Emily Saliers: Back to Her Roots

Posted on Nov 14, 2017 in Features
Emily Saliers: Back to Her Roots

It was 30 years ago that Emily Saliers and Amy Ray released their debut album, Strange Fire, as the Indigo Girls. They’d been playing music together for a few years, at that point, and Saliers for much longer, on her own. The daughter of a theologian, Saliers grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut, soaking in all the Black gospel music she could. The family eventually moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she continued her musical education with Southern soul, R&B, and, eventually, hip-hop, counting artists like India.Arie, Mary J. Blige, and Kendrick Lamar among her current favorites.

Though the Indigo Girls have stayed fairly true to their folk-rock sound, Saliers takes any number of left turns on her solo debut, the wonderfully world beat-tinged Murmuration Nation. Produced by long-time Indigo Girls side player Lyris Hung, the set finds Saliers diving deep into the artistic waters that the Girls only dangled their toes into on albums like Shaming of the Sun, Swamp Ophelia, and One Lost Day. “I love India.Arie,” she says. “I love that her lyrics are thoughtful, but she uses a lot of acoustic guitar and the soul influences are in there. So I wanted to make a record that, obviously, would have to be me, but I wanted it to have the rhythmic things.”

Being three decades into a successful duo career, but wanting to explore and express all of those elements, Saliers cobbled together 15 songs and started making demo recordings. Seeing as Ray has released a handful of solo albums, why did it take so long for Saliers to step to center stage? “I needed someone to wrangle me because I have things floating around my head and excitement about things that are unattainable in the present moment, but I have a very difficult time focusing it into the steps that lead to accomplishing the project. So the first thing I had to do was find someone who could do what I wanted, creatively, and I had no idea it was going to come from Lyris, until she started producing these little snippets of ideas in her home studio and sent them to me. And I was like, ‘This is what I want.’”

Over the course of three years, they pinned down the songs, the arrangements, and the studio time, then Hung recruited a group of players who could bring their vision to life in a way that programmed beats never could, including bassist Tim LeFebvre, keyboardist Rachel Eckroth, and drummers Robert “Sput” Searight and Will Calhoun. “She wanted to make sure that human beings played the beats,” Saliers recounts, “and I said, ‘No, it won’t feel like hip-hop.’ And she’s like, ‘You’re not a hip-hop artist. You’re going to want the human element.’ So I had to do a lot of struggling with having faith in her vision for some things, because I didn’t exactly trust it, at first. I thought maybe I had the better idea and, in the end, I didn’t.”

Where Saliers did have the better idea was in the songwriting. One of the issues she wanted to address was the “gun sickness” in United States, which she tackles on “OK Corral.” “But it’s not purposeful,” she offers. “I don’t feel like I’m on a mission of any kind. I don’t think that I have a responsibility to deliver certain kinds of songs. Songwriting has always been nothing but reflective of the things that I think about, the way that I feel. So this album is very much me, because I am a person who’s an activist and I am concerned every day, all day long, about social issues. But I also have an easy part to my personality that likes to watch football. With this album, I don’t have a purpose except to be truthful to what I experience or how I see the world.

“And just, thankfully, ever since the beginning, people who’ve listen to Indigo Girls music have found spots where it fits in their own lives and with what they think about. But we never set out to write geared toward anything. It was just the way that we saw the world, and it’s the same for me as it ever has been.”

To fund the project, Saliers turned to PledgeMusic. Fans could merely pre-order the album for $10 or they could nab higher-priced items and experiences, including a personalized birthday message, a Skype guitar lesson, a house concert, and more. Though Saliers was hesitant about the whole thing, thinking some of the big-ticket items felt a bit elitist, she ended up having a wonderful opportunity to connect with her fans — which, in many ways, was more valuable than the financial support.

“In the end, the personal contact I had with all those fans was incredible. I mean, they’re so loyal,” she says. “I’m a small artist, but the love was big. And I really enjoy doing Skype sessions, having brunch with people, meeting them, doing guitar lessons. All the contact I had, I really, really loved it.”

The Indigo Girls have always been grassroots-fed and community-supported, and the whole process was a way for Saliers to circle back to those beginnings. “This record has my name on it, but it is such a team record,” she adds. “I’ve always known that; now I really feel it. I feel so grateful that I can be doing this, at this age, when I have a great career, and Amy and I are still going strong and love each other as much as ever, if not more. I think, ‘Should I be doing this?’ And I think having a child and having a family and feeling how deep those blessings are just makes me more relaxed to be like, ‘Why not?’”