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Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls, and the Soundtrack of Our Gay Lives

Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls

From the very first moment they started singing together, Amy Ray felt like her head was going to explode. They were in her parent's basement learning cover songs — she's pretty sure their first was "A Junkie's Lament" by James Taylor — and she remembers thinking, "'This is amazing.' Not, we sound amazing. But this feels amazing. It was always about, 'This feels amazing.' It was like, 'This is the most fun I've ever had. So, I want to keep doing this.'"

The pair, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, soon formed their band, Indigo Girls, and now more than 35 years later, they're still making music, both together and separately. And thank God, right? Their storytelling ability is unmatched; there are not two better musicians out there who know how to work together to create what can only be described as magic. More than any other band, it is their music that the queer community keeps returning to again and again. 

On this week's episode of the LGBTQ&A podcast, Amy Ray joins us to talk about the lasting legacy of "Closer to Fine," identifying as genderqueer, and reflects on what was going on behind-the-scenes before coming out publicly in the '90s. 

Listen to the full podcast interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Jeffrey Masters: When did you and your bandmate, Emily Saliers, come out to each other? 
Amy Ray: God, I feel like it was unspoken at first. We didn't talk about me being gay necessarily. I didn't even know how to describe it, honestly. I didn't know what was going on.

I think we were at a Wendy's or something eating some food before we played and I remember talking about it to her. She wasn't yet aware that she was gay...it was tender. I was going through so much and she was kind of wondering like, "What was I going through?" Because I was getting more radical and I had some problems with depression and I was a cutter sometimes. I was just going through this real struggle with my body and my sexuality and everything. And finally, I just told her.

JM: Did you assume at that point that she was also gay? 
AR: It's funny because things were a little freer than that. During the time that I had a girlfriend, at one point we were separated and I had a boyfriend. And I really was in love, but he wanted to marry me and I said, "I can't, I'm gay. I can't marry you. I love you and I'm attracted to you, but I think that this is not our destiny. I'm really gay."

In my 30s or 40s, I might've been more like, "Yeah, I'm gay, but let's hang out and sleep together and have fun." I would have been a little more like, "It doesn't have to be so strict." When I met The Butchies, I didn't have a good analysis of genderqueer type stuff. I didn't know what my gender dysphoria meant. I was older and I had not even talked about it. They were in a different generation and it was like, "Oh my God, I feel so free now to be able to articulate this."

JM: Articulate what specifically?
AR: I felt so not at home in my body. And I struggled so much when I was really young of wanting to be a boy. When I got to a certain point, I just honored the female part of me too. I started understanding that this thing that I have in me is not unique and that so many people feel at odds with their body. And I made a decision that I felt equal parts enough to just stay who I am.

Now I understand that other people feel the same way and that it's gender dysphoria. And that there are people that are trans and decide to transition and there are people that don't. There are all these options. It was very liberating for me because I was like, "It's okay for me to feel at odds with my body, but not necessarily feel so at odds that I need to transition and live in a different body and live as a man." I can live as a lady-man or whatever. It's like, I can live this life however I want to live it.

There's not one right way to do this. And the one thing that I do know is that you honor everyone's way of doing it.

JM: Do you ID as trans or genderqueer?
AR: I ID often as genderqueer. I don't ID as trans. My pronoun is she. I think because I've lived for so long in my life and struggled to be at peace with she, that that's what I embrace. But I definitely call myself genderqueer. And I definitely relate to people more that are fluid and I feel at home when I'm with people that understand that.

JM: In the early years of the Indigo Girls, sexuality aside, you were presenting as a butch woman in public. Did you feel like people didn't know how to process your gender performance back then?
AR: That's an understatement. I mean, our audience knew how to process it because they were right there with us. But the business end of things was a mess. As far as the label went, they didn't understand how to market us necessarily. They were like, "Should we dress them a certain way? What do we do with these ladies?" Sometimes I would have to tell the makeup person, "Just pretend I'm a guy and you're putting makeup on a guy. I don't want to look like a real estate agent."

We got a lot of crap from press people. I mean, we got insulted constantly for our appearance, what our audience looks like, for being butch, for being lesbians with guitars and how mediocre it was. A lot of it, I think, had to do with sexism and not understanding how to deal with masculine women. And a lot of it had to do with homophobia, some kind of weird -ism against lesbians playing guitar. A lot of stuff that was just anything but the music, anything they could talk about except the music.

JM: The magic that you have when you're playing together, did you have that from day one or did you have to work to find it? 
AR: I feel like it was there from day one. When I heard us singing together, when we first were in my parents' basement learning a cover song, my head felt like it was going to explode. I was like, "This is amazing. Not, we sound amazing. But this feels amazing." It was always about, "This feels amazing." It wasn't like, "We're going to be famous." It was like, "This is the most fun I've ever had. So, I want to keep doing this."

That's how I felt.

JM: Looking across your entire catalog, does it surprise you that it's "Closer to Fine" that's still one of your most famous songs? 
AR: It does not surprise me. Because that song, Emily knows how to write a song that resonates with people in this way that I can't do. It's some crazy quality she has to just put her finger right on the pulse.

I can even look at it from the outside and be like, "It's a classic song. It's written in a certain way. It's got this chorus. A lot of people can relate to it at different stages of their life."

JM: There's a lyric in the song, "Ghost," that goes, "And there's not enough room in this world for my pain."
AR: Emily wrote that too. That's one of my favorite songs that she's written actually. Because that melody is so sweeping and she can write a melody. It's almost so epic to me that I never take the words apart and look at a sentence on its own. I just think of it as this force that's so married to the music. It just is so evocative.

It's always been one of my favorite songs of Emily's, for sure. I mean, it stands the test of time and probably one of the ones that's the most requested too. But that is a very serious lyric. It's a statement for sure.

JM: When you first hear a lyric like that from her, do you stop and process it together?
AR: No, we're not allowed to process each other's lyrics together. It's an unspoken rule.

Every now and then I'll be like, "What did you mean by that? Or what are you writing about?" But she doesn't really say, she holds her cards pretty close. We'll process lyrics if one of us thinks that someone needs to define something better or polish it up or if it's clumsy sounding, but only if the other person asks.

JM: Do you have a recent example? 
AR: It was in a song called "Shit Kickin'." There was a lyric in it where I'm talking about my granddad. He was a minister. But when he was in college, he talks about, in a journal that I read, about going to a party that was hosted by the Klan in the community. The Klan would host these parties and invite everyone to go and it was building up community support. The Klan was trying to whitewash what they were doing by having these big parties, where they would feed people for free. It was terrible, it was insidious.

And I was like, "Oh my God, my granddad went to one of these parties." It's sort of a shocker. So, I had a line in there about that. Like, "Went to the party, hosted by the Ku Klux Klan," or something. And I said to Emily, "This seems to me to take away from the song, because it's so specific and it's going to be the only thing that somebody remembers."

And it's not the point. The point of the song is your legacy growing around you like kudzu and figuring out where you stand and understanding that there's skeletons in your closet. I asked Emily and we talked about it for a while, and she helped me decide to change the line. And it was really better for it. She's a great songwriter and she teaches people how to write songs. So, I can ask her questions and she could be a teacher.

JM: I also don't want this entire conversation to make it sound like Emily is the good songwriter and Amy is not.
AR: That's okay. She writes all the classic songs.

JM: That's not true. You've written many, including "Land of Canaan."
AR: Yeah, I did. It's classic, but it's not this well-crafted, technically accomplished song. It's a passionate song with two chords, which is fine.

JM: You look like you're working really hard when you play that song live, which is fun to see on stage.
AR: I'm working hard on that one, for sure. It's true. It's a lot of strumming. That one's so old, it's got a certain sentiment that just takes on a life of its own in a way.

When I sing that, I can still feel the feelings I felt when I wrote it and be in it. It's a very young song in a lot of ways. In its writing, it's young. I've learned a lot about writing since then, but I don't shy away from singing it because of that. For that song in particular, I can still feel passionate about the feelings I was having at the time, and I don't look at it and be like, "Oh my God, I was so overwrought." I look at it and I think to myself, "Wow, I was in a real bind in that moment in my life." And it's good, I can remember that.

JM: With these early songs that we're talking about, the early albums you put out when you were not publicly out, did that affect your songwriting? Were you changing them to make them not so overtly gay?
AR: No, I didn't. In fact, I relished the protection of a song to be who I was. I felt like a song was a shield. I had spent so many years singing cover songs and I never change pronouns when I sing a cover song. When I was a kid, I didn't even do it. I didn't change to sing about a guy instead of singing about a girl, I just embodied the person that wrote it.

When you look at those songs, you don't even have to have pronouns to know how gay they are. It's like, this perspective of writing when we were young is very much outsider and loneliness and disenfranchisement and questioning ourselves and all the things that you feel when you're struggling as a kid who's gay. It's in there.

JM: While you were not publicly out early on, you also weren't doing interviews and talking about boyfriends that didn't exist. Was that something that you and Emily were always on the same page about?
AR: No, we weren't. Emily didn't want to talk about being gay. It was just an agreement we had, she wasn't ready. She had good reasons of her own for it. I felt like, "You're not ready. It's okay." And she would say, "Well, you can do an interview and talk about your own life, but I'm not going to." And I'm like, "Well, I'm not going to do an Indigo Girl thing and talk about that if you're not ready."

I think it was like '91 or '92. I can't remember. We were doing some kind of a college radio press conference type thing up in Western Mass. And she answered a question and came out when she answered it. And I was like, "Oh, that just happened." I talked to her afterward. I remember we were walking across the quad. I was like, "What just happened there?"

And I was so happy about it. Because my perspective was that it's not like people don't know. It's not like our families don't know and our friends don't know and even our grandparents know, and I get that we don't want to be pigeonholed as this lesbian folk duo, but we already are. Let's just be out. We're asking everyone in the audience to be individuals and believe in themselves. We're talking about believing in yourself and how important it is and how everybody counts, but we're not willing to be who we are. That doesn't make sense to me.

JM: I didn't realize that you weren't out publicly because you were still in the process of figuring it all out, that it wasn't solely just a business move.
AR: We were immersed in our own struggles around it and pressured by our mentors to be more open, but we were resistant to that because we were so afraid of ourselves and of how fragile an audience can be. We didn't want anyone to feel alienated.

And at the time, being very outspokenly gay did alienate people because everything was so conservative and backwards. We were just suffering under fear. It was fear, just fear. And I was like, "I'm scared too. But it's like an agreement with our audience. We're asking everybody to be themselves and we've got to do the same thing."

Listen to the full podcast interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Alok Vaid-Menon, and Roxane Gay. Episodes come out every Tuesday.

Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls

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