The Yin and Yang of the Indigo Girls

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers on the Differences that Keep Them Together

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of The Indigo Girls

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of The Indigo Girls

A little bit folksy and a little bit rock ’n’ roll, Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have always found strength in their differences. Sure, Emily has been pegged as the kinder, gentler, more spiritual Joni Mitchell acolyte, while Amy’s more intensely passionate approach was obviously influenced by punk-rock legends such as Chrissie Hynde and Hüsker Dü. But while many of their contemporaries from the late ’80s singer/songwriter scene have faded from view (see: Toni Childs, Natalie Merchant), the Indigo Girls have remained potent and relevant for over 20 years and counting.

Still, their road has not always been smooth. As self-proclaimed “opinionated, lesbian folk-rockers,” they met with their fair share of resistance in the male-dominated music industry. Signed by Epic Records in 1988, the duo released a string of gold- and platinum-certified albums (including 1989’s Indigo Girls, 1990’s Nomads Indians Saints, 1992’s Rites of Passage and 1994’s Swamp Ophelia), becoming Grammy• Award fixtures and Lilith Fair headliners in the process. But with the music industry’s sharp decline, they were dropped with a thud from Hollywood Records after just one album, finding themselves consigned to the indie world for the first time since 1987’s Strange Fire.

Now the dynamic duo is back with their own label, IG Recordings, and a new album called Poseidon & the Bitter Bug that highlights their dichotomous nature via two CDs featuring acoustic and electric versions of the same songs. In keeping with that theme, we recently spoke with Amy and Emily in separate interviews, covering topics ranging from their childhood friendship and their struggles with sexism in the music business to career longevity and the upsides of artistic independence.

On their early musical interests

Amy Ray: “I started playing music when I was 10, and my earliest influences were people like Neil Young, Elton John, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones and a lot of the early hippie music, because my sister was listening to a lot of that stuff. When I got a guitar, it was really because I wanted to have something to sing with. I used to write little plays and poems in elementary school, so I was always trying to create stories in some form. I started taking guitar lessons at the YMCA when Emily and I were in elementary school, but we didn’t start playing together until we were about 16. I was very active in the Episcopalian Church youth group and choir and learned all those folk songs, so that definitely informed my songwriting. Then I started listening to a lot of Southern rock and alternative, punk-influenced college radio stuff like Patti Smith and The Pretenders, and that’s where I found my passion.”

Emily Saliers: “My grandfather was a professional musician in the Big Band era who toured, played violin, sax and wrote music. My dad probably would’ve been a concert pianist if he hadn’t been called to God and become a theologian, and my mom played piano and sang. So we grew up surrounded by music all the time—sacred music, classical, jazz—and I sang in church and school choirs. So all those things were influential and inspirational.”

The Indigo Girls in 1992

On their early musical interests

Emily: “My family moved to Georgia from Connecticut when I was 9 or 10, and Amy and I lived in the same neighborhood and went to the same elementary school. We were aware of each other as the two girls who played guitar, but since she was a year younger we didn’t hang out. When we went to Shamrock High School together and ended up joining the chorus, that’s when we really became friends, because we both wrote songs and were really serious about guitar. We started getting together to learn songs just for fun, but it became so much fun that we couldn’t stop.”

On how their differences make them stronger

Amy: “On a personal level, I think we respect one another and are fans of what each other does, which is always a good thing. [Laughs] On a musical level, I think we made our weaknesses into strengths: I wasn’t great at writing harmonies early on, so I had to think of them as melodies, which created a lot of counter-melodies and the way we weave our voices in and out. I couldn’t play all the guitar chords, so I’d use different ways of playing them that were simpler, so it became a different voicing. I’ve learned a lot musically over the years, but I still go back to different tunings to complement what Emily does and make us sound like more than two people. We just got lucky as far as harmony goes, because we’re such a good blend.”

Emily: “I think the fact that there are differences in our sensibilities and influences makes it interesting, both for us and for our fans. We’re different in terms of personality, delivery, vocal range and style, so I think there’s more to draw from. We’ve always embraced our differences, because they’ve really kept us together.”

On what each person brings

Amy: “Emily is a great musician. Her musical vocabulary is vast, so she can find cool intervals and unusual chord voicings. She’s a good songwriter, with a real knack for striking melodies and catchy lyrics, and we have slightly different vocal ranges that work well together.”

Emily: “Amy was the one who held down the guitar parts early on, but now she’s broadened her range to the point that she can do a lot of things very well. But I think the thing she’s best at is just rocking hard, even in her ballads and mid-tempo songs. She has a strength and an edge that’s very different from what I offer, and we wouldn’t be who we are without that.”

On the difficulties of being women in a male-dominated industry

Emily: “There was a lot of sexism and homophobia, especially early on. Amy really knows how to run a sound system, and that wasn’t appreciated by a lot of the guys in the clubs. Radio jocks can often be obnoxious and sexist, and record labels don’t know how to market opinionated, lesbian folksinger-rockers, so there’s always a commercial aspect that never got fulfilled in the way it might have had we been a different kind of female band—but we never cared about that. To be honest, it hasn’t affected us much: We just did what we do. We were influenced by a lot of local female musicians, like Caroline Aiken, who really took us under her wing. We’ve always felt connected to the local scene.”

Amy: “Being women definitely put us at a disadvantage. There are times when the trend is for more women to get played on the radio or get signed more frequently, but it’s typically just a trend, then there’s a backlash. It doesn’t serve women that well, because we’re not normally on par where the playing field is level. We didn’t focus on that and become bitter about being held back as women, but we definitely noticed it. You have to work a little harder, but that’s another thing we tried to turn into an asset, finding our community and playing for people who supported women in music. So it ultimately became our strength. There’s always sexism in radio and the media, except maybe for Top 40, but that’s not what we do.”

Emily: “I think sexism still runs rampant across the world, and it’s something we have to deal with on a daily basis. I think we even saw that in the Presidential campaign; Hillary Clinton really got lambasted in a way that was quite sexist. She couldn’t be the perfect candidate without being the type of woman men hated. So there are all kinds of cultural issues that constantly have to be tackled, and I think the best way to tackle them is to be true to yourself as a woman and not succumb to societal pressures to dress or act a certain way. One by one, by holding onto the integrity of our identities as woman, I think we can change those oppressive systems.”

On the changes that have swept the music industry over the last decade

Amy: “You could write an encyclopedia about the changes in the music industry! [Laughs] Obviously the big thing was the corporate mergers and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed a company to own a lot of radio stations or media outlets. That really shifted things for musicians, because it created this sort of monolithic playlist in these various formats. If you were on it you were in like Flynn, but if not you were out of luck. It became harder to get on the radio and to get into print media, because all of the independent publications started disappearing due to lack of advertising dollars or got bought out and turned into something different.

So that limited our access, but the Internet started booming and gave us more access. I think it’s still working itself out, but I think the Internet is potentially great for independent musicians. The major labels went through a period of incredible greed and gluttony, with overblown budgets and overpaid executives and CDs that were too expensive, so they made their own bed. I think they focused on the wrong aspects of their companies, and those bad decisions are coming home to roost. I do think that, for all the negative things that have happened, there are a lot of positive possibilities that are happening. But I also lament the loss of community radio and independent print media.”


The Indigo Girls

Emily: “When broadcasting was opened up to corporate purchase, it changed the face of radio forever. When I was coming up there were regional hits that spread across the country, and it was more interesting, less homogenized and less corporate-controlled. I think the loss of that hurt the music business, and it hurt when major labels didn’t jump on the digital bandwagon and continued to charge too much for CDs. And when we got signed, record labels were more about nurturing bands instead of kicking them out after one failed attempt at a Top 10 single. What’s interesting now is how with iTunes and downloading, everything is focused on singles. As a culture we seem to have shorter attention spans, and that’s reflected in the music industry as well.”

On being dropped by Hollywood Records

Emily: “We had a long relationship with Epic Records—they were good to us and supported us—but then it ran its course. I wanted to try a smaller label, and Hollywood looked like it had the resources to bring us to the next level, because as a band that’s been around 25 years there’s a way that you can plateau. They made so many promises and seemed so excited to have us, so when they dropped us it was like, ‘Screw this! We’ll be independent.’ Amy was totally happy, because she wanted to go indie a long time ago.”

On how being independent for the first time in 20 years affected the recording process

Emily: “Being dropped and having monetary restrictions led to time restrictions in the studio. We only had our rhythm section (featuring drummer Matt Chamberlain) together for four days, so we ended up making the record very quickly, which I found quite exhilarating. We moved from one thing right to the next without belaboring over decision-making, just sort of feeling in our guts when it was right. [Producer] Mitchell Froom is really good at that, so in a roundabout way being independent proved to be exciting because of the energy.”

Amy: “I think it subconsciously gives you a sense of freedom, but on a more concrete level we had to do it faster and on a lower budget, which was no big deal. When that happens, your community obviously steps up to the table: Southern Tracks gave us a good deal on studio time, Mitchell Froom gave us a good deal—everyone understood we were independent now and needed to make the record very quickly. On a business level it was easier in some ways, because we didn’t have to rush to make a certain release date or pick the best single. We were able to time it to our lives. You get to make your own choices and have more discretion.”

On how Poseidon & the Bitter Bug reflects their dichotomy as artists

Emily: “In reflecting on it, [the electric/acoustic approach of Poseidon & the Bitter Bug] really lays out what it is that we do: We write songs separately, then we get together and practice them, and there’s a very organic approach that’s laid out in the acoustic version of the record. But we also enjoy collaborating with other players, plugging in electric guitars and rocking out a bit, and I think that’s reflected in the other CD. It just seemed like a natural thing, and since it didn’t take long to record the acoustic version, it was like, why not?”

On why Emily’s latest songs seem less hopeful

Emily: “I guess you could call this the mid-life crisis CD. [Laughs] It was a personal thing, but it was also about what was going on in the world. After the Bush administration I was just depressed! I’m very sensitive and don’t have many defenses, so I absorb everything and I became very disillusioned. There were also things going on in my personal life that left me disillusioned with regards to relationships. When you’re younger, you have all the hope in the world that everything will work out. But as you get older you realize that that’s not always the case. There’s still hope—things can work—but when you start looking at the complexities of relationships and realize that sometimes things just don’t work out one-on-one… For me, that was a very difficult pill to swallow, and that’s reflected in a lot of the songs.”

On their solo work outside the band (or lack thereof)

Amy: “In the past my solo work was a place for me to be part of the indie community, which is the world I relate to more strongly. When I do solo stuff, we play in clubs, travel in a van we drive ourselves and load and unload our own equipment, and that keeps me connected to the experience in a way that I didn’t get from Indigo Girls. The music is very electric and singular in its vision, and I have the collaborative experience of working with this group of people I wouldn’t work with otherwise. But with Indigos, I think what I get is a focus on harmony and sharing the stage with someone as a duo, with two voices that are coloring each other. That’s a magical experience, and it’s about compromise and finding a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

Emily: “This year I did some solo stuff, playing a few shows with Sugarland to raise money for Honor The Earth. But I don’t feel driven so much to be a solo performer as of yet. I enjoy playing with Amy more than I do playing on my own, though I do love the discipline and challenge of it. The other thing is I wanted to get into different types of projects musically and started to learn Pro Tools, then I got caught up in the technology of it and that sort of squashed my creativity for a bit. I did help put together a CD recording for the Metro State Women’s Prison Gospel Choir, because the choir director was a former student of my dad’s who contacted me about getting involved. I’m also writing a book with my dad, so I seem driven to do projects with a more collaborative effort. I’m not really a mover and a shaker on the personal front.”

On how they’ve been able to sustain careers while many of their peers have fallen by the wayside

Amy: “I think we’re lucky. We have a really great core audience that sticks with us, listens to our music and comes to our shows, and doesn’t look at music from the perspective of trends. From time to time, if we get a song on the radio or get coverage in more media, we may add to that base audience, but it’s that small core that relates to us that has sustained our careers. It’s made up of a lot of great people—teachers, poets, activists and authors—who are contributing to the world, and hopefully we’re doing that too, so there’s a lot of mutual respect. That’s a blessing, and that’s really hard to find.”

On how they feel about where they are now, 24 years into their careers

Amy: “I feel good about where we are, but I don’t really think about it all that much. I’m really happy for what we’ve achieved, but other than that I’m just kinda living in the moment of what we’re doing now. It is so good for me that we’re independent. We could’ve done this 10 years ago and I would’ve been happy. I think we’re better off this way, and it’s more in the spirit of who we are and what we do.”

Emily: “I can’t be any more grateful for our history, what we’ve been able to experience, the people who’ve inspired us and the ability to play music for a living, which is a great gift. I’m a little more tired than I was 20 years ago—I don’t bounce back as quickly from tours and I really like nestling at home—but Amy is a great partner to work with and we’re both excited about the new record. As long as we still have the fire in us, we’ll keep doing it for God knows how long.”

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