Amy Ray has been making beautiful music for more than 20 years with Indigo Girls bandmate Emily Saliers. Their perfectly crafted harmonies and thoughtful folk-rock songs have enraptured boys and girls of all persuasions.
But sometimes a gal just needs to rock out with her cock out.
Ray does just that on her new solo disc, Didn’t It Feel Kinder, a punky, thrilling collection of social commentary and righteous fire. The album is both primal and incisive, opening with a solemn plea for filial unity in the song “Birds of a Feather.”
“Hey brother/ It’s hard to be close/ Taught to dodge/ And stay shut up…./ If we are birds of a feather/ Why can’t we migrate?/ If we are birds of a feather/ Why can’t we fly in/ Formation or just be friends/ On the way?
Ray’s voice cuts through the heartfelt lyric with a clarity and strength that may surprise even the most rapturous of Indigo Girls fans.
“I started working on these vocal exercises from the Zen of Screaming in order to help save my voice when I was singing such hard music,” says Ray. “It started me thinking about using my voice in different ways. I wanted to stretch my range…. You have to continue to challenge yourself or you get stagnant.”
The difference is immediately apparent. Ray’s voice, always pleasing and emotive, now has a power that raises her self-penned tunes to a whole new level of compelling communication.
Songs like “Stand and Deliver” benefit greatly from this new vocal approach. Ray’s punk and alt-rock roots are given full rein as she whispers, belts and rasps alongside jangly electric guitars and driving rhythms.
“All I’ve got’s this little heart/ With growing pangs and leaky parts/ All I’ve got’s this little cup/ I pour it out she fills it up/ It tastes so sweet and bitter/ Why can’t I deliver?”
It’s like Patti Smyth, Carole King and Sam Cooke gave birth to a lesbian lovechild.
“I’m at a very fragile point with my voice,” Ray says, “but I thought some of these songs needed a range that reflected the lyrics. Fragile and raw. Strong.”
Raw certainly describes the song “Who Sold the Gun,” a powerful piece that Ray wrote following the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. Instead of simply railing against the killer, Ray contemplates a troubled young man bombarded by his country’s ongoing wars on terror, Iraq and anyone who doesn’t pack a gun in their child’s lunchbox.
“That whole time other news was coming in about the war in Iraq,” she says, “and I was reading this series of articles on children soldiers in different countries, and how the US is financially connected to these governments who have 12-year-olds fighting for them.
“We look at [the massacre] and we’re so shocked. But thousands of people are dying every day and we’re part of it. We’re intrigued by violence and death and we don’t know how to deal with it.”
As one might expect Ray is a big supporter of Barack Obama for the US presidency, and hopes the upcoming election will bring a much-needed sea change in her country’s consciousness.
“We haven’t had a leader in a long time who was willing to talk about finding a way to empathize and dialogue and heal. My only hesitation is that he’s not quite there on the gay issues.”
But what if the Big O surprises us and immediately signs same-sex marriage into law? Will Ray and her longtime girlfriend be registering for Her and Her towels any time soon?
“Well, we’re going to do a commitment ceremony sometime,” she allows. “I want the civil rights of visitation and legal stuff, but I’m not a marriage-y sort of person. I am, however, a hopeful person.”