Emily Saliers on her Adventurous Solo Debut and What’s Next for Indigo Girls
Seeking both to vent and heal on Murmuration Nation, Saliers stretches well outside the bounds of her iconic duo.
By Josh Jackson
Emily Saliers is visibly excited. After more than three decades as one half of the iconic folk duo Indigo Girls, she’s finally striking out on her own with her first solo album, Murmuration Nation, which came out Friday. For a self-professed introvert, that’s a scary step, but also an invigorating one.
While there are songs on the record that wouldn’t be out of place on an Indigo Girls release, others venture into completely new territory, anchored by R&B, funk and jazz rhythms. Longtime fans will notice the lack of acoustic guitar as much as the lack of Amy Ray’s voice. But they’ll also find familiar subject matter that marks all of Saliers’s songwriting: a righteous fury about the injustice she sees around her, and an optimism that love will sustain us through the worst the world can throw at us.
We met up with Saliers at Watershed, the restaurant she founded in the Atlanta neighborhood of Decatur before moving it to swankier digs in Buckhead. Fortunately it was Wednesday, when Watershed offers the fried chicken for which it’s famous. Over a long lunch, Saliers seemed anything but shy, opening up about the three-year journey to get Murmuration Nation made and her ambitions going forward.
Paste: The big, obvious question is why now? You and Amy started playing together as teenagers, and now all these years later you’re finally going out on your own.
Emily Saliers: A confluence of things, really, because for the longest time what I did with Amy completely occupied me and felt like enough of what I wanted to do creatively in addition to things I did outside of Indigo Girls, like write a book with my dad and do some co-writing and singing on other people’s records. But then I just started to get an itch to do a record that was rhythmic at its center, because Amy and I, I don’t think, were really thought of as a groove band. But groove music—particularly African-American R&B, hip-hop and gospel—is the stuff that really moves my soul the most. And so I can’t be black, but I can just bring those influences in.
“I just started to get an itch to do a record that was rhythmic at its center, because Amy and I, I don’t think, were really thought of as a groove band. But groove music—particularly African-American R&B, hip-hop and gospel—is the stuff that really moves my soul the most.”
So when I found Lyris Hung, who’s the producer, I sent her a couple of snippets of ideas, and she produced them in her studio and they were what I wanted—that feeling that I only had in my mind that I didn’t know how to create. She knew how to make beats. She’s an incredible violinist but also has just she had a metal band and she scored for people and played on stage with Jay Z and blah blah blah. She had this wild thing where she put her vision to the snippets. And then once I found her, I was like, “This is the right person to bring that to life.”
Paste: Right from the opening sounds on “Spiders,” you kind of signal this is not your typical Indigo Girls record, or what people might have expected from a solo record from you.
Saliers: And it wasn’t intentional. In the recent past, I’ve been wanting to be like really, really rhythmic, because for me when a beat kicks in, that’s what really propels me.
Paste: One thing that struck me, almost more than anything else on the record, were the bass lines going on. Who’s playing that bass?
Saliers: “Spider” is Clare Kenny. Amy and I sort of poached her from Sinead O’Connor back in the days of Lilith Fair. She’s well-steeped in reggae. She’s a Londoner, but she’s toured with Indigo Girls, and she’s particularly known for her melodic bass lines. And then Tim LaFave, who Lyris knew. And I knew him from his work with Tedeschi-Trucks and on the last David Bowie album. There’s just some badass bass on the album.
Paste: What was the recording process like? Some of these songs sound like songs you might typically sing with the Indigo Girls, and some are layered and more experimental and run the gamut from R&B to funk to jazz to Spanish guitar. How did that play out in the studio?
Saliers: With Indigo Girls, Amy writes her songs and I write my songs and then we get together and we arrange them before we go into the studio. The collaboration with Lyris was different. She created demos, and we worked on those demos together for a period of three years. These are mostly my songs except for a couple that Lyris wrote music for. But she was like the musical director. So it was different in that we had a musical scope that we were going for, and she was very clear about what elements needed to go in to make that.
So in the studio, basically we cut the tracks live. But then everything that we put in there—all the parts were drawn from the demo. So it was different in that way. A lot of times in Indigo Girls, we would bring a player in or just create something based on our acoustic arrangements. And it’s very much acoustic-oriented. And on Indigo Girls, Amy and I virtually play guitar through the whole songs—or mandolin or whatever the instrument is. This was not the case on this record; there’s less guitar on this record than on any of my Indigo Girls records, as far as starting at the beginning and playing through a song.
Paste: Did you write all the songs on guitar and then build over them or start with beats that you played around with?
Saliers: I work on Logic on my Apple Computer, and I would create beats and then they propelled the songs. For instance “OK Corral.” In my house, I picked a beat that I liked, and then I put a delay on an electric guitar, and I then wrote a chordal pattern which no longer exists because Lyris didn’t want to do it that way. She was like, “Let’s take the guitar out. Let’s have the keyboard play something kind of creepy and unusual. And then the beats will kick in.” And then there were things that I wanted to hold on that I created in the studio like a synth patch. So I wrote them on guitar with beats at home. But a lot of the guitar disappeared as the arrangements came around. It’s hard to let go. It wouldn’t be the record it is if I hadn’t let go of that, because there’s something that locks you into a certain thing if you play guitar from beginning to end of the song, as opposed to just having this palette of other musical arrangement. And now the trick is to sit in my room and write an arrangement on guitar that feels gratifying when I have to play a solo show or I don’t have a band. That’s the next challenge.
Paste: Can you talk a little bit about the fear that was preventing you from making this record, and the process of overcoming it?
Saliers: Well, a lot of the original fears are like: Why do I need to do a solo record? What if no one likes it? What if people miss Amy too much? What if they really only like what Indigo Girls do, and they don’t like this direction? I think, like, basic artistic insecurities, and I have them all. But not enough so that it kept me from pursuing it. I had a lot of heart-to-hearts with Lyris, and she’s like, “Look, you just do this different thing in the end.” You know, even though it’s my record, I had to get out of myself to be more relaxed about the differences in the processes. And another fear that I had was, like, these songs aren’t going to translate with an acoustic guitar or a ukulele or a banjo or whatever on their own. They’re only going to be good with a band.
And then we had a lot of conversations about how you have to trust that an audience wants to hear different arrangements, and then it can be interesting to them. And so I took a lot of convincing from people that I respected, like Lyris. She basically had to pound me over the head that it was okay to do something different on the record than what you might end up doing live. Because I was like, “No, it’s got to sound like the record.” But in the end she convinced me that it’s okay to have different experiences, and then I just got over my fears, and now it’s like, okay this is cool.
Paste: And now you’re going to go tour these songs this summer. Will you be recreating any of those layered elements or is it really going to be a solo summer tour?
Saliers: Well, different things. Like yesterday, I did this crazy show for Adult Swim. Oh yeah, insane. And I just played a couple of the songs on the record acoustically. So I guess bare bones, and they translate really well. And then tonight I’m playing at Eddie’s Attic, and playing at the Bluebird in Nashville. And those will all just be with Lyris, and so she plays some of the elements but it’s still very bare bones. And we’re going to play at least seven or eight songs from the record like that, and then we’ll take a full tour out in October and that’s going to be the full thing—like the bass parts, the keyboard player parts, the violin parts and the guitar parts. So that’s the full monty. But it’s not easy to take a band out here.
Paste: And it’s not like the Indigo Girls have gone away. You guys still plans. Can you talk about the live album, the symphony album?
Saliers: Yeah, we recorded it with University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra. We played a show with them and we loved them. So we went and recorded just a one-night one show back in April. We have like 21 songs. I suppose we’ll have to pare down. It’ll be a double-album right now. And then we had Trina Shoemaker mixing, and she’s fabulous. But we had to use D.I. guitars, because you can’t mic them in a symphony because of all the noise around the mic. So now we’re having to go back and rerecord the guitar parts. It’ll come out next year, and then we’ll be doing more symphony shows in different cities across the country. It’s been a wonderful thing. Every show you’re really on your toes with the symphony. There’s no drummer, just an amorphous thing. But we love that symphony because they’re students—grad students and undergrads—and they’re excited about music.
Paste: Are there any songs in particular that you’re excited about how they translated to a symphony experience?
Saliers: Well, “Chicken Man” is pretty cool. And now honestly when I play the songs I hear the orchestral arrangements in my head. “Virginia Woolfe” is beautiful. I mean, it starts out kind of emulating the part that’s on the record that we did a long time ago, but it’s sort of a sparse arrangement, and it’s just beautiful. It sort of envelops the song, allows it to breathe, but augments it in this really nice way. So that came out really well. Honestly, they all did. “The Power of Two” is a very sparse arrangement. Others are much more involved. Like “Go” was kind of swarthy and rollicking. They all came out really well.
Paste: That’s great. Any idea when that will be released?
Saliers: Probably within the first few months of next year.
Paste: I wanted to ask about one of your new songs, “OK Corral.” Lyrically this album is this really cool melding of anger and love—like this sort of righteous the-world-isn’t-as-it-should-be feel. Then these pieces of it that are. Can you talk about where that’s coming from?
Saliers: It’s one of my favorite songs on the album. You know, I feel like America’s relationship to guns—particularly handguns and assault weapons—is a deep mental illness. But it’s the fabric of our country. So, I list all these, you know, ’70s and Billy the Kid figures that were so big, as kids, in our American imaginations. And then Amy’s and my work with indigenous communities has brought things to my consciousness that they weren’t there before. For instance, you know, Mount Rushmore—which is like this supposedly great American monument—they carved these white guys, American U.S. political leaders, on this sacred rock of the tribes who were there. And so it was a displacement of their spiritual landscape, which is something that I hadn’t even thought about until it was brought to my attention. So I think about guns and Manifest Destiny—what we’ve done to indigenous communities historically, what we did to the Chinese who built the railroad that connected the country in such a powerful way from East to West, how it all ties into violence. You know, the guy with the gun leading over the guy without the gun. And how simple it really would be to come up with a better plan and to shake off the slippery-slope notion that any kind of sane gun legislation means the end of gun ownership in America—to shake off the grip of the NRA and the propaganda that has poisoned a lot of Americans’ minds. It’s frustrating, and in the end, it’s like, you could make a better plan, but we’re going to die. We’re going to die by it because we won’t make a better plan.
Paste: And you can dance to it! How is it creating a song that’s angry but that’s also musically fun? What’s that experience like?
Saliers: You know, it’s not something that I have to take a step outside and try to create that. For me, it happens naturally because pop is easy for me, melody is easy for me. So I’m always going to go toward something that’s kind of singable just naturally. I have all these dark feelings and thoughts inside. And when you talk about “the album’s full of anger and love,” I mean it really is. In a song like “Fly”—I mean when the election of Trump happened, you know, most of my friends, some of us couldn’t get out of bed. I woke up, I asked my wife, “Did that happen?” because I went to bed before the end. I couldn’t tolerate it. The returns were coming. And then all my black friends were like, “Are you kidding? You didn’t know this could happen?” This is the country that we live in, and all this stuff was swirling around.
But that song “Fly” is like that. That election was a pivotal moment for me because up until that point I had the sort of naive, heaven-on-earth belief that we could all come together. But you know, we can’t, and I don’t think we ever will. And especially not in this country—we’re too big and too fractious. And so I said, you know, as a kid I used to think we can have a meeting of minds, but after that election I knew how divided the country was. And I knew it couldn’t happen. So in my personal journey I was like, okay I’m going to be part of the murmuration for change. That’s what I can do. And I believe in dialogue, and I believe in diplomacy. But I don’t believe we’re all going to come together with a meeting of the minds.
Paste: So this idea of a murmuration for change—can you explore that a little bit? Where did that phrase come from?
“That election was a pivotal moment for me because up until that point I had the sort of naive, heaven-on-earth belief that we could all come together. But you know, we can’t, and I don’t think we ever will. And especially not in this country.”
Saliers: Well, I’ve had an obsession with birds forever. I don’t know why. And I’ve written about birds a lot throughout the Indigo Girls music. And I saw this video on a murmuration of starlings [the acrobatic swooping of a large flock]. I really love blackbirds, and they’re just plain blackbirds. And a lot of people don’t like starlings, they think them a pest or whatever. But watching it on YouTube, it’s incredible, like a shape-shifting fluidity movement, and naturalists can’t exactly figure out why they do it. They think it’s maybe to ward off prey, which is a really good metaphor to me. But the most striking part of the metaphor for me was the way that it was not patriarchal; it wasn’t like there are any usual structures. It’s more like a natural fluidity of movement for protection for change. So I extended the metaphor and I just thought this is what’s happening in the wake of this election—like the Black Lives Matter movement with the Women’s March with communities coming together, and not, you know, like white people swooping into communities of color and saying this is what you need to do to change. And I’m generalizing, but white people need to be allies and they need to listen to the communities of color who were in such trouble because of oppression and violence. And so that’s how I saw the murmuration. And in the wake of the elections, I thought, that’s my flock. I’m going with them. And we’re going to let the beauty of this sort of unstructured movement of change happen, and it’s going to be good because it’s powerful. You know, like even in the Women’s March, that started as an idea and really wasn’t even organized at the beginning.
Paste: On the flip side of angry songs like “OK Corral” and “Fly,” you have a song like “Long Haul.” That’s such a beautiful picture of a long-term relationship.
Saliers:: Well I have some experience with that. And there’s also some personal stuff in there because my wife is Canadian, so there’s reference to “your Canadian brother” and time we had to spend apart and distance and the fear when you freeze each other out. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that in a relationship, but you freeze and you’re locked in this frozen thing and you just need to chill, and it warms up a bit. So that song is a testament to my marriage and to my belief in long-term relationships. I hear people say beings are not åmeant to be monogamous. But that’s not true for me—or my parents. Lyris and I were putting the songs together, and she was like, “You know what? I think we could really use a song that’s a little more upbeat in spirit.” So I wrote that song because I felt like there was something missing in the balance of all the intensity of the other songs. And then Jennifer Nettles, I wanted her to sing harmony on the record. I didn’t know that song was going to become a duet, because of what she did in the studio. She’s so brilliant. What she does is so full of energy.
Paste: It’s a very energetic moment on the record.
Saliers: I love energy music, but my demeanor and internally what comes naturally is not as forceful as the way I feel. That’s been the great thing about working with Amy. She brings that passion, that rock. I feel so much of that and want to create that. I think I’ve gotten as close as I possibly can with this record without being inauthentic, because I don’t have a voice that can belt.
Paste: There are definitely fun moments on the album, along with the serious ones.
Saliers: I just can’t be all serious. For me this record really represents who I am, because I’m really involved in social issues and I care about the world and I want to be involved. But I also need to watch football on Sunday afternoon and see fun, mindless films, not just serious films. I just need seasons of change. I can’t just be intense all the time. So that’s the record is kind of like. Like “Slow Down Day Friend,” I wrote on ukulele. It was the first song I ever wrote on ukulele. It was meant to be whimsical.
Paste: So obviously there are some different influences on Murmuration Nation. Or you are you letting what’s always been an influence take more center stage? Can you talk a little bit about what those influences are? The hip hop and funk and whatever else led to this album?
Saliers: Well, Public Enemy was the first rap record I think I bought. It was political rap, so it was very powerful. I have struggled with rap when the content is misogynist in any way, but I can’t stop listening to it because everything else is so powerful about it. So anything by Biggie and Tupac. I was a huge Tupac fan. I love Kendrick Lamar’s new record. I’m a big fan of Yelawolf. What I like about Yelawolf is he uses acoustic instruments, too. He’s kind of a hybrid artist. He sings a little. He’s a really good artist in terms of graffiti and just his whole aesthetic is very artistic.
Early seminal records—the first record I ever bought was The Jackson 5. My dad said, if I picked out the dandelions in the yard, he’d pay me a penny a dandelion. And then I picked 500 and bought that record. And later Chaka Khan was huge. Mary J. Blige in recent memory has been awesome. I was a huge Heart fan—women who played rock and acoustic. I loved singer/songwriters like Farron. She was really one of the best songwriters we’ve had. Amy would say the same thing. And then, of course, Jackson Browne. But Joni Mitchell was my very favorite, particularly Hejira was a seminal album for me. She really showed me the power of metaphor and imagery. Early Jethro Tull. I love a lot of straight-ahead rock bands, AC/DC and Aerosmith. It’s funny, though, my very first artist first concert I saw, I was obsessed with John Denver. And then I discovered Elton John, and that was the end of John Denver.
Paste: That’s a great jump—the folk of John Denver to the pop craziness of Elton John.
Saliers: My parents had classical and jazz albums only, and maybe a couple of Peter, Paul and Mary lying around. We were kind of like a nice family. And so we listened to nice music that was nice, and we were sort of reared with the hopefulness in life and as it relates to theology. Then I really started really listening to music with an edge to it. When rap came around, especially political rap, saying, “Oh my god.” I had to teach my dad why rap was important and why you had to curse and why he had to be angry.
Paste: How did you explain that?
Saliers: We talked about the realities of other people’s lives and communities and the hurt that they suffer and how they express themselves and how it’s important not to be judgmental and say that this classical piece is better than this rap piece. The best music that speaks to you.
Paste: Do you have any other projects you eventually want to do, now that you’ve got a solo album under your belt?
Saliers: I want to write a musical or co-write a musical. I want to write a children’s album. I’m going to write music for film. I want to do all that. I’ve done a little bit of music for film, but I want to write a score for a TV show. I pay so much attention to music and how it affects the experience of television. I want to make more solo records.
Paste: So has this experience writing a solo album opened the floodgates?
Saliers: Totally. And there won’t be as much pressure I put on myself for next time. I mean I’ve got to remember I read this article about these other solar systems or something that was discovered fairly recently. It made me feel so good to be so small, you know, to leave me like, “What are you worried about? You’re so small in this beautiful universe.” And that’s a gift. So it really chilled me out.