A Conversation with Jim James and Amy Ray

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The Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray’s latest solo album, Lung of Love, drops today and features collaborations with the likes of Brandi Carlile, Lindsay Fuller and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Paste had the opportunity to listen in on a recent phone conversation between Ray and James, where the pair discussed the digital revolution, activism and their Southern roots.

Paste: First of all, thanks so much for doing this. Why don’t we sort of start off by having you guys talk a little bit about how the collaboration for Amy’s album came to be, what that was like working together?

Amy Ray: Well, it was over email, actually. I wrote Jim and just said, “Hey, will you think about singing on this song?” And he said yes and then a few months went by and then an mp3 showed up in my email folder and he had recorded the parts, which I have to applaud that, Jim, that you just did it, you know.

Jim James: [laughs] It was a great song and it was easy. That’s kind of the beautiful thing, I feel like for so long I was torn on the digital revolution of music and recording and all that kind of stuff but over the years, I’ve just see what a miracle it is, really, that we’re able to work together so easily through this really amazing medium where you can send me, you can beam me some piece of light and sound that I can interact with and then beam it back to you. It’s just such a crazy thing.

Amy Ray: Yeah. I love it. I love creating that way. I did another song like that with Indigo Girls with a friend of mine in England, the same kind of thing where I just sent him stuff and he sent me back a drum loop. I had a little tape machine, an analog tape machine, where I just recorded to the drum loop and then send it back to him. And in a year, there was a song, you know. It feels like in your music, if I go back and listen to your first record and listen to what you do now, it’s like there seems to be an embracing of some parts of the digital world that are in there in an organic way, you know, but super cool sounds and stuff.

Jim James: Well, I think it’s important. I think that most of the new innovation that happens for us as musicians in terms of instruments and things we can interact with, most of the innovation is in the computer, so I don’t want to miss out on that. I don’t want to miss out an opportunity to interact with something that few people have interacted with, so I think it’s definitely a balance. I’m sure you probably feel the same way, trying to keep things organic and pure somehow, but also embracing this abundant technology that’s around us.

Amy Ray: Definitely. It’s fun to record a lot of stuff to tape and then be able to dump it into ProTools and still have the tape compression and all that analog sound that’s gonna transfer to vinyl really well or something. But at the same time, you’ve got all this capacity to build tracks within ProTools use plugins or effects that capture whatever you’re doing. If you’re capturing the soul of the song, you’re doing it however you’re approaching it. It’s all valid to me.

Jim James: Right, right. I agree. I love that phrase. It is all valid.

Amy Ray: [laughs] Well not everything, but you know in that category.

Jim James: [laughs]

Paste: So does that new digital aspect of everything affect your writing process at all, either of you? When you’re getting the first little nugget idea of a song, does how you’re going to record it factor in at all to the writing process?

Jim James: Hmm. For me, it does and it doesn’t because one of the really cool things…like, I kinda grew up on tape and we did all our first records to tape and we still do our records to tape, but then we started, like Amy was just saying a minute ago, importing that tape into ProTools, and I’ve found it, as far as songwriting goes, it’s a really cool way to quickly look at how a song could be different if you structure it differently. You can really easily edit a song into something else just to check it out and you’re not bound by…because when we work on tape and you’re trying to figure something out, sometimes you’re splicing tape together and you’re cutting and re-cutting, you’re physically taping tape together and it’s a really hard process. So I think as far as songwriting goes, I think it’s really cool to be able to shift around your song and move the chorus to the beginning of the song or chop the song in half.

Amy Ray: Yeah, that’s the same thing definitely that we do, that I do. Because I record to tape, too, like a two-inch machine usually, and then put it into ProTools. And part of the reason is for that…I mean, when I’m writing a song, I’m not thinking of that. My initial impulse in writing is just try to get the melody and the lyrics kinda where I want them and I’m thinking of all the instruments in my head and arrangements and stuff, but I’m not there, yet, usually. And then, after the initial arrangement goes down, it’s true. Like, you listen back to it and you’re like, “Wow. What would happen if we doubled this chorus or moved this around or took the bridge out and stuck it over here, instead Or looped this part and stuck it over here?” And it’s true, like if you’ve put it into ProTools, you can move things around forever and it saves you a lot of time, but it also just gives you this huge horizon of creative space. The physicality of cutting tape, I mean, it’s fun, but the problem is, you sort of cut into your tape, so you can only do it so many times before you’ve screwed up your whole recording. And it’s kinda scary to do that.

Jim James: It is. Yeah, we’ve definitely had songs with so much tape you can’t even believe it’s somehow held together still.

Paste: Amy, I read that this album was your first time ever co-writing a song with someone. Can you tell me, and then Jim you can jump in, too, does that affect the experience at all, co-writing a song, rather than writing something completely on your own?

Amy Ray: Yeah, it’s co-writing in that way of I worked with this producer Greg Griffith, a friend of mine and he plays instruments and stuff, too. I brought my songs in and we were working and there would be something like the bridge wasn’t strong enough or he felt like the chorus could be better or we needed a chorus or whatever and so he would jump in and there were about four or fives songs that he jumped in where he and I worked together on those parts. Typically, in the past, I would have taken those parts back home and workshopped them myself and tried to find the thing, but I felt like…I mean, Greg’s a really great writer and it just felt like it would be richer if he brought his collaboration into that. So for me, it’s not something I do all the time, like when I work with my solo band, we‘re collaborating in the arrangement and all the instruments, so it feels like a band, but the songwriting process has typically been this really interior, independent thing that even when I play with Emily [Saliers], that I’ve always had alone. Actually, I thought it made the songs a lot better for me to have his input and just bring that in and I felt what people feel when they write as a band…I think you need time alone, too. I think you need the intimacy of creating alone and having that artistic space. But I also think that collaboration that happens after that can really enrich it.

Jim James: Yeah, I completely agree. I really love all the aspects. I feel like music is such a broad thing and I want to interact with it any way I can, so I really enjoy the thrill of playing live music in a room with people and collaborating wholly on a complete collaboration and I also enjoy being completely alone and I just made a solo record that’ll be my first solo record, hopefully it’ll come out later this year, just doing that, I worked alone much, I love working alone, too. But then also, when you get to work with so many different people that you admire or just to see how someone else’s brain works, you know singing on this song or like, I just got done doing we started another session for our Monsters of Folk band that I do to collaborate. And just sitting around in a circle with acoustic guitars, trading ideas and being completely open to everybody’s comments and criticisms is such a fun way to work, too. I feel like I kind of put songs in different baskets, like if I know I don’t want anybody’s opinion, I’ll work on them by myself. If I know I do, I’ll put it in a collaborative basket and want people to tell me what lyrics they don’t like r what chords could change or all those different things.

Amy Ray: I have that different baskets thing, too. When I start writing, it’s like, ok this is an Indigo Girls song. I know it is. I can hear Emily’s voice in there and it’s going to…or this is a country song and I don’t really know who I want to play country music with, yet, so I’m going to wait on that. And then the other’s for my band, my solo band and I want that collaboration. Sometimes it’s just such a solo, solo intimate song that I’m just going to keep this for myself. I don’t even know what I’m going to do with it. Maybe nothing, but I don’t want to mess with it, kind of thing. So I know exactly what you’re talking about. And I think collaboration is…I’m a collaborator. All my life. With Emily or my bands or anything, even if you called it a solo project, to me, it’s just a different collaboration. I wondered how you looked at that, like when you go off and do your Yim Yames stuff and you’re thinking of it as solo, is it something just instinctive in your head? Where you’re like, this is what I want to experience from a different point of collaboration or being a solo person. What is it serving you to do that? Does it serve another creative side of yourself? Is it to let off steam?

Jim James: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I feel like most things tell me what they want to be…usually things just pop out of my head and they kind of tell me where they want to go. I’ve got a studio at home…somebody said, well I forgot who said it, but somebody said that the recording studio is the greatest instrument ever made, so I feel like I really love the studio and I love having knowledge of how a studio works and what you can do in the studio, so I feel like the solo record maybe it serves my desire to learn the studio and also have a vehicle to do that. On a deeper level, why a certain song might be a solo song or why it might be a band song, I don’t know. It’s weird. You probably have the same feeling. They just kind of tell you. I try not to question it. But sometimes you can change that, though. Because I’ve had songs that have told me that they wanted to be a solo record song, but then they somehow ended up on a band record.

Amy Ray: Yeah, that’s happened for me too, definitely. You try to stay open to it without changing it in some way. Are you still connected with the Sweet Home New Orleans people and the Katrina stuff that we were both at years ago?

Jim James: Yeah, we talked with people and worked with them pretty much every time we go to New Orleans. That whole trip was such an eye-opening thing for me. I feel like that was a huge turning point in my life. Meeting you guys and meeting everyone down there, it was such a beautiful experience.

Amy Ray: I think they’re doing great stuff still. And you know, it’s the same thing like when we go play there, when Indigo Girls go and play there. We usually do like a raffle for them or something because their work continues to kind of grow and expand and I think it’s pretty cool.

Jim James: Yeah it’s fantastic.

Amy Ray: How do you look at activism in your life as a person, not necessarily as a musician, but just a human?

Jim James: [laughs] Well it’s so funny. I feel like on that trip, meeting you, I feel like I was really awakened fact of how we can try to make the maximum impact we can make with our lives and to try and do good in the world. Because I feel like I can be a pretty heady person that gets lost in my head a lot, just trying to figure out my own life. I feel like most people can. And it’s like, sometimes you get so absorbed your own struggle or in your own quest to figure out life that you kind of forget that everybody else out there is going through that, too. You’re not alone going through that. But being on that retreat was such an eye-opener for me because I kind of came to this realization that you could kind of do it all at once. Like, you could still try to figure out your own quest, but in the meanwhile, you could as much as you can to be a part of the causes you believe in, or the causes or groups that are making positive change in the world. I feel like those of us who are fortunate enough to make a living playing music and making our art and stuff, I feel like that’s such a blessing that we’re able to do that. For us to be able to use that as a vehicle to turn people on to great organizations and great causes like we do this thing on tour where we give a dollar per ticket to a different group each night that we kinda pick before the tour, we work with Air Traffic Control to different groups in different towns and stuff. I don’t know if you guys work with them much, but they’re great.

Amy Ray: Yeah, I love them. They’re great.

Jim James: That’s been such a cool way for us…I just think it’s so cool that someone coming to our show and walking to the merch table to buy a t-shirt and then seeing this other booth next to the merch table that some great group in their town is doing something that we really believe in and feel like people should be more tuned in to. It’s just such an amazing thing that we’re fortunate enough to make art for a living but then hopefully use that for good.

Amy Ray: That lobby area at a show is like a space that is a resource, you know. I think as a musician, you don’t have to do political work, it’s not your obligation, but as a person, being engaged however you can I think is pretty important. And like you said, we have this really accessible way to be engaged, which is like this resource that is like the lobby of the theater where you’re playing where there’s space to have a table for a local group. And some groups, that’s all they want. They just want to get their information out there. It’s so easy. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do and it doesn’t take anything. And it reminds you that your show is just like a blip as far as what’s really a global kind of idea about the world and things that are more compelling that just that moment in time. Art is the greatest thing to bring people to a place and then have them exposed or whatever, without it being like taking over the art in a way that’s didactic.

Jim James: Yeah, I feel like there’s an artful way of doing it because I’m definitely not the kind of person who wants to beat people over the head with things. That’s definitely not my style, but like you said, that resource is so amazing and so easy to turn people on to things that are good. I’ve always been so inspired by your activism. When did you come to the realization that your life could be lived that way? I don’t know if that’s a good way to phrase that question…that you could use your vehicle of music for good?

Amy Ray: I mean, for us with Indigo Girls, when we started it was like, we just did things in the community like soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels for HIV and AIDS patients who were home-bound at the time, you know, really simple stuff. It was something that we learned when we were kids, in church or whatever. You give back a certain percentage of your money and your time to the community however you can. And for us, it was like, we’re playing music, so let’s just play a show for the soup kitchen down the street and give the money to it. It was as simple as that. Nothing lofty. And then I think as we got into more environmental work and then we got into human rights work, things just politicize you. Your eyes are opened and it’s hard to kind of not do anything. So that’s sort of what happened for us. The more we did, the more it led. And I think for us, we tried to kind of always pay as much attention to our music as to our activism, but I think especially with gay rights issues that starts overtaking the music, you sort of become iconic for that thing. You appreciate it and you work for it, but at the same time, you’re like, how do people listen to your music and really pay attention to art, too and not make you into the poster child? So I think a lot of people hesitate about activism because of that and I can see why after going through the whole trajectory of it.

Jim James: Wow. Yeah, that’s true. I’ve never thought about it that way.

Amy Ray: Yeah and I think as women, it especially happens. I think it’s more tempting probably in the media to kind of take the politicized part of women that play and stuff and make that the central focus. It’s not always the case, but I think it happens and I think it’s one of the reasons people shy away from activism. For us, it was like, you know what? I don’t care. This is important work and we’re meeting all these great people and all these mentors and they’re doing stuff right in front of our very eyes that’s amazing work in the world. This is enriching us, so you don’t worry about all of that. You just do it. But it’s an interesting journey. It’s definitely an interesting journey.

Paste: Going along with the activism stuff, you have a benefit show that you’re doing on the 27th. Do you wanna talk a little about those causes and what the proceeds are going toward?

Amy Ray: You know what, it’s a real simple thing. It’s a group in New York called Housing Works and they work with HIV-infected folks and folks that are living on the street and need resources and particularly focus on folks who are HIV-positive. Allen White sort of is the connection I had to that and it was just like, once every couple years, if I do like a CD release thing or something kind of fun, I like to do it at their cafe because it’s a tiny little bookstore café and all the proceeds go to that. It’s a very small budget, you know, but they do a lot of really big work. So, that’s the kind of stuff that’s fun to do because it’s really grassroots but it’s also like a show just for my CD coming out the next day or whatever. It was just a way to raise money for something good, but also like a little tiny show to kinda celebrate that. And then I’ll go back to New York later and play a rock club and do the whole band and all that.

Paste: You both are Southern songwriters. Does being from the South and that environment influence either of your writings at all?

Jim James: I don’t know. What do you think? Maybe it does.

Amy Ray: Well when I hear your music, I think it definitely does.

Jim James: I don’t know. I don’t think I really think about it consciously. I think it definitely does, but I don’t think there’s any way where a person lives couldn’t affect everything about their life. It’s funny though, because I’ve always considered…we talk about this in Louisville a lot, I’ve always considered Louisville, Kentucky to be the middle. It’s funny—people from the north think we’re Southern and people from the South think we’re northern. Everybody always thinks we are what we’re not. So I’ve always kind of identified with that feeling of Louisville. I always kind of want to feel like I’m in the middle somehow. I think the middle is a good place to be. It’s definitely got southern aspects, though. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve just said anything.

Amy Ray: It’s funny that you just said that about Kentucky. I think of Kentucky as southern and I am southern. It’s kind of like the gateway to the mid-west, though. Because I think of bluegrass and I got relatives far back that are from Kentucky, so I kind of think of it of having this rural sort of collaborative spirit in that music scene to me like where everyone I’ve met from Louisville…I was thinking, I play with Tara Jane O’Neil a bit and she played bass with me for a while, I was just thinking about how every time she talked about that scene, it was like…and that big festival that you guys have now…what’s it called?

Jim James: Forecastle Festival?

Amy Ray: Yes! It’s like, to me, one of the things about the South that’s so great is that there’s this sort of non-competitive, collaborative spirit, pretty laid back, pretty experimental, especially when it came to punk and rock and that kind of stuff where the influences of country and old Appalachian folk were allowed to enter in to those types of music. So that you had Drivin’ N Cryin’ or you had the Night Porters a long time ago or R.E.M. or the Avett Brothers. People where what they were doing was definitely influenced by southern music and I hear that on Tennessee Fire , your first record and I even hear it in your later stuff where you moved into this other realm, I’m not sure what you would call it, but I love it all. It’s not just the musicality it’s not just whether you have a banjo in a song or not, it’s kind of like fence of being tied to the ground and the earth, not about nature, but about tied to this place and talking about things where work ethic is referred to or spirit is referred to…things that are to you, probably just innate, but to someone who comes from outside of that experience looking at that language is like, “oh, those are kind of spiritual concepts rather than secular sort of north concepts.” Like the way people divide stuff up. But that’s just kind of a heady way of thinking about it. I don’t think about that when I write, but definitely when I talk to friends who are from different parts of the country and we’re talking about songwriting, their vocabulary is really different within that structure than mine is. When I hear a band from the south, I can really feel it. In a good way, not in a way that’s oppressive or puts them in a box or something, but in a way that’s exciting to me and unbridled in a way and unpredictable.

Jim James: That’s really a great way to think about it.

Amy Ray: Yeah it’s a prideful way, I guess.

Jim James: Yeah, that’s a fantastic way. I’ve tried to explain it to people, because for us, it’s always been a double-edged sword. Everything you said is so so true and that’s the good side of it. But I also feel like southern rock has a dark side and sometimes I get frustrated when people label us as a southern rock band like Skynyrd or Molly Hatchet. It’s like people see us and we’ve got long hair and beards or whatever, so people from London or whatever automatically assume that we’re like trying to be like Lynyrd Skynyrd or something. You know, no offense to Lynyrd Skynyrd…Skynyrd obviously has some good songs and stuff, but I don’t consider myself a southern rock band. But I’m definitely not ashamed. I’m glad I’m from where I’m from. We’re really proud of where we’re from and we try to talk about it a lot and talk about the good things that you were talking about. But sometimes I get frustrated, it all gets lost in this wash and I’m like, “Hey wait a minute! Haven’t you been listening to our music? Why are you calling us a southern rock band?”

Amy Ray: I hear you. Totally. Because I mean, it’s like the new south in a way. When you think about people who are younger than us even, they’re not thinking about Skynyrd that much anymore. They’re probably thinking about the newer bands that are southern-identified. Hopefully. I mean, no offense against Skynyrd either, I love a lot of their music and I love the Allman Brothers you know, I love the Allman Brothers and I always will. I grew up on that stuff. It’s like the new south, though. But I know what you mean because it’s like, when you’re categorized that way, it’s kind of like me and Emily saying that we’re gay music. It’s like wait a minute, do you listen to it? Is that all we’re going to get for our whole life is that we’re gay music? That’s ridiculous. I mean, we’re gay. We’re playing music. But we’re not gay music. I hear you. I hear you. But we’re playing gay Southern music, so we’re really fucked, basically.

[Jim James laughing hysterically the whole time]

Because we’re racist, sexist, gay, lesbians. No, I’m kidding. I’m totally kidding. When I listen to music, I don’t think of it as Southern in the traditional definition of southern music like that. I think y’all are brave. I’ll just say that. You, to me, have that thing that we lost, that was like album-oriented rock that idea where you just have a record that fits together and it doesn’t matter how long the songs are, how short or long, everything is there for a reason and it feels free and experimental. It doesn’t feel tied down by over-editing or labored trying to make sure you sound a certain way. That’s what I get out of y’all’s records and out of your show, too, this sense of liberation. And I think that overrides anything, any identity. So it’s good.

Jim James: Thanks. Well, I hope it does.

Amy Ray: It does.

Paste: Well I think we’ll probably kind of try to wrap this up a little bit. You guys have both been great, but if you could just tell us each of you what’s next for the coming year and what you’re working on. I know Jim, you mentioned a solo record and if you could give us a rundown of everything you’ve got on your plate for the next year.

Jim James: Well, I think both of us have a record coming out next Tuesday.

Amy Ray: Yeah!

Jim James: I did another collaborative project with Jay Farrar, Anders Parker and Will Johnson that was…we wrote music to Woody Guthrie lyrics and that’s called New Multitudes that’s coming out next Tuesday, I guess. It’s crazy. And then I’ve got a solo record that’s done, but I’m just trying to figure out when the best time to put it out is. So that’ll come out at some point and I don’t know, I’m working on a bunch of stuff, kind of working on a new Monsters of Folk record and just trying to enjoy life. Find some peace and calm.

Paste: Always a good thing.

Amy Ray: Yeah it’s good. I love that Woody Guthrie project, Jim. That’s going to be an awesome thing. I love that you’re doing that.

Jim James: It was really fun. Such a cool thing.

Amy Ray: Looking forward to that. Love Jay. Love his music.

Jim James: He’s great.

Amy Ray: I’ve just got the solo record coming out on Tuesday and then I’m doing three months of kind of solo touring with my band and then back on the road with Indigo Girls in June and July and on beyond that. We don’t really have any records in the works or anything, I mean, eventually we will, and I’m going to start working on a country record at my house on my little eight-track tape machine. That’s what I’m doing musically next.

Jim James: Nice. Hopefully our paths will cross out there somewhere.

Amy Ray: Yeah!