Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls on keeping her ‘Strange Fire’ burning

While both Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, who together makeup the Indigo Girls, have overlapping styles and influences woven together as closely as their trademark harmonies, it might be said that Ray is the soul singer in the duo.

Even with restraint, her strong voice bucks. As she continues strumming bathed in stage lights, one gets the impression that she can only keep the reigns so tight. Like a horse huffing and braying, emotions start to spill.

“When I do a cover song, it’s because I love the song and I relate to it and find something about it that compels me. It’s a song that I would sing in my room and sing to myself and enjoy it, no matter what,” says Ray. “I do covers of things that I feel some compelling reason to do and because they are great songs. They touch me.”

Fans know the phenomenon. Certain songs hit Ray a certain way. She begins to strum a little harder, starts stomping. You can tell she is courting her muse, and then comes the point of no return. Kicking and snarling, Ray, the audience and her muse, are caught up in a stampede.

“You have to be in the moment and be sincere and try the best you can,” she says.For fans, it’s a special occasion to witness her do a song like Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watch Tower” or Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet.” They will remember it and talk about it until the next time the band comes around.

For Ray, it is special, emotional, a physical workout and real. It’s also something she’ll have to do again,  the next night in the next town, for the next batch of fans. They have been waiting since the last time she came to town.

Even though she is a professional who has been doing this for more than 20 years, it’s not an easy thing to do, to sing your soul ragged.

“A song like ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ I don’t usually do that more than a couple of nights in a row because when I do it, I don’t want to be going through the motions. There are certain songs that are so emotional that we tend to put them in the set for a few shows out of five, maybe, or something like that, just so that they’re really sincere and as powerful as they feel to us. Changing our set around helps us always be challenged emotionally, to have a new experience with the song.”

So there are rare gems, experiences that the Indigo Girls try keep fresh for themselves so that audiences truly are getting novel moments, as opposed to theatrics orchestrated by seasoned professionals.

But what about the hits, the signature songs that they are always expected to pull out as their concerts come to crescendos? There is a way to keep those songs fresh as well, Ray says.

But instead of the fuel for the fire coming from the performer, it’s inverted this time and the fuel comes from the audience.

“A song like ‘Closer to Fine,’ we’ll do that every night. But it’s different every night because everybody’s singing and there’s a different set of people singing. So you find different things in the song,” Ray says. “When we start singing and the audience lights up and sings along, or stands up and claps along, there’s some engagement that happens. It really becomes of the moment, in a way that’s very powerful and different for every show.”

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About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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