Amy Ray's Summer Soiree
IndiGo Girl Previews a Batch of Her Newest Songs for the Hometown Crowd

By Lee Valentine Smith

Since her solo debut in 2001, Amy Ray has sporadically issued some of the most challenging music of her career. Without the creative compromise of collaboration, Ray's singular work defies category and spirals from the raw punk-influenced folk of her early work to the country-gospel and Americana of her most recent release Goodnight Tender in 2014.

As she readies material for her next album, she's planning a special evening of music as a hometown preview for a batch of the new songs. She'll be joined by her current band and like-minded eclectic musical friends Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters from Asheville.

Ray's canon of work continues to run parallel to her extensive catalog of Indigo Girls material and performances. INsite caught up with her a few days after a brief "4 Voices" ensemble tour with Joan Baez, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and her Indigo partner Emily Saliers.

How'd this show come together? It's not really part of a tour.

Yeah, we're gonna make a new record in late winter and right now what we need to be doing as a band is trying to play some songs in front of people. It's a way to keep our musical thread happening. This band has been with me since Goodnight Tender and most of them played on it, so it's the band that has toured with me off and on for four years now.

Four years is a pretty good gelling time for a band.

We have a sort of narrative now, we are having a musical conversation, I guess, for lack of a better term. What's helpful to us at this point is to just learn new songs and play them for people. Last time we went out, we had a couple of new ones or maybe three. And playing them out helps us fine-tune the arrangements. Now we've got more to learn for this show, it just helps us be a better band. It's good for feedback and it helps us figure out what we're doing wrong and what we're doing right.

At this point in your career, does it ever make you a little nervous to debut new, unrecorded songs?

I get a little nervous that I might screw up! I get a little nervous about are people gonna like it, but for me, I have to remember which chord to play and when the drums come in. When we're doing it at my house or whatever, it doesn't matter how we play it and we can try different things. I don't know why, but there's a different pressure live. When I go back and listen to a board tape or a watch a video of a show, I'll see places where we totally made mistakes, but sometimes I'll like it. So if you can let go of those expectations and have fun, it's just a show. You're supposed to have fun.

Mistakes and weird little moments are what makes a live show special. Seamless shows are boring.

I totally agree. I love it when I go to see live music and unexpected stuff happens and it's fun to see how they work with it. I really do love to see new songs played live, because you don't know what it's supposed to sound like so it's exciting.

Since you have basically the same band that promoted the previous release, are you still working within the same sort of country-gospel sound?

Yeah but I think the leaning is probably a little more upbeat and raucous than the last record. Maybe more there's some more southern rock leanings and maybe even more of a punk sensibility at times than with the last one. But yeah it's still in the country vein - the traditional country, Americana, gospel roots vein for sure.

In general, country is a timeless genre. It doesn't leave room for much nostalgia.

I think the trick is to write a song that can be timeless as well. But you don't want to be afraid of being of the times, either. Like referencing unique, special images of the times but you want the sentiment or the melody to somehow be timeless.

That's a fine line, because as much as we both love punk, for example, it's definitely from a specific time.

That's the tricky part of being a songwriter. It's hard to achieve.

You're in a great place as a writer because you have an incredible catalog of work to continue to build upon.

For me as a writer, I think I have a lot of stuff where I feel like I was not hitting my stride yet. And that leaves a lot of room for me because I think I'm still learning. But I definitely think there was a moment when I realized you have to really sit down and work on it in order to be a good writer.

Does having a child change your songwriting technique?

Yeah, she's three and a half and that does affect how I approach writing now. I have to be a lot more surgical and be like, "Ok, today I have to work on the chorus of this song" and be more disciplined about it. Other than like, "I've got three hours and I can go through my lyric book and just ponder." Now it's more like, "All right, finish this line or verse - you've got 30 minutes, now get to work."

Your opening act shares your current steel player, Matt Smith.

Yeah, but he's more of a guitar player in the Honeycutters and they're really great. The writer for that band, Amanda Platt, is very prolific and she's written a lot of great tunes. I'm hoping their new record launches them into more people's lives. They really are known in bluegrass circles but this record is meant to cross into that Americana territory and hopefully get them more notice.

This show seems to be a great platform for them.

They have an audience too and that's why we've teamed up. They have an audience that's different than mine. So I wanted to play Atlanta but I don't have a new record out, but I do have new music to play. They have a brand new record coming out so it seems really complimentary to help each other out. We've played a few gigs together before and for me it's always a good night. I hope we can collaborate a little too. I have to email Amanda and see what songs we're gonna learn.

You're just back from an incredible collaboration project with you, Emily and Joan Baez and Mary-Chapin Carpenter. Any plans for an Atlanta show?

I feel like we probably will. We just had a limited amount of time in June that everybody was available to go out this time. So we had 8 or 10 shows to try it out on the road and work on the set and everything. And by the end of it, of course, we hit our stride. We've done shows together over the past 25 years here and there, but you don't really get it until you've done it six or seven times in a row. It evolved into a really good place and then it was over. So it seems like we need to do it again.

Could an album ever come from a collaboration of four such distinct personalities?

I don't know. I think of the things that really makes it work is it's really alive. In some ways I feel it would be hard to capture it on an album as completely and accurately as we'd like to have it. We'd have to record every show and pick out what works best, but even then, the special part of it to me is that it's an in-person thing. The power of Joan Baez doing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in a room - and everybody's there and you can just hear the environment - is so different than what you'd ever hear on a record. Or the four of us doing something all together and the audience singing along. You can capture it, but it's just not the same as being there.

It's of the moment.

Yeah. You know, when something is going well, the impulse is always, "Well let's record it." But for me, and I'm sure everyone in the group and the managers and all may feel differently about it, but part of the specialness of it is that we get together and we do it and then it goes away. So that's kinda fun. And Joan is the mentor of the three of us. Her audiences are very outspoken and she gives them that voice to speak out. So it was very powerful in the way any good live show should be. It's a dialogue between the artist and the audience.

Amy Ray plays July 14 at Variety Playhouse. Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters open. For more information, please visit variety-playhouse.com.

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