By Eesha Williams
On the song “Texas Was Clean” on the Indigo Girls’ new album, the band is quiet, as Amy Ray and Emily Saliers sing different notes at the same time. The result is like the swelling violins in a Hollywood movie love scene. By contrast, another song on the album, “The Rise of the Black Messiah,” is a punk scream against mass incarceration.
The Indigo Girls have sold more than 7 million albums and won a Grammy award. At a time when most music on the radio sounds like it was made by synthesizers, drum machines, and a computer, it’s a relief to hear the Indigo Girls’ new album, “One Lost Day.” You can tell it’s made up of real guitars, bass, drums, a French horn, and other non-digital instruments.
The Indigo Girls are Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, plus a changing lineup of musicians on their records and at some of their concerts. Some concerts are just Ray and Saliers, but in Rutland, they will perform with a band. Ray and Saliers live in Georgia, but Saliers’ family has a home in Vermont. Saliers wrote one of the band’s best known songs, “Closer to Fine,” in Vermont.
The new album is a return to form; it sounds more like the Indigo Girls’ older albums. Most of the songs tell stories that are set in different places in North America: Findlay, Ohio; small-town Texas; southern California; Olympia, Washington; and in Alberta, Canada. They both sing on every song on the album, except “If I Don’t Leave Here Now.”
The Mountain Times recently spoke with Ray and Saliers in separate phone conversations, in advance of their show.
Ray talked about the challenges she and Saliers set for themselves on the new album, about Vermont, and her hopes for an end to mass incarceration. Saliers spoke about the music she is listening to, the Indigo Girls’ support of groups working to cut United States military spending, and farmers who grow the food at the restaurant she owns.
Q&A with Amy Ray
The Mountain Times: Did anything unexpected happen when you were recording the new album?
Amy Ray: We were working with a new producer, Jordan Brooke Hamlin. We heard a project she did with Lucy Wainwright Roche and we loved how she produced it. We wanted someone who could approach us in a new way with a different process. When we started working on arrangement ideas, a lot of the way we worked was emailing sound files back and forth. Jordan built arrangements around demos that we sent. We’ve never worked that way. It was surprisingly satisfying to us. Normally we’re very old school: we go in the studio, we bring in people we want to play with, and we work on the arrangements together. This time it was Jordan orchestrating the whole thing on her own, then us working on it, just the three of us. Then, when we got in the studio with some of the songs we would take that arrangement idea and record it live. It was a mixture of the two ways of working. At first it was hard for us, we couldn’t wrap our heads around it, and then it was really great. That was a surprise, to be able to merge those two styles. It really worked. [Computer programs] is the way a lot of people work now. Most people in their teens and 20s, that’s all they know. For us, though, we know the old world, where you had analog tape and you had to tape everything and record it live, on the fly, synced up just by your ear.
MT: It sounds like most of what Jordan did was help figure out how to put the other instruments in?
Ray: Yes, and the harmonies. As far as musical surprises, we worked with some musicians we hadn’t worked with before. They were fantastic. We worked with drummer Fred Eltringham and bass player Butterfly Boucher. Lex Price played a bunch of things like bass and bouzouki. Those three people were brand new for us. They really made a difference. We worked with a couple of guys in their 20s who we’ve been touring with for a few years, but we had never recorded with them. We also played with a drummer that we’ve played with a lot, Brady Blade, and a few other people that we’ve done a lot of work with. It was a good experience all the way around. Every day was like, who’s going to play what? We were constantly in creative mode. We didn’t have long to make the record. It was a fast process.
MT: In terms of what you were doing personally and what Emily was doing, were you guys challenging yourselves musically on the new album?
Ray: Yes. We hadn’t made a record in four years. During that time, we both had kids and my dad passed away. We were doing a lot of shows with symphony orchestras. That informed our writing process to a certain degree. When you haven’t played together in the studio in that long, you’ve got to re-approach it. We write our own songs completely separately from each other and then we get together and work on the arrangements.
Some of the harmonies were super challenging. We had to rework them over and over again until the notes were exactly the way we wanted them to be harmonically. It’s kind of nerdy stuff that we really enjoy. It’s really fun to wrestle with the notes. Maybe you change your melody a bit so the harmony is better. Or maybe you change the harmony. Which instruments? What tuning are you going to be in? We spend a lot of time on all those kinds of things.
For us, challenging ourselves musically means that we might sing higher or lower, or different kinds of melodies than we normally sing, that are harder to sing. Or we might try to record something live that’s hard. Or we might try to overdub different harmonies later that are really hard to sing.
Musically, every record we make is a bigger challenge than the last. You’re trying to do something new, not just for the sake of doing something new. You’re trying to learn something. A lot of Emily’s songs were a challenge for me because the chords were hard, the vocals and the harmony were harder and more technical than I had done before. I have to really work on my parts and practice them a lot before I go into the studio.
You want to challenge yourself but you don’t want to do something just for the sake of newness because that feels pretentious. Emily played some guitar leads that I have not heard come out of her ever before. They were challenging for her . . . Sometimes a producer will bring in some hotshot guitar player to play the lead and it doesn’t read as true as if Emily just does it.
MT: One of my favorite songs on the new album is “Texas Was Clean.” Can you tell me what inspired that song?
Ray: I hope it doesn’t ruin it for you. I was addicted to “Friday Night Lights,” the TV show. It’s very evocative in its lighting and camera work, especially the landscape scenes of the kids driving or the football games. It’s a very specific vibe. It really informs my perspective on Texas. I’ve spent a lot of time in Texas. I have a lot of close friends that live there. The song started with an inspiration of the late night flicker of the TV. Then you fall asleep and you’re dreaming about all the characters.
That show has a lot about human nature. It’s much bigger than football. It’s about race and economics and interpersonal relationships and growing up in a small town. I could relate to a lot of it. It became a song about my friends in Texas. I have a couple of close friends that died there. It all kind of got mixed in together. It became about running away and Texas being the destination. I want to get far from Georgia but not leave the South.
I demo’d it just me, alone, with acoustic guitar. Emily and I worked on it and then Jordan worked on it. It was one of those songs where I had a really specific idea how I wanted it to come across as I was writing it. It took me a few years to write. It was a slow process.
MT: Do you and Emily have any connection to Vermont?
Ray: Emily has a place she always goes to in Vermont with her family. It’s a log cabin that they’ve had forever. They spend holidays up there. Emily has a lot of connections in Vermont. We’ve played in Vermont a lot. It’s always fun for us. The people there are so awesome. We’re playing with a band at our Vermont concert. Our opening band for Vermont is A Fragile Tomorrow. They’re a group that I met when they were like 15 years old, in a back alley after a show. Now they’re in the 20s. They’re really good.
MT: With more than 2 million people in prison, the United States incarcerates a far higher percentage of its population than any other nation. Your song “Black Messiah,” on the new album, talks about that. It can be a depressing subject. In the song, you sing about some signs of hope. Can you talk about that?
Ray: Politicians are trying to change the criminal justice system. I don’t hold out hope that’s going to be some radical effort that’s going to revolutionize things. But it’s a big deal that mass incarceration is in focus now for legislators. The problem is so deep and so mired in racism. That’s what we have to work on. That starts with educating kids and showing them images that are more positive. We need to get the criminal justice system away from any profit-making entities. It’s just so corrupt.
Solitary confinement is being looked at now by a lot of people as something that needs to go away. That conversation is out in the open now. That’s promising. I have an equal balance of cynicism and hope. But I look at a group like Black Lives Matter and I think they’re really, really innovative and revolutionary. When young groups are starting up that have a very effective way of working, I find that to be inspiring.
The guy that I wrote that song about, the man from the Angola Three, had written me a letter telling me about his situation. He’s passed away since. His faith and hope and positive-ness within the confines of solitary confinement for 35 years was amazing to me. If you have that kind of power as a human then eventually there will be change.
It’s in the conversation now. I think it will change. Racism is so systemic and deep and entrenched, we’ve got to start educating kids when they’re young and open their eyes. Don’t let them be changed by the images they see on TV or in the media that are so negative and so skewed. That’s going to take a while to change. I always think about “Star Trek: The Next Generation”–we’ll get there one day.
Q&A with Emily Saliers
The Mountain Times: The Indigo Girls web site has links to groups that work for peace, for cuts in military spending. and other humanitarian and political causes? How do you feel about having a female president of the USA be important?
Emily Saliers: I wouldn’t want Sarah Palin to be president. It was important when Germany elected a woman leader. The United States is behind the game. A lot of Americans are fearful of a woman in power. I see so much vitriol against Hillary. The media is ganging up on her. I’m a huge Bernie fan. I love his politics and what he stands for. I voted for Nader back in the day. If Hillary gets the nomination I’m fully behind her. I haven’t decided whether I will vote for Bernie or Hillary in the primary. I love them both.
MT: What music are you listening to these days?
Saliers: I’m listening to Yelawolf. He’s a rapper from Alabama. I’m listening pretty incessantly to Dr. Dre’s Compton. I’ve been checking back into Jonatha Brooke. I love her music. I love Amos Lee. The Weepies. To be honest, I even love Taylor Swift. That 1989 record is so well produced. The songs are so catchy, I can’t get away from it. I listen to it with my two-and-a-half-year-old on the way to preschool every morning.
Photo courtesy of The Paramount Theatre