“I tend to dwell a lot on the dilemma of a progressive Southerner,” says Amy Ray, calling from her Georgia home, “and I’ve been specifically thinking about Confederate monuments and symbols, rebel flags and all that stuff. It’s still such a struggle to get those symbols re-appropriated to the right context and for people to understand what they really mean and where they came from.”
Ray, best known for being one half of the Indigo Girls, decided to record a new track about this subject with her other group, The Amy Ray Band. “Tear It Down” was released on November 1 via Daemon Records. Although this song was done with her own band, Ray says that it was also partly inspired by the activism work she’s undertaken with Emily Saliers, her Indigo Girls bandmate.
“Emily [Saliers] and I in the Indigo Girls, we had been standing in solidarity with this group called Project Say Something out of Florence, Alabama, near Muscle Shoals,” Ray says. “They’ve been working for years on this program around dismantling racism.” One of their recent projects has aimed to take a Confederate monument that is currently standing in the courthouse square in Lauderdale County, Alabama and move it to a graveyard where Confederate soldiers are buried.
Getting this move accomplished, Ray says, “has s been a big battle. So Emily and I went over there and met with [Project Say Something representatives] and did a social distanced rally. I started thinking more deeply about it and writing about it.” “Tear It Down” soon emerged.
“If you read some of the speeches that they gave when they erected these monuments, you know why they were doing it,” Ray says. “You can read the racism – everybody wanted to stamp down any progress that the black population was making. So all the sudden these monuments are erected, and it’s in the name of white power. So I guess part of the point of the song is, I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to reach down deep and kill this part of yourself because it’s got to go.”
Ray, born and raised in Atlanta, admits that she knows from personal experience what it’s like to have to do some hard self-evaluation like this. “I’m obsessed with the Civil War. I don’t know why,” she says. “It’s not like my family is racist or celebrates the Confederacy. I mean, I came up in a very middle-class, suburban, slightly progressive Republican family that didn’t talk about our past and people in our family that may have had connections to the Klan or just any of that stuff.”
Still, Ray says, she was proud of her Georgia roots: “When I was growing up, I just reveled in all of the Southern stuff. The flags and anything that was about rebels. I thought it was kind of cool, that spirit of rebellion. It got all mixed up in my brain, and I never knew how to untangle it.
“When I started getting older and more mature and being an activist, I started to try to clean house within my own self,” Ray continues, “which I’m still doing, because when someone talks bad about the South it’s like, ‘Hey, don’t talk about my family like that!’ It’s like a dysfunctional family that you love so much and it’s misunderstood sometimes – but sometimes it’s plainly understood and you’re just in the wrong and you’ve got to look in the mirror and realize it.”
While its title may suggest that “Tear It Down” is a fiery protest song, it’s actually a beautiful ballad with a wistful vibe. “I wanted to put this [song] in that kind of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday school [of music] because I was thinking about all their contributions as singers to civil rights, and what they’ve meant to me as voices influencing me,” Ray says.
It took some time for Ray and her bandmates to work out the best style in which to present the song, though: “We worked in different time signatures and different keys, remotely passing e-mails and MP3s back and forth, all of us working in our home studios. It finally came to where we needed to be.”
As for why Ray did this song with her own band, not the Indigo Girls, she says she never has trouble deciding where a particular track fits best. “When I’m writing an Indigo Girls song, I just know,” she says. “I hear Emily in my head and I feel like the song feels like it’s got this space for true harmony, duet style, instead of just background singing. And there’s often something where I can tell that it’s going to be a better song if she does it with me, or that it will come to its fruition with what she’s going to bring to it.”
Ray and Saliers formed the Indigo Girls when they were still in high school in Atlanta. By the time they were in college, they were regulars on the Southern club circuit, playing acoustic-based folk-rock with beautiful harmonies. They went on to become one of the most successful duos of all time. Concurrently, Ray has released six solo studio albums, starting with 2001’s Stag. She says she’s grateful for her career, because there was never any question that she would pursue music even if it hadn’t turned out this way.
“It was a passion,” Ray says. “At some point I was like, ‘Music is going to be my thing no matter what – even if I’m not making money at it I’m never going to not play.’ That was my attitude. It was the centerpiece of my life. It still is. I couldn’t have done anything different. It led me in this way that was impossible for me to ignore.”
On Monday, November 2 at 8:00 p.m. EST, Amy Ray will do a livestream song release show on Facebook.
“Tear It Down” is available at daemonrecords.com as well as digitally everywhere.