Amy Ray talks Indigo Girls, gay rights and more before Anchorage show

Chris Bieri

The cynic in Amy Ray wondered if it was anything more than a publicity stunt as 33 same-sex couples were married at last month's Grammy Awards during a performance of the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis hit "Same Love."

In the early years of the Indigo Girls, Ray grappled with the decision of whether to come out publicly. She knows firsthand the impact pop culture can have on social issues, she said.

"I think the exposure is really good," she said of the Grammy spectacle. "Sometimes people need to receive information in that way. They receive it better than in some dogmatic, political type of way."

Twenty-four years ago, the Indigo Girls were on the Grammy stage, taking the award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

In the succeeding years, Ray and bandmate Emily Saliers became outspoken advocates for the gay rights movement, but Ray said the duo wasn't always so bold.

"We were scared in the '80s," she said. "We were scared to talk about it. We were young and trying to figure it out. Three to four years after we got signed, maybe around 1991, we were talking about it because we finally got brave enough."

Eventually, Ray and Saliers came out as gay, and developed into artists who believed they could help people encountering the same issues.

"I think there were artists like k.d. lang and many activists who gave us the room and courage to do that," Ray said. "We weren't going to lose our job by being gay. We might not have as big of an audience, but we weren't going to lose our career. Our audience was typically our same age. They came to terms with their sexuality around the same time we did. We were very outspoken about it and didn't worry about the consequences. We took on some bravery at some point. You don't really have a choice."

Ray is cautiously optimistic of the gains gay rights proponents have made recently.

"I can celebrate what we have accomplished but I can see how far we have to go," she said. "If you live in San Francisco, (the climate) is great. I live in northern Georgia. It's a very conservative area. Feminism is a new issue here."

Ray and Saliers met as elementary students at Laurel Ridge Elementary School in DeKalb County, Ga., and started playing together in middle school. It wasn't until both had gone off to college and returned to their home state that they formed Indigo Girls in 1985.

Ray said space and communication have allowed the pair to continue to create together for nearly three decades.

"We've kept it fresh by having breaks and sort of taking the stance that when things do feel stagnant or other things in life are more important, we give each other breaks," she said. "It's like a marriage. Every time you have a fight you don't break up, you step back from it. We don't fight, we just step back. We write our music separately from each other. That really helps. It gives us that creative space. We do that and come together. At that moment it becomes an Indigo Girls song."

The band was signed by Epic Records and put out a number of successful albums before parting with the label in 2006.

The group's debut album, "Indigo Girls," hit No. 22 on the album chart and featured the group's first hit "Closer to Fine."

Aside from their Grammy win for the platinum album "Indigo Girls," the group was nominated in the Best New Artist category, an award won by Milli Vanilli and later revoked, but not given to another nominee.

The Indigo Girls scored a top 10 single with "Galileo" in 1992, and released "Swamp Ophelia" in 1994, which reached No. 9 on the Billboard 200 album chart and was later certified platinum.

They produced one album with Hollywood Records before working independently in 2007.

The band now has more personal and creative freedom, but Ray said they were fortunate to have major label backing early on.

"We still got into it at a good time and major labels were a major asset," she said. "They could really support you and finance everything you were doing. It was obvious that things had changed. It just makes more sense for us. No big label in this day and age would know what to do with 50-year-old gay folk singers."

Saliers and Ray's activism hasn't been limited to gay rights.

They teamed with Winona LaDuke to form "Honor the Earth," a project that attempts to bring awareness to environmental and Native American issues.

"The idea is to bridge the gap between Native and non-Native communities, educationally," she said, "[to] show our fan base what's happening in the Native community. There's such a void. We try to find groups that are doing good work. The issues have ranged -- they're issues around cultural sustainability and empowerment. We basically fund groups that make that happen."

The Indigo Girls have made several trips to Alaska to perform, and got an early taste of environmental issues in the state.

"The first time we came to Alaska, we went to Cordova and played," Ray said. "The (Exxon Valdez) spill had gone on and there were trials going on to decide how the money (from the lawsuit) was going to be spent. That was our first exposure to Alaska."

Despite a number of musical and political projects, Ray and Saliers have both put an emphasis on family in recent years.

Saliers married her longtime partner last year and has a 14-month-old child. Ray, too, has recently become a mother with her partner.

"I have definitely wanted this for a long time," Ray said. "I'm very happy and excited. It takes over your life, but in the best way possible. I'm totally happy about it."

Family life hasn't meant putting Indigo Girls on hold completely. The group is planning to record an album this summer and has created a blog on Tumblr with monthly posts that document the band's history, one year at a time.

"Our future is shifting around (family)," Ray said. "All it means is we have to figure out how to tour in a different way."

By Chris Bieri