Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray: Looking at Life

Amy Ray (right) and Emily Saliers of "Indigo Girls."

“I’m trying to tell you something ‘bout my life” are the opening words from the Indigo Girl’s seminal hit “Closer to Fine.” The Grammy winning duo of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers started with a basement tape in 1981 and went on to snag a deal with Epic Records in 1988, a Grammy in 1990, and nearly 20 albums over more than 30 years. I can personally attest to singing a number of their hits both in and out of the shower and belting out a few harmonies at karaoke. 

Over the years, Ray and Saliers have become known for more than their music. They’ve been at the forefront of many important causes, including LGBTQ+ rights, bringing awareness to climate change, the rights of Native Americans and even performing on “Dear Mr. President” with Philly homie Pink who returned the favor on their song, “Rock and Roll Heaven’s Gate” which addressed sexism and heterosexism in the music industry. Both Ray and Saliers have flourishing solo careers (Ray has a new album, “If It All Goes South” dropping on Sept. 16th), but have united for this tour and their album “Look Long” which references a look back at their journeys through life and music. And if you and your bestie have been practicing all the harmonies to “Land of Canaan” or “Kid Fears,” don’t worry, they’ll also be singing a number of the classics from their repertoire of hits. I spoke to Amy Ray and got her to tell me a little something ‘bout her life (see what I did there?) as they prepared for a date here in Greater Philadelphia. The duo will be performing on August 25 in Bristol, PA at the Bristol Township Amphitheater.

I know that you’re from Atlanta. What was your neighborhood like?

It was a Southern, suburban neighborhood in North Cobb County, which is outside of Atlanta, near Decator. It was pretty idyllic, I lived within walking distance of my elementary school and just across the street from the high school. We had a creek running through our backyard, a swimming pool we could walk to, and a railroad running through that you could hear all night and all day, in a good way. A lot of involvement in the schools, I was friends with my teachers, even though I got into trouble a lot. We went regularly to church, and bible school and participated in youth groups. Not very integrated, it was very white, which was a drawback, though it got more diverse as I moved through the schools, which was cool. But I really had to get out into the world to expand myself and learn about prejudice and racism. 

Tell me about the family. What did the folks do? 

My mom was a stay at home mom and my dad was a radiologist. He’s passed. My grandparents on my dad’s side worked at the church, and on my mom’s side my granddad was a fireman until he got into a bad accident and then went into contracting. When I was young we had grandma’s and grandpa’s and great-greats nearby, so we grew up with a lot of elders around us and a ton of cousins. A big extended family and reunions with 100 people all having a good time! For the immediate family, I have three siblings, two older sisters and a younger brother. My oldest sister is now a scientist, my other sister is a doctor and she sings with the Atlanta Symphony choir, and my brother is a doctor. 

So you’re the odd man out?

I am! Though I love science.

Do you remember the first piece of music you bought?

I believe it was the Partridge Family, I think I was in 3rd grade or something. My sister would play music like the Allman Brothers, Ritchie Havens, all the Woodstock music, and so I got into that. My parents would play Tony Bennett and The Carpenters and classical music, so I got some of that influence too and we all played piano. It was mandatory that you had to take 3 years of lessons. 

Did you love it or hate it at the time?

It was mixed, I don’t remember hating it, but I didn’t practice a lot because I was more interested in the guitar and rock and roll, you know what I mean? I didn’t realize that practicing on the piano taught you to play rock and roll. But the guitar was so accessible, learn 3 chords and you’re off and running. 

Who got you your first guitar?

Probably my parents. It was just a small classical guitar with nylon strings, because that’s what you learn on. I took lessons at the YMCA up the street. I don’t even know if I have it anymore. I have another one of my old guitars, it was from Sears, with metal strings. 

[Laughing] I had to take flute lessons and I hated it. I finally cried to my father, “Please make mom stop living vicariously through me. If she wants to play the flute, let her take lessons. She’s not too old to learn!” 

[Laughing] That’s funny, and observational! 

So what kind of kid were you?

A Tomboy. I definitely didn’t like following rules, and I spent a lot of time outside. There was a lake we’d go to on the weekends, we rode dirt bikes and I made friends with a farmer close by and rode his horses, that kind of life. I had a hard time in school like a lot of people, but I was also very engaged, I wanted to be in student government and wanted help with band, went to the dances, I was curious about everything. A little bit of a smart aleck too, I was in the Girl Scouts, but that didn’t last long. 

What did you do to get kicked out of Girl Scouts?

I got thrown out for cussing. My leader heard me cuss and got mad at me but then later in the day I heard her cuss and I got sassy and said, “How come you can do it and I can’t?” I think she said, “Either you’re going to leave or I’m going to leave… and I’m not leaving.” She was a little rough, but I was like, okay, and I dropped out. And then some of my friends dropped out in solidarity. We were all the officers, President, vice president, etc. so it was scandalous! It was my first big radical move! 

Well that answers the question I had as to which one of you was the trouble maker? You and Emily went to school together, correct? 

We were a year apart. We met in elementary school and then Emily went to school in Connecticut. Hmm, I didn’t know what she would say about that, I remember her as being adventurous, though I don’t know if she remembers herself that way. 

How did you two start playing together?

She was a year ahead of me, but we were in the school chorus together. We were becoming friends and there was a talent show so we were like, let’s learn a song and enter. We learned a song and then she ended up going out of town and I had to do the talent show by myself! But learning the song together and practicing was fun so we just kept doing it. We’d learn songs and play for our English class, and it was fun, the classes really loved it. Then we started playing open mic nights in Atlanta. Our parents would have to talk the bartenders or owners to letting us play because we were underage. So yeah, that’s how we started, just playing cover songs at open mics, or we would do little gigs that friends would come to, and that lasted through college. We went to separate schools and didn’t care for it so we both came back to Atlanta and went to Emory. 

Do you remember the first original song you wrote?

Oh my God! I wrote this song called, “Benny the Penny” and I have NO idea what it means! It was pretty nonsensical, all I can say is that I was in the 5th grade and already listening to Elton John, so it was probably a rip-off of several songs. When we started we mostly did cover songs, and then slowly started learning original songs in college. Emily probably wrote more than me. 

“Look Long,” by the Indigo Girls.

What was the first gig that made you say, “Okay, we’ve got something here, we’re hitting the big time”?

I think we felt like we had something when we played in our basement, it was just magical and fun. As far as career goes, probably when we started playing at Little Five Points Pub in Atlanta. We were just getting out of college and starting to get a big following. It was like, “Woah, this is pretty cool.” 

I used to sing with a partner, and I loved to harmonize. There’s nothing like when you get into that groove where you’re looking at each other and the voices match, what does that magic feel like to you?

It feels like what you just said! You get that groove and you become different, it’s not you as individuals anymore, you become one unit, like a third being. 

Let’s fast forward, the Indigo Girls blew up and sold records and traveled the world. What’s one of the craziest things that’s happened on stage?

I think the craziest things happened early on because we were playing Little Five Points which was the community pub. One of the waitstaff was an incredible poet, Benjamin, who dressed in drag and he’d do poetry during our breaks. He was eccentric and wild, and people would feel free to be very vocal at the pub. [Laughing] We had one lady who would come in and just boo us! When we first started playing there was no cover charge, so anybody and everybody would come in. Little Five points was a hippy, wild, punk rock night spot with anyone you could imagine convening there from the most eccentric to the most conservative. 

So speaking about drag and other gay things, when did you start figuring things out and who came out first? 

I fell in love with another girl my senior year in high school. Before that I was clueless. I was a Tomboy, but I had boyfriends and you know, did the dating thing and it wasn’t awful, but I had a lot of angst that I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was probably dysphoria with my environment. I didn’t even know what the word gay was, I just knew how I felt when I fell in love. I probably came out first, well I definitely came out first to Emily. She didn’t realize it until later in college. But for me once I had that first girlfriend, I dated girls from then on. Well, I think there was one boyfriend thrown in there. We came out publicly as The Indigo Girls in 1991 I think. 

I seem to remember seeing you guys on either the Tonight Show or Letterman and the host making you squirm by asking you about your boyfriends. I may even have it on a VHS tape in my basement! That must have been scary trying to navigate that kind of thing before you came out. 

It was… yeah, scary is a good word. It was experiencing two things at once, we were having the time of our lives, great crowds, touring with our record, in a kind of fantasyland doing exactly what we wanted to do but at the same time, we were wrestling with our sexuality and trying to figure out what interviews to do and which not to. What to say and what not to say, and the record label was probably pulling some strings behind the scenes. We often talked about how we didn’t want to be pigeon holed as just one thing, so we were struggling with it. And as individuals we were both going through things. I think I had some dysphoria about my body, finding myself as a masculine female and wanting to just be out. I was out to everyone in my family and I wanted to be out in the Indigos but Emily wasn’t there yet. She was struggling to find when it would feel right. So there were a lot of complexities and feelings going on underneath all the amazing things that were happening. 

How did you two come out?

I don’t think it was a big time celebrity, we’re coming out kind of thing. We were doing a press conference for college up in Western Mass and Emily honestly answered a question about being gay and I was just like, “O-kay.” We talked about it afterwards and that was it, from then on we were open about it. I think The Advocate did a cover story, which might have been the first big publication to announce it. 

I’m sure it was scary but felt much better afterwards. 

Yeah, it’s interesting because it does sort of set you free, but with it comes another set of things like what’s the next step? What’s the evolution in the queer community activism, which was important to us, but where to put your energy? And once we were out the homophobia became more overt, before it was a question we just didn’t talk about and everyone could be in denial, but once you’re out people become uncomfortable and you confront it constantly. 

What was the most blatant or memorable instance?

We were doing an interview with a newspaper in the Midwest somewhere with a guy who was the agricultural writer or something and did the music column on the side. He wrote a really bad review of us and was very obviously homophobic. He took shots at our fans and the way people were dressed, it was just mean and blatant. I found that the written press was where it was the most blatant and I had to stop reading it. There was no point, if it was good, you’d take it to heart too much and if it was bad, it would bother you. Better to go on with your life and do your thing. But it’s always an undercurrent, people heckling us or taking pot shots in the press, morning DJ’s making jokes while interviewing us, thinking they’re being funny. There was so much it’s hard to remember. 

But as the saying goes, “still you persevered.” 

Yeah, I mean you do, don’t you? Though some don’t. I think the thing that bothered us the most was when we were on a TV show or talk show and didn’t expect it to happen, you know what I mean? Like we were on with Bill Maher a long, long time ago and he made some really homophobic remarks that he thought were funny and Emily and I were shocked. [Laughing] We were so stunned we didn’t know what to do! We just laughed because we were like, is this for real? Is this supposed to be a joke? And after I was like, “Well that’s never happening again. I’m not going to go on a show where someone’s going to take potshots at me.” Unless it’s Saturday Night Live and we’re all game and in on it, I just don’t want to be surprised. And there’s no place for that anyway from anyone when we’re still fighting for equal rights. So we had to learn how to deal with that. 

I hear you. As a black person who could pass for white, it’s always the worst when someone you meet and like then says something completely racist out of left field. It’s so disappointing! 

I have a friend who’s the same as you and when she first came to Atlanta with her trans husband she decided to join a lesbian softball team and they didn’t know she was mixed either. They made some really racist remarks and it was like, really? Lesbian softball players, you would think we could do better, but it was the same thing where she was so shocked, what do you say or is it even worth trying to correct people. Sometimes you just don’t feel like expending the energy. I alway learn so much from my friends. 

Let’s do the flip side and tell me something heartwarming that happened as a result of being out. 

Oh my gosh, so many stories. Okay a recent one: I was at Ponce City Market in Atlanta and this guy came up and he pointed across the room and said, “My daughter is over there and I wanted to thank you for making the music that you make because I think it saved her life. I don’t want to embarrass her, but I wanted to tell you, can I bring her over and introduce her?” I mean, first what a cool dad. And yeah, that’s why you do it, that’s the reason we do this. It’s all about healing each other. 

And you’re still doing it, so let’s talk about the upcoming show in our area. 

Yes, we put out an album last year called “Look Long” but because of the pandemic we weren’t able to get out there with it, so we’ll be doing some songs from that. We recorded in England at Peter Gabriel’s studio. A lot of our band is British, so we holed up in a house for 12 days. It was super fun and there are a lot of cool surprises on the album, including special guests. We’ll also be doing a lot of music from our past catalog. 

The Amphitheater is new, so I imagine you haven’t been there but I saw Take 6 there last year and it’s a great little venue, nice people, great crowds with friendly people in my experience. 

Oh great, I love any kind of event that feels like people come from the community. And I love Philly, so it’s nice to be in the vicinity. Our fan community in Philadelphia has always been strong and I love being there. Whenever I go there I just walk around the town on foot, everywhere. It’s such a vibrant place. It’s also the first place where we really caught on outside of Atlanta. [Laughing] In fact I think one of our earliest gigs was at Haverford College! We were young-un’s and had a friend who went to school there and they invited us to come up and perform. We were still at Emory and we drove all the way up here. It was awesome. 

Nice, okay, let’s do some random questions, where was your first kiss?

I was in elementary school and it was with a guy named Tommy Holt. I think it was at the swimming pool. The pool was down the street and we did many things there. My first kiss with a girl was in high school with that first girlfriend and it was probably in a car somewhere.

What’s a book that you’d like to enter and become part of that world? 

Oh wow, the first thing that comes to mind is Harry Potter, if we can take out the problematic author. I really love that world, all the magical creatures, it’s incredible. 

Who would you contact at a seance?

That’s a good one…. okay, Harriet Tubman, I just, I’m just fascinated by her and in awe of her. 

Who would you bring back for one last performance?

Jimmy Hendricks, I want to be in the front row to watch him play but I also want to be on stage with him to feel that energy. That unbridled craziness, and what a genius guitar player. 

Did you ever play any organized sports?

Yeah, I ran track. Hurdles, I wasn’t very good. I could run them but I wasn’t very fast. 

What’s the most dangerous stunt you ever pulled?

Two things come to mind. We used to ride our dirt bikes and there were trails that had these big humps, and I’d take off and jump ‘em! We’d crash all the time. One time the carburetor caught fire underneath me, but the most dangerous thing was when we’d take our skateboards and we’d sit down tip to tip across from each other and we’d put our legs on the opposite skateboard, so that you were looking at each other. You’d start at the top and ride all the way down this super steep hill and there was no way to break so you just had keep going until the next uphill slowed you down, or you fell off. The dangerous part was there was a stop sign at the bottom of the hill and we never worried about whether or not cars were coming. We never even thought about it, we just went flying through the intersection! When I go back and look at that hill, I’m like that was really stupid!

[Laughing] Yikes! Something tamer, what’s your go to karaoke song?

I haven’t done karaoke in so long but my song would be “Jessie’s Girl”.

What’s your most unusual possession? 

I have a bow, as in bow and arrow, that my dad got from an indigenous person in the Philippines when he was in the Navy. I don’t know the tribe but he traded a ball point pen for it. It’s this awesome handmade bow and it’s taller than me. I have it now and I covet it. 

Three scents that you love?

I love the smell of lavender, I love the smell of a campfire and I love the smell of the beach when you first open the door and smell the ocean. 

Let’s wrap up with a favorite movie line. 

Oh gosh, um, I have to think. 

I’m stumping you Amy Ray! 

You really are but I love this. Okay, I thought of something but I have to look it up to make sure I get it right. It’s from Friday Night Lights, which I love, here it is: “Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose.” 

That should be your next tour name!