There Will Be Dancing: Emily Saliers in Conversation with Chastity Brown

Posted on Sep 3, 2017 in Interviews
There Will Be Dancing: Emily Saliers in Conversation with Chastity Brown

To be a great songwriter is to, necessarily, wear your heart on your sleeve. Whether you want to or not, you must summon the courage to lay it all on the line — the heartache and the hope, the virtues and the vices. The same necessity could be applied to being a queer woman in the world. Your mere presence among the heteronormative masses turns even the most personal struggle into a political issue. When you claim both of those identities, the only way out of your own bubble is through the vulnerability that could easily burst it all wide open.

And that’s just fine by both Emily Saliers and Chastity Brown. They each stand firmly, fiercely, and faithfully in those identities… if not several others: person of color, activist, Southerner, seeker, daughter, mother, friend, wife, and partner, among them. Some of those identities intersect cleanly with the world-at-large; some don’t. But they all play a part in serving the songs that Saliers and Brown create.

After 30 years of one-half of the Indigo Girls, Saliers has finally stepped out with an album of her own, Murmuration Nation. On it, she explores not only the various psychological facets of her self, but the various musical aspects, as well. She’s still a folk singer at heart, despite railing against that label internally, but she’s also an artistic adventurer, as this album shows. Similarly, even as Brown wields an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, she also folds non-folk influences and elements into her work on Silhouette of Sirens. Putting them in conversation with each other evidences how we often have more in common with someone than not.

So I’m know who I’m dealing with here… What approach do each of you take when it comes to songwriting — do you write the songs or do the songs write themselves through you?

Emily Saliers: It’s actually a combination of both. Honestly, I’m the channeler of the song. I can’t say that it’s all just magic and mystery, and there it is and I have nothing to do with it, obviously, because I have to sit at my desk. I have to scoop out the time. I have to focus on putting words together. But there’s a lot of alchemy that happens in songwriting. For instance, I may write a line in a song that has a double or triple meaning that I didn’t even intend, until the line comes out. I said the line because it’s at least one thing that I intend. Then, if any layered meaning comes about… sometimes I pick lines that have a double meaning. Other times, I write lines in a song that have another life of their own. I can not attribute that to me, so there’s a little bit of that magic and channeling going through.

I just really believe that music is such a powerful force in life and nobody really owns it, so we’re kind of like shepherds. I’m the shepherd and the words are my flock and I take care of them and out they come. But I do have to commit myself to the discipline of writing.

Chastity Brown: I like what you said about the double or triple meaning. I just released an album a few months ago, and I find myself in interviews, each time I’m talking about a song, I’ll talk about it from a different perspective. Someone will say, “In this previous interview, you said the song was about this.” And it’s like, “Yeah, it was and it is, however…”

[Laughs] It’s alive.

CB: Yeah. I can pinpoint parts of it that were personal, but there’s a transference of energy and it evolves into something more palpable and it’s no longer about it. But it’s still, somehow, a part of that. So I appreciate you saying that, Emily. What I think about songs, there is a mysterious quality to them. If, in particular, I’m trying to write a song and it’s not coming, I find myself begging it, as though it were a woman or a muse, “Please just talk to me. What can I do to coerce you into coming out?”

ES: Oh, my God. I’m going to try that next time! [Laughs] I’ve never tried that!

CB: [Laughs] Then, other times, there are songs I feel like I try to run away from — the songs that really get me in the gut that are, in particular, heartbreaking. There have been times when it’s like, “I don’t want to write you. I don’t want to go there.” Inevitably, I end up writing it, but there are times when I feel like I’m being chased by the song and I’m like, “No. Please. Go easy on me!”

ES: It’s interesting that you say that. Now, I write more like a discipline. I’m going to use the word “job,” but it’s not tedious. It’s difficult and it can be agonizing, but it’s not tedious. But I often feel, when I haven’t written and I sit down to write, I’ll just start writing. I haven’t even constructed anything solid yet and I’ll get a lump in my throat and I’ll start crying. I don’t know if that ever happens to you, Chastity.

CB: Yeah.

ES: But it’s like you’re giving the well the permission to open up and flow over. No one’s in the room, unless you’re co-writing, so you’re vulnerable, but only to yourself. When you talk about how you don’t want to write that song or you don’t feel like getting into that, it’s because it’s raw. I find that, unless I’m writing a pop song for fun or for relief, that rawness is always emotional for me.

CB: I agree. I remembered, as you were saying that… I’m not religious, but I did grow up in Tennessee. And that kind of Southern gospel church, where music takes over the service, I remember when I was learning about praise and worship, my mentor said, “You can’t take people where you’ve never gone.” Even though I’m not religious any more, I am quite spiritual and I still feel that way. If one brings me to that point, I think that is somehow going to be the truth and enable me to take the listener to that point. But not if I’m not willing to go there. Even if it’s a fucking rock-out jam, if I don’t allow myself to go full-throttle, then how in the world will a listener be able to do that? Honestly, where I am at my stage of songwriting, it’s really incredible to hear from you, Emily, that you’re still humbled by the song, that there’s still that thing that gets you.

ES: More than ever, I think. We never know when we’re going to “go,” but statistically speaking, I’m not in my twilight. [Laughs] But in middle age, I’ve just started to absorb the world differently, and now that I have a child, that does it, as well.

But speaking about Southern gospel… I’ve said this before: I grew up in the church. My dad is a theologian. He was progressive, so there was nothing in my organized religion experience that ever throttled me or judged me, as it came through my parents, so I was fortunate in that way. Now, of course, I have a huge struggle with the Methodist church because they will not change their language that homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of Christ which, to me, is bullshit.

I grew up in Atlanta, but I was born in New Haven. And, in New Haven, we lived in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and there was lots of gospel/soul/R&B music. That is the music of my heart and soul. So, when we moved down to Atlanta, you’ve got the Ebenezer Baptist Church and you have Black-American gospel music everywhere in the life of the city and the communities. That, to me, is my straight path to — I’ll call it “God” — my spiritual source. I attribute, for me and my life, everything to that spiritual source. I think music like that, the words are of the head, but the music and the spirit is of the body. I gotta get out of my own head. I don’t know about you, but when I’m most free, I’m in my body and my head at the same time. That’s what that gospel music does to me. In fact, that’s what I tried to do a little bit on my solo record — get a rhythm section to express the songs in a way I hadn’t done, historically, with Indigo Girls.

CB: I love that. That’s one thing I say that I learned in the gospel church — to sing from your gut. Sometimes church music would last two or three hours and maybe there would still be preaching, because I grew up in a Pentecostal church. I went to seminary school in Baltimore, but I was kicked out for dating a woman. So that was my dramatic departure from organized religion, but it’s still so dear to me. But, yeah, singing from your gut — I didn’t realize that was what I was learning. I also didn’t realize I was learning how to harmonize. I’m so thankful. Harmony just makes sense to me, but it only makes sense because I grew up with people constantly singing four and five parts. In the church, you do have permission to sing exactly how you feel or to try to excavate how you feel and get all that shit out.

I want to go back to the vulnerability thing for a second: Is there a difference in the level of vulnerability that either of you feels in writing confessional form versus a story, because you’re in both of them, to one extent or another?

ES: I can answer that quickly, and I think it may be a little different from what Chastity said earlier, but I don’t have any problem going as honest and as deep and as painful in my lyrics. Some of my old songs, I look at and go, “Oh, man. You should’ve just closed your mouth when you had a chance!” [Laughs] For me, the vulnerability is when I sit down to write and this well opens up and I get super-emotional and I haven’t even created anything yet or channeled anything yet.

As far as the content of a song, I never shut anything down. The only thing I ever did, or have done historically, is not pick on people, especially to the point where they might recognize themselves in a song. In that sense, there have been times when I wanted to vent about a personal thing, but out of respect, I can’t be that honest.

Do you ever couch that in a story, though, so that you put a spin on it and can process it still?

ES: I don’t really think of myself as a story song writer. I feel much more confessional. How about you, Chastity?

CB: I feel like it’s both, at the same time. There’s a duality to it, for me. It’s so difficult to be objective. I do sometimes say that, in my most recent body of work, it’s the first time being finally brave enough to be truly vulnerable. It took me four years to get it out because I just couldn’t grapple with how vulnerable it made me feel. Then, at the same time, I do feel like not all the stories are particularly about my personal life. They are both stories I’ve lived and imagined.

Even still, some of these songs are about different types of heartbreak and trying to give light to a more proletariat, working-class experience of what it feels like to witness a loved one who struggles with mental health. That’s not a type of heartbreak song that people generally write. But it’s fucking heartbreaking and it’s a common experience. I think, even with that, it’s all vulnerable because empathy, when it strikes you, in order to get in that headspace, it will be vulnerable, in order to tell that story. At least right now, with what I’ve been writing, that’s how it makes me feel.

ES: I wish that I didn’t care what people thought after a song was written. I don’t think about people — fans, listeners, judgers, whatever — while I’m writing. But when it’s done, I hate to admit that I need outside validation in different ways. Like, “Is this a good song?” You know, Kelly… [Laughs] I asked Amy [Ray], “Do you think Kelly likes my record? Do you think Kelly likes my record?” It’s like that. [Laughs] I’m not afraid to get vulnerable, like I said. I’ll write anything. But there’s all this other conflict about how I really want it to be received. I guess most artists have that.

But I also have the conflict of, “Ugh. I’m a woman with an acoustic guitar. I’m emotional…” And I get all those societal stereotypes wearing down my psyche.

CB: [Laughs] Oh, shit!

ES: “You should be tough. You should be edgy. You should should should.” That is where the vulnerability really eats at me. I still hope, at this point in my life and career, it’s getting a little better. But it’s not that much better.

With both of you, the political is, necessarily, the personal and vice versa. Do either of you wish it were any other way?

CB: What’s interesting to me is that I feel like I’ve never been exactly political. But until the past few years, I’ve been very outspoken about things I take very personally — women’s reproductive rights, but even more, Black Lives Matter. It’s so crazy to be a woman of color and publicly love myself. People think that’s political.

I was opening for Ani DiFranco a few months back out in Utah and I said, “Black lives matter,” and this woman screamed at me, “ALL lives matter!” People took such offense to it. Sometimes I’m political without even overtly being aware of it or making it a thing. Lately, it seems like, “Yeah, I should be at that protest. Yes, I should call the NAACP. Yes, I should call my mayor.” It seems like, yes, I should because that’s personal to me.

ES: I think “political” is a word that is used often, but it doesn’t exactly paint the picture. I think more in terms of social change, rather than political. I use the word “political” all the time, but it’s kind of like “spiritual” — what, exactly, does it mean to me as I say it? Politics, legislators, deal-making, Deep State… all that stuff. When I think of taking action and being an activist, it’s all for the purpose of social change and it’s a very, very simple common denominator: Where there’s suffering due to oppression — whatever the oppressor is… if it’s privilege or race or access — I feel intrinsically that my relationship to the rest of my community and the world is to be a member and support the leaders and those who are taking part in social change to alleviate suffering. It’s on fire right now in this country.

To answer your question, Kelly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. That is one thing I don’t care about anymore. If I have any kind of — let’s call it political, for the sake of this discussion — if I have any political content in my songs, I don’t care if it turns somebody off. When I hear you say, Chastity, that somebody yelled about “all lives matter,” first of all, I think it couldn’t have been a person of color who said that and was so defensive. White people, or people who aren’t people of color, it is time for us to look at our privilege and to shut our mouths and to listen to people who have suffered or who are in a struggle. Amy and I have done a lot of work with Native American groups. We don’t speak for them. We’re on the board of this group we’re in, but we don’t speak for the communities. We’re liaisons.

Similarly with Black Lives Matter, that’s a critically important group. When Trump won the election and most of my white friends couldn’t get out of bed, every African-American friend or person I talked to was like, “This was no surprise to us.” It was eye-opening to me. I had to stop and realize that I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. The only thing I knew how to do was — or one thing — was that, if someone calls me to be an ally in a movement and I’m not part of that community, in terms of my own personal experience — like Black Lives Matter — I’m an ally. I’m at the center of the group: “Tell me what you need me to do.” I’m not the white woman who’s going to get in your meetings and say, “We should do this!”

I just go from how I feel and what serves me. It’s all personal, but it ends up affecting the political. The more people get fired up, personally, about injustice or social movements, the more it affects things and swings the pendulum back. We’re in a terrible presidency right now, but things are largely the same for communities of color as they have been since slavery.

It also becomes a crisis of faith — the political, the personal, the spiritual all get bundled up, in times like this, because justice is in every aspect of our lives.

ES: In that sense, I get overwhelmed. I read Twitter and I vote and I call my Senators and I try to show up. But I get overwhelmed by the darkness.

CB: Yeah.

ES: I had dinner with my friend last night and I’m just realizing, when I see joy in my kid… if I’m surrounded by goodness and light and frivolity… even NFL football — not the organization, but the game — the personal experience of there still being good people working for good things and we’re still laughing… those are the only things that keep me from being completely depressed and detached from society, because I couldn’t handle it.

I keep thinking that music seems so frivolous, in times like this, on one hand. On the other hand, it seems like the only thing keeping many of us sane and grounded and moving forward.

CB: I’m not gonna lie… I have a white partner and I’m half-white, and my mom is blonde-haired, blue-eyed Irish, so I do lie in bed sometimes and think about how white privilege affects my life. [Laughs] My partner will be like, “What’s wrong?” And I’ll say, “I’m just thinking about patriarchy and white privilege, even though it’s 8 am and I need to walk the dog.” On those days, one of my jams is — and I’m not hugely into funk music — but lately I love the audacity of funk to have come out after the most world-wide public atrocities of Black and brown people in the late ’60s. Then, in the ’70s, funk comes on the scene. It restores me. It makes me think of what’s happening now. Everybody asks, “Are you writing protest songs? What have you written since Trump’s election?” I’ve written some fucking love songs because I also need to hear that right now.

As you were saying, Emily, about your new album and dancing — HELL YES. We need to be dancing right now because there’s so much pain. I agree, it’s overwhelming. I love Alice Walker, and she says, “Where there are tears, there will be dancing.” It’s the only counter-alternative.

And, that, too, is resistance — finding joy.

ES: Uh huh.

CB: Absolutely.

ES: I have felt, at Indigo Girls shows since the election, the need for music and to sing out loud at the top of your lungs and be in a room of joyful songs. But, also, the embracing of the pain. The full human-ness. Societally, we’re so afraid of that. Let’s take a look at the full human-ness of what’s going on. Alice Walker is right with what she said. I’ve felt a palpable difference in the spirit of Indigo Girls shows in what people need. We just did the Four Voices tour with Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Oh my gosh. The power and the joy, but also allowing ourselves to feel pain, as well, but communally. It’s just been very powerful, particularly since the election.

Along the lines of loving funk and tying in the gospel influences… I’ve been thinking about “genre identity.” I feel like we should be letting artists self-identify themselves.

CB: Oh, God. That would be fucking awesome! [Laughs]

ES: [Laughs] Yes.

[Laughs] You guys are both lumped in with folk, but you’re not just that. So how would each of you self-identify, if you had to?

ES: We need a word, with a musical application, that’s like “queer.”

CB: YES!

ES: Until “queer” came along, there wasn’t anything that didn’t put us in a box.

I kind of feel like “Americana” is a little bit like “queer” because it can be specific, but it can also be an umbrella term.

CB: I love Americana. I feel completely like my heart is in Americana, but I don’t always feel like I’m in the heart of Americana. So many of the folks I love are still white men. I’m still an up-and-comer. I’m in such a different place than Emily, in that regard. But, in my mind, I’m an Americana-soul queer artist. And what you were saying earlier, Emily, about wishing that you didn’t wonder how you’d be received, that’s one of my fears, as well: Am I going to just, once again, be pigeonholed like every other — not only just woman with an acoustic guitar — but a queer, Black woman with an acoustic guitar? Man, I can play.

There’s power, I think, in stabilizing the groups that I feel represent me. Sometimes, I’m like, “Oh, shit. Am I ostracizing people so severely that the common listener wouldn’t want to listen?” But some of those people — their political views are such that I wouldn’t even want them at my shows. Or, maybe I would, and I would hope that maybe their hearts would be affected and they’d be provoked into empathy.

But, to answer your question, I identify as Americana-soul. But it would be awesome — I love the idea of queer. I was just over in Dublin, and my friends there were like, “Queer? We don’t say that. That’s like saying ‘faggot.’” It’s interesting, globally, what “queer” means. I feel like, more and more, I love the sound of the word, linguistically, more than “lesbian.” “Lesbian” just doesn’t sound as good.

I concur. “Queer” can also cover gender identity, orientation, etc. It’s sort of a one-stop umbrella term, to me. That’s why I use it, because it hits on all of my needs. What say you, Saliers?

ES: Agree on all accounts, on the queer thing. I go back and forth on this. Everybody needs a way to describe things. We just need that, linguistically. So we say “folk-rock” or whatever it is. Even I find myself asking, “What kind of music is it?” Since there’s no word like “queer,” we say “folk-rock-punk-R&B with a little bit of country” or something like that. And it just takes too long to say. [Laughs]

[Laughs] You could use the initials FRPRBC…

ES: Yeah, but then, if you’re supposed to be on top of it all and you say the initials wrong… it’s like forgetting your cousin’s name when you’re introducing them to somebody. It’s like, “OH GOD!” [Laughs] Sometimes it doesn’t bother me. But there are times, it’s like, “What’s in a name?” “A lot.” And I think the self-identifying is a brilliant idea, Kelly. It’s like for people with Twitter accounts where you get to describe yourself. You can say “dog lover and blah blah blah.”

When I did my PledgeMusic campaign to finance my solo record, I said, “I don’t want to be ‘folk.’ I don’t want to be in the folk category.” I had all this internal struggle with what it meant — like you were saying, Chastity — to be a queer woman with an acoustic guitar. I’m not a person of color, but three out of the four. I know how society looks at queer women with acoustic guitars. To me, that is the same thing as self-homophobia, which I’ve had to work through years and years for my own self. Not belonging and feeling the weight of society’s judgment and what that meant. And I think me having any kind of hateful feelings toward describing me as partly “folk” is like self-homophobia because of all the associations that go along with that.

But the other truth is that my musical reality, it’s not really folk music that moves me as music as it is Black, Southern gospel or Chaka Khan or Mary J. Blige.

Or Kendrick Lamar.

ES: Or Kendrick Lamar. Oh, my God. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant record. But I don’t write music like that. I’m not about to try to co-opt anything that deep and that associated with the realities of the people’s lives who have created that music. So I just have to be stuck in a guitar player’s body, a folk body — a folk shell. [Laughs] Internally, I’m a lot more than that and I’m moved by a lot more than that. But there’s not really a word for it, that I know.