In the pantheon of body parts romanticized in song, the heart is clearly the favorite (See: All Pop Songs), 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. Other than artists like Cris Williamson and Holly Near who were part of the Women’s Music Movement, gay musicians weren’t open about their sexual identities, so Ray’s musical world was straight and her private life was queer. Both lives were taking off. 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. Spurred by an increasingly visible gay rights movement (and unable to stomach singing about standing up for yourself while being cagey about their love lives), the Indigo Girls were early celebrities to be “out” on record.
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. “At first I found his strong ideas challenging to work with-it felt like he didn’t value the experience I already had in the studio,” says Ray. “Later, I realized what a gift it is that he doesn’t defer to me.” 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. (She and Saliers write separately, then come together to arrange and record.) Another first: After all of the basic tracks were recorded, keyboardist Julie Wolf laid Moog, Farfisa, Rhodes, and Wurlitzer sounds on top-the vintage keyboards and synths both adding to the uniqueness of the record and creating a subtly unifying motif for the diverse songs.
“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.
Working in Griffith’s Greensboro, NC studio, Lung of Love was recorded to analog tape. And according to Ray, “even though they had to constantly wrestle with the machine, it was worth the glue it provided.” A song like, The Rock is My Foundation, written in the traditional style of Appalachian Gospel really benefited from live recording. Ray says about the recording, “We got together on a Sunday morning to record with a team of local players who really know mountain music. The warehouse where the studio is located also houses a couple or gospel churches. You could hear the choirs echoing down the hallways, so the whole scene was just really special and resonant.” Brandi Carlile joins her on the chorus when she sings:
“The Rock is my foundation/Jesus is at the Bass/God is on the
Kick Drum/And the Holy Spirit Sings.”
On the more punk rock side, “From Haiti,” is a song of respect to Haitians after the earthquake. It’s about people who had to contend with not just rubble and wreckage, but an historically paternalistic relationship with countries like the U.S. Against a persistent and percussive acoustic guitar strum-beat, Ray’s lyrics underscore the resilience of the people, rather than emotionally exploiting poverty and pain. She sings:
“Yes we go walking in that rubble/Yes we go walking in that sun/
And our feet get tough enough to hold the travel/And our hands
get tough enough to hold the thorns.”
In the pop gem, “Little Revolution,” Ray waxes philosophical about the human desire to shut down in the face of pain-both personal and pandemic-which is, in the long run, more painful than facing it. It’s also a love song to someone who practices being open-to experiences, to people, and to the pains of this world. Ray sings:
“She’s got a real good equation/For the suffering I see
She says the more you let in/Ah the less it bleeds.”
So back to that lung thing. Ray wrote the title song after being on the road, thinking about the struggle to rekindle love after absence. “I have a compass-morally, physically-and I am pulled in different directions,” says Ray. “I was thinking about how these opposite urges create stress and clumsiness in our lives.” In contrast to that clumsiness, the lyrics are set to music that is anything but clumsy. Ray is quick to say, “I couldn’t make the song translate the way I heard it, but this is where I think Greg really shines, he has such an in depth and creative musical language to draw from, including this soul thing that is smooth and funky -it really serves a song like this.”
” Lung of Love/ This failing breathe/ The compass of the heart
that won’t rest/The murmur’s beat/The the stalling gait/The
compass of the heart that won’t wait.”
The lung, not the heart, stood out as the inspiring element in all that she did. “The lung of love is my singing voice,” says Ray. “That is what comes out of me; but always in a struggle with its own clumsiness and frailty.” The lung: delicate, vulnerable, with frond-like bronchi reaching out. It is quietly, secretly, our connection to one another. Our breath supports our voices-expressing song, outrage, passion, hilarity-and each individuals breath goes from being held in their lungs, to being released into the world, where we each yell to be heard, gasp for air, squeal in joy, and sing. It is, literally, inspiration. Ray is also interested in our airways, writ large. “In a larger way, what is the lung of love in the world?” asks Ray. “How do we listen to all that expression and take it in?”
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.