Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers Reflects on 30 Years in Music: “On We Go”

FLINT, MICHIGAN AND DECATUR, GEORGIA VIA TELEPHONE: The lyrics of Emily Saliers’ song “OK Corral” –off of her 2017 solo album “Murmuration Nation” –are haunting, stark and relevant (“If you wanna know why we’re under the gun/It’s how we were raised and it’s where we come from/You might take a bullet for a better plan/But you can’t take the gun from the American”), focused on the gun debate in the United States. But that song has had especially heart-breaking resonance this month after the shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day where 17 people were killed, a tragedy which took place just a few days before’s Ginanne Brownell Mitic interviewed with Ms. Saliers, who is one half of the folk duo Indigo Girls.

She, along with her bandmate Amy Ray, have long been proponents of gun control laws, and Ms. Saliers, 54, felt that the horrific events in Florida might be a turning point. “We like to think of ourselves as a country of the free and the brave and the greatest country in the world but we are a violent country at our core when people hold so fast to guns,” she said during a phone interview. “And it is the girls like Emma Gonzalez and others [along with boys] who are leading the movement for gun control and gun safety and sensible gun laws. And it is like a turning point. Finally.”

The Indigo Girls, who have played together for over 30 years and will be playing dates across the South and the East Coast of the U.S. throughout this month and March, have long been involved in causes dear to their hearts from LGBTQ rights –both women came out early in their careers—to environmental projects, women’s health and challenging the death penalty. The two met in primary school and they started playing local bars in Atlanta as teens. Their first album “Strange Fire” was released 31 years ago but it was their sophomore effort, the eponymous “Indigo Girls” from 1989 that made their career take off.

One song off that album, “Closer to Fine”, became an anthem for college students in the early 1990s (“I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind/Got my papers and I was free”) and is still featured in television shows and movies, including the 2006 John Krasinski-directed “The Hollars” about how a family copes with an illness. Ms. Saliers’ family have long been an important part of her career—from her parents coming to watch Indigo Girls play bars when they were starting their career to writing a 2005 book (“A Song to Sing, A Life to Live Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice”) with her father, Don, a professor of theology at Atlanta’s Emory University for over 30 years. The two will be presenting a talk at Yale in April.

Nowadays, when not recording or on the road playing solo gigs or as the Indigo Girls, Ms. Saliers lives with her wife, Tristin Chapman, and their five-year-old daughter Cleo. “Do not get me started on having a kid and parenting, it is just the most wonderful thing,” Ms. Saliers said during the wide-reaching interview. “I get a lot more sleep when I am on the road than when I am at home.” In June the Indigo Girls will release an album of over 20 songs that they helped arrange and perform with Colorado University’s symphony orchestra–the album is yet untitled– and they will head to London in the early part of next year to start recording their fifteenth studio album. “So we are trying to balance bodies that are ageing at bit, raising children, and careers that are still vibrant but on we go,” she said.  EXCERPTS:

BROWNELL MITIC: Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of “Indigo Girls”, the album that really put Indigo Girls on the map. Is it weird to hear people refer to it now as a classic?
SALIERS: In some ways it feels like it wasn’t that long ago but in other ways, so much has come between then and now that it is an appropriate number of years. Honestly, I do not spend that much time pondering those things about how much time it has been or our place in modern music history. We had no aspirations to be signed to a major label, it was really just timing. We were close proximity to Athens [Georgia] and R.E.M. was there and there were a lot of women with guitars like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman who were being signed around that time. The fact that we weathered the up and downs of the industry without paying much attention to it much at all have been gratifying.

How much would you say the music industry has changed in the last 30 years? I am thinking most specifically when it comes to sexism and the #metoo movement.
Sexism is rampant in the music industry. It is male-dominated, the fact that there are so few women in positions of power and decision making, the fact that I am a huge country music fan and on country radio there is one woman artist for every 20 male artists, it is [all] just indicative of change that has to happen and has not occurred yet. And there are untold stories of sexual harassment and abuse from men in power in the music industry. Very early on we were a bar band— and as a small example—Amy knew how to run sound and we had a lot of resistance and aversion from men in clubs who assumed that we did not know what we were doing. I remember that clearly. And then when we got signed and went into radio stations, those [radio] jockeys were used to dealing with women in terms of the gender roles and sexuality, and so homophobia comes from sexism and because we were gay women we did not play those roles. There was a tension that you could cut with a knife. It was so awkward and we would go into those stations and they could not relate to us the way that they usually bantered as men to straight women. Those interviews were uncomfortable and insufferable.

Listening to songs from your solo album, “OK Corral” sticks out to me in particular especially in light of events last week in Florida. How hard is it to perform a song like that after a tragic incident that brings home what you express in this song?
I have always felt that the gun issue in this country was a deep sickness [but] I also think that groups that have power like the National Rifle Association (NRA) pull the wool over the public’s eyes. First of all, politicians who get money from them are chicken shit and they want to keep their jobs, and they will not offer even sensible gun legislation like waiting periods. That is despicable to me that they are in the hands of a group because of money and political influence. I think of the NRA as a terrorist organization now because if terror is random groups or people who can cause terror to citizens, not under the usual context of an ordered war—whatever that is— that is terror and they are fighting every sensible way that citizens can be protected from being the victims of assault weapons and powerful guns. They are encouraging terrorism. I have read a lot about the gun—the NRA is not like what it used to be [which was] very pro-control and gun safety responsibility, that shifted in the 1970s. The propaganda and power of the NRA politically has made people believe that so many Americans want other Americans to own assault weapons. That is simply not true. Whenever I sing that song, I think about Pulse [the deadly shooting in Fort Lauderdale in 2016] or any number of assaults that have happened. And I always think about Sandy Hook [a school shooting in Connecticut where 20 children and six adults were killed in 2012]. The fact that nothing significant and quantifiable happened after that shooting, I do not even have the words to describe how it makes me feel. I am thinking about asking Amy to learn that song with me because singing a song like that is personally cathartic, it helps me deal with the suffering and frustration I feel over the violence and bloodshed in this country.

“Murmurification”, which was released last August, was your first solo album. What took you so long?
It took a long time because of everything Amy and I did, and things I was doing on the side like opening restaurants and writing a book with my dad. And then I got an itch to do something musically that was a little different than what Amy and I did, which was much more groove focused because I love R and B and I love hip hop and black gospel. So Lyris Hung, who produced the album, has a little studio in New York and I would send her ideas and she would send back production ideas. It took three years to write them, to pre-produce them amid Indigo Girl obligations as well. [We started] a pledge campaign because I could not have made the album that I wanted to make financially on my own. The economic limitations are a struggle but I definitely want to make more solo music, so think I will do it by releasing songs by themselves or an EP, do some with Lyris, some on my own. If anything the fan support, the small but mighty groups who came out, it renewed my deep gratitude for our fans and the way that they engage in music. It was profound for me. I spent time talking to them over Skype and social media and things that I thought would make me insane before I engaged with them, it actually deepened my life experience. It was a great surprise to me, honestly.

I read that you said while motherhood had not really influenced your writing it had changed you in other ways.
Becoming a parent takes the selfishness out of you to a great extent. Because these little creatures, you want to put them first. Like I will not always give them my last bite of pizza (laughs) but it is a huge shift and that is a wonderful thing to experience. You never hear about a child suffering in the world again without it feeling so painful in a way that it wasn’t before. You start to care for the world in a way that even though you thought you were an activist or a caretaker before it really becomes part of your being. It really did me anyway.

What female musicians are you listening to at the moment?
I am very absorbed in Brandi Carlile’s new album [By the Way, I Forgive You], I think is a huge step of maturity. It is a heavy album, you cannot sit back and enjoy it and say, “this is a good listen” but I am proud of her for that album. And I am really into Halsey; there is something about that woman. I just saw Ann Wilson live, Hart is one of my favorite bands of all time and so I have been going back and loving that. And a friend of mine who is from Spain brought me a Flamenco album by artist Nina Pastori; it is almost painful it is so moving. I have been listening to a lot of “My Little Pony” with Cleo and I think it is one of greatest TV shows ever.

All photos courtesy Indigo Girls


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