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Amy Ray on new album, acceptance and rock 'n' roll
by John Stadelman
2018-11-12

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Indigo Girl Amy Ray's September release, Holler, is a rich mixture of folk, Southern rock, mountain music, bluegrass and gospel, with her characteristic thoughtful and layered lyricism.

Windy City Times talked with Amy about the album, her Southern roots and the issues she addresses in Holler.

Windy City Times: Congrats on the album! As a liberal born and raised in North Carolina it's cool to get that representation, because it's a weird spot to be in.

Amy Ray: It's definitely a fertile spot. There's lots to think about and learn from, but it can be really good. … For me, the South has been a lot of great lessons over and over again.

We were the epicenter for a lot of hard stuff, but also for a lot of great Civil Rights stuff, and right now because it's so polarized and hard. But the thing is, you can't judge a book by its cover, so just when you think you've given up on some aspect of your community someone surprises you and does something amazing and you're like, "Oh, I shouldn't be so narrow."

WCT: And did that influence "Sure Feels Good Anyway?"

AR: Oh yeah. That was just straight out of where I lived and the people I loved and my community and the differences I often have—just politically.

One thing to preface everything with is that I have a certain amount of privilege as a white person, to have a certain perspective on living in rural north Georgia, where if I was a person of color having a dialogue with people up here it might not be easy.

Race is going to be the hardest thing for us to beat. It's been easier for people to accept me as a queer person in Georgia than if I was a person of color. … It's the last thing we have to conquer somehow and I think in that song I was saying, "I love this place anyway, I want to stay here and I want to change it."

And it's saying, "Look, I know that you talk about the flag like this and I know that there's a part of you that's a good person that helps people when they need help." … And that's the part of you that you got to remember and draw on when you're trying to learn acceptance and tolerance and be brave enough to look at something that's hard to look at.

WCT: In "Fine with the Dark" there's a reversal of the light/dark, good/bad metaphor, celebrating darkness. With the line, "Baby, I'm fine with the dark," what are you getting at with "darkness" and accepting it?

AR: There's two levels the song operates on and one level is really simple, it's just after working so hard and being tired and busy I'm all right with just laying down in the dark with you and I don't need any more light. I need darkness and quiet.

And then of course there's always the [inspiration]. … I put this line in about Nina Simone's recording of "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair." She came out with that recording that was so controversial and the precursor to "Black is Beautiful" and the movement to look at the imagery of darkness as something that didn't have to be: "Black is evil and dark is evil," and all the equations that have racist overtones.

It was saying, "I don't have a problem with darkness. I don't want to classify that as being something bad or evil and I don't need to think that there's this great heavenly white pure light at the end of life, because the comfort of darkness is good, too."

WCT: In "Didn't Know a Damn Thing," you have this cool line: "If anything will save the worl,d it's rock 'n' roll." Could you talk about how you see rock 'n' roll saving the world?

AR: That song is a trajectory of what was going on … with the civil-rights movement, the Atlanta child murders and the Wounded Knee American Indian movement and all the activity [that] was just the background of my life. I had no idea what was going on when I was in high school, thinking I was so liberal and progressive. I didn't really know—what I didn't know, y'know? [Laughs]

But the thing about rock and roll is that I also had this earnestness where I dove in with this idea that music can set us free and help make change. I was taught that by everything I listened to, and so that's why I put that in there.

It's like me saying that all this stuff is true, but the other thing that's true is that I still have that belief that rock and roll is this thing that was always a savior to me. As a kid it set me free and helped me not feel like an outsider—like David Bowie was such a great formative person for me because he was so queer, which is just so beautiful. And all the women that mentored me … were musicians, in Atlanta, the punk-rock people, and so that's where that comes from.

See Amy iRay n Chicago at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Thursday, Nov. 15. Tickets at www.bandsintown.com/e/1010213980 .


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