Shine's CatchUp with Amy Ray: The South, Her New Album, and Brandi Carlile
Welcome to Shine's CatchUp where WFPK host Laura Shine catches up with musicians about their music, new albums, or whatever they've recently been up to.
I've been a fan of The Indigo Girls since 1989. They feel like old friends to me and I'm sure to a lot of their adoring fans. So it was a real thrill to catch up with Amy Ray (half of the duo with Emily Saliers) about her new solo album If It All Goes South and get the stories behind the songs and collaborations that took place in the making of the record. She also talked about her friend Brandi Carlile and you can watch the speech Brandi gave when the Indigo Girls received a lifetime achievement award from The Americana Music Awards in 2022 in the video below our interview.
First of all, congratulations on a great new record. I'm curious as to the title of the album If It All Goes South and wondered what's behind the title? Also, what was on your mind when writing the songs for this album?
The title comes from a line in the song “Chuck Will’s Widow” which in that context was about making the best of what seems like a bad situation. In the context of the album, it; has a lot of meanings. I figured being from Georgia there are times when the healing and reparations needed to redeem our social justice crimes seem over whelming, but I also realize, you are where you are supposed to be and if you look around, you’ll see the opportunities are there to do good, and to grow into the person you want to be. I am a diehard Southerner, and committed to the idea of righting our wrongs and building the "beloved community” in my own region. There are a lot of blessings to living in Georgia and I embrace all of them-the pastoral beauty, the art, words and songs of this place, and the spirits of the good folks that call this place home.
The record was written mostly in 2019 and 2020, but there were songs, like “From This Room” that I rediscovered and was inspired to finish. I was thinking a lot about the idea of wanting to reach out to people that felt isolated and say “You’re not alone”. We all need allies and there are times when we all need to have someone take up the plow and help us out. I was writing during the scary pandemic-a time we all shared, social justice turbulence, and the inspiration from both seeing and being in the marches going on in the summer of 2020. There was so much good work being done, in the midst of such a hard time. It really felt like the only option was to embrace life and jump in with full faith in the human spirit. But within this I had a lot of questions and things I was wrestling with, so I wrote from a place of curiosity and a true desire to find the joy and action within the sadness and apathy.
There are many great guests on this album such as Brandi Carlile, Allison Russell, Sarah Jarosz, and more. Were they all guest vocalists or did some of them collaborate on the songs and if so, how?
We recorded the songs on this album in Nashville at Sound Emporium over 8 days. Seven of the ten songs went down live to analog tape. 3 of the songs had been digital singles which we created during the lockdown. We reworked them for the record and transferred them to tape.
Brandi recorded her vocals for “Subway” at her own studio, I did not give her any direction. So everything you hear is exactly how she laid it down-a "chorus of Brandi’s”. She has an amazing gift for harmony.
Allison Russell also recorded at another studio-she was in LA rehearsing for the Grammy’s and Shooter Jennings overheard her talking on the phone with me about how to get the vocal done for the song, “Tear It Down"…he jumped in and emailed me, and told me he would make it happen….so he did and she sang a killer vocal.
Because we recorded the majority of the record live to tape, I strongly preferred the guests to come into the studio and record WITH us, but it couldn’t always happen so I just appreciated it so much when it did!
Natalie Hemby was able to come by, and sing her vocal straight to tape right after we got our live “keeper take”
Sarah Jarosz came into the studio on our last night, she came directly from the airport and recorded “A Mighty Thing” on mandolin live with us. Banjo genius, Alison Brown was there as well, so those two made some magic together. Sarah sang her harmony to tape after we got the take. And then we threw another reel on the tape machine and played her “They Won’t Have Me” and she grabbed her mandolin and went back into the big room at the studio and she did a track in one take to a song she had only heard once…ha…she is a bad ass.
Gabe Dixon from Tedeschi Trucks Band recorded live with us on keys, to the song “Subway” which he also did the string arrangement for. The 4-piece string section, Gabe and our 7 piece band all played that song live together until we got the take we used. I loved the take we got, but felt like my vocal could be better, so I went in and re-tracked the vocal right away.
Phil Cook collaborated with me on the song “North Star”. He helped me adapt the chords to bring the gospel feel out in the song. He also co-produced the song, and brought in 3 gospel singers to record the song live with us. That was a good day.
We gave the bare bones of the digital recording of the song “Chuck Will’s Widow” to “I’m With Her” (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’ Donovan) and asked them to do their thing. They passed it around and it was so good, we used their tracks as the basis from which to rework the song from its original form to what it morphed into. Then we transferred the whole thing to tape, and the song became what it is today. It really was a sing-a-long waiting to happen and they magically figured that out and now when we play it, everyone sings their parts. I love when that happens-the beauty of collaboration!
The music videos for the album are very fun including an animated video for the song "Joy Train". Who made the video and what was the inspiration behind that song?
The video for Joy Train is super fun! My friend, artist Julie Best who lives up in North Ga near my area, created this video, using characters from her repertoire of animal drawings. I love what she did with it. I have spent a lot of time with Julie and her husband, actor Foy Tootle, and she knows me and my creative mind pretty well, so there was not much that had to be explained. She knew where I was coming from. The song is a lot of layers and a lot of road trips…and I came through all it to figure out that sometimes you just have to "hop on the joy train” and hold your head up high. I am always inspired by the angels and spirits of the past civil rights heroes and heroines who remind me to have faith in joy and it's ability to help you and persevere. Don’t dwell on the cage while life flies by. Originally, I started the song while driving my child around to get her to fall asleep. She was fighting it so hard, she was wrestling with the car seat and so unhappy and when she finally gave in, she looked so satisfied and peaceful. Reminded me of myself fighting with all the things I consider to be my own personal “cages” and losing the opportunity to find joy and peace sometimes. Our great civil rights leaders sang and danced and marched on in the midst of being beaten and brutalized. They knew that their faith and joy was their own and no one could take that from them, and in that, there is victory.
You recently received a lifetime achievement award for The Indigo Girls from the Americana Music Awards. What did it feel like to get that award?
It was a great honor to receive the award. The best part of the honor was the speech that Brandi Carlile gave, it was a ringer and really summed up why the award is special. Nothing I could say, would mean as much as what she said. After all these years as an Indigo Girl, 42 years and counting, freedom of expression and the freedom to be seen for who you truly are, is still the measure and compass we live by. We know music heals, we have seen it happen.