20 Questions: Amy Ray

Amy Ray
Didn't It Feel Kinder

Amy Ray talks the talk – her lyrics fearlessly nail issues of violence, environmental issues and other pressing topics; her Indigo Girls concerts often serve as fundraisers for various deserving organizations. And she walks the walk as a human rights activist on many fronts, including co-founder of the human rights / environmental organization, Honor the Earth. While on a flight from New York to her home town in Georgia, she penned these sometimes poignant, sometimes playful responses to PopMatters 20 Questions.

Her third solo album, Didn’t It Feel Kinder, with Led Zeppelin, The Shins, and Judy Garland influences, releases August 5th on Daemon Records.

1. The latest book or movie that made

you cry?

Actually, it’s a song, “Top of The World” by Patty Griffin.

2. The fictional character most like you?

My friends say I’m a “Pony Boy” from The Outsiders, but I always wanted to be Dallas, ’cause he’s so hot.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Who knows. It changes every day and there are thousands of records I’ve never heard. Any music that inspires, comforts, provokes, creates change, makes you wanna dance, puts you to sleep when you need it, makes you scream when you need to, heals, breaks down, or creates divine harmonics is worthy. Different paths to the same god and all that stuff…

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I am a trekkie all the way. Next Generation is my vision for an evolved future. George W. could have used a dose of Star Trek, but it might confuse him even more than he already is.

5. Your ideal brain food?

I eat chocolate whenever I am doing anything challenging. I’m not sure it helps, but it makes me feel smarter. Avocado, sushi and edamame are good, too.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Activism is done in a community context. I am only proud of myself in the context of community.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

My work as an activist — indigenous, environmental, queer, and race and class issues. I think it’s a long road and a hard balance and hopefully when you die, if you’re remembered for these kinds of things, then people will be inspired to keep up the work and carry the torch.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

There are three very special women that died between 1998 and 2004. Ingrid Washinawatok, Marsha Gomez, and Nilak Butler were among the founding mother’s of an organization called The Indigenous Women’s Network (IWN). I met them through my work with Honor the Earth, a group founded in the early ’90s when Indigo Girls met Winona LaDuke at an Earth Day rally.

These three women were incredible activists on both a local and global scale. Their work in defending culture and land was revolutionary and precedent setting. Their deaths were poignant reminders to me of the need to gather in community, work hard for sustainability, and laugh a lot while doing it.

Marsha died an untimely death at a young age in 1998 at the hands of her son who had a mental illness and had no idea what he was doing. We lost Ingrid when she was kidnapped and killed in Colombia by rogue members of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). She was working on behalf of the Uwa peoples against oil exploration projects in their homelands.

What is written about Nilaks’s death on the IWN web site could really apply to all three of these women and many other indigenous peoples.

Nilak Butler died after a two and a half year battle with ovarian cancer, largely a consequence of her circumstances. Nilak fell through the cracks of American society. Nilak did not have access to Indian Health Service facilities as she was not an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe — a circumstance of adoption. Nilak viewed her illness much as a mirror of the illness of Mother Earth: toxified, ill cared for, and challenged with constant crises. She challenged all to work harder to defend Mother Earth, and to care for each other in difficult times, now and in the future.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

The song “Strange Fruit”. I was first introduced to this song in the Billie Holiday recording, then I heard Siouxsie sing it.

The Indigo Girl’s toured with Budgie on drums for a summer and it was wild because Siouxsie came along on the bus. She ended up doing a few songs in our set. One of them was “Strange Fruit”. It made me love the song even more to see her do it live.

That was a fun tour. The Goths caught on early that Siouxsie and Budgie were traveling with us and doing some Creatures songs, so they would hang out in the lobby during our show until Siouxsie went on. My mentor, folkster Ferron, was opening the show and I’ll never be able do better than Ferron and Siouxsie singing “Down by the River” together for the encore.

After the shows we played poker until the crack of dawn. I think Ferron was the only one who was sober, so she left with all our money.

10. Your hidden talents…?

I give great pedicures.

Amy Ray on the True Colors Tour at Radio City Music Hall, June 2008 – photo (partial) by ©Jason DeCrow

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

I have a bunch of cats that I adopted in one way or another. A few of them have litter box issues. They won’t go inside the boxes with the tops and they used to always miss and hit the wall behind the box — gross. My vet told me to get some of the cheap plastic place mats and velcro them to the back of the litter box to keep the cat from spraying the wall. Okay? Well it worked like a charm.

Other than practical tips like that, I have a really hard time following advice until I screw up and learn myself.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

When I was a youngun’ I found some Playboy magazines in someone’s fort in the woods.

I took them to my fort. Wow. For a southern suburbanite that was quite a revelation and a little confusing, but it opened up a world of possibilities.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

Thrift store stuff.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

My mom. She would never think she deserves it, and never go there on her own, but it might feel good to be doted on for a night.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

It depends on whether I am allowed to mess with the time-space continuum. If I could, I would go back in time and try to change the approach to all things nuclear, by showing what a mess we’ve made with uranium mining, nuclear weapons, and radioactive waste. It’s doubtful anyone would listen, though, because we don’t listen now.

If I can’t mess with outcomes, then I want to go back to the 1700s in the southeast and be in some patch of forest where I can see all the wildlife and the lay of the land.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

The gym or a long hike.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?


18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Southern Appalachian Mountains.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

To George W. Bush, besides “fuck you”, I’m not sure he would understand anything I had to say. He really seems absolutely clueless to me.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Getting my shit together for the release of my third solo CD, Didn’t It Feel Kinder, releasing August 5th. Restructuring and organizing my indie label, Daemon records.

I am also in the studio in Atlanta for another week to finish a new Indigo Girls record that Mitchell Froom is producing. We’re making a band record and a separate acoustic album.

I just planted two pear trees and a hibiscus. I’m getting the mats out of my five dogs’ fur. The summer Indigo Girls tour season is coming up, so I’ll be practicing with Emily for that.

Right now I am on an airplane from New York to Atlanta. I get on another plane tomorrow to San Francisco to play an Honor the Earth benefit. Delta Airlines is really losing it’s grip these days, so I’m crossing my fingers.

Indigo Girls Emily Saliers and Amy Ray