On her second solo album, Prom, Amy Ray — half of Grammy-winning folk-rock duo the Indigo Girls — tackles heady social topics including homophobia, racism and sexism through stories of a Southern high school. Released on her own Daemon Records (currently celebrating its fifteenth anniversary), the follow-up to her 2001 debut Stag is equal parts Tom Petty and the Clash, and stands as a defiant statement of Ray’s political activism and DIY ethos.
Following a fifteen-date solo tour with her band the Volunteers — guitarist Les Nuby, bassist Tara Jane O’Neil and drummer Will Lochamy — Ray will head back to the studio with fellow Indigo Girl Emily Saliers for an album due next summer. Rolling Stone catches up with the singer-songwriter to talk about her own prom, falling in love and just how many men really go to her shows.
Why did you choose the South as the setting for Prom?
I always heard that you should write about what you know, and that’s where I am, where I’ve always lived. But although the record’s really thematic, I’m not that directed. I was just writing, and it started coming out that way. I have a sort of backlog of stories about neighbors, my life and my friends’ lives that I draw from.
And all the songs take place at a high school, specifically . . .
It ended up being set in a time that was very young, probably because I was thinking about that — I had some younger neighbors that I talked to a lot, and I had a second cousin who died when she was a teenager. I spent a lot of time meeting with her friends. Emily [Saliers] and I did this sort of punk-rock high school benefit show to make a memorial garden for her, and all her friends came and played — they were all in bands. That was the impetus for the song “Put It Out for Good” — and the rest of the stuff that came out.
How do you inhabit the people whose stories you’re telling?
I use things that they’ve told me directly. Like in “Rural Faggot” — that’s actually two or three guys I’ve watched grow up since they were seven, conflated into one person. I used pieces of stories they told me from different times in their lives that applied to what I saw as the trajectory of a young, rural gay man. That song is the most fun to play because the gay guys sort of pop out of the audience. All of a sudden, I’ll see all these hands go up in the air and I’m like “Wow, there’s a lot of guys in here.”
“Let It Ring” sounds like an attack on the Christian right.
Pretty much. It’s an attack against the Christian right, but it’s supposed to depict any orthodox religion, really. There’s just so much power from the Christian right through the administration — it’s definitely scary. I read up on all the ways this administration has let the Christian right influence the way scientific studies are done. These are important policies that people aren’t really going to know about because it’s not going to be covered. The media can’t cover everything.
Why did you decide to go solo?
I just needed to get my ya-ya’s out and be independent. My heart’s in a very independent sector, and I wanted to not only make a solo record but put it out independently. That’s a world I love and feel more a part of than any other. And I was writing a lot of songs that weren’t fitting in. There are some things that are just more graphic and more personal, and I thought to add Emily’s voice in there would just be weird. And honestly, there’s songs that she doesn’t really want to do.
Your music has a strong punk influence. How did you get turned on to punk rock?
I think that Husker Du, Patti Smith and the Clash were the people that I heard and went “OK.” Mostly I was more interested politically in what was going on underground, and, lyrically, I was more attracted to bands that were in that movement. When you went into the punk world, people were doing their own thing and putting out their own records, and everything was backed up by what they were saying and what they were saying was backed up by what they were doing.
What about today’s punk?
Well, I love Green Day. I love them. I think they’re great. I might be moved by Green Day the way I’m moved by the Clash — if they weren’t so popular [laughs]! But it’s not their fault that they’re so successful. Of course, because of Urban Outfitters, it’s hard to even say punk with a straight face.
Gender issues are a prominent theme on the album. How is gender being defined — or redefined — today?
I think we’ve learned how to separate gender from sexuality, so it’s not tied to who you sleep with. I’m not sure that’s a nuance the gay movement talked about years ago, but it’s almost a point of entry now to talk about gender to people who aren’t necessarily familiar with the queer movement. There’s this weird phenomenon in the South where they can almost understand a woman who inhabits or has a female body but is more male. They can understand why that person would end up being queer because they can see it.
Do you feel like you’re misunderstood?
I have no idea, actually. I have a good part of me that feels like I’m inhabiting the wrong body and have felt that way my whole life. I can’t tell whether that’s a societal influence or that I was born in the wrong body or that I’m just really split chemically. But it’s not enough of me to want to have a different body. So instead, I try to love the parts of me that I’ve always hated gender-wise, and those are the female parts. I know that I’m happy now the way I am, and I’ve worked for it.
When did you come to terms with your own sexuality?
I had a girlfriend my senior year of high school and just struggled. I was so in love, but with my age group and where I grew up in the public school system of the South, I thought gay meant you had sex with farm animals or something.
Some would probably still argue it is.
[Laughs] I know some of my neighbors still think that because of the things they say to me. But [back then], I was just really idealistic, like “I’m in love, and nothing else matters.” And then all of a sudden people started saying things, and I thought, “OK, I have to deal with this.”
I had a couple of boyfriends, too, but not for any other reason other than they were just people I liked. Then I discovered, “Wow, I’m really gay.” It was kind of a bummer because I like guys a lot. I realized I was attracted to guys because I wanted to be like them, not be with them. You grieve for something that you’re just never going to feel or have. And then you get over it and realize, “I have what I have, and I love it.”
Do you fall in love easily?
Not really. I fall in like easily [laughs]. I’ll meet somebody and be really, intensely interested in them, but I don’t ever really want to sleep with somebody. It’s not like this instant sexual feeling.
Did you go to your own prom?
Yeah, I went to all of those [high school] dances. I liked all of that stuff. I was really participatory in high school. I didn’t wear a dress or anything. My senior year I actually went with my girlfriend — but we didn’t go as “girlfriends.” Everybody knew, but no one knew what to call us. But the teachers knew what to call us . . . and they were concerned.