How Have The Indigo Girls Survived for so Long? ‘We’re fans of what each other does’
By Ed Masley
When Indigo Girls released “Come On Now Social,” Rolling Stone responded to the duo’s seventh album by declaring it not only a “career peak” but “the culmination of everything warm and mighty about the Lilith Fair aesthetic — without the sunburn.”
With the 20th anniversary of that album coming up in late September, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been signing off on mixes for their 15th album, which found them returning to England to work once again with producer John Reynolds.
They met at Lilith Fair, a traveling festival of female-fronted acts, in 1998. Reynolds and several musicians they ended up using on “Come On Now Social” were all members of Sinead O’Connor’s backing band.
“We became, like, fast friends with this band and with Sinead,” Ray says. “And we hung out a lot. So then we asked John Reynolds, her ex-husband/partner/collaborator, who still works with her all the time, to produce and play drums on our album, and then the keyboardist and bass player and guitar player who play with her. And the cellist.”
September 14, 2017: Indigo Girls | All Ages | The Van Buren at 8 p.m. (Photo: Noam Galai)
It was such a great experience, it led to lasting friendships.
“We’ve kept in touch for 20 years,” Ray says. “We’ve played with them when we’re in England and we have big dinner parties with them. They’re very close friends. And some of them have played with us over here as well. Carol (Isaacs) has played on a lot of our records since then. They’re like a real family for us, and we have wanted for a long time to just kind of go back over there and work.”
Time to record again
Fast forward to a couple years ago. Ray and Saliers were having tea in England, like you do, with Reynolds. And as Ray recalls, “We just all looked at each other and we were like, ‘I think we’re ready to do another record together.'”
In addition to Reynolds and Isaacs on keyboards, the album features Clare Kenny on bass, Justin Adams on guitar and Caroline Dale on cello, with their touring violinist Lyris Hung and guest harmonies by Lucy Wainwright Roche and Lucy Jules, George Michael’s backup singer.
“We did it all in England,” Ray says, “most of it at Real World, Peter Gabriel’s studio. So it’s produced. It’s got a lot going on. I mean, it’s not acoustic. It’s more the kind of records we do that are electric and groovy and vibey and have stuff happening. So it’s gonna be less of a roots record and more of like a John Reynolds production. There’s a couple of songs that are super acoustic that are very beautiful and simple, piano and guitar and kind of sparse drums. And then there’s stuff that’s just kind of crazy that Emily wrote that sounds like psychedelic Heart or something to me.”
Ray laughs at the thought of Indigo Girls as psychedelic Heart, then adds, “It really runs the gamut. I did a couple songs that are more in my kind of garage/poppy-punk vein. And then I have a couple that are I guess more serious or something. They’re on mandolin, but they have drums and things going on everywhere and guitar.”
More importantly, at least to Ray, they had a great time making it.
“We just went in and had fun, basically, at Peter Gabriel’s place,” she says. “You go there and you live there and you work there so you’re just kind of in it the whole time. And it was really creative and fun. At this point, you’ve gotta have fun or it’s not worth doing. So that’s what we did. I don’t know if it’s contemporary. Like, I don’t know if it fits in with what’s happening now. But it’s just what we do. I have no idea if people will play it on the radio or what will happen to it. We’re just trying to make something that we really like.”
Why music needs to be fun
The idea that music should be fun is a concept Ray returns to often, citing the current political climate.
“Right now, it should be something that bonds people together,” she says. “And I don’t mean, like, not take it seriously, but there’s so many massive things going on in the world right now, it should be this kind of a haven. I mean, there’s definitely political songs on the album, but you know what I’m saying.”
One of Ray’s songs, she says, is a “midtempo comment on guns, but it’s midtempo in the way that the Pretenders are midtempo, you know? It’s got some spank to it, some grunge. I didn’t want to wallow, I guess is the truth. So I’m addressing certain things in society but I’m doing it in a way that’s more like something the B-52s would do, you know what I mean? More metaphorical and joyful.”
Saliers’ songs, she says, are “really beautiful and introspective,” adding, “They’re just really gorgeous and contemplative of the world but not like didactically political, more a reflection that you have when you’re in your 50s, you know, and you’re thinking about all the stuff and how it relates in a more metaphysical way, the cosmos and all that, more than this didactic sort of preaching.”
Amy Ray (left) and Emily Sailers of Indigo Girls perform in the SiriusXM Studios on September 22, 2015, in Nashville. (Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
Saliers also brought a couple of what Ray calls “ringers” to the table.
“I can tell when she writes a song and it’s like ‘This is gonna be the line that everybody sings,'” Ray explains, with a laugh. “We started playing a couple of them out just for fun, you know. And there was one song that she didn’t think we should even record. I was like ‘You’re crazy. This is, like, a great song. And I can tell you that everyone is gonna sing along on this and there’s gonna be certain moments when they all clap.'”
It’s a song called “Country Radio” that Ray says is “about being gay and living in a small town and loving country radio but not being able to, like, find your place in it.”
With any luck, the album could be out by January.
“We’re not even sure who’s putting it out yet,” Ray says. “We’re just paying for it ourselves. Or our manager is. He took a loan out. So we feel good about it because now we can take our time and find just the right way to release it.”
For now, it’s being mixed by Trina Shoemaker, who did “Beauty Queen Sister” for Indigo Girls and several of Ray’s solo efforts.
“She’s in Alabama,” Ray says. “She’s mixing the record and we’re just kind of going back and forth online with changes. Then when it gets to a place where it’s about 90% there, we’ll go down to Alabama and be there for a couple days to do the last-minute tweaks. ‘Cause Trina really likes to have her own space to mix and just do her thing. So we don’t know what it totally sounds like yet all together. I’m working with her on my songs and Emily’s working with her on hers and then we get together and comment on each other’s songs and finalize the mixes. That’s when we really know what the record’s gonna be and what it feels like. If we were both working on both of our songs together, it would take forever because it’s like too many cooks in the kitchen. Emily and I, it’s almost like we make two solo records and then we stick them together and it’s an Indigo Girls record.”
A lifetime of friendship
Ray and Saliers met in elementary school and started playing music as a duo while attending high school in Decatur, Georgia. And you can definitely hear the bonds that come with that when Ray discusses Salier’s contributions to the record or how she goes about choosing which songs end up on her solo records, including last year’s brilliant “Holler.”
The Indigo Girls (Photo: Courtesy photo)
“When I’m writing, I just kind of hear the direction it’s going,” she says. “And if I can’t hear Emily in it or it doesn’t feel like a duo song, then I just know it’s not. It’s not as much of a stylistic thing as who am I collaborating with. So I have a band that I’ve been touring with for about five years that I just know them really well and they’re kind of like my other thing. So I can hear them in the song or I can hear Emily in the song. And sometimes I don’t hear either one and then I make a whole separate pile for that as something I’ll do later when I meet the right people.”
In the meantime, she’s touring with Saliers and headed to Phoenix for a Saturday, June 29, performance at the Van Buren, where Saliers’ “Country Radio” will more than likely result in much singing along and spontaneous outburst of clapping in response to certain lines, the way Ray always knew it would.
“We’re fans of what each other does,” she says. “And we do our thing solo too. So it gives us another perspective and other collaborators that we work with, and I think it kind of makes it healthier between us. It’s almost like we’ve gotten to a point where she can kinda look at my songs almost like a producer would and I can handle the criticism because it’s objective in that way. And vice versa. So we’re better about being helpful to each other about how to make what we’re doing better, rather than doing something that’s out of the ego or being threatened. And we’ve gotten to that place more and more in the last 10 years or so.”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 29.
Where: The Van Buren, 401 W. Van Buren St., Phoenix.
Details: 866-468-3399, thevanburenphx.com.