She plays a lot of instruments and she has been making records on her own for a long time. She uses Pro Tools (a computer program for making albums) and is in the digital realm.

When we started working on arrangement ideas, a lot of the way we worked was e-mailing sound files back and forth. Jordan built arrangements around demos that we sent. We've never worked that way. It was surprisingly satisfying to us. Normally we're very old school: we go in the studio, we bring in people we want to play with, and we work on the arrangements together. This was Jordan orchestrating the whole thing on her own, then us working on it, just the three of us. Then, when we got in the studio with some of the songs we would take that arrangement idea and record it live. It was a mixture of the two ways of working. At first it was hard for us, we couldn't wrap our heads around it, and then it was really great. That was a surprise, to be able to merge those two styles. It really worked.

On the song “Fishtails,” I recorded myself playing electric guitar and singing with certain effects to make it sound atmospheric, to put across what I thought the vibe of the song was emotionally. It was made to a certain number of beats per minute, a certain timing. I sent it to Jordan. She took that timing and put it into ProTools or Garage Band, two musical computer programs. She could play instruments that all fit into the timing of what I had done. She put down a keyboard part, different guitar parts with different effects on them, different string parts, and a horn part. It all worked together because it was all timed in the same way. You could even take that and go into the studio and re-record what I had done on guitar and vocals if you wanted to make it better.

That's the way a lot of people work now. Most people in their teens and twenties, that's all they know. For us, though, we know the old world, where you had analog tape and you have to tape everything and record it live, on the fly, synced up just by your ear.

Emily and I would record all our demos either solo or together, depending on what stage we were at in the process, to a certain time signature, and send them to Jordan. That's how we made our plan.

VALLEY POST: It sounds like most of what Jordan did was help figure out how to put the other instruments in?

AMY RAY: Yes, and the harmonies. When it comes to the vocal approach or the guitar tone, which amplifier to use, which guitar to use, which mandolin or horn, once you're in the studio, that's when you're really figuring it out sonically. As far as where the verse and chorus go, how to build the harmonies, where the instruments come in and out, we did a lot of that planning before we got into the studio.

That's process stuff. As far as musical surprises, we worked with some musicians we hadn't worked with before. They were fantastic. It was a pleasure. The whole thing was really fun. We worked with drummer Fred Eltringham and bass player Butterfly Boucher. Lex Price played a bunch of things like bass and bouzouki. Those three people were brand new for us. They really made a difference. We worked with a couple of guys in their twenties who we've been touring with for a few years, but we had never recorded with them. That went really well. It was a great feeling.

We also played with a drummer that we've played with a lot, Brady Blade, and a few other people that we've done a lot of work with. It was a good experience all the way around. Every day was like, who's going to play what? We were constantly in creative mode. We didn't have long to make the record. It was a fast process.

VALLEY POST: You told me about working with a new producer and with some new musicians. In terms of what you were doing personally and what Emily was doing, were you guys challenging yourselves musically on the new album?

AMY RAY: Yes. We hadn't made a record in four years. During that time, we both had kids and my dad passed away. We were doing a lot of shows with symphony orchestras. That informed our writing process to a certain degree.

When you haven't played together in the studio in that long, you've got to re-approach it. It's always challenging when we start arranging songs for a record. We write our own songs completely separately from each other and then we get together and work on the arrangements. It was really good for us to spend time away from it and then get back to it.

Some of the harmonies were super challenging. We had to rework them over and over again until the notes were exactly the way we wanted them be harmonically. It's kind of nerdy stuff that we really enjoy. It's really fun to wrestle with the notes. Maybe you change your melody a bit so the harmony is better. Or maybe you change the harmony. Which instruments? What tuning are you going to be in? We spend a lot of time on all those kinds of things.

Emily played dulcimer. I played more electric guitar than usual. For us, challenging ourselves musically means that we might sing higher or lower, or different kinds of melodies than we normally sing, that are harder to sing. Or we might try to record something live that's hard. Or we might try to overdub different harmonies later that are really hard to sing.

Musically, every record we make is a bigger challenge than the last because we've made a lot of records. You're trying to do something new, not just for the sake of doing something new. You're trying to learn something. You need to play an instrument that you haven't played or sing in a way that you haven't sung before.

A lot of Emily's songs were a challenge for me because the chords were hard, the vocals and the harmony were harder and more technical than I had done before. I had to really work on my parts and practice them a lot before I got into the studio. I played some instruments that I hadn't played before, that I'm playing at our concerts now; a little 12 string mandolin; some guitar effects that I've never used.

You want to challenge yourself but you don't want to do something just for the sake of newness because that feels pretentious. Emily played some guitar leads that I have not heard come out of her ever before (laughs). They were challenging for her. She worked on them a long time. That was pretty cool. Part of that was because we didn't want to have someone else play the part if Emily could do it. Sometimes a producer will bring in some hotshot guitar player to play the lead and it doesn't read as true as if Emily just does it.

VALLEY POST: One of my favorite songs on the new album is “Texas Was Clean.” Can you tell me what inspired that song?

AMY RAY: I hope it doesn't ruin it for you. (Laughs.) I was addicted to “Friday Night Lights,” the TV show. It's very evocative in its lighting and camera work, especially the landscape scenes of the kids driving or the football games. It's a very specific vibe. It really informs my perspective on Texas. I've spent a lot of time in Texas. I have a lot of close friends that live there. The song started with an inspiration of the late night flicker of the TV. Then you fall asleep and you're dreaming about all the characters.

That show has a lot about human nature. It's much bigger than football. It's about race and economics and interpersonal relationships and growing up in a small town. I could relate to a lot of it. It became a song about my friends in Texas. I have a couple of close friends that died there. It all kind of got mixed in together. It became about running away and Texas being the destination. I want to get far from Georgia but not leave the South.

I demo-ed it just me, alone, with acoustic guitar. Emily and I worked on it and then Jordan worked on it. It was one of those songs where I had a really specific idea how I wanted it to come across as I was writing it. It took me a few years to write. It was a slow process.

VALLEY POST: Do you and Emily have any connection to Vermont?

AMY RAY: Emily has a place she always goes to in Vermont with her family. It's a log cabin that they've had forever. They spend holidays up there. Emily has a lot of connections in Vermont. We've played in Vermont a lot. It's always fun for us. The people there are so awesome. We're playing with a band at our Vermont concert. Our opening band for Vermont is A Fragile Tomorrow. They're a group that I met when they were like 15 years old, in a back alley after a show. Now they're in the twenties. They're really good.

VALLEY POST: With more than 2 million people in prison, the United States incarcerates a far higher percentage of its population than any other nation. Your song “Black Messiah,” on the new album, talks about that. It can be a depressing subject. In the song, you sing about some signs of hope. Can you talk about that?

AMY RAY: Politicians are trying to change the criminal justice system. I don't hold out hope that's going to be some radical effort that's going to revolutionize things. But it's a big deal that mass incarceration is in focus now for legislators.

The problem is so deep and so mired in racism. That's what we have to work on. That starts with educating kids and showing them images that are more positive. We need to get the criminal justice system away from any profit-making entities. It's just so corrupt.

Solitary confinement is being looked at now by a lot of people as something that needs to go away. That conversation is out in the open now. That's promising.

I have an equal balance of cynicism and hope. But I look at a group like Black Lives Matter and I think they're really, really innovative and revolutionary. When young groups are starting up that have a very effective way of working, I find that to be inspiring.

The guy that I wrote that song about, the man from the Angola Three, had written me a letter telling me about his situation. He's passed away since. His faith and hope and positive-ness within the confines of solitary confinement for 35 years was amazing to me. If you have that kind of power as a human then eventually there will be change.

There are people that are working really hard. It's in the conversation now. I think it will change. Racism is so systemic and deep and entrenched, we've got to start educating kids when they're young and open their eyes. Don't let them be changed by the images they see on TV or in the media that are so negative and so skewed. That's going to take a while to change. I always think about Star Trek: The Next Generation – we'll get there one day (laughs). That's my feeling about it.


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