In the pantheon of body parts romanticized in song, the heart is clearly the favorite while the lung is as overlooked and misunderstood as a gangly feminist at a beauty pageant. But in Lung of Love, Amy Ray’s sixth solo album in a decade, the punk-folk icon gives the humble apparatus its due.
Ray has always been on the side of the underdogs. In the mid 1970s, Amy Ray was a Georgia ‘tween, plucking out Partridge Family songs on her guitar and dreaming of becoming David Cassidy, the ardent teen idol who got all the girls. She loved the psychedelic hippies like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, too. A poetic tomboy with big green eyes, Ray began writing songs about injustice and the tragedy of unrequited love, and playing her music in the schoolyard. “Even then, I had a sense that what I was writing was not for authority,” says Ray. “I wrote for me and my peers.”
By age 15, Ray was making music as “Saliers and Ray” with her school friend, Emily. After a chance glance through the dictionary to find a word they liked, Saliers and Ray were reborn as the Indigo Girls —a Grammy award-winning, multiplatinum-selling, social justice-promoting beloved folk-rock duo with dozens of recordings and thousands of tour dates under their belts.
At 36, Ray released Stag in 2000, her first solo album. Although she’d been writing folk, then rock, music for a majority of her life, Ray sensed that neither was the ideal form for what she was trying to express. “When I first listened to Patti Smith or The Replacements, I thought, ‘That’s the way I feel, but I can’t figure out how to write that [kind of] song,’” she told indie-artist Lois Maffeo in a 2000 interview. “It took me a long time to figure it out.”
“It’s not like I felt short changed or blocked by the Indigo Girls,” says Ray. “But there was something I was trying to express that didn’t fit into that format.” Stag, she says, “was a desperate attempt to get these songs out of my system.” The record was eclectic—Gothic ballads (“Johnny Rottentail”), raucous odes to suffrage feminists (“Lucystoners”), and a pin-drop quiet song about the death of her grandma (“Lazyboy”). It was recorded piecemeal, all around the country. The effect was raw, urgent, and exciting.
Prom, in 2005, was more “thematic and focused.” Ray created a band of “punk royalty”—Donna Dresch and Jody Bleyle from Team Dresch, Kate Schellenbach from Luscious Jackson—and played with the same musicians throughout the record. “I wanted to work in a structured, less frenetic way,” says Ray. Prom evoked the epic feelings of the high school era, whether it was coming out in a small town (“Rural Faggot”) or the sureness of a pro-life zealot in the anthemic “Let It Ring.” She was touring so much as a solo artist that she released Live from Knoxville in 2006.
By Didn’t It Feel Kinder in 2008, Ray worked with her first producer since launching her solo career—Greg Griffith, who had produced Le Tigre, The Butchies, and Vitapup. The fine-tuning Griffith pushed Ray’s gritty but always flexible “voice into new territory,” and added “extra sparkle and sheen in the production,” according to Paste magazine. The partnership rendered her third solo album the most musically mature and heartbreaking.
Greg Griffith is back in Lung of Love—and this time as a co-writer, the first time Ray has collaborated as a songwriter.
“In a way, I came back to the frenetic expression of Stag,” says Ray. “I didn’t try to make the songs hang together musically or lyrically in any thematic way. I just used what I learned about songwriting, performance, when to keep a vocal, when to throw it away, and tried to edit the songs until they were short and sweet.” Short and sweet, indeed. Each song is a perfectly imperfect confection presented in her tender, scratchy voice. Backed by Greg Griffith (Bass and Guitars), Julie Wolf (Keys), and former Butchies Melissa York (Drums) and Kaia Wilson (Guitars and Vocals), the songs have an urgent, bright economy. Guest vocalists pop up throughout the record, including Brandi Carlile, Jim James, and Lindsay Fuller. Although the songs are threaded together by an economy and craft of writing, they cover a diverse musical geography, from Appalachia to Punk Rock.
As a beloved Indigo Girl, Ray has long been known for her big muscular heart, as a solo artist though; she has indisputably found her voice.