On her solo debut, Stag, Amy Ray shows off her indie sensibilities with a rebellious fusion of punk, folk and pop that sounds different than even her most electric work as half the folk-rock duo the Indigo Girls.
But underneath the screeching guitars and driving punk beats of guests such as Joan Jett, former Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach, the Butchies and the Rock*A*Teens, you'll find a distilled Ray. She's a little less polite here and a lot more playful than when she operates within the confines of the Indigo Girls.
"This record was really about doing something raw," said Ray, who will release Stag on Tuesday on her 10-year-old Daemon Records label. "Folk can be raw too, but this has been about doing something really rock."
Many of the 10 songs on Stag were rescued from a heap of castoffs determined un-Indigo. "Some of these songs I have been writing for a long time, but I couldn't get them to work out for the Indigo Girls," she said. "A lot of it is stuff I went back to lyrics and ideas and reworked."
As always, the music has a message. This time out, Ray takes on the climate that creates hate crimes, gender politics, sexism in the macho music industry and herself.
On the most rollicking cut, the very un-Indigo punk-pop track "Lucystoners," Ray confronts the male-driven music business as personified by rock journalism icon Jann Wenner.
"Janny Wenner, Janny Wenner/ Rolling Stone's most fearless leader/ Gave the boys what they deserve/ But with the girls he lost his nerve," she taunts in the chorus.
It's her expression of the frustration women rockers have felt since what she's dubbed "the Lillith Fair backlash" set in.
"There just aren't a lot of opportunities for women in rock radio now," Ray said. "The thing I'm saying in 'Lucystoners' is that when the system fails you, you have to create your own system and make it so good that it is undeniable."
Ray's willingness to flip the music industry the bird in "Stoners" is indicative of the rebellious spirit of Stag. The music isn't punk in the same vein as Sid Vicious, but the sensibilities are pure punk.
"To me, punk means doing things the way you want to do them, outside the mainstream," said Kaia Wilson of the Butchies, who played on five Stag tracks, including "Lucystoners." "Amy Ray is definitely a punk-rocker."
On "Hey Castrator," the female narrator turns gender stereotypes upside down as she examines her own feelings of lust, which are every bit as potent as the next guy's. The poppy punk number features Jett, Schellenbach and Josephine Wiggs, former bassist for the Breeders.
"When Amy sent the song to us, her directions were: 'This is a punk/Partridge Family song,'" Schellenbach said. "It's got the driving punk beat and then this more melodious chorus. I've heard her say her musical influences included the Clash and the Replacements and David Cassidy. So here it is."
The mix of eclectic styles on Stag shouldn't surprise anyone, Schellenbach said.
"Most people think 'Indigo Girls' and they think acoustic guitars and folksy and rootsy. But if you listen to their music, there is a lot of stuff going on."
Ray found making a record without her Indigo collaborator of 20 years, Emily Saliers, "difficult and different." Saliers is the more accomplished guitar player, and though the two write separately, they work out arrangements together.
"Emily usually plays the more intricate guitar stuff. I'm not used to having leadership on that. This was good because I had to make a lot of the decisions myself. I played some lead, and I had to show people how to play things. It was very satisfying."
But Indigo fans shouldn't worry. Ray laughs when asked the inevitable "are you breaking up" question. "No way," she said. "There is something really magical about working with a partner for such a long time."
The Girls will be back in the studio at the end of the summer, recording what Ray promises will be a folk album. But she's not ruling out another solo project.
"I am not limiting myself to a one-shot deal," she said. "If I write rock stuff that would be better on a solo record, then we'll see."
Ray, backed by the Butchies, will stage a month-long club tour in April behind Stag.