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Music & Bands

Amy Ray performs live!



"I love how everything works in the underground community and I wanted to participate in it," says Amy Ray, founder of the indie label Daemon Records, one half of the Indigo Girls, and solo artist in her own right. When she founded Daemon in 1990, her mission was to support local musicians, both in putting out their music and teaching them how to sustain their careers. But that grassroots, independent way of life extended to Ray's own career, too; after almost a decade of putting out other people's music, she decided to put out some of her own solo records, too. So she traveled around the southeast writing, rehearsing, and recording for much of 2000. "I loved the simplicity of it," she says. "Driving myself around, loading my own gear. You roll down windows of the van, listen to music with your band. It's the way music should be."

To back up for a moment, the Indigo Girls weren't always a big band. They had beginnings that could only really be described as humble. While Amy and band mate Emily Saliers were still in high school, they would sneak into clubs with fake IDs to play. The two of them played covers: Dire Straits or Patti Smith or maybe even "All Along the Watchtower," but slowly started writing and playing their own material. They played frat parties and dorms and were on the road for most of Amy's senior year. "We started playing punk clubs because back then, the folk clubs didn't like us because we were too gay and too loud," Amy says. In 1987, an A&R rep for Epic who was in town to see REM came see them play at Atlanta's Little Five Points Pub, home to, as Amy puts it, "transients, punk rockers, drag queens, and family." He convinced them to sign with the major label, but "at that point I thought I would really miss the independent thing because I really loved it."

Where the Indigo Girls are stripped-down, Amy's solo albums are urgent, loud, and defiant. This appears to be constantly a source of surprise to critics, who seem shocked they're comparing one-half of the Indigo Girls to a riot grrrl. "Longtime listeners and newcomers alike were shocked at how much Ray, well"–italics his own–"rocked," wrote Jimmy Draper in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "The difference between the music Amy Ray makes as half of the Indigo Girls and the music she makes on her own isn't just the difference between acoustic and electric guitar," Jon M. Gilbertson wrote in No Depression. "Cranking the amplifier toughens her stance and streamlines her attitude." Her debut solo album, 2001's Stag, was a manifesto, more overtly political and punkinfluenced than her Indigo Girls output. called Stag "One of those rare albums that fuses aggression, good music, and institutional critique without sounding strident or stiff." David Peisner at Rolling Stone–whose founder Amy mocks on that album's "Lucystoners": "who gave the boys what they deserve/But with the girls he lost his nerve."–couldn't help but like it, calling it "Angry, bold, pointed, and eclectic as hell." "Amy is getting in touch with her inner punk rocker," wrote Jennifer Perkins in Venus Zine. "For the scores of people who know little more about Amy Ray than 'Closer to Fine,' well, Ray is sure to win their hearts."

2005's Prom, which explored the eternal dance between gender and sexuality, youth and adulthood, deftly wove together both her own experience as a teenager with what she sees as the new challenges for a younger generation. (All that, plus album art of Amy wearing the gaudiest 80s puff-sleeve gown seen since the heyday of Dynasty.) Popmatters' Jill LaBrack deemed Prom "rock and roll and its best." Fred Mills at Magnet called the album's song "Put it Out for Good" "impossible to resist, it's the defiant anthem for summer." "Freed of the risk of major label disapproval," wrote Glen Sarvady in CMJ, "Ray cuts loose with some disarmingly forthright lyrics." Her live album, Live in Knoxville, is a testament to how electric her concerts can be. "I love the tradition of live releases," Amy says. "It's a document of a time and place."

In this case, it's the last show of the 2005 Rocktober Tour that may have been sparsely attended, but was made up for in a heady combination of energy and intimacy. Cast aside any notions of these albums as just one woman's effort–they're anything but solitary. In a way, Amy says, their defining characteristic is community. "I wanted to play with players that aren't necessarily studio musicians, people that have a very specific style, that I might not get to play with as an Indigo Girl," So she asked some of her favorite musicians to record or tour with her: Joan Jett, The Butchies, Jody Bleyle and Donna Dresch from Team Dresch, Rock-ATeens, Josephine Wiggs of the Breeders, Tara Jane O'Neil, and Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson. "They're people who I was into, I was a fan of what they were doing musically. It's like I was playing with my idols," she says. These collaborations changed the way she wrote music, too. "I was writing with the fantasy of being able to play with these other bands."

It was actually when she started a discipline surrounding her own writing process ("If I'm at home, I write between two and five hours a day" in her library, which is filled with Amy's two loves: books and musical equipment.) that she began to write her solo material. After she wrote the song "Lucystoners," she realized that there would be many more songs like that–songs that, she says, are "something I need to sing alone rather than with Emily." And that's what it comes down to: her solo albums don't represent a mere side project, but a way for her to fully realize herself as a musician. As Amy puts it, "I don't get set in my ways, musically."


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