The Indigo Girls,
An interview with Amy Ray
by Jen Kopf
(September 1997)

Activism is inseparable from Amy Ray's heart.

Long ago, issues like the environment, justice for Native Americans and the pursuit of human rights twined themselves around her music, too. They interweave with the lyrics the way Ray's voice does with Emily Saliers' to create the Indigo Girls.

Still, says Ray, "I try to separate music and the causes to a certain extent, you know, because sometimes, you just need to listen to music as music, for balance."

Ray and Saliers took both the activist songs and the gleeful, breezy, music-for-the-sake-of-music songs to the masses as part of their 1997 Honor the Earth Tour. The 20-date tour gave them a chance to draw attention to things they hold dear, like the fight against storing nuclear waste on sacred Indian ground while pushing their latest release, Shaming of the Sun.

Ever since the duo broke out of Atlanta in 1987 with Strange Fire, they've held court with some of the industry's most impressive talents, been nominated for five Grammys, and won one of the top honors. Yet what Ray prizes most isn't the career.

"Music itself is one thing," she says. "But the career in music, the attention paid to ego, to appearance, it can get absurd. Sometimes, activism is more compelling to me than the career."

It shows in her love of "grassroots" things, from local people trying to improve their situation to a local press that reflects its community more than Rolling Stone magazine might.

And it shows in the Indigo Girls' dedication to the Honor the Earth campaign.

Focusing on Native American communities and their fight to preserve the environment, Honor the Earth joined the Indigo Girls and 19 other artists on a two-disk collection, Honor, to raise money for grassroots organizations.

Talk to Ray for long and her enthusiasm for the project is unshakable. Honor the Earth focuses not only on raising awareness about nuclear waste, but also on lobbying Congress for legislative action.

"Even without music I'd be an activist," Ray says. "I'd teach, maybe work in a forest service preserve. But music gives us a format."

It's a way to talk, for example, about the invasions of privacy faced by celebrities and "commoners" alike.

"Once upon a love those words blew free and secret," Saliers writes in "Burn All the Letters," "but the pages lay around / Drifted to the hands of a publisher and the greedy generations on down / Burn all the letters (someone is always watching.)"

In the light of the on-again, off-again love between Princess Diana and the mass media, and the tragic result, it's prescient.

"Emily wrote the song, and she wasn't talking specifically about the media, but about the fascination we all have with the day-to-day dirty details of everyone else's life."

It's a fine line to walk, Ray readily admits, especially for artists who use their talents -- and the press -- as a platform for their views.

"Oh, we court the press all the time," she says with a rueful laugh. "We usually don't have problems with them -- but we don't blow them off, either."

What Ray finds equally disturbing, though, is the difficulty in figuring out who owns what media, and the eagerness of big-time music publications to focus on celebrity instead of music.

"They're more interested in what rock stars are into, not music or issues. They're supposed to be cutting edge, but they're not, and it shows a lack of commitment to the right or the left. I'd rather somebody be clearly 'right wing' than middle of the road. I want objectivity, sure, but be yourself. When the press on either edge starts moving toward the middle, there's something happening politically."

It's not all politics for Ray -- it couldn't be, for a woman who professes an early love of both the Allman Brothers and David Cassidy, for a woman whose first song was "Bennie the Penny and I" ("I don't even know it anymore," she confesses. "Maybe I was listening to Elton John and 'Bennie & the Jets.'")

There's still the joy of playing music just because she and Saliers can.

[ by Jen Kopf ]



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Read a review of the Indigo Girls in concert.