Songwriter U: Amy Ray Passes on Advice She Learned From Steve Earle

Although singer-songwriter Amy Ray is best known for being one half of the Grammy-winning folk rock duo Indigo Girls, a band she formed with Emily Saliers nearly 40 years ago when the two met in school in Atlanta. They just released their 15th studio album, Look Long, earlier this year. Ray also has her own group, The Amy Ray Band, which just released a new single, “Tear It Down,” on November 1 via Daemon Records.

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Ray remembers the best advice she was given as an aspiring songwriter: “Someone told me, ‘If you want to be a writer, you need to write.’ I think it was Steve Earle that told me that. And then someone else told me, ‘If you want to be a writer, you need to read.’ I’ve always read a lot, but I didn’t think about it intentionally.”

Looking back on her earliest days, Ray now realizes a mistake she made that she wants to warn others not to make. “When I was 15 years old, I wish I had not had this weird romantic idea that when the muse hits you, you write a song and it’s done. Because that’s kind of the way it was romanticized for me. I was too precious about it and didn’t want to mess with it once it was written. When I started working, really spending time on it and not just settling for the first thing, my songwriting got so much better.

“Now what I’ve discovered is that you’ve got to go and sit in a room and spend a lot of time and don’t censor yourself in the beginning,” Ray continues. “Record everything, write it all down, and then listen back to it. And then work on it. It’s a discipline. There’s a part of it that’s spiritual, but it’s usually the first part where you’re opening up and letting it all out. Then you’ve got to be willing to carve it up and work it like a crossword puzzle.”

Ray also relays a specific piece of advice about melody writing: “Mitchell Froome, the producer, he’s like, ‘Keep the melody and now change the chords underneath it and see how that changes the melody.’ That was great, great advice. I had never tried that before, and now I do it all the time. If it doesn’t sound right when you do that, sometimes it drives you to a different chord progression and then you change the melody. It’s good, I think, to explore that.”

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