Exclusive Q&A: Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray Talks Music And Activism

Says Ray: "I'm super political, but I'm also very willing to listen to other people."

Indigo Girls
The Indigo Girls are playing Skidmore College on Saturday, May 12. (High Road Touring)

Grammy-winning folk-rock act the Indigo Girls is headed to Skidmore College’s Zankel Center on Saturday, May 12. The duo consists of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, both raised just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and emerged in the early 1990s with hits such as “Closer to Fine,” “Galileo” and “Power of Two.” Emily and Amy are known not only for their music, but also for their strong political activism and for being a pair of openly gay celebrities since before that was a thing (they came out back in ’88 with the release of their eponymous Epic Records debut). I recently had the pleasure of talking with Ray about her more than 30 years in the music industry.

Have the Indigo Girls ever played in Saratoga. What about Caffè Lena?
Not at Caffè Lena, but we’ve played in Saratoga at SPAC and the other outdoor venues. We’ve toured a lot in that area for the last 25 years or so. But none of our family is from there. Emily was born in Connecticut, actually, and moved down to Georgia when she was around 10. We grew up together, but in essence she’s from there.

Are there places you like to go up here when you’re in town?
Typically, I try to find a biking trail or some kind of running path; that’s what I do if I have free time. Or I’ll go to a thrift store or a record store. Nothing specific. But I usually try to get nature, because we’re in the city so much. My first goal is always to find something green. [laughs] Which is not that hard up there in Upstate New York.

You and Amy have been playing and writing together for more than 30 years. Is there a secret to staying creative or keeping things fresh with a co-writer for that long?
Well, one thing is that we actually write separately from each other. So half of the material is Emily’s and half is mine. We get together and do the arrangements, and that’s when it turns into an Indigo Girls song—when we work out harmonies and what we’re gonna play, and we might move around a chorus or write a bridge, something like that. But pretty much we just write the songs separately, get together, do the arrangements and it kinda becomes its thing. And I think that creative space apart has helped us to have time to express ourselves. And some of it’s just that we have a massive respect for each other. We grew up with each other from the time we were ten years old, and our families know each other. We’ve got that community thing. It’s like the community holds your relationship in a way. And you have to respect that in some ways and honor it. Respect each other and realize what you have is greater than the sum of the parts.

You’re both politically active. How did growing up in the Deep South affect you and your politics?
[laughs] Well, for me, I’m very outspoken. I grew up with a family that was pretty conservative. We went to church three days a week. And church was really good in a lot of ways. I loved it, but in a lot of ways it was a struggle for me, when you’re gay. But I can live in the midst of people that are very different from me politically, and it doesn’t bother. I’m just used to it. In fact, it informs me, and it helps me understand why people feel the way they feel when they’re really radically different from me. And it helps me to learn to respect that, and I think that’s from growing up in a family that was a little more conservative early on. I mean, now my mom’s pretty progressive—but it took a lot of years and three gay daughters.

Wow, three?
Oh yeah. So I experienced this self-hate, internalized homophobia, trying to battle innate racism that’s all around you. It’s systemic, and you don’t even know that you’re part of that system. That’s like all my life. Four generations of people in my family are all from the South. And they turned out pretty good, I think. For the most part, a lot of my family have turned a corner and really come around from being fundamentalist and super conservative to being moderate and still conservative but very open about gay issues, which is what a lot of the country has done. I think how it affected me is that I’m super political, but I’m also very willing to listen to other people. I feel comfortable where I live, which is an extremely conservative, rural area in north Georgia. And I don’t mind it. I love nature, so I just want to be in the woods. Part of that, right now for me, is that I gotta put up with being 1 of only 20 Democrats. [laughs] You know I love my neighbors. We disagree with each other, but when there’s an ice storm we all help each other. That’s how I function in life; it helps me, though. I can find that place of dialogue that’s really important for me to be an activist, because I don’t think things are so black and white. When people are coming from a place of faith, it’d be very easy for me to belittle that or be patronizing about that, but the reality is I understand where they’re coming from. It affects me that I’m always writing from two sides of the point, and always struggling to understand where that other person’s coming from because I don’t want to discount them.

Jeff Dingler
Jeff Dingler

Jeff Dingler is saratoga living's Senior Writer. He's a graduate of Skidmore College and a professional musician.

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