When you think Amy Ray, you think bold, brash punk rock. But the singer/songwriter’s fifth solo studio album is more than a little bit country. In fact, Goodnight Tender delivers all the rough passion fans have come to expect of the sometime-Indigo Girl but within a perhaps gentler genre.
Ray spoke with AfterEllen about her longstanding admiration for country music, evolving relationship with her gender, and what it really means to “write what you know.”
AfterEllen.com What made you interested in creating a country record?
Amy Ray: I’ve had respect for the craft of country songwriting for a long time, but had never attempted it. In 2000, I started to write some more mountain songs. I’d throw one on a record every now and then, like “Johnny Rottentail” (Stag) or “The Rock Is My Foundation,” which is on Lung of Love. I just decided to take the songs I’d written, work on a few more, polish them, put together a band and do it.
AE: I always think of punk, which is how you’ve categorized your earlier solo projects, as somehow inherently free of restriction. With a country record, did you feel pressure to function within a more confined space, to produce a specific sound?
AR: I already know that I’m not Loretta Lynn or The Carter Family, people who are in the realm of Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, so the pressure was off immediately as far as that goes! And I actually feel that way about punk: I’m not ever going to be The Sex Pistols or Patti Smith or The Clash. I can just be my own version. I wanted the record to be rootsy; my own version of storytelling and pedal steel and banjo and guitar and mandolin and simple instruments.
I’m not gonna try to win a grammy or something. I just did what I felt like doing.
AE: How do the meanings of your songs evolve over time?
AR: Songs morph and develop and you don’t even remember why you wrote them, sometimes. The song “Broken Record” is really old. I think I wrote that in ’04. All I can remember is an abstract feeling of being in Montana and there was tons of snow everywhere I looked, and I felt this certain happiness within my loneliness, and I wrote out of that feeling. Now when I play the song, I relate to it in a specific way—this idea of changing roles with someone who travels a lot and I’m the person who stays home. If I can’t be with a song in the moment it’s not something I necessarily want to play anymore. A lot of songs on this record are actually older, like, I wrote “My Dog” in 2001. Over the years, I played it as a little ditty at sound checks and I just liked it and I thought I’d record it one day when I understood it better.
AE: As a novelist that’s something I grapple with; can I write this book now, or does it need time to steep? What’s your relationship to that process?
AR: I don’t believe you should take a song you can’t get there on and just force it. That’s why a song can sit around for ten years and then I finish it. If I’ve worked on something over and over for a lot of hours and I really feel like I’ve given it my best, I document it, and I move on. I don’t know if it works in every discipline of writing, but I’d rather put the work in and set it aside then write one more verse that isn’t that great and then put it on a record. It’s a process. You gotta realize that there may be a moment for it but it’s not now. I don’t feel desperate anymore, like, I’m gonna lose that song. I just look at it differently.
AE: Your lyrics are often cryptic, which to me indicates a willingness to let a song be what listeners make of it rather than micromanage their response. Is it ever hard for you not to want to control people’s understanding?
AR: I want people to find their own meaning and I want there to be enough layers in the metaphors for people to be able to do that—that means you’re a good songwriter. People get sick of just hearing about you, you, you. People want to put themselves in it—that’s human nature. We’re not just going to be endlessly fascinated by the intimate details of someone else’s life, that get’s old. You’re going to be on your phone texting before you know it. You’re going to be looking at Facebook, doing your own thing. You’re not going to listen to that writer for very much longer unless you’re obsessed with them for a little while, but even then, you’ll move on.
AE: I encounter that with my Creative Writing 101 students a lot.
AR: It’s natural. People always hear “write about what you know,” and they interpret that to be write the minutiae of their life. But it means something more nuanced.
AE: Right, but you can’t lose that specificity. Because in a way, the more specific your imagery and details are, the more universal a piece can feel.
AR: Exactly. It’s got to be authentic. It’s got to be unique. It’s got to have a specific image, but it’s gotta be able to transcend that as well. Which is hard. But a lot of great country writers did it. Those are great people to learn writing from.
AE: You’ve dealt a lot with gender in your solo work, but it’s less of a player on your new album. Did you just feel you’d said all you needed to?
AR: When I wrote songs like “She’s Got to Be” on Didn’t it Feel Kinder, that’s very much addressing the subject of learning to live with my female self and my masculine perspective. And Stag and Prom obviously have tons of stuff—and that conversation is part of the point of the songs. But I was writing for this record over the years and realized the songs that resonated to me as country songs were just stories that could be every man, every woman kind of things. It’s not like in my life I’m running away from activism and gender stuff and don’t want to acknowledge my sexuality anymore, [but] I didn’t want anything to get in the way of the story on this particular record. Because the point is not gender, that’s just a layer.
AE: Speaking of gender, you’ve said that if surgical options had been more prevalent years ago you might have considered transitioning. Obviously some people really feel the need to physically change their bodies to match their gender, but do you think there’s something to be gained from learning to live in the body you were born in?
AR: For people who have a real gender dysphoria that just takes their whole life over, if they learn to find the beauty in themselves even though they feel trapped in the body they’re in, that’s an amazing accomplishment. And I think you learn a lot about yourself by doing that and I think you also learn that there is a spectrum and not a binary. But having said that, I think transitioning is a really important option. I don’t think everyone needs to go through the pain of trying to live in the body they don’t want to live in. Some people really can’t and they’re going to die and so they need to go through a change. Or some people are just going to be really unhappy. They might be able to find some sort of acceptance or peace of mind but they’re never going to have the bliss of feeling their body and their spirit match. Then there’s people like me, if transitioning had been part of the conversation in my early life, it would have been something I would have strongly considered and might have even done,but I didn’t know about it, so I just struggled through and there was a reason for that. And I’m satisfied now. Everybody’s different, so there’s no judgment, but I do think in that the struggle to find your peace, there’s always something to be gained.
AE: Isn’t there also a way that transitioning contributes to the idea of there being a binary-
AR: Ah! That’s the big question isn’t it?
AE: Couldn’t we understand masculinity in a more nuanced way if we understood it as being able to exist in a female body?
AR: Certainly, people feel that way. That there should be a broader understanding of masculinity and femininity. But there’s something to be said for the idea that within the spectrum of gender there is some relationship between your physical appearance and what you feel inside, even when you’re not in a societally created binary. But if we are in a binary, there’s an obvious relationship. But even if we weren’t, I still think there would be a relationship that’s important and that we’re never gonna get beyond. You might be so masculine that there is no way your female body reflects who you are. OK, so great, those who feel that way can transition, but what do all the people in the middle do? They don’t feel completely mismatched with their body, but they don’t feel like they’re validated as being masculine or feminine within the body they’re in. That’s the thing that the binary world really screws with—there’s people who have no place.
AR: Well, I don’t know her personally. I think she’s really young. Probably even younger than her years in some ways. I don’t really put any pressure on her to be a certain, politicized thing. She’ll find it or she won’t, right? Maybe that’s not even her purpose. I think she’s a good songwriter and a good performer. It’s not what I aspire to, cause it’s not my world, but within the world she’s in, I think she’s really talented. She’s much maligned for sure, because maybe she allowed herself to be molded and produced and became a product in some ways, but you can’t deny her talent. Who knows what’s going to happen? She could end up being an incredible artist with a catalogue of amazing songs.
AE: I happen to really like her, and I think a lot of the public ire she faces is due to sexism. A woman doing confessional songwriting is maligned but a man—
AR: Right, but isn’t that the way it is? If women do confessional music, it’s made fun of and belittled and it’s not valid, but if boys with electric guitars do it, it’s emo. It’s the next big thing. I mean, Pearl Jam? Please. Nirvana? All these great bands that did confessional music were given kudos for it. Or Josh Renner. I’m a fan, but why is he allowed to do confessional songwriting but Taylor Swift’s not? Well, cause Taylor Swift allowed herself to be produced by the music industry, and she looks like she compromised herself, quote unquote. And Josh didn’t. But that’s sexism too: assuming someone had no control over what happened to them cause they’re a woman.
AE: On a different note, you’re a parent now. Congratulations.
AR: Yeah, her name’s Ozilline, which is my grandmother’s name and my mom’s name. We call her Ozzie for short. She’s a bundle of crazy joy. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time. My days and nights are filled with her, her always. Everything else I do, I’m just working in between her now. Which is really cool. I don’t feel put out by it in the least. I love it. Everybody I know is like, you’re not going to have any time for yourself and I’m like, it’s fine with me if I don’t have time for myself. I’ve had time for myself my whole life!
Goodnight Tender will be available online January 21 and in-stores January 28.