Amy Ray on “Beauty Queen Sister” and staying an Indigo Girl for 25 years

After more than 25 years together, the Indigo Girls can hands down be considered one of the most storied folk duos in history. With 13 albums in the books and their 14th, Beauty Queen Sister, due Oct. 4, Amy Ray and Emily Sailers have found a secret to success that is hard to measure, especially in the wake of R.E.M.’s recent disbanding.

Reuniting with producer Peter Collins for Beauty Queen Sister, the duo – who both have successful solo careers in addition to their place as one of the LGBT community’s most beloved musical acts – went back to the studio with an eye on making an impact the way 1992’s Rites of Passage and 1994’s Swamp Ophelia did. With some of the duo’s biggest hits — “Galileo,” “Ghost,” “Power of Two” and “Least Complicated,” among others – coming from those albums, Ray and Sailers asked Collins to steer them in that direction. The resulting 13 songs from Beauty Queen Sister feel like an extension of those records. caught up with Amy Ray to discuss Collins’ influence, their secret to staying together and how their approach has changed as they prepare to release their new studio album. Beauty Queen Sister is your 14th album together. How has your approach changed over the years?

Amy Ray: Some things have changed a lot, and some haven’t changed at all. Individually, our writing processes have evolved over time and the way we set time aside. For me, in the past 10 years I got really more disciplined about writing and intentional about when I’m in a writing mode – which is about nine months out of the year. I usually write four or five days a week and spend a few hours a day working. Emily started setting aside time as well instead of just waiting for the music to hit you or when you might have free time. We had to do that for our writing because we realized we weren’t going to evolve if we weren’t going to work on it more as a craft.

As the Indigo Girls, the technology has changed. We used to trade cassettes and now we email each other MP3s and we work a lot more in Garage Band on our own, each one plays parts and sings harmonies we think the other person could do and we put ideas down before we even see each other. Before, we’d see each other and then come up with ideas. Now we start working before that. Typically we only spend two weeks recording the record and we do a lot of stuff live.

AE: The new album definitely has a Rites of Passage and Swamp Ophelia feel to it, both of which contain some of your most beloved songs.

AR: We worked with the same producer, Peter Collins, and the players were completely different than they were on Rites of Passage and Swamp Ophelia. Peter is the common denominator there. When we went into this project, we specifically said to him – not that we wanted to make Rites of Passage again – but we wanted this album to have the impact on the record that he had on those records. He made other records with us but those records specifically we asked him to bump it up a bit and be more heavy handed, and that’s what we wanted him to do on this one. To take chances and we’d try to listen to him as a producer and be open to his ideas.

AE: Was your intention to go back to the albums that delivered your biggest successes?

AR: Rites of Passage was for sure. Swamp Ophelia wasn’t as big and Come On Now Social was something new; a different sound and that was big in its own little arena. When we did Become You, that was us trying to go back to a more acoustic sound but not back to the basics of Rites of Passage. Those albums are even sparser than this one. This record has a simplicity to it because we did a lot of stuff like; there’s overdubbing but not a ton of it – so there’s not five guitar tracks and things like that. Emily’s writing on this one hearkens back in some way to that era. I don’t think she intended for it to but I just think she was in a certain melodic place that reminds me of that time period, which is a good thing. That was a lot of really good writing.

AE: What’s the back story behind the album title and corresponding song?

AR: We’ll often use song titles for album titles but they don’t relate to the song, really. We used it as the album title because we liked the strength of it; we liked all the different ways that you could have a beauty queen sister. We are defined by being the opposite of that in some way. I think that’s what struck us. In the song, it grew out of a conversation that I was having with another songwriter, Lindsay Fuller, who’s a new and really important writer for me and has toured with us. We were in the studio, and Brandi Carlile was there and we were talking about our families and sisters and she said something like, “Everybody’s got a beauty queen sister.” And I just thought it was a song. What I wrote had nothing to do with our conversation but it just sparked an idea.

AE: Any chance we’ll get to see the Indigo Girls and Brandi Carlile get together again?

AR: We have a few shows where we’re co-headlining coming up and she sang quite a bit on my solo record that’s coming out in the winter after this. She’s also got a new record coming out, I think in the spring. We’ll probably play some more gigs together; we always dabble in each other’s musical careers.

AE: You’ve mentioned your live shows, what are your favorite songs to play live. After seeing you live seven to 10 times, someone always screams for “Galileo.” We know what we enjoy, what do you love playing live?

AR: It depends on who’s playing with us, really. If Julie Wolf is playing keyboards with us, then there’s a lot of songs I love to do with her, like “Ghost,” “Fugitive” and “Moment of Forgiveness” – the dramatic keyboard songs. Sometimes we have a rock band opening for us and we’ll do “Go” and some of the more electric stuff. It honestly changes every night. There’s not one song that I consistently want to play, it’s more like how the set list works together. Honestly, we like to play obscure things – we love to play “Galileo” and “Power of Two” and all those because for us they’re like good songs melodically and fun to sing and have the audience sing but we also like to play stuff the audience has never heard, which is fun to do.

AE: R.E.M. called it quits recently. What’s your secret to working together?

AR: The R.E.M. news is heartbreaking but they’re smart to quit when they want to and I’m glad they quit when they wanted to. They’re great artists and will go on to do great things. We don’t want to quit, that’s what our secret is. [Laughs] We like the magic of what we do, it’s not the pressure from the world to not quit. We don’t feel that self-important. We actually enjoy what’s happening musically and we respect each other’s space. I do my solo stuff and she does her solo stuff with her dad. We have that lucky type of relationship where we can do [solo] projects. We have that faith that what we’re doing together, we have to trust the process.

AE: You mentioned both of your solo projects. How do you determine what material is for the Indigo Girls vs. what’s just for Amy Ray?

AR: It’s instinct. Certain songs when I’m writing them I can hear what Emily would do and it feels like an Indigo Girls song. I don’t know what it is but it’s very different form the solo stuff in my head. I think it has to do with the collaborative process and what I’d do with Emily vs. what I would do with a band and the people that I play with.

Beauty Queen Sister comes out Oct. 4. For more info, check out the Indigo Girls website or follow them on Twitter.