Brave new world

The music may be changing, but the message is the same. So pop in the Indigo Girls’ latest CD, last year’s Come on Now Social, and let the first track rip.

Yes, rip.

Fans who discovered the Georgia duo through melodious, earnest — and, of course, acoustic — tunes like “Closer to Fine” and “Southland in the Springtime” may be surprised by this latest effort. “Go,” and several other cuts on the Girls’ seventh full-length Epic album, have a fresh, cutting edge. Pounding electric guitars, a matching vocal style and a new backup band mark a dramatic break with Amy Ray and Emily Salier’s well-known sound.

Listen closely, though: Through the din, you’ll hear an undeniable call to feminist action. There’s also a graphic denunciation of the death penalty, and an ironic commentary on our society’s legal drugs: beer and the remote control. In other words, classic Indigo fare, where the moral of the story holds center stage.

In a recent phone interview, I asked one-half of the act, Amy Ray, if 10 years of successful recording and touring had changed — or perhaps refined — the Indigo Girls’ message.

“Usually, if I express an activist perspective in my music, it’s something I don’t really change my mind about,” she replied. “I mean, yeah, writing a song helps me refine the thought and makes me understand my perspective better. My terminology has changed a lot, though. I look back on some of my earlier songs and the words that I used, and I think, ‘That’s naive,’ or ‘That’s not right.’ There’s this song I wrote called ‘World Falls,’ and I still feel the same things I felt when I wrote it. But there’s a line where I say, ‘I wish I were a nomad, or an Indian, or a saint.’ I wouldn’t use that terminology anymore. It’s breaking something down into this really simplified, almost derogatory language.

“The feeling is so much more complex than that,” she continues. “So I think [maturity] makes you change your language [over time], probably more than the way you actually feel about things.”

Ray has been feeling the muse’s call for about 26 years now.

“When I first started singing and playing guitar, I was really young — like, 10,” she reveals. “I think I did it because I had feelings I wanted to express. I don’t think I was intellectually aware of the ‘musicality’ of it, and I don’t think I was specifically focused on protest music. I think I was just, like, this is a good way to express myself, to express these jumbled-up feelings.”

I wondered if any of the 10-year-old Amy’s songs had survived.

“God, no,” she says, laughing. “Nothing survived before, like, age 19 or even 20. The really early stuff is just bad, honestly. Now, some of Emily’s [early] stuff is really good. We haven’t put any of it on records, but I have tapes of it. It’s kinda spooky. Maybe she’ll go back to it someday.”

Though Ray freely admits she’s much better as an Indigo Girl, both she and Emily have plans for solo work and outside collaborations. What direction will Ray’s work take?

“Punk. Definitely punk.”

Really?

“Yeah, really. I’m already recording some of the stuff. As a solo artist, that just tends to be the direction I go in. Very different from Indigo Girls,” she admits.

So whom does Ray seek out to help fulfill her darker visions, when she’s playing hooky from her famous band?

“Well, I’m recording with a lot of bands, with a lot of my friends. For instance, I’ve been recording with this ‘punky’ band from Durham, the Butchies.”

Given the leap from soulful strumming to, well, punk, I wondered if she was worried at all about tainting her image as a Grammy-winning folk singer. As it turns out, that image seems to have been more hindrance than help to the Indigo Girls, in recent years.

“We’re experiencing a real backlash against ‘women’s’ music in my industry right now,” she observes. “We used to enjoy a lot of support from commercial, alternative radio. But after all that Lilith Fair stuff, they really went this completely other way. They feel their demographic is really male. We put out this rock single last month, and not one of those commercial alternative stations is willing to play it. And they said it: because we are Indigo Girls. We’re women. And our image isn’t right. It’s sexism — and [also] the corporatization of radio, [stemming from] the Telecommunications Act of 1996, that just let stations merge and become really corporate.”

Don’t worry about the Girls yielding to the winds of change just yet, though. Ray mentions that she and Emily will be going the acoustic route for the upcoming Asheville show. Come on Now Social songs will be featured, of course — albeit without the backup band. So if you’re a die-hard devotee of the classic Indigo sound, you won’t be disappointed.

But those who crave a preview of Ray’s forthcoming work won’t have to wait long. She’s hosting a five-city tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of her independent label (Daemon Records). Ray and several other Daemon artists (plus the Butchies, on loan from Mr. Lady), will appear at Asheville’s Be Here Now on Saturday, May 27.

Lucky Asheville: the old and the new within two months — and just a few city blocks.

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