Coming of Age With the Indigo Girls
With the release of a double album of their classics sung with a full symphony, the Indigo Girls talk about nostalgia, road trips, and overcoming being the brunt of the joke.
By Tracy E. Gilchrist
A big orange sun dips below the horizon as you fly down the Pacific Coast Highway, over the over the Rockies, across the bridge at Lake Pontchartrain, or on any drive that constitutes a road trip. The wind whips through your hair as you belt the refrain “Each life has its place” from the Indigo Girls’ song “Virginia Woolf.”
The year could be 1992, when the musical duo of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray released their breakout album, Rites of Passage, which features the song about Woolf that became a rallying cry for so many queer women of a certain age. Or it could be 2018, and it’s as though you’re hearing so many of their classics for the first time thanks to the lush and whimsical arrangements on their new double album, The Indigo Girls Live With the University of Colorado Symphony.
Either way, the music of the Indigo Girls’ youth (and that of so many of its fans) evokes a simpler era before snarky rejoinders on Twitter and Instagram stories constituted feeling like part of a community. From “Kid Fears” to “Galileo” to the more recent “Happy in the Sorrow Key,” their music — infused with sincerity, hope, and their activism — is nostalgic, timeless, and vital to a queer canon. It’s also the perfect summer road-tripping music.
“We grew up with our fans in some way, so we were all in post-college or graduating or still in college, and Emily and I had just gotten out,” Ray tells The Advocate about the memories their music evokes. “We had a moment where people were a certain age, and now they’re nostalgic for that time. They associate us with it. We’re sentimental, and our music is of a communal sort of ilk. And so I think it lends itself to nostalgia in that way.”
“Our name is kind of like forever young because it’s ‘Girls.’” Ray adds. “Even though we’re, like, old ladies now. We’re older, so it’s kind of funny.”
Georgia natives who began harmonizing together at their high school near Atlanta, the Indigo Girls already enjoyed a robust local following when “Closer to Fine” — off of their eponymous 1988 album — hit the college radio circuit. The inevitable lesbian anthem was the antithesis of the synth-heavy ’80s sounds that typified alternative music of the time, like that of Depeche Mode and the Cure. But there was something about the Indigo Girls’ music that was both refreshing and radical in all of its acoustic earnestness. And although Ray and Saliers didn’t come out as lesbians until a few years into the ’90s, they pinged as gay for a generation of queer women who had only a handful of role models that included out musicians Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang.
The Indigo Girl with the lilting upper register, Saliers, tells The Advocate that their songs are “a combination of a bit of melancholy, a bit of nostalgia, and a bit of excitement.”
“I think that our songs, at least for people who go along with us on this journey [the fans] — they relate to certain parts of their lives, but they continue to listen to them,” Saliers adds about the nostalgia embedded in their sound.
The year before “Closer to Fine” hit the airwaves, Tracy Chapman had paved the way for a throwback to folk music with “Fast Car.” And so the Indigo Girls song that proclaims, “I went to the doctor / I went to the mountains / I looked to the children / I drank from the fountains,” hit number 52 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1989. The following year, Saliers and Ray picked up the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Saliers points to the mutable meaning of their lyrics over time as one reason their songs conjure a time gone by while also feeling of-the-moment.
“Amy and I write about things that concern us — social issues or personal things,” she says. “They tend to be things that our fans can relate to in their own lives or to social issues going on around us.”
“When we say ‘each life has its place’ — when I was writing that song I was thinking about the struggle of Virginia Woolf as a woman, with her mental illness and how difficult it was for women to be encouraged and confident in their art. She touched my life,” Saliers says of the 1992 song.
“But now I sing that line and I think about immigrants who are trying to leave and I think about the hateful response to them and how we have to remember our common humanity,” Saliers says, referring to the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy that included separating children from parents at the border.
Women musicians — many of them singer-songwriters — proved they could headline stadium shows and bring in big business for three years running with the all-female Lilith Fair line-up that Sarah McLachlan created in 1997 (in which Ray and Saliers played). But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Indigo Girls, with their throwback to the bygone era of folk and their fan base of lesbians and bisexual women, were often a punch line, Ray says.
So while their music hearkens to an era when a generation of queer women were coming of age, it also grew out of a moment that lesbians who were the brunt of jokes about Birkenstocks and fanny packs are less nostalgic about. Having weathered that storm of stereotyping, misogyny, and homophobia, the Indigo Girls are excited about the new generation of unapologetic out musicians, especially when Janelle Monae’s name comes up.
“I don’t know how to put it, but the lesbian kind of canon that we’re carrying was associated with so much derogatory stuff and mediocre folk music and making fun of our crowd,” Ray recalls of the early days. “We really had to muscle through all that and not hate ourselves and not hate everything that we are and our community, and not be afraid of it.”
“We had internalized homophobia just like everyone else our age that was trying to get through it — in the South especially, and in small towns,” Ray recalls. “We weren’t part of a community that was super progressive and cutting-edge. We were suburban white middle-class girls that had no concept of the struggles of people before us. We had to get politicized and we had to learn to like ourselves. Everyone else in our audience was doing that while we were doing it.”
“You get tired of being the punching bag and the joke on Saturday Night Live all the time,” Ray says.
Regarding the new generation of out musicians that includes artists like Monae, Troye Sivan, and Hayley Kiyoko, Ray says. “Now there’s this moment of people that are allowed and have the fortitude and badass-ness and vision to carry that torch in a way that’s still proud and not weighed down by all that stuff.”
“It helps a lot of people out who are still living in areas where it’s hard and who are working at jobs where they have to be in the closet,” she says. “There are still towns where people commit suicide because someone finds out they’re gay. And those kinds of artists, they make it great.”
Both Saliers and Ray are longtime activists for the environment, LGBT equality, and for indigenous American communities, all of which are under fire with Donald Trump in office. The Girls touch on the importance of being socially and politically engaged in the current environment but also of taking necessary breaks — in which music, road trips, nostalgia can play a part.
Tried-and-true Indigo Girls fans and new converts alike (The Advocate’s Gen-Z-aged intern says she loves them) setting off on road trips this summer can turn to their new live album with the University of Colorado Symphony — the culmination of their years-long project playing with symphony orchestras throughout the country — to sing their faces off while barreling down the highway. But what do Amy and Emily play to get them to where they’re going?
“I was thinking about my own road trips, like ‘Dixie Chicken’ from Little Feat. I remember being at Tulane University and taking a road trip in my friend’s crappy-ass car and blasting that song,” Saliers says. “So road trip music is really important to me, and to think that [our music] is road trip music to other people is a really good feeling.
Currently, Saliers can’t say enough about Monae, but she also name-checks JoJo as an obsession.
“I just saw her live in New York. She just blows my mind. She went through a hard time with her record label where she got screwed over, and I hear she’s rising above the ashes like the phoenix that she is with this incredible talent,” Saliers gushes. “But her songs — she had an album that came out with a song called ‘How to Touch a Girl.’ I was vacationing in Mexico at that point. I played that song incessantly.”
For those inspired to create the sort of playlist Ray and Saliers might make for themselves, Saliers also shouts out to the married duo the Weepies, calling them one of her favorite road trip bands of all time. But don’t expect mostly folk from the woman who gave the world songs like “Ghost” and “Galileo.” She also loves to get behind the wheel to Rick James, the Gap Band, and the Commodores.
For Ray, the Indigo Girl with an affinity for punk music who makes it easier for the altos in their audience to sing along, artists including the Shins, OutKast, Public Enemy, Patty Griffin, Jackson Browne, Chris Stapleton, Elvis Presley, and Nick Williams are often in rotation on her driving playlist.
Whether its Ray’s epic “Chickenman” sung with the glorious U. of Colorado Symphony swelling behind them or Saliers’s heartfelt lesbian love song “Power of Two” played off the original 1995 album Swamp Ophelia, the Indigo Girls’ music travels over space and time in varied ways.
“I think Amy and I write songs that people can take along with them — that’s the kind of music that we listen to that we’ve taken along in our own lives,” Saliers says.