Amy Ray Digs Deep Into The Lung of Love

When Amy Ray announced her fourth solo record Lung of Love, out this week on her own indie label Daemon Records, earlier this year, many were surprised at the incredibly quick turnaround following the October release of the Indigo Girls’ fourteenth studio record Beauty Queen Sister. Having wrapped up an initial couple of legs of touring with collaborator Emily Saliers, the idea of launching an entirely new project seemed a bit excessive, hardly letting the ink dry on Ray’s latest batch of songs. But if there’s one thing that continues to drive her as an artist it’s a strong Protestant work ethic, mixed with a healthy dose of indie/punk DIY principles and a keen interest in constantly exploring new territory. Additionally, she’s established herself as an excellent solo artist, with her previous three records digging deep into her hard rock and country roots.

Lung of Love is no different from the pop/punk aesthetic that Ray has so effectively mined since the release of Stag in 2001; however, there’s a depth to this album that comes perhaps from weathering the industry over the past thirty years, maybe from honing her craft from massive touring schedules, and also potentially just from really engaging the complexities of her poetry and songwriting.

She’s at any moment both orthodox in her major-label Indigo Girls career and highly unconventional in her unwavering commitment to activism and indie practices with Daemon. This is what makes her such a fascinating case study in the industry, because she’s both a legacy artist (the Indigo Girls have been playing since the early 1980s) and a relatively young solo act, so there’s always something new to discover along her journey. And while there’s a litany of labels and adjectives one can use to describe Amy Ray, from feminist to poet, fighter to lover, and so many in between and beyond, she continues to show audiences that with a strong dedication to creativity, there’s no reason to peter out into obscurity. Instead, with Lung of Love Amy Ray reasserts herself as a prominent member of the music industry, with songs that drive straight to the center of the heart.


You must be preparing for this new onslaught of touring with the solo album. How’s that going?

It’s going well. Just practicing, getting posters made, calling record labels and radio– there’s just so many things to do! There’s an endless stream of possibilities. So, it’s just work work work until the CD release.

You’re doing a CD release show at Housing Works in New York City. You, as both a solo artist and with the Indigo Girls, have been there pretty frequently over the past few years– in New York, particularly. What’s the point of doing a release there, rather than your home ground of Atlanta, GA?

I’m doing a “release” show in Atlanta as well, but it’s not until two weeks later. But I like what Housing Works does in the community. I like the bookstore and the intimacy that comes from going up there to celebrate the release of the record. I’ll be playing acoustic, and the New York shows later in the month will be with the full band, so it’s just fun. I like their mission, and it’s a chance to raise money for a good cause.

You’re doing SXSW as well this year. What will you be doing in Austin?

It’ll be a full band show. It’s such a short set, though, that we’ll probably just play 75% of the new record and maybe a couple of old songs. I love being in Austin during South by Southwest, though. In my life, I’ve been fortunate to do that quite a lot. And I always go to check out a lot of other artists. Because, if not, really what’s the point of going? You only play thirty minutes, so there’s so much other stuff to fill your schedule. (laughs)

In your promotional video for Lung of Love, you mention going into this project hoping to write a ten-song, full-out pop record, but that even though you want that for each record, it never ends up that way. What makes you want to go into an album writing only pop songs?

I have to laugh about it, because there’s been a few records where I’ve written the first couple songs and they were songs like “Glow”– two minutes long and totally power-pop and punk stuff. And so I think, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have ten songs like that?,” so I’d only be making a twenty minute record. But then I get into the writing process, and I end up focusing on so many other types of sounds and things going on that I want to end up on the album. Whenever I start the process for a new record, I may go in with an idea in my head, but I don’t stay there very long, and I certainly try not to limit it, because wherever the songs take you you need to go. There has to be some sense of continuity, but I don’t think you need to necessarily have a sameness about the whole thing. But I do always have this dream of doing a great Ramones-like record, with a bunch of songs that are really short, where they just hit it, move on and leave. (laughs)

What was the process of co-writing with Greg Griffiths for this record like?

We wrote four songs together. I wrote them mostly, but they were lacking a bridge– that kind of thing. He would step in and we’d work together to flesh it out and get it right.

So you didn’t sit in a room together with a blank sheet of paper and throw ideas around to see what would stick or not.

No, it wasn’t like it. But that may happen one day, because this was the first step for me towards doing that. But, it was more like I’d play a song that I didn’t have a chorus for, and I’d approach him about that and we’d work on some different chords, voicings and melodies. Then I’d work on the lyrics and we’d have that chorus or bridge. So, 75% of the song was written before I would go to Greg, but I will say that it was his input that was the catalyst for making the song work. It was always some crucial piece that just made it all come together.

Tell me more about the title track, “Lung of Love,” since this concept of your voice– of yourself conveyed through that medium, either to the world, or someone else– continues to be a theme through the album. When did that song come into being?

I actually wrote the lyrics for that quite a while ago, and I didn’t have the music for it, but it was an idea that I really liked and wanted to work with. I didn’t initially think of it as a motif for the record, though. I started writing the music, and Greg helped me finish the chorus, but after we recorded it and I was able to stand back and think about what made all the song hang together, I started thinking about this idea of living and breathing– the physicality of life– versus that place where your mind doesn’t want to be held back, or your spirit can’t get beyond the confines of what you can do physically. But, even so, it’s a pretty loosely held together group of songs, as far as finding a thread that was really common, but that was definitely the one that I was drawn to. Probably because it’s me— this album representing the way I feel about life, and it’s my solo voice, so I guess that’s where I ended up approaching that discussion.

There’s a part of the song, too, that is about me wanting to be in two places at once. I want to be able to do this, and show you that I love you and do that as well, but then there’s all these things that are holding me back physically, just like every human being. So, all I can say is that I sing, and I breathe, and that’s how I show my love.

Something that sticks out to me so prevalently about your solo work is its youthfulness– in sound and energy. I’m intrigued to hear this continue, considering that many of your contemporaries in the business are grappling with the process of aging. Does that ever come into your work at all?

It’s definitely tempting to address aging all the time– there’s a lot to work with there. But it’s not really something I focus on. I will say that I’m not conscious of not addressing aging. I understand why my contemporaries address it, and I always appreciated it when someone like Neil Young or Patti Smith could address it in a way that was graceful, not just self-pitying and bitter. I don’t think about it like I’ve got to write a youthful song, but I’m definitely inspired by new musicians. I go hear bands, and I listen to a lot of demos. I’m also inspired by the seed of youth that’s so vital to all of punk music. It doesn’t matter how old you are– it’s the idea of relevancy, freshness and vitalness in life. Youth doesn’t have to necessarily mean age, it can mean looking at something in a freshly new way. Also, it’s important to always be alive and awake in that way, like you were just born into this situation.

I’m like a dog that doesn’t have a long memory span (laughs). Every fifteen minutes, I’m like, “Wow! That’s so cool! It’s a tree I’ve never seen before.” And that’s a lot like my song-writing process, because I’ll start something, and I’m really invested in it, but I often will move on to another song or melody or whatever, and then when I come back around to that original idea it feels new and fresh. So, maybe my lack of memory actually helps me, because I’m then struck with inspiration from the work.

I get sent a lot of demos through Daemon Records. Like an unknown guy who recorded ten songs of himself singing in the bathroom because he likes the reverb or something. And it’ll be 10 three-minute garage/punk/acoustic songs, and I’ll just be so taken aback, wondering where these people come from. I get these brilliant things, and it’s someone who will never do anything in their life (from a professional musical point of view) but make demos. And that’s the kind of thing that makes me want to write songs, because they’re doing it for the right reasons. They’re writing songs because they enjoy it. That’s what I want songwriting to be for me, where I go into my room and work my ass off– but the process of that is exciting to me. It’s not the stress of thinking “I’ve been in the business for thirty years, and now I have to think of something new,” because when I listen to these demos and see a lot of new bands, I realize there’s still so much left to explore. And if you think there’s nothing left that’s new, you have to shut your mind down and stop thinking, because that’s a place where you can really get bitter.

One thing I’ve noticed about Lung of Love is how there’s a real focus on your own involvement in the songs and their meanings. There are fewer “story” songs– where you’re chronicling the world of someone else, like on “Rural F*ggot” or “Ghost of the Gang,” and even when it comes to politically-fueled pieces, you’ve engendered yourself into the cause by using “we” (like in “From Haiti”) rather than “you” (like in “War Rugs”). Does that come from how collaborative this process was?

That’s an interesting observation. I think there’s something that happens when you work and play with the same people over a number of years. Even when I’m writing, I’m sure it’s impacted by the fact that I’ve collaborated with many of the same people in my solo career since I started. There’s also a level of comfort that’s been established now with those artists, and so there being more personal songs I think comes from being able to put myself out there with these people but also that there’s a more communal feeling with this work.

One thing that was intentional about this record was that I wanted it to be like I was sitting in a room and talking to someone directly, and not trying to make it wax poetic or too obscure– I’m just trying to say that these are the dreams I’m having, and this is what I want to do together, so let’s talk. I think good songwriting is about really communicating, and I think it takes a lifetime for some people to figure out how to do that.

When you have someone like Brandi Carlile, with whom you’ve collaborated a lot now, come and guest on your record, do you know what you want her to sing before she gets there? You’ve mentioned how when you’re writing Indigo Girls songs you can hear and map out Emily’s part, just because you’ve known each other so long now. What’s it like, then, with someone like Brandi? Does she write her own harmonies, or do you lay them out for her?

With someone like Brandi, I’ve worked with her so much that if I’ve written a song and I want to sing her on it, once we’re done with the rhythm tracks and such, I’m already working out in my mind what the vocal arrangement will be. I usually go to Garageband and put in a rough mix of what we have already, and then I add the harmonies in with my own voice, just to see all things work. I know Brandi’s range, so I can kind of work out what’s going to sound good coming from her.

So on a song like “Bird in the Hand,” I’ll go in with an idea of the vocal map, and I’ll go to Brandi and say, “this is what I have in mind, but do your own thing too and let’s see what works.” For the song “I Didn’t,” though, I didn’t know what notes I wanted her to sing on that at all. I just wanted her to interpret that any way that felt right to her, and felt honest to the song. I had written the background “answers” in the chorus, but in terms of the other stuff she did on the track, I had no idea how to make that work and she just came in and sang that from off the top of her head. With Brandi, also, it’s kind of like she can sing with anything and it’s going to sound good and fleshed out. (laughs) She’s got an amazing range and depth, and can just really get into the world of a song like that.

But on “Crying in the Wilderness,” for example, I used a group called A Fragile Tomorrow, and those boys have a really specific way of singing harmony. So when I wrote that song, I immediately could hear their voices and I knew exactly what I wanted them to do.

It’s really like having an instrument to me. Vocals are just like a guitar, or bass, or whatever– sometimes you play around with arrangements and lines to see what works, and other times you know exactly how you want it to come out.

You released the song “More Pills” recently on a Noise Trade sampler. Is that a b-side to Lung of Love?

That’s a song that I was going to put on a country record. But then when it came time to Lung of Love, Greg and I agreed that we could only work on ten songs, because we just didn’t have the time or the money. But that’s OK, because I know that I do want to make the country record, so it’ll be for that. The one that’s on the sampler, though, is a live recording I did with Mount Moriah, and I just loved it so much.

Would you ever consider having Emily sing on any of your solo records, or is that a form of Amy Ray solo blasphemy?

(laughs) It’s not blasphemy, no, but it may be more like Indigo Girls blasphemy. I don’t want to use her for everything, though. But, she will come and play live when we’re touring sometimes, so I always have her up to rip away on the electric guitar, because she’s actually an excellent electric player, and almost nobody knows that. So, I’ll leave the stage and she’ll solo for five minutes. And that’s a lot of fun! But I don’t think having her on an album is really something I’d do, because as soon as you hear Emily’s voice in a song, it’s an Indigo Girls song to me. She’s so specific and the way we write harmonies together is so direct and laid out, so I like having that how we do.

Even some of the players we work with as the Indigo Girls I don’t have do my solo stuff, because they’re so specifically Indigo Girls. I want to have a distinct thing between the two. Just like if Emily does a solo project, I’m sure she wouldn’t have me sing on it, because then it’d be an Indigo Girls record! But, there are times when I can’t find the right harmony and I’m really tempted to have her do it. I will call her up, though, and ask her what interval will work for certain chords and just ask her advice on some stuff.

When we last spoke about the recent Indigo Girls album Beauty Queen Sister in the fall, we spent a lot of time discussing a stepping out on your part in terms of songwriting style with songs like “Damo” and “Yoke.” On Lung of Love, I hear similar things in terms of construction and style– just pushing the envelope of the more usual pop/punk sound that you’ve established. Would you ever consider doing a full-on, non-pop/punk type of record– or even a concept album?

Yeah, I definitely would. It would depend on my writing process, though. I started a bunch of country songs that were popping up more frequently, so I just put them in a pile where eventually it will grow into its own project– and I know that’s not that far away from my work right now, but it’s a very decisive sound. And the same thing would happen for another style of music. If I start writing a song and I’m intrigued by the style or where it’s going, if it’s not necessarily something I’ve explored before, I’ll be intentional about it and say something like, “I’m going to write Beatles chord progressions for a year and see where it goes.” That’s what I like to do in my own time, because I learn a lot more about writing as well.

I don’t feel tied to punk chord progressions at all, though. I do, however, feel tied to a philosophy of approaching life in a do-it-yourself kind of way, and that’s very folk and punk. Musically, though, I feel very broad-based. And working with Greg Griffiths, he’s someone that will definitely pull out different textures in my music. He gets tired of the same sound– he’ll say to me, “Will you stop chunking on the guitar and do something different?” (laughs) He just hears things in a multitude of ways I might not. So, on a song sometimes he’ll urge me not to play to see where it will go, and that’s really helpful to me, because then I’ll see a lot of possibility in the song, like it could start as a punk piece and then I’ll see, through Greg, that it could be an atmospheric dobro part instead of electric guitar. He tends to move songs out of my traditional realm and try to make it more interesting musically.

That happened with the opening track, “When You’re Gone, You’re Gone,” if I remember correctly. You said that it began as an up-tempo rocker and then he suggested putting the “Billie Jean” beat behind it, which transformed it into this soulful, R&B-influenced song.

I’m really not overcompensating when I talk about Greg, because I really believe that he’s an amazing talent and I wish he could work with more people, but he’s so busy with his job that he can’t. He really is the person that stands up and gets you to think outside of the box, and he also doesn’t cater to my ego, which is nice! He’ll suggest other ways to approach a song if he feels what I’m doing isn’t serving the purpose of the track, and I love a producer that will say that. When a producer is able to frame that without involving their own ego and without being threatening to you as an artist, it’s an amazing thing. With this record, that really made the difference. I really needed that push, and I’m just so glad that it happened.

When Emily and I were young, we were pretty hard-headed about our ideas about the songs, and we wouldn’t listen to producers as much. We had to come around to that, though, which was definitely a struggle. And now I listen back to old records and I think we should have been listening more intently to producers all along, because the recordings could have been a lot better. So, when younger musicians who I’m close with talk to me about their own struggles with producers, I caution them to get too frustrated. Because while their own ideas are important, collaboration is a huge step in honing your artistic skills, and a professional producer may just have some thoughts that could take the music to a whole new level. They may be the exact way to make it all better.

For more information, please visit Amy Ray’s official website. Alternatively, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Lung of Love is out now on Daemon Records.

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