Beyond fine

Years in the making, “Indigo Girls Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra” (Rounder) is a breathtaking experience. Even if you don’t like live albums (you weren’t there, were you?), this one is an exception. 

Comprising 22 songs, representing nine of the Indigo Girls’ (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) baker’s dozen studio albums, the live album does an excellent job of representing the expected hits (“Power of Two,” “Galileo,” “Kid Fears,” “Go”) and popular deep cuts, as well as a generous supply of more recent numbers (“Sugar Tongue,” “Able To Sing,” “War Rugs,” “Happy in the Sorrow Key”). Not surprisingly, the stunning
symphonic set closes with a rousing rendition of “Closer To Fine” (complete with sing-along). As familiar as your oldest friends, the songs nevertheless sound fresh in a once-in-a-lifetime performance. You’ll never hear these songs the same way again.

Never one to sit idle, Ray released a new solo record last September, her sixth. “Holler” (Compass/ Daemon) continues in a similar countrified vain as 2014’s “Goodnight Tender.” “Holler” is another powerful musical statement from Ray, who talked with us prior to gigs in Fairfield and Pawling:

Indigo Girls are no strangers to live albums, with at least two such previous releases — 1995’s “1200 Curfews” and 2010’s “Staring Down the Brilliant Dream.” Why was now the right time for a new live album such as “Live With the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra”?

“Mostly because we’ve been touring with symphonies for about four or five years now. We felt like we’d gotten to a place where we knew the material well enough and wanted to document it. When we came upon a symphony that fit all the parameters that we needed to make a live record with a symphony that was the University of Colorado Symphony. So, it worked out. It was kind of a long process. We had been hoping to get it done for a couple of years.” 

Your new solo album “Holler” continues the country-oriented style of your 2014 solo album “Goodnight Tender.” Is this a direction you see yourself going in for the near future?

“I don’t know. This was just what I was writing. I have a band that I’ve been touring with for four or five years. This is really a strong suit for them and for us together. As we tour and get more and more in the groove with them, we’ve been working in old songs from the rock and punkier stuff. It’s adaptable to that. When I was writing ‘Stag’ and ‘Prom,’ I was playing a lot with the Butchies and I was writing to their style. My collaborators typically have a lot of influence over what I’m writing. They’re who I’m creating with, touring with, playing with from day to day. I like a lot of different kinds of music. I don’t prefer this to that, it’s where I’m at. This record has a little more of the earlier, punky, eclectic style mixed in with traditional country. I think I was crossing over into that line in my writing a little bit.”

I’m glad you mentioned collaboration. As always, you have a stellar lineup of guest musicians on the new album, including Brandi Carlile, Vince Gill, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Lucy Wainwright Roche and Rutha Mae Harris of The Freedom Singers. When you are writing a song — “Last Taxi Fare,” for example — do you hear the guest artist’s voice, in this case Brandi Carlile, as part of the process?

“Sometimes. On that particular song, as I was finishing it, believe it or not, I actually did hear Brandi, and I did hear Vince. I wrote that song over a very long period of time. I think I had watched a CMT award show or something and Vince was singing with Taylor Swift and Alison Krauss and a few other people. I’ve always loved him, but in that moment, I was like, ‘That guy can really sing harmony.’ In any situation. I was working on that song and it was in my fantasy head that Brandi and Vince would form a trio with me. 

“It’s the weirdest thing, but Alison Brown, who plays banjo on the record, happens to be friends with Vince. It was like one of those moments where it was like, ‘I can’t believe this is going to work out.’ In that case, I was definitely hearing them. Vince was an ‘if you could have anything in the world’ kind of thing.

“I did hear Justin and Phil Cook when I wrote ‘Didn’t Know A Damn Thing.’ I had played with them, so it was an easier thing to hear. That really informed that song. When I first wrote it, that version was harmony the whole way through, because I was thinking of them. Then I decided to change it up to make it more effective when they came in. Lucy Wainwright Roche tends to be a muse, with Indigo Girls, as well. I’ll be working on a song and, in my head, I’ll use her as a harmony singer for inspiration as to where to go musically.”

In the four years between the release of “Holler” and “Goodnight Tender,” we have had the election of President Donald J. Trump and all that came with it. Am I on the right track when I say it sounds to me like you address that somewhat in the songs “Sure Feels Good” and “Didn’t Know A Damn Thing”? 

“Yes, for sure. I don’t know if it was so much affected specifically by the presidential election as more of the whole vibe of the country and my own community. The polarization and thinking about issues around being a Southerner. Trying to take on some accountability myself and to try to understand where people are coming from, as well. ‘Sure Feels Good’ is my song of where I live and the dynamics of people like me that are coming from a different place than other folks. How do we rectify that? How do we understand each other? It’s easy to dismiss people, because they don’t agree with you about things, because you dogmatically think they’re going to feel a certain way about things. Or it’s not possible for them to come around to a place of tolerance or understanding.  

“That’s not where I exist. I exist in a place where you get to know your neighbors and you help each other out, regardless of where you come from. Eventually those barriers start to fall away and you begin to understand each other. Hopefully, things change. Racism is the hardest thing to change in the South. But I’ve found that there are still people who do change. I’ve also found that there are people who have a knee-jerk reaction, because of the way we’re put into niches and demographics, who aren’t being their best selves all the time, and I say, ‘I know you’re a better person than this. I’ve seen you in my community. I’ve seen the things you do to help other people. And I’ve seen you at church. I know you have it in you to be better than this.’ We all can be better than this.”

A few years ago, I attended an Indigo Girls concert at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. Indigo Girls have also performed at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. What is the appeal for you of performing in these types of settings?

“They feel good because of these shows seem to draw a really cool cross-section of our audience — young and old, straight, queer, families, friends. They are more relaxed than most shows and we always get to go see a bunch of cool plants.” 

Do you consider yourself to be a gardener?

“Yes, I do. I love growing things, but still (I’m) learning. I grew up with a dad that was an intense gardener. We had about a quarter-acre of flat land by a creek (in Decatur, Georgia) and we grew
everything from blueberries to peaches and pecans, squash and tomatoes and beans — all the summer stuff. Plus, we raised bees for a while, too. So I am all about the garden. We worked alongside him for years, weeding and picking. Now I am trying to cultivate some decent apple and pear trees, but I am losing the game. Blueberries are my best crop. I am trying to teach my 5-year-old patience by planting summer veggies and waiting for them to be ripe enough to eat. Of course, she eats everything straight from the vine, before it even hits the table.”

Amy Ray performs with her band in support of her new solo album “Holler” May 25 at (Le)Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, May 26 at StageOne at FTC in Fairfield and May 30 at Daryl’s House in Pawling. For more, visit amy-ray.com.

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