Come a Long Way: An Interview with the Indigo Girls

Posted on Jun 1, 2015 in Artist Interviews
Come a Long Way: An Interview with the Indigo Girls

The Indigo Girls — Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — have been making music together for over 30 years now. From their first single in 1985 to their newest release, One Lost Day, the two have continually pushed their music forward, switching up styles and sounds as their muses demand — because, despite their activist and acoustic leanings, they’ve never been mere folk singers. There’s more to them than that. A lot more. On One Lost Day, they wanted the more to be front and center, so they recruited a young, mostly untested producer, Jordan Brooke Hamlin. Prior to this album, Hamlin’s top producing credit was Lucy Wainwright Roche’s There’s a Last Time for Everything, but the Girls knew she was worth the risk. They were right. The gamble resulted in their best record since 2004’s All That We Let In.

Which one of you pushed more to work with Jordan or was it a pretty even, easy choice?
AR: It was even. I’m the one that brought the idea to the table only because I was a fanatic of that record she did with Lucy. And I think I brought the record to Emily’s attention and let it brew, and then chose my moment to bring it up. Emily was immediately like, “Yeah.” She was immediately on board and was an equal advocate talking to our management and everything.

Well, she’s the most all-the-way-around creative person I know.
AR: And that’s what we wanted. We want super creativity and vision — something that we would never think of. She’s definitely like that.

What were you hoping she would bring to the project? And did she?
AR: Yeah. Definitely. I wanted Jordan to bring out something completely different and do that thing where you understand an artist well enough — like she did with Lucy — to pull out things no one else is pulling out.

ES: I first liked Jordan, but I didn’t know her well. Always when she was around me, I thought she was quite quiet. At first, I thought I am really interested to see what’s inside her, as far as what she brings musically. Amy suggested Jordan and I was like, “Oh, okay.” Because we both loved Lucy’s record. So that was my very first thought and the second was, when she started to mock up little sections of the rough demos we sent her, everything she sent was just right on. It just sounded good and felt good, and that was an extremely rough stage. Then, my next thoughts were, I’m excited to have her work on this record because I know she’s going to bring something great to it. First, it was deep curiosity. Then, it was excitement based on the tidbits she’d given us as examples of what she thought about the record.

AR: Maybe there are a couple vocals that I feel like, if I’d had more time — and we were kind of limited, time-wise just for budget reasons — I might have been able to do a better, more evocative performance, or I might have been able to match my demo better. I demoed certain songs in ways that I was really married to because I had time to sing it in a certain way and to really present the song to Jordan. There were a few times I really demoed it with the vibe I wanted and then she would create a frame of sound around it that was even more amazing and upped the ante even more.

The first few days in the studio were pretty crazy and things were breaking. And we were doing a lot of really important stuff through that time. I think I just hadn’t gotten into the flow yet. I’m just really in the moment. For me, recording is about the process as much as it is about the end result, so I want to do the process in a way that is right and it takes — not takes too long — but it takes time to be in the moment. Although, that might have lent itself, in a certain way, to some of the performances, so you don’t really want to go back and change things because you might not have the elements that you have now. But I think I learned a lot from it. And I do every record — I learn something, so that’s good.

Let’s talk about the music. Do either of you have a fondness for any era over another or a particular album that maybe captures the Indigo essence? And did you guys go into this one with any specific reference points because I hear echoes of Come On Now Social, Swamp Ophelia, and Rites of Passage in this one?
AR: No. No. I have a fondness for the things that work out. [Laughs] So, on every record, there are songs that didn’t work and there are songs, I think, that did. I always reference Come on Now Social because I feel like that record really had some incredible moments in it that I always reference in my head — not to recreate that moment, but the ways we got to where we got stuff and how that record turned out. So that’s a record I reference a lot, just production-wise, in my head.

ES: Come On Now Social had a lot of stuff on it, lots of rhythmic elements and electric guitar and harmonies and guests. Things like that. Rites of Passage had a lot of guests, as well. This record had a lot of guest players, so maybe that has something to do with it. I guess you can’t be completely new every time unless you’re … I don’t know who … David Bowie, maybe? Joni Mitchell?

AR: It’s funny because Jordan would reference Swamp Ophelia a lot, which I think is a cool record, but it’s not the height of my songwriting, for me. I was prototyping things, at the time, figuring out how to do things I wanted to do and I hadn’t quite gotten there yet, writing-wise.

You were really starting to stretch, at that point.
AR: Yeah. And the vibe’s good. And Emily’s writing is really good, but I can look at that and look at my writing and say that, as a vibe, I love how that record turned out and it’s a sentimental favorite for a lot of people in Jordan’s age group, for some reason. And we’re doing the whole record, start to finish, at Justin Vernon’s festival in Eau Claire. He asked us to. So we said, “Okay.” But I look at the songs and think it’ll be great with a full band, but it’s not something I’d want to do solo acoustic because I’d be playing a song thinking, “This isn’t as strong as I want it to be.” But, with a band … it’s very orchestral. It’ll be fun.

I love that record. Part of it’s because that’s when I first met you guys and was hanging out with Caroline Aiken who was opening some shows.
AR: Right. Right. That was a fun period, for sure. There’s a lot of sentimental … I love that record. I love the people who played on it.

It’s very Atlanta, that record, in my mind.
AR: It is very Atlanta. And it’s a very strong Emily record, so … Most of her records have been strong, but that one, in particular, there are some real humdingers on it.

I was looking at your tour dates and, 30 years later, you guys have Caroline and Michelle Malone opening for you all summer.
AR: [Laughs] I know! It’s the full circle. Caroline is sort of re-emerging. She has a new record. We’ve probably played one gig with her in the last eight years where she opened. And, Michelle, we haven’t played as much with her lately. When she comes out with a new record, we usually try to go out a little bit with her. She’s really trying to give it a go, so we felt like it’s old home week for us. We just felt like we wanted to play with our friends.

[Laughs] Old home summer.
AR: Yeah. Old home summer. [Laughs] They’re fun to play with because we can sit in with Caroline and she can sit in with us. And Michelle plays with us, and we play with Michelle. It’s a good time.

You guys have always been so amazing over the years with lifting up others around you, both as artists and activists. Do you see those folks turning around and doing that for the ones coming up under them? Do you seem them paying it forward?
AR: I do see some of that. I do, for sure. My niece is 16 and she’s a singer/songwriter. We had Hannah Thomas open for us some. Now Hannah gives Lori, my niece, some spots during her gig to play a few songs. I see this reciprocation in Atlanta anyway. It’s around me and I see it happening. I see the activists that I know who are a little bit younger than me, I see them mentoring people and I see some of the kids that, when Honor the Earth started… some of the people I know that are now working in the Native American environmental movement, I knew when they were born — from the Indian kids. Now they’re running organizations and creating by-laws and they’re challenging the government. They’re doing all this crazy stuff and they have high school kids looking at what they’re doing and following them, being part of their groups. I think that’s what you get when you’re older, you get to see the trajectory of things and, hopefully, you take time to look at it. It’s really cool.

ES: I would say that the people I know… let’s use Shawn Mullins, for example. He was a young dude playing at Eddie’s Attic when we already sort of getting on our way. And he’s got that great spirit of playing with people and being a community musician. And Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush from Sugarland and Kristen Hall — all those guys are friends. And I know that they’re very supportive of their opening acts. They’re just still very community-minded musicians, so I would say yes. You just get a sense of musicians who want to help each other out or pay it forward. I’m really, really encouraged. My niece and my nephew, and Amy’s niece and her nephews, they all sing and play. And I have a lot of faith in the younger generations of musicians and they inspire us. They inspire me and excite me.

In fact, I just did an interview with a high school student who’s writing about the importance of Eddie’s Attic and Eddie. And it’s because a lot of her contemporaries are getting gigs there now or playing open mic night, so she was tying together the generations. And that is just so super-cool to me. Because music doesn’t come from a vacuum. It doesn’t live in a vacuum. It comes from life and stays alive and vibrant from community and the support of other musicians. That’s still really happening here.

When you’re sitting down to write, do you craft them with space for each other as you’re going along? Or is that an after-the-fact occurrence that comes together in the arranging?
AR: I don’t think Emily does that at all, but I actually do. I think because it’s a tool I use in writing, it helps me to think about Emily. It gives me something to play off of and inspires me. I do the same thing with my solo songs where I think, “Here’s a song that I would want to sing with so-and-so.” And I think about their voice while I’m doing it. Or I’ll write a song and think, “This whole thing is going to be a pedal steel song. I just know it.” And I’ll envision that person playing pedal steel. That really helps me. And then I try to make sure the song is strong enough without that element, too. But it helps get me going to think about how I can hear Emily’s counter-melody… I can hear her voice… I can hear what she’ll do on guitar. And I create the space for her to do that. I think, when we don’t create that space, we often have to empty things out of it, which is hard to do.

And then there are some songs, of hers, where I don’t need to be in that space. It’s a solo song or I’ll sing but not play guitar because I don’t want to crowd it. And there might be songs of mine that are the same. Maybe I thought of it as a duo song when I was writing it, but I went ahead and did it solo so it created its own thing. Then trying to figure out how to make it work as an Indigo Girls song may mean that it’s not as intertwined as normal. But I really like to focus on thinking about us as a duo when I’m writing. I really do.

ES: In the very recent past, I would say I didn’t really consider Amy when I’m writing; but on this record, I actually had in my mind certain things that Amy might do vocally on the songs. Or I felt like, “Oh, I can leave a space here because I think Amy can really fill this up with something cool.” This record was new in that way. The approach to the content remained the same. These are just interpersonal songs and my reflections and my journey, what I observe and things like that. But, as far as musically, I really thought a lot about Amy and what she could add to them musically. And that’s something different.

It seems like it would help to consider what the other can bring. Like, on “Texas Was Clean,” you guys double up the harmonies most of the way through — which you don’t often do. It creates a nice effect. Do you try it on others and it doesn’t work?
AR: We have tried it on a couple of things that didn’t work, actually. But it’s not something we try on every song. I think that kind of effect you have to use sparingly or it gets old. Some artists, like Nick Drake, can do that til the cows come home, or Elliott Smith, and you never get tired of it. Or Justin Vernon with Bon Iver. But there are other artists where it’s just the same old thing and it feels derivative. And it feels gimmicky. I think if Emily and I did it too much it would feel gimmicky. So we try to just do it when it feels really like the thing to do.

I’ve always loved how easily you shift from a song like that or “Share the Moon” into overdrive for something like “Happy in the Sorrow Key.” Not everybody has that many gears. Is that a case of your voice following your heart? Or the other way around? Or maybe something else?
AR: I think I just like a lot of different kinds of music. And certain songs are going to work better for me more stridently. I like the idea of using your voice in a lot of different ways which a lot of people do now. People listen to so many different kinds of music and everybody’s so into cross-pollination that people have really started to use their voices in these ways that are one time you’re doing this and another time you’re doing something completely different. I enjoy that. It’s more interesting to me. It’s more fun. “Happy in the Sorrow Key” is a funky, riffy, punky, sort of jammy song. That kind of thing would not work on “Texas” or “Fishtails” or something.

Because you listen to a lot of different music and have that vocal range, is that part of how you keep from recycling yourself?
AR: I think I do recycle myself a bit. Sometimes the first incarnation for me is not as strong so I go back and recycle it and do it better. [Laughs] I try again. I think it’s from listening to different kinds of music. I don’t know what it is. I guess I get bored. Doing solo stuff helps me look at that, too. Because I’m playing with a lot of different kinds of people and learning a lot about singing. One thing that helped, when I started doing solo music, was learning how to sing harmony with myself and demoing and, now, using Garage Band all the time making demos. I can really experiment and no one has to hear it but me. Then I can figure out what works and what doesn’t. And, honestly, sometimes I feel like yelling and screaming. And sometimes I really like something that’s super-mellow. I guess, for a while, Sub Pop was putting out really mellow music and I remember the Sky Mountain Boys. I loved that band so much. And with Elliott Smith, too. It wasn’t about how loud you are. It’s something else completely. I had to discover that and learn about that other part of my voice.

Emily, you’ve always told stories, but this batch seems more literal than some of the way-back stuff. Like on “Elizabeth,” you’re just laying out the story as it is. Is that the result of a shift in your listening preferences or… ?
ES: That’s true. That’s true. That song is 100 percent, completely autobiographical. Maybe that’s the reason for that. Take a song like “Ghost” that’s kind of an amalgamation of a million heartbreaks and romances, not just one relationship or one story. So there’s a lot more alluding to things or using metaphors to make things universal, whereas “Elizabeth” was a person I knew at a place where I was at a certain time. These are the things we listened to and this is the wine we drank and this is what happened. In that sense, it is just a straightforward telling of the story.

I think, too, it’s hard to get perspective on your own self and your own writing. I think people like you who listen and know the music well from the past are better judges of it than I am. But I think that I probably had a need on this record to just express things more straightforwardly. It’s sort of an evolution in my personal life where I’ve just been cleaning out a lot of the garbage and getting more clear, getting more functional, I think, as a whole person. Hopefully that’s the goal in life, anyway, so we can be productive and good citizens of humanity. And I think in just hearing you make this remark for the first time, I think that probably has something to do with it as well.

Am I right that, somewhere in the past decade or so, you guys stopped arranging the albums together? Or did I mis-remember that?
ES: Amy and I always arrange our songs together. Always. She writes hers and I write mine, and when we’re getting ready to work on a project, we get together and really map our arrangements. But we’re also quite open-minded. Peter Collins did this on the last record, too, on some of the songs. If he had an idea — “This song needs a bridge. Or, “Maybe this should repeat here.” — we were open to that. We were quite open to Jordan’s suggestions. She also had a lot of input, as far as that was concerned, but the basic process stayed the same with Amy’s and my writing and arranging together. And then we got to the brainstorming sessions.

After all these years — and maybe it’s changed over time — but how do the two of you approach each other with feedback on songs? Is it pretty cut-and-dried, at this point?
AR: It’s cut-and-dried, but we’re diplomatic. We care about each other, so we’re gentle — probably more gentle than we used to be because I think we learned, through our process, how to be more gentle with each other artistically and not just off-the-cuff judge a song with “I prefer this to that.” I think there were moments when I definitely could have been more tactful in my life, generally.

What we do is send each other mp3, Garage Band demos and give each other time to listen to them. Or we’re playing it during soundcheck, maybe, and the other person says, “That’s a cool song.” That kind of thing happens. But when we’re really starting a record process, by the time we’re doing arrangements with each other, we’ve already decided who’s going to produce the record. So to have that other person in the formula really helps us because then we have someone that we’re sending songs to besides each other. And we’re all talking and it becomes more professional — not just me and Emily, people who have known each other for 40 years. We’re talking about a record and the producer’s there as a bridge between us, and a filter. It creates a better dynamic sometimes, I think, than trying to look at each other and talk about the songs.

ES: Amy and I are really polar opposites, in terms of our personalities and even our tastes. It’s remarkable that we’ve worked together like this for so long. Obviously, that must be part of the reason why. I might like an electric guitar part doubled and she might think it has more peace as a solo track. So, in the process of recording on her song, I might say, “I like that one better.” And, if she likes something else better, she’ll just say, “Nope. I like that one better.” And that’ll be it, because she wrote the song. And the same for me.

So there’s a bit of yielding …
ES: Yeah. A bit of respecting that whoever wrote the song gets the last word. Also in the mixes, there are times when she’ll say, “I don’t think my harmony’s loud enough there.” Then I’ll listen and go, “Yep. You’re right.” She has a really good ear for mixes. We were working on one of Carol Isaac’s keyboard parts during the mix process and I really loved this part and I was like, “Turn it up. Turn it up.” And Amy said, “Well, you can turn it up, but it brings it into a ’70s pop or ‘Fill It Up Again’ type thing.” And I realized I didn’t want that vibe and I couldn’t get my own perspective on it, but Amy helped me see that, in fact, was the case. So I trust her judgment a lot.

Music aside, do you guys have any idea what you’ve meant to people over the years? Is that something you can get your head around at all?
ES: Yes and no. If we get a letter from someone describing how a song or a show affected him or her, then I feel really grateful for that. And I get a sense that that has affected someone. And I know the way that music affects me. I know the way my favorite artists … I couldn’t live without them. They’re as important as food and air to me. So I know how that feels, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what we, in fact, mean to our fans. I just know that I’m grateful for them. But I don’t think, “Oh, gosh, what have Amy and I meant? What does it all add up to?” I just know that we just made a new record and it feels good. And we’re still relevant and we’re still working as hard as we ever have. And that feels awesome to me.

AR: I don’t even think about it. It seems to take me out of the moment of actually getting anything done. It seems like, if you take your time to do that, you’re not doing something that needs to get done. [Laughs] I’m uncomfortable with that. But we read letters from people. Like with Honor the Earth, we’ll do fundraisers and some of the other activists from some of the other Indian communities will speak about what we’ve meant to them … who we don’t even know. We funded them or we played a benefit on their reservation. Especially the Native folks we’ve worked with, they’re really good at thanking people and showing gratitude and being respectful. So we pick it up from that. But it’s all one big onion for me. Everybody has shown us the way and we’ve shown some people the way and they’ve shown it back to us because mentoring goes both ways. I always think of it as a two-way street, constantly.

As you guys get older and have families, are things more or less urgent now politically, environmentally?
ES: They’re just as urgent as they ever have been and there are certain things that I feel much more pointed about, even though I had a consciousness about them — like anything that has to do with child welfare… child soldiers or child abuse or any of those kinds of issues that, of course, struck a chord in my heart before, but now they have an immediacy that I couldn’t have even imagined. So I really believe that activism — just being a citizen and taking part — is important because we’re all in it together. And when you have a kid, you realize that, for your own child’s life, you want him or her or them to have a future where they can survive and breathe and live. So I would say that my desire to be an activist and to take part is as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

AR: I feel the same. I don’t feel any different. I felt very urgent about it before and I feel urgent about it now. It definitely hasn’t diminished. The things that feel more urgent to me, I’ve noticed, are… well, I’ve always thought about this, but I just never had the time. I guess I was at home for a few months and I actually had time to do things I’ve thought about. But I did some benefits for the high school band in my county and went and played at a school for kids with autism and Asperger’s — things for kids. I think it’s even more important now that I have a child, but, at the same time, my dream for the last 10 years, I’ve been saying I’m going to be a high school teacher after I finish touring. So it’s pretty much the same stuff.

The only difference is that I don’t have time to do anything. Time management. I think the difference is also to prioritize. If we know we want to raise a certain amount of money for these groups this year, and we’re thinking about five different groups or something that we really want to work with, then we just are better at being surgical about it and making things happen. And I think it’s just because we don’t have as much time. So we say, “How can we be the most effective?”

I think having a child opens your heart up a bit, even more. It doesn’t make you more of a bleeding heart, but you hear things differently. And you have more compassion for people that are struggling themselves and have families and are trying to make ends meet and are activists, too. Instead of being like, “Why did they miss that board meeting?” You think to yourself, “They have three kids and a full-time job. Of course they missed the board meeting.” [Laughs]

Having a kid, it seems like all the political stuff becomes that much more personal, right? And raising a well-adjusted, informed kid is its own form of activism in a way?
AR: Yes it is. It’s true. But probably you need to do more. [Laughs] I’m not saying that as an Indigo Girl. I’m saying that as a citizen. I think, yeah, if you raise your children right, that’s where you start. What is right, I don’t know. For a while what it does is takes your time away, so you start missing the Democrat meeting on Monday nights because you’re with your child. Then I think you circle back around and you go back into that meeting and you’re more on fire because there’s something different in your perspective. I think there are a couple of different shifts that happen. But I think the first one is that you don’t have any time so things fall by the wayside. Then you figure out what to take back up again. That’s kind of what happened to me, anyway. Not everybody does that, but that’s what happened to me.

ES: I’ve always believed that anyway. I feel like, to be an activist, you don’t have to be lobbying on Capitol Hill or whatever. You gotta live it and there are a lot of different ways to make change in the world. The first way you do it is living by example of your values. Some people are meant to be renegade activists and some people are meant to be super leaders and some people are meant to be worker bees and some people are meant to be educators. And some people are meant to just live good lives and be kind. So it all counts, to me.

Will the Indigo Girls keep on keeping on or do you think you guys will eventually ride off into your separate sunsets?
ES: I don’t think we’re ever going to ride off into the sunset. That’s not really in our natures. Joan Baez is in her 70s. I take her as an inspiration and a woman out there who is still living her issues and her politics and singing. I think that we’ll probably want to tour less as our kids get older and we want to really be as present as we possibly can. That’s how I feel. 50 is the new whatever… 50 is not the new anything, really. 50 is just who we are. Let’s do it. We’ve got the energy. I love it. No apologies.