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Sister Ray

The Indigo Girls' Amy Ray goes Stag with a rocking solo debut

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On a Saturday night in Texas, Amy Ray takes the stage as she has hundreds of times over the past decade as half of pop's most enduring folk-rock duo, Indigo Girls. She's dressed in her standard uniform: jeans and a T-shirt, with an unbuttoned long-sleeve shirt hanging over. This time, however, she's not standing in front of thousands at an amphitheater, and her equipment has not been arranged for her by a crew of roadies. She's at a gay bar in Austin, setting up her own gear for a showcase during that great convocation of indie bands, SXSW. She'll be accompanied by post-riot-grrrl power-trio the Butchies, a hard-rocking lesbian punk band from North Carolina.

When the Butchies join her on stage, they're dressed in all black, and Ray stands out even more strikingly as frontwoman. It's impossible not to notice that her Indigo Girls cohort, Emily Saliers, is nowhere to be seen. This is Ray's live debut as a solo artist, following closely on the release of Stag, her first solo album. And if she's not exactly going stag tonight, at the very least it feels a little like Girls' Night Out.

Of course, Ray and Saliers are not married, but having spent more than 20 years as musical partners, it often can seem that way. Part of the process of growing up together, though, has involved allowing each other to grow apart, to explore their differences. For some partnerships, increasing independence is a sign of trouble, while for others, it's an indication of strength. At home in Atlanta, their contrasting associations -- Saliers as the proprietor of an upscale eatery on Decatur's main drag, Ray as the head of a low-budget, non-profit record label hidden down a dirt road in Kirkwood -- have allowed their public identities to evolve separately over the years. Starting as the sisterly harmonizing metaphysicians of "Closer to Fine," they now seem just as much like an odd couple.

Until Stag, however, neither partner has ever publicly explored their musical differences. While Indigo Girls records, most recently 1999's Come On Now Social, alternated Ray's harder-rocking, more strident songs with Saliers' sweeter, easier material, the many exceptions to that rule point to how contributions blur when collaborators produce a larger, unified whole. Stag, though, is all about Ray and the stuff she keeps entirely separate from Indigo Girls.

More than anything else, Stag is shaped by Ray's world. Her label, Daemon Records, released the CD; current or former Daemon acts -- the Rock*A*Teens, 1945 and Danielle Howle -- appear on it; and the indie/activist sensibility associated with Ray and Daemon can be heard throughout the disc. Stag also involves like-minded friends Ray has met on tour -- mainly the Butchies, but also other alternative-oriented, often feminist and lesbian-identified musicians such as Joan Jett, Josephine Wiggs (formerly of the Breeders) and Kate Schellenbach (formerly of Luscious Jackson).

"There's a need to be completely separate for me," Ray says. "It's my other life. It has nothing to do with this other thing that me and Emily do."

Saliers, who says she's a big fan of the record, recognizes that the "very raw and personal" nature of Stag's songs lent them more to Ray's voice, distinct and independent of Indigo Girls. "I think it could be that Amy might sometimes feel fettered by arrangements. I have sort of a high, sweet voice and these songs are very angst-ridden or emotionally exorcising. She just went in with different bands and friends, and blasted through the songs really low-budget and indie," she says. "A lot of that spirit is Amy. I'm more of a person who likes to get in the studio and fix things. I want my pitch to be perfect and so on. We're a little bit different in that way. So I think it must've been a very freeing thing for Amy to just do this on her own."

In some way, the record represents an evolution for Ray that has culminated in a sort of musical breakthrough: from the Indigo Girls' pop stardom in the late '80s to her heavy involvement in activism in the '90s -- which saw her focusing less on music -- to a musical re-emergence that accounts for Stag's best material.

While a social consciousness has always informed Indigo Girls' music, early on it was mainly driven by a general sense of wanting to give back -- through playing benefits or doing a token cover of the hippie anthem "Get Together" -- rather than any specific focus on problem solving. By the mid-'90s, however, "activism took over everything," Ray says. "When we started doing Honor the Earth and all these gun control and pro-choice things, our lives were basically being activists."

During this time, in addition to getting deeply involved in women's and public health issues, Ray visited the Zapatista movement in Mexico and spent time living with Native American activists in the U.S. "I think the music might have suffered a little bit because I was in shock from all the stuff I was learning. I couldn't figure out how to articulate it on the guitar."

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