Interview: Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray talks music, activism, and nature

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By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly

If you’re looking for where all the lesbians are gathering next Sunday, July 28, you might wanna head up to the Oregon Zoo because the Indigo Girls are coming to town. That’s where this longtime fan will be picnicking for sure.  I’ve listened to and loved the Indigo Girls since college, so when I found out I could interview Amy Ray, I said shut the front door.  I mean, seriously, Amy Ray called my digits and I got to ask her a few questions. How many queers out there wouldn’t love to get that call?

Needless to say, I didn’t waste any time — well, too much time — getting down to business. (Although I’m sure I did chatter on for a bit about what a huge fan I am like some giddy child the night before Christmas.) Her answers to my questions left me loving her, the Indigo Girls, and the positive energy they bring to the world, even more.

Proud Queer: What’s the significance of being one of the first out musical acts, if not the only out lesbian duo to have such commercial success?

Amy Ray: Back then, even our mentors in the Atlanta scene that were gay were not out or were saying don’t talk about your sexuality because it will put you in a niche. We really struggled with it. Because it took us a while I don’t feel like it was this brave beginning. I feel like we were doing what a lot of average people do, which is struggle with it and then getting the courage up to talk about it. I mean it was just a struggle to be a woman at that point. Feminism was almost a more immediate concern. We were looking at women we looked up to like Susanne Vega, Rickie Lee Jones, The Roaches, Patti Smith, and Chrissie Hynde; people we were looking up to just as women in the business.

PQ: Being one of the first out lesbian duos, it seems like a burden to carry the weight of the LGBT community or perhaps it was in the beginning. Do you feel the same?

Ray: There’s never been a time where it felt like a burden from the community. It’s the mainstream press that’s always been more about our sexuality instead of our music accomplishments and THAT’S the burden. But it’s not a burden from the community. And sometimes that’s just how it is in these times. If you’re gonna be an out, queer musician you’re gonna be put in that space sometimes and you just accept it. I know that my friend Kaia and Mel from the Butchies used to say it doesn’t have to be a negative niche; you can flip it around and celebrate it. That was always helpful to me. It’s easier than it was but that doesn’t mean that the problem is solved.

PQ: Both you and Emily paved the way for many female and lesbians musicians. What piece of advice would you give to young female/gay musicians just starting out today?

Ray: I probably wouldn’t give much different advice then I’d give any young musician. Song writing is what is going to distinguish you from everyone else so you should work on your song writing. Play as much as possible in front of other people because that’s the way you really hone your craft. You can’t just start in it thinking you wanna be famous because it won’t ever work. You really have to do it because you love it.

PQ: You’ve talked about trying to break into the rock scene as a female vocalist. Would you have any particular advice for women?

Ray: I think the gatekeepers of the rock world have not really shifted that much from when we were young. It’s still a lot of mainstream, white men that sort of decide things. There’s this infrastructure that’s this mainstream infrastructure and then there’s the infrastructure you create for yourself. You play your own gigs. What me and Emily always said was if there’s not an opportunity there we’re gonna make one for ourselves. The punk philosophy of do it yourself very much applies to women in the rock industry. It’s a hard industry. It’s still like a boy’s town. It’s crazy to me but it really is.

PQ: Given the recent political LGBT victories with the Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA and Prop 8, what in your opinion would be the best next step in fighting for LGBT equality?

Ray:  I personally feel like the Voting Rights Act is a very important thing for everyone. I believe that when we are talking about LGBT issues we should also be talking about race and class issues. I feel strongly about that. What happens if you don’t is that the only issues that get addressed are the issues that affect the middle class and white people.

We need to be aware that the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court and we need to be talking about it and trying to fix it. Next we need to be paying attention to immigration issues as the immigration bill is being taken apart as well. There’s a lot of queer immigrants [and] undocumented people. It’s very important that we stand with our allies.

I also think now it’s going to be very important for us to focus our efforts on local LGBT battles. Maybe look deeper into your community at issues like gay youth suicides, the state of homelessness in your queer youth community, your local immigration policies, voting policies? It’s not all about DOMA and these bigger victories although those are very, very important. There are so many little things that we need to be working on plus there’s still this huge monolith of the immigration, voters’ rights, and racism that still exists. When your community is gaining strength and visibility, what you should be doing is reaching out to other communities that don’t have strength and visibility. We’re fighting the same people. There’s a broader tapestry and we’re all part of it. We’re all trying to achieve the shift in the paradigm and we should work at it from all angles.

PQ: You and Emily are opposed to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s anti-transgender admission policy. Will you continue to play?

Ray: We agreed to play the show because we were hoping to influence the founders and show what it would be like to have people that feel differently about this issue in the same arena and celebrating music. We’re feeling less hopeful about that because it’s becoming clear that they don’t want to change their intention and that’s fine, that’s their prerogative. I think we still feel that we are obligated to play the show and respect the founders and the festival. So we’re gonna play and not create a big scene or boycott.  If the policy doesn’t change we’re not gonna play again. We can’t keep doing it if they’re not going to change their intentions. We can’t be part of that festival because that’s not where our hearts are at anymore. Maybe eventually there will be an opening at that festival for trans [women], and that’s what we’re hoping in the future, but until that happens this will be our last year.

PQ: Activism is very important to you — Honor the Earth, speaking up for people who don’t have a voice, etc. Can you talk about what role your music plays in creating community and awareness for important issues?

Ray: Honor the Earth is still our big baby, but our activism also just comes up from different tours. There may be tabling groups from queer organizations or there may be immigration issues that we’re working on, it changes as different issues come up. We do have this series of “Take Action” T-shirts that we’re doing and selling. They’re sort of like political action t-shirts that we change up every 6 or so months. You can buy them on our website www.indigogirls.com and we’ll also be selling them at the Zoo Concert. We’re now doing a shirt for the death penalty because we’re opposed to it.

PQ: Who’s been the biggest influence in your life overall?

Ray: When I think about activism, music and what helped energize me and Emily, Winona Laduke, the native activist, has been huge in my life as far as analysis and critical thinking; just in every way she’s permeated my existence as a human. But it changes all the time. Every phase of your life has this different impact on you. When I look at my formative years, there were a lot of musicians on the scene that we hung out with like Joan Baez and Jackson Brown — and then I met the Butchies.  I started playing with them and it really changed a lot of things about my perspective in music and activism —  I can’t really untie those two from each other.

PQ: You seem pretty mellow and even-keel most of the time. Is there something that gets you super excited?

Ray: [Laughing] It’s funny that you say I’m even-keel because people that are close to me probably wouldn’t agree as I have a notoriously bad temper. I’ve calmed a bit down though over the last 15 years. I actually get really excited about nature — animals and a kayak trip. If I go kayaking it makes me crazy and giddy.  I saw a river otter the other day and I talked about it to everybody for five days. It’s exciting to me — more exciting than music. ‘Cause it’s just a moment in time where you do something special and fleeting — and then it’s gone. It’s amazing.

PQ: What do you like to do when just chilling at home or in your downtime?

Ray: If I’m not out hiking around or working out, my partner Carrie and I have TV nights where we let all the dogs inside, hang out, and watch “Madmen” or “True Blood.”

PQ: What are your favorite things to do in Portland?

Ray: I have a lot of friends that live there so I try to catch up. Nothing specific, maybe meet for coffee and go to food trucks. I love going up to Forest Park. If I have my bike with me I go biking. It’s my favorite thing to do. If I’m there on a night off I go see music.

PQ : What do you think your legacy will be?

Ray: Hmmm? I have no idea. Hopefully it will be to have done some good. That’s what I honestly hope for the LGBT and general community. Who knows? In reality, I guess it’s not important to me because I would have thought about it before if it was.

PQ:  If you could give one piece of advice to people in general, from what you’ve learned over the years and everything you’ve experienced, what would that be?

Ray: I usually say it’s more important to listen then to talk. I don’t follow it very well but that’s what I think about a lot. [Laughing]

The Indigo Girls will be performing at the Oregon Zoo Sunday, July 28. Tickets are available online