The Indigo Girl’s Amy Ray Talks Performance, Tattoos, and Grassroots Activism
The Indigo Girls Amy Ray (Left) and Emily Saliers (Right)
The Indigo Girl’s are returning to Virginia for a number of shows this season. The usually acoustic folk duo, known for their powerful lyrics, political message, and song writing prowess, will play in Norfolk May 31st with the Virginia Symphony at the Chrysler Hall (GET TICKETS HERE) as part of a select few dates accompanied by a cities native ensemble. Amy Ray, one half of the openly lesbian Indigo Girls, spoke with GayRVA over the phone to discuss their many Virginia shows, her experience with symphonies, Richmond tattoos, and her long history with grassroots activism.
GayRVA: You’re playing with the VA Symphony, how did you all set that up?
Amy Ray: We’ve been doing these symphony shows for the last year. We met an organization called CAMI that puts pop artists together with symphonies. They helped with arrangements, and we got 19 songs done. We got the sheet music, the scores, and the symphony gets it ahead of time. We show up and run through it one time and then perform it live that night. It’s a lot of fun, but you never know whats gonna happen. Its exciting and challenging, its been really awesome for us, to get on our toes and all.
You all rely so much on acoustic guitars, and your shows can be very intimate, do you like these large ensembles or prefer the closer, smaller settings when you play live?
The symphony is a whole other thing – its 70-100 people playing behind you – its very large. Its an incredible experience; the biggest band you’ll ever play with. It feels super intimate because the audience picks up on the fact that you’ve had one practice that afternoon and you’re seeing each other for the first time – so there is a vulnerability to the show. There’s a lot of people playing, but theres this vulnerability, so I think there is an intimacy that still exists, that vulnerability makes it intimate, it’s very emotional.
You all are playing 3 times here in VA in the next month, how did that work out?
I don’t now, I don’t think about tour markets really… we go through cycles where we play areas a lot, and then we wont come back for a while. But we’ve played Norfolk and Richmond for years. We don’t get to play Charlottesville that much, so its always fun to pop back there. And of course, Wolf Trap, we play almost every summer – and its a great venue and its a fun gig.
Obviously there has been a lot going on with LGBT issues, and marriage equality specifically. Do you feel, as LGBT issues advance, do you feel LGBT music and musicians have advanced? You all have been involved in this cause for some time, but do you feel like the rest of the music industry has caught up?
It’s interesting because there’s still radio and media that hang on to the old model of demographics and market research and i don’t think its going anywhere. And these systems are inherently homophobic still. It distills everything to these numbers and demographics and there is still so much homophobia in our society, even though we’ve made all these advancements. Anybody that has any kind of otherness to them, if they are a minority, or if they are gay, anything, gets sort of put in this category of otherness and does not get promoted the same way, to be honest.
I think, in the old model, there’s still a lot of that going on, but the new model, with the internet and online radio and shows that try and bring attention to bands that aren’t looked at as much, there’s a new set of gatekeepers, if you will. Both of these things are going on simultaneously right now. Just like our country, were you can have a president that is pro-gay rights, but then you can still have towns and parts of the US that have very backward laws and haven’t evolved yet, figured it out, or gotten brave enough. It can be polarizing when you’re in the middle of a movement, and things are kind of changing rapidly. It can be very polarizing when people aren’t very comfortable with change and they react as such.
In music, yea know, I still have young musician friends that are afraid to come out, and so that really hasn’t changed. And they come out in their personal lives, and its not like the heaviness that existed in the 80′s when we thought we would all lose our familes. That still happens, yea know? But the focus they are having now is more pragmatic and business focused. “I don’t want to be put in a niche, I wanna be seen for my music and not my gayness” and thats kind of the conversation that’s always going on.
You’ve got a number of tattoos, and you know Richmond is kind of at tattoo town…
I knew that actually
Yea, we have something like the highest tattoos parlors per capita. But what do your tattoos mean to you? Why do you have tattoos?
I don’t get them on a whim… at all, I don’t have a bunch of little ones, I have a few big ones. A huge one on my arm, a big one on my back and chest, and one on my fore arm. Most of them are pretty big, and they took a long time to do – 25 hours total for one – and for me they mark either a death, or a love, or the big things in life, you know? I’ve often wanted to, on a whim, get a little tattoo in every city, but i never have time.
That would be bad ass, there’s a tumblr in there somewhere..
I know, right? (laughs)
We got a question from one of our readers, Amanda Capley asks whats the most important life lesson you’ve learned, what advice would you give someone after all your years of experience?
Listening is more important than talking, but everyone knows that, that’s like something your mom would teach you but you don’t believe it till you’re in your 50′s (laughs).
I think it’s that there is no one way to do things – that’s what I’ve really learned. There’s no one formula to get successful or have a career. I think the core of it is, if you want to be a song writer, you gotta spend a lot of time writing. If you want a following, you’ve got to spend time touring. And how you achieve that is your own thing – everyone goes about it differently.
So what are you listening to these days? Anything important you think people should be catching on to?
Oh god, there’s so much good music (laughs) I’m constantly excited about music, I need to make a list. Some friends of mine are in a band, they’re young, they are all 17-21, called A Fragile Tomorrow, they remind me of R.E.M. or Elvis Costello, really throw back pop songwriting – pop alt. Mitch Easter just produced a record for them and it’s really good. I listen to that a lot. I like that new country alt group, Shovels and Rope, i really like them a lot. They are really good, i like what they’re doing.
So you’ve been involved in LGBT and human rights issues for some time, and I know the LGBT movement has changed a lot of the years. Specifically, this pursuit of marriage equality differs from earlier concerns over health care and greater human rights – what do you think of this change in priorities, from social justice issues to marriage equality?
I’ll say I’ve thought that in the past, I’ve been one of the people who have not wanted to put all my energy into marriage equality, and spend more time on issues about racism and classism within our own community – suicide rates among queer youth, and drug abuse – this hard core grassroots community stuff.
In the past, I felt like the marriage equality issue was a sort of a middle-class white issue, but i don’t feel that way as much right now.
When you look at it, yea now, HRC was so big in the marriage equality movement and they are so associated with this big corporate, moneyed movement, while the grassroots groups were working on the hardcore street issues that were very hard. But, of late, I’ve felt like many of the grass roots groups have managed to find an inroad into why marriage equality is important around immigration issues.
If you marry these two things together, you’ve got so many gay families that are separated because of immigration issues, and when you look at how hard it is, as two gay people aren’t married, to protect each other, issues around kids and adoption, hospitalization, and health care benefits – issues that can save money for people who don’t have a lot. In that way, I think it is sort of a multi-class issue. The reality is, If you can’t get married, there’s a lot of things you can’t do that cost a lot of money to protect your families.
So my thinking has expanded a lot, and I think when marriage equality is recognized, it trickles down and makes people more comfortable with other LGBT issues. I’m definitely an advocate of pouring resources into these communities where people are still getting murdered because they’re gay, or beat up cause they’re trans. These are hardcore issues that are still very important to me – Issues around race, someone who’s gay and hispanic, and undocumented- there’s a lot piled onto that one person.
Its hard for a lot of folks, especially in Virginia, were we can’t even get equal protections for LGBT state employees – We’ve covered general assembly meetings here at GayRVA where politicians are sitting there ignoring people pouring their hearts out about how they don’t feel safe at work.
The real fight is on the community level, and Richmond has always made me think, yea know, about good progressive folks who are fighting the good fight, swimming up stream (laughs)
I remember, the little north Georgia town I live in, its so hard in that way. About 4 years ago, we had a town meeting. There’s a military college near me and this guy who had been an officer was asked to leave because he was gay. So the military came and held this meeting And people from both sides of the issue got 2 minutes to talk and you weren’t allowed to insult anyone.
It was so interesting – everyone lined up and sat on their side and we all knew each other. And it was great – it was a great dialog. I learned a lot about why people feel the way they do about gay people, and they learned a lot about me. If we can just keep having those dialogs, that’s where the real evolution comes. I believe in the small format, important community stuff.
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