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A Quiet Revolution

Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray and Emily Saliers on their life in music, activism and friendship

By Liza Lentini 

“I don’t even think about being an Indigo Girl unless I’m getting interviewed about it,” an upbeat Emily Saliers tells me, as she makes her daughter Cleo, eight, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. “I’m just, like, slogging through life,” she says, though not at all downtrodden, more in a relatable I’m-a-person-like-everyone-else sort of way. “Got sober–the most important thing that’s happened to me—got married [to Tristin Chipman in 2013], had a child. I’m making mistakes and learning from them. I’m working on my insecurities. I’m working on all the negative voices in my head that say I’m not good enough, just like everybody else.”

In spite of the obvious influence on both music and culture, and the quiet inspiration for decades of positive change, she adds: “To be an icon, no–it’s incompatible.”

The day before I spoke with Emily, on a 70-degree-afternoon in the foothills in North Georgia, Amy Ray took a break from building a treehouse for her daughter, seven-year-old Ozilline (with partner Carrie Schrader), to speak with me—and echoed a similar reaction to the idea of her and Emily’s influence. Without being affectatious, both are the epitome of grateful, grounded and 100% real.

Since they exploded onto the scene with their self-titled, major-label debut in 1989, they’ve been helping us all, by example, give insight between black and white, and take life less seriously—and moreso when needed. Amy and Emily have always been consistently, unapologetically exactly who they are: compassionate roving troubadours with a message of peace, progress and togetherness.

And since the beginning, they have always given us permission to stop and sing along.

These two women, who met in grade school, went on to reinvent their own version of folk-duo stardom, at a time when no one could have known they were exactly what we needed, a break from the little bit of everything the ‘80s bouncy pop charts offered—this was something else. They were something else. No matter what the tempo, their music was hymnal and summery. And full of hope.

If Emily and Amy ran the world, it would be based on genuine intelligence without a hint of pretention. The word “awesome” would be reintroduced with the reverence it justly deserves. Dogs would live forever. We would all genuinely care about our neighbors, and those we haven’t and will never meet. Lending a hand would be a part of daily life. Quietly, very quietly, harmony would fill the streets. The world would be an awesome fucking place.

Through the decades, they have never stopped making music, both apart and together. In 2020 they released their 16th studio album, Look Long, and continue to write and play together. Recently, Amy has released two beautiful singles—including the museum-worthy “Muscadine”—and Emily is working on two musicals. “There’s just always something in the physical world that is striking to me,” Emily says, on writing music. “Or I read a really good book, and it’s inspirational, not in a direct way that you could trace how that book inspired the writing, but it stirs the creative pot when you read a good book, or if you see a good film…. Then there’s whatever sensitivity creates as a dog person, as a mother, sort of opens up all those channels. I’m not really a very gut-guarded person. There’s just always something in my face that makes me want to write. Inspiration is everywhere.”

Throughout the crooked lines of life, the roads of music and friendship have always led back to one another.

Just Girls

“I definitely was Southern rock, I was a redneck,” Amy says of growing up a self-professed sheltered suburban kid just outside of Atlanta, then conservative and segregated. “I was born in a segregated hospital in 1964. I didn’t know it when I was growing up. I didn’t think about all that…. I was like a Reagan kid. Drove my dad’s Camaro with his Reagan bumper sticker on it. I was so proud, just had no clue. Then, when I hit 17, the ’80s started. I was still conservative and redneck. I was really into peace and love and not having cliques in high school. I was very interested in government, but I wasn’t aware how that connected with politics.”

Amy had met Emily when she was around 10, Emily the new kid in town, and a year older. “I remember more seeing her across the playground or in the cafeteria because we were a year apart,” Amy recalls. “She was already playing guitar and writing songs and I would see her in the cafeteria during lunchtime. She’d have a guitar and everybody would be sitting around, and she’d be playing and everybody would be singing together. I just was like, ‘I want to know that person.’”

They knew of each other but didn’t start hanging out until high school, Amy 15 and Emily 16. “We were both in the school chorus together,” Amy says. “Our older siblings were in school together and they had done drama things together and been in musicals together because our families were both really musical. We knew each other’s families, and then we hooked up in chorus and our friends merged because it became centered around music and theater and art and stuff, rather than just what grade are you in. That’s when it shifted.”

Amy loved punk; Emily, Joni. They both just loved music.

“When we first started singing together, I thought my head was going to explode, because I was like, ‘This is my musical soulmate,’” Amy recalls. “I think she was less that way, probably, because I was a year younger. You know how it is, I looked up to her a lot and stuff. I think I was very intense about it and she was probably more like, ‘What are my other options here?’”

Emily went off to Tulane leaving Amy to finish her last year of high school, but Amy would visit and they’d play anywhere they could, even playing for tips in Jackson Square. After graduating high school and attending Vanderbilt University for one year, Amy transferred to Atlanta’s Emory University. Eventually, Emily transferred to Emory, too.

“We played on campus all the time, at the Student Union, or whatever,” Amy says. “Started playing at the local bar. We had gigs constantly, we had gigs all the time.” They played covers until the mid-’80s when they began to work on original songs.

They needed a name, and in a previous interview with NPR, Emily recounts flipping through the dictionary, looking for the perfect one. They settled on indigo. Maybe they didn’t know then they’d chosen a deeply spiritual hue, one that symbolizes intuition and sincerity, awakening and purpose.

The newly named Indigo Girls cut a single in ’85 after borrowing money from Amy’s father. “We started with a cassette called Blue Food in high school and then we recorded it,” Emily says. “Then we made an EP and we made [our first studio album] Strange Fire, and then we had a list of college radio stations—because back in the day you could talk to the program directors.” 

They got a list, split it between the two of them, and hit the phones. “We would call record stores, we would walk around and consign records to every store in Atlanta. I mean, we were relentless,” Amy says. “It was not like big dreams, it was like, ‘We have to achieve this goal and we’ll be great.’ It was really small steps.”

Emily recalls driving around in their “smelly” car more than once, and with such fondness. “I was always the one who wanted to try the pickled eggs at the horrible gas station, and then the McRib from McDonald’s and all that crap,” Emily laughs, adding, “We always got along really well…we always did.”

Once Amy graduated from Emory in ’86, they could really devote their time to gigs. And they played everywhere.

No, really: Everywhere.

Indigo Girls in Concert at Wetlands - 1990

CREDIT: Steve Eichner/WireImage

“We did everything!” Emily says. “We played Southern resorts where they wanted us to cut our sets short because they already wanted to go home,” she laughs. “We toured in our smelly car and slept on people’s floors. We did everything. They call it ‘paying dues,’ but we were so young and it was so fun, so it didn’t feel like that, even looking back on it.”

They focused on booking as many gigs as possible, no matter how small. To quote Amy, they were very “un-choosy.” Despite their folk sound, they didn’t feel accepted at the more traditional folk clubs.

“We tried to play some of those and we did not fit in,” Amy says. “I think because we were very gay, too, and drank a lot and our friends drank a lot. We were like frat boys, but we were girls. We traveled with an entourage, like college kids and our families. It was like everybody we knew would come to the gigs. I would say we were too much sometimes. We would play at the places where R.E.M. would have played when they were starting out, like post-punk, left-of-the-dial kind of places. That’s where we could really get the gigs.

“We would open for our friends—Drivin N Cryin, let us open for them. A couple other bands that were more on the punk side would have us open shows. It opened up a totally different arena for us. That became more our path, which at the time, also college radio was getting to be a big deal, so we could get played on college radio and have that as a way to promote gigs. It was just a whole path, that was more along those lines.”

Amy continues: “We didn’t really know what was going on in the folk world and women’s music and all that stuff as much. Then when we became, I think, more comfortable with being gay and being out and not homophobic to ourselves and stuff. We started really honoring that more and tapping into the women’s music scene and understanding and being more politicized to that, too. It took a while, it was the early ’90s before we really were out-out and just unashamed and thankful for our audience in this way that wasn’t homophobic. I think before that we were scared. I think the college scene was not as scary to us, because it was very mixed in every way, and we felt comfortable there. I think, on a negative side, we were just scared of our gayness, as well.”

Those first five years or so playing every gig, “paying dues” turned out to be the best prep for the success that awaited them. “It gives you your armor and you know how to fight and fight your way through it,” Amy says. “When you’re getting ripped off, and when you’re not, you can deal with drunk people better…. It’s good to get that experience. It’s the school of hard knocks and I think it was fun too, though.”

“We played frat parties. It’s pretty funny to think about that.”

Indigo Girls

CREDIT: Jeremy Cowart

An Indigo World

Before the 1988 Billboard charts counted George Michael’s “Faith” as its No. 1 song of the year–with Samantha Fox’s “Naughty Girls Need Love Too” coming in at No. 28, beating out Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine” at No. 41—Epic signed the Indigo Girls. Their second studio album Indigo Girls, released in 1989, took only six months to go gold, with “Closer to Fine”, written by Emily, at the helm. They were nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy but lost to Milli Vanilli, whose award was later infamously rescinded.

Amy remembers those early years, opening for fellow Georgians R.E.M. and playing stadiums for the first time: “In ’89 or ’90, maybe, I can’t remember which year it was. It was right after we started, right after we got signed…I remember being super nervous and psyched but also feeling so small. It was abstract because it was two people on a stage. I remember I would just pray to God Michael Stipe would come out and sing with us every night, because it would make it so much easier if he came out and sang, but he would never tell us whether he was going to do it or not. We’d be like, ‘Oh, God, I hope he comes up tonight. It’ll be so much easier.’”

Turns out that armor they built up at coffee houses and frat parties came in pretty handy. “One time I remember somebody threw a bunch of M&M’s on the stage at us, just kept pelting us with M&M’s and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so miserable.’”, Amy says. “That kind of thing, but it was super fun though and we learned the ropes. They [R.E.M.] taught us a lot about how you pay it forward and how you treat your crew.” And if R.E.M. taught them about touring, the Grateful Dead taught them everything they’d need to know of crowd culture. “I remember playing with the Grateful Dead before Jerry Garcia died. That was the biggest crowd we ever played for, and it was in a huge stadium in Oregon. I couldn’t believe it, actually. I couldn’t believe how many people were out there. At that point, people were listening. It wasn’t just like no one was paying attention at all. It wasn’t everybody, but I remember I walked through the grounds before we started and there were just Dead Heads everywhere, tailgate parties, and campers. Then, you went inside and there’s just even more people in the audience. I’ll never forget the experience because I’ve just never seen anything like it. That tribe of people…”

“I think the most nervous I was…we did a Pride event in D.C. and I can’t remember what year it was, the early ’90s. We had to climb up this scaffolding onto this really high stage and we sang an a cappella version of ‘American Tune’, and I just thought I was going to faint the whole time. My knees were shaking, I felt like I was going to throw up and I could barely climb up the ladder…. It was a Pride event and I think it was our first big Pride out, it was everything.”

Despite personal support from family and fellow artists, the ‘80s did not foster a culture of tolerance. The growing AIDS epidemic served to feed existing bias and further the ugly ignorance of homophobia. For all its liberal stance, the music world wasn’t as accepting as we see it now. For Amy and Emily to be openly out back then was a big deal.

“When we arrived on the scene, so to speak, we were two queer women when there was a dearth of queer women who were accessible either to a mainstream population or to even the queer individuals who needed that in their lives and in their music and social experience,” Emily recalls. “I know that we arrived at a time in many people’s lives…it was important for them for their identity for their growth. They took our songs along with them and they grew with them and they’re like, ‘These are our people.’ In that way, if I had to step outside of it, I know that there are people who consider us icons but we are not icons to ourselves. We don’t feel like icons, we don’t ponder that except when asked…because every person who’s able to be where they are and to take part in the movement or to come out or whatever the case may be…someone has laid the groundwork for them before. To claim being an icon…it doesn’t make sense because it’s all connected to what’s come before. Then you find your place of comfort like with your people and then you move on, make it easier for someone else in some way.”

Indigo Girls

CREDIT: Jeremy Cowart

“There wasn’t really a division for us, between personal and professional,” Amy says, on being openly gay. “That’s just who we are, it’s all together. Our friends and our families are at our gigs and everything about our life is mixed in like that. It wasn’t all like we’ve got to make these professional decisions, it was more all-encompassing where this world of being gay is scary. It’s fun, but it’s scary because it was the South in the mid-’80s. It was a different place.” And being an openly gay woman in the ‘80s, especially in the music industry, there simply wasn’t much tolerance at all. “If you were a woman, you had a hard road because no one respected you and it’s just hard touring as a woman a lot of times in those clubs, and then if you’re gay, it’s just a double whammy.”

“The thing is,” Amy continues, “when you’re young, like for us, we didn’t understand. It didn’t occur to us that we were being brave or anything. We were scared and then we took each little baby step as the community around us did, too. We were lifted up by that, it wasn’t like, we’re forging this path that no one’s along with us. It was like, we have the whole crowd at the bar on the path with us. It’s like having a gang, we had a gang. It wasn’t like we were these brave people that were facing down tanks and machine guns or something. We were doing our thing and we were scared and lonely and hated ourselves sometimes, but we were also involved in the vibe music. That’s a gift. We had mentors like Joan Baez. People forget sometimes what she did: That’s bravery, facing those Billy clubs out there, marching in the face of all that. We felt important and we were young enough to be dumb too and not know if we were risking anything.

“It’s just that I always feel like every step that I took forward was because I had people around me that were in our community or audience, that were pushing. There were always some role models we had and sometimes they were younger than us, sometimes they were older, or they were our peers. They pushed us, and that was super important. Some things might not have even occurred to me, if I hadn’t had somebody pushing me. Sometimes I resisted. Like I had women mentors that would be like, ‘You guys just need to be like…go with being gay,’ and stuff, when we were really young, and I would be like, ‘No, we can’t. I don’t want our audience to feel alienated.’ They were the older women laughing at us for being so stupid and young, Now, I understand why they were so frustrated with us. At the time, I was just self-righteous and thought everything was right. You have to reflect back and you realize the times that you were brave. Sometimes you were brave and it was unwittingly.”

Of the Folks

“Folk music is music of the folks,” Emily says. “If you have the riot girl movement out of the Northwest, you’ve got those folks who are writing about their experience as a community. Then if I watch Ken Burns’s documentary on country music…it’s really interesting that, where the banjo came from Africa and how some of the Black artists or musicians inform some of the white country, I guess you’d call them artists. There was music, two different experiences of folks, and how they got blended together, but if you trace the roots, it’s all about the folks. The only music that may not be folk music and you may disagree with me or you could challenge me, is like techno music. I don’t see that as much as coming back to folk it’s because to me it’s not an expression of what the folk are experiencing in a way that the lyrics tell the story from different genres of music. At some point, people who are creating music have drawn from what’s come before them.”

Summer plans are still up in the air for so many, but as a duo, Amy and Emily are at an advantage. “Amy and I, we’ll go out with our two guitars and play in the fields for 100 people. I feel hopeful,” Emily says. “I miss the energy exchange. Our people come to our shows, they sing, they participate, they meet each other up. They are communities, they support each other and then they bring all that energy to the concerts, and then the adrenaline of being up there and witnessing that and the power of voices gathered and singing. It’s the most exhilarating feeling ever, it’s so reciprocal because we don’t do a show really. It’s just like…there’s Amy and Emily up there in their clothes that they probably wore yesterday to the falafel shop, but then after the show, man, I get in the bus and I go straight to my bed and I just collapse. I miss that motion. I miss that energy. I miss that ‘Let’s do what we’re best at and let’s do it together.’”

These interviews occurred before their home state of Georgia made headlines with the March 16th shooting that killed eight women in Atlanta. Born and raised in Georgia, Amy and Emily have chosen to raise their own families there, aware of the challenges and consistently fighting for progress and change.

They serve on the board of the environmental justice and cultural restoration group Honor the Earth. Established by Amy, Emily and executive director Winona LaDuke in 1993, Honor the Earth’s mission, to quote their website, is to “create awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities.” Emily explains: “We have historically helped to run campaigns to bring awareness to the different issues in Indian country. We have played concerts and done tours where we collected political action cards. We’ve just been involved in all the, particularly recently, environmental justice actions and the main focus right now is stopping this terrible proposed Line 3 pipeline. We spread the word through our social media. We have our board meetings. We raise funds. We spread the word. We went to standing rock when that was happening. We try to be in person on the issues as much as possible and just spread the word and make connections for people because all the connections of the native genocide and slavery and the colonization of this land there, it’s all connected. Sometimes those things seem overwhelming to people and complex, but they boil down very simply. We’re involved in trying to help people make sense of all those connections and then do the work on the ground.” 

They also work with Project Say Something, a nonprofit devoted to confronting racial injustice “through Black history by using communication, education, and community empowerment to reconcile the past with the present.” 

“Amy got introduced to their work…they do all different kinds of anti-racism work in the communities,” Emily explains. “They’re out of Florence, Alabama and that’s not like being out of Birmingham, because in Birmingham you have much more support. A much broader support and outreach and your voice can be amplified much more easily than if you’re in Florence, Alabama. We have a tremendous respect for those women who started that group. One of the projects that they’re working on is taking down this Confederate statue and it’s at the courthouse which is the people’s house. You cannot even believe that the struggle is so great in this day and time.”

Last August, Amy and Emily played a concert on the courthouse steps in support, which included Amy’s new song “Tear It Down” (The epitaph I Long to read / Is here lies slavery). Keep an eye on their Facebook page and YouTube channel for updates and livestreams. 

“More than anything it inspires us to stay engaged in movements where people are living the life of experiencing racism,” Emily explains. “These are powerful, powerful people who keep their eyes on the prize,” she adds. “Project Say Something is this grassroots group that does incredible work and they’re going to win. For me, it’s…what the fuck? They’re not even saying let’s all take sledgehammers to the statue. They’re saying just move it away, put it in a Confederate graveyard or whatever but just get it away from the courthouse. It’s very simple. Anytime I hear anybody say, ‘Well, we’ve moved past racism.’ We haven’t even begun. They’re a group that keeps us inspired and we want to be allies with them.”

“It doesn’t matter what age you are, if you’ve ever had any feeling about something that’s important to you. If you’ve ever had any experience with empathy for a friend or an animal or whomever, the only way to help be a part of the solution to a problem or an issue is to stand up for it,” Emily says.

She and Amy continue to lead by example.

“I think that’s the whole key is, like…I’m a person who asks myself all the time, ‘Why am I here?’ I don’t really know the answer but…being involved in justice and being passionate about something that involves making lives better for creatures and people is the reason I’m here, to be part of that in any way I can…and use energy and drive and intelligence and passion.

“Young people…they’re the future they’re going to lead us. It’s not very difficult to hook into something that stirs your heart or makes you feel passionate about–a justice or an injustice. It is critically important that people find their worth as human beings based on what they stand up for.”