"I wanted to explore new territory, and I wanted to use a different part of my voice." In "Didn't It Feel Kinder," Amy Ray's third solo recording and most ambitious independent effort to date, the singer-songwriter's style and lyricism reflects her many musical influences, breaking new ground for avid Indigo Girls followers and her solo career fans alike. New listeners will follow Ray far through a rich musical landscape that is both intimate and grand, like sneaking in on sound check at the Knitting Factory.
Independent to the core, Ray began designing the album while on tour with the Indigo Girls in the UK. "I was huddled over my computer with my Garage Band turned on in some cold backstage area. The opening band went on and the music was pounding through the walls, creating this montage of sounds and bass beats. I started playing the most strident thing I could to cut through it all and get my thoughts down and it all started merging into 'Bus Bus'." Together with former Butchies Kaia Wilson and Melissa York, and Greg Griffith on bass, Ray molded a danceable rhythm that is at once pop, punk rock and hip hop.
Didn't It Feel Kinder marks Ray's first solo effort utilizing a producer. Greg Griffith (The Butchies, Le Tigre, Loudspeaker, Vitapup), a fearless listener and multi-talented musician, worked with Ray to incorporate a variety of sounds and influences as diverse as Al Green, The Pretenders, OutKast, and Violent Femmes, to create her unique and evolving voice throughout this record. Ray rose to the challenge to redesign the halls of rock and folk that have housed her for so long: "I just thought I wouldn't break new ground unless someone was making me do it." The two took Ray's back-of-the-napkin GarageBand maps to structure every song - another first for Ray's solo work, because she normally has arranged her music and harmonies in a live setting. Overall, the album teems with the Clash-esq energy that drives so much of Ray's solo work, bouncing and begging the listener to shout along. But as it rocks out, it starts to groove, and then waxes poetic in a well-balanced sequence of intensity, beauty, and fun.
Great art, and perhaps music in particular, cannot exist in a vacuum, and Ray is the first to sing the praises of everyone who collaborated on Didn't It Feel Kinder. Wilson, York, and Griffith supported the musical strides that Ray took, but every musician extended Ray's reach. Guitarist Tomi Martin - who with Trina Meade is half of the ascendant Three5Human (and who has played with the likes of Madonna and TLC), filled in parts that Ray says forms the spine of many songs such as "Birds of a Feather" and "She's Got to Be." Ray calls shooting star singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, whom she met through her work with Indigo Girls, and whose voice adds ethereal power to the record, "the glue" throughout the CD, a glue that is heard clearly on the song “Stand and Deliver”.
Indie favorites Arizona lend their sound to the mix as well. The group recorded "Out on the Farm" and "Rabbit Foot" with Amy at Echo Mountain Recording Studio in Asheville, NC. Ray met the band after one of their members interned at her indie label, Daemon Records. She sites them as a major musical influence and wrote “Out on the Farm” specifically with them in mind as collaborators. On “Rabbit Foot”, brilliantly engineered by Danny Kadar, Ray’s lonely guitar is joined by Arizona’s tender and raw playing along with uplifting high harmonies creating a lovesong, with the emotional intensity of a hymn.
Ray’s experience recording with Arizona at Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville convinced her it was the place to record the majority of her record. The rest of the time she spent between Greensboro, N.C. and her home in Georgia. “I spent a lot of time driving in the North Georgia mountains between studios, getting tracks done during down time from the Indigo Girls. These late night, rural excursions informed the recording process for sure.”
This relationship to the environment - whether musical, natural, geographical, or political - is one of the main themes running through the album. "I use a lot of nature or pastoral images - I always have - to describe things that aren't about nature exactly, it's a lens I see through.” Like in the song “Bus Bus”:
Snow In March spring in May
Do you remember younger days?
Before the artic was turning to sea
Before the polar bear was drifting helplessly
I really measure my life by the seasons and the weather and how much it changes over time, over years of touring. I realize that sometimes these days, I feel a lot like that lonely polar bear stuck on a melting glacier, sort of bewildered, but compelled to be there cause it’s all I know and it’s instinctual for me.”
Ray's writing is characterized by an emotional complexity which she expertly expresses together with a verbal poetry that dovetails with the music. On the grand opening cut, "Birds of a Feather," Martin's electric guitar elevates the spare lyrics and sparse snare drum allowing the surprising vocal performance to take flight. "Part of what breaks the mold for me this time is in the songwriting, and the other part is the production. For ‘She's Got To Be,’ I was experimenting with using my head voice, my falsetto, and so I wrote in a different direction, too." On this track, voice underscores meaning as Ray breathes through the verses:
She's got to be with me always
to make sense of the skin I'm in
Sometimes it gets dangerous
and lonely to defend
Marking time with every change
it's hard to love this woman in me
A bass-heavy rhythm section picks up to float dense lyrics that negotiate gender, relationships, and self-love, rendering the song both thoughtful and groovy. It was a calculated musical risk, unlike any track in Ray's repertoire. "I sang in that high voice to reference the struggle to be who you are. The way soul music was about a struggle, but with a groove - it's so simple with the rhythm that it gives you room to be thinking and also letting your heart hear what's going on."
"Hearing with the heart" is one of the record's other main themes, and is expressed lyrically in many ways. If the musicality of Didn't It Feel Kinder is wide-ranging, so too is the songwriting, which covers community, politics, gender and sexuality, religion, the environment, the war, and the sometimes strong, sometimes tenuous lines of love that connect Ray and the listener to it all.
In the musically-playful "Who Sold the Gun" she connects a boy gone mad at Virginia Tech to a society losing its humanity in a never-ending war.
The lo-fi fairground feel of "SLC Radio" describes a tour stop in Salt Lake City to support a radio station in an overwhelmingly religious-conservative community:
I'm sending love to all the Mormons
...I said keep the good things and throw out the bad things
you gotta pull the reins on a whole lot of suffering
No bleeding heart polemics here, but rather an example of reaching out - out of your comfort zone, out of your self and your community - that Ray lives and articulates with her music.
"What ties the record together for me is this human yearning to be understood and the yearning to become empathetic with other people - how to love each other and be kind even when we're brutally angry." Or, as the final words of this album ask:
Didn't you feel stronger
when you let love grow?
Didn't it open you up inside?
Hey let love abide
Beautifully agitated anthems filled with Southern pride and global frustrations snake then shout as Ray’s third solo outing reinforces her rare gift for integrating punk and rock with empathy and melody. Unafraid and hopeful, the soulful, “Kinder,” winds over damaged landscapes through scarred hearts then kicking out the jams while pleading for peace.Maximum Ink - August 2008
This whole album is fun. And when it’s not fun, it’s addressing serious political and social issues unironically and unashamed. Amy Ray stands and delivers.Pop Matters - 8.18.08