Atlanta’s trailblazing, Grammy Award-winning lesbian folk-rock duo, Indigo Girls, are unleashing a new album – Become You – and it’s being touted as a “back to basics” approach for them.
Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are as well known in the USA for their campaigning social and political agenda as for their guitar-driven folk-country music. In the UK too a significant and devoted fanbase awaits every release from the Girls with as much anticipation as the last. Seventeen years into their partnership, Become You is cause for a tour to arrive in the UK – for the first time in ages.
musicOMH caught up with the girls at their London hotel for pots of tea and a good old natter…
Somewhere in darkest Shepherd’s Bush is a hotel with one of those posh stones-on-fire type fireplaces. More of a fire strip, really, as it extends along an entire wall, the thing gave off intense heat and made me deeply uncomfortable prior to my meeting with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. Wanting of course to look the picture of cool to a duo whose music I’d known for the best part of eight years and whose song, Closer To Fine, was one of the first I learned on guitar, I was sure that tomatoes had no patch on my redness when I ascended to a spacious bar area shortly afterwards. I was met by the sight of Amy and Emily having tea. Lots of it.
At their request I joined in the quintessentially English ritual of tea brewing, pouring, stirring and drinking as Amy and Emily took it in turns to deal with my barrage of questions and I took the opportunity to cool down a little. Cutting to the chase, I asked if they were happier being known for their activism on the part of lesbian and gay rights, women’s rights and ethical business and politics practices at the expense of their music.
Emily, the very picture of a lovable little bird, was immediately involved, sliding forward in her perch. “It doesn’t matter to me how we are known as long as we can do the work that we want to do, but it has changed people’s perceptions of us, I think,” she chirped in her soprano tones. “Not many musicians in the USA are politically or socially active, but it is just part of who we are. Our music and activist work are married. We’ve used our music and shows to provide education and information and if people are interested in it and want to take part, that’s great.” Amy is nodding through all of this and chimes in, with her gravelly alto voice perfectly complimenting the emotional and voluminous words of her companion. “I’m torn between being most proud of our social justice work or most proud of our music,” she muses. She seemed to be leaving things unsaid. Sensing there was more to be had, I asked if the girls’ sexuality had influenced their career choices and reactions to their career. It had the desired effect.
“In the mainstream rock press and radio it has really influenced things. For instance, we walk into a radio station and the music director doesn’t feel an affinity to us on a level of sexuality, because he’s not looking at us as potential prey,” she says, becoming more animated by her example. “I remember doing this interview with a music director of a station out of California. I challenged him about his not playing women on his radio station and he told me that rock was ‘about boys and guitars, and boys wanting women; not about women playing guitars’. He just said it! That was his position and he wasn’t ashamed.” Amy shakes her head as if still unable to believe the attitudes of some of her countrymen. Emily, looking like she might burst if not allowed to agree with Amy’s comments, adds, “They’d never admit it, but it is a primal reaction at the root of it”. There is much nodding as more tea is sipped.
Part of their agenda is to try to lobby to change government policy on certain unsavoury international situations, such as the USA’s continued ban on direct flights to Cuba. So it was that, well before the Manic Street Preachers went about claiming to be the first “western” band to tour to Cuba, Amy and Emily were playing there. And enthused about the place.
“Those musicians are unbelievable, how good they are. I felt like I was always trying to catch up, figure out where the down beat was,” quips Amy. Emily’s immediate recollection is more prosaic; “There’s not billboards or things for sale everywhere,” she says, only for Amy to laugh at her. “There’s nothing for sale – there’s nothing in the stores!”
Emily changes tack. “The music comes from a very pure place. Art is the life and soul of the people there. You can go around the corner to a small club and hear the best band you’ve ever heard in your life in terms of their soul and musicianship so it was really inspiring. They were very giving. They didn’t have what we would consider a lot in terms of provisions or whatever but they’d give you whatever they had and prepare a meal for you and just be very gracious. Wonderful people. They’re not distracted by capitalist things.”
“I’m in awe of what she does”
– Amy Ray on Ani DiFranco.
Amy was perplexed by the seeming collection of opposites that define Cuban society under Castro. “It’s a weird mixture. There’s so much support from the government in Cuba for music, where they subsidise rehearsal space, but there’s a slightly repressive element too, where for certain kinds of music, maybe non-traditional, when kids want to play in a punk band or singer-songwriters who write protest songs won’t get exposure on the radio… We could sympathise with the feelings that some of the musicians have. Everyone is so much more expressive there. And the literacy rate is 95% – school is very high on the list of priorities there. Our experience of listening to music in Cuba is phenomenal. If I sat in with Buena Vista Social Club I’d probably just sit there because they are just so adept and talented and beyond me musically so I’d tend more to just play with a rock band. We heard some of the greatest percussionists in the world in one small area, with children and grandparents standing around listening to this person who was part of their extended family, who’s a pioneer in percussion. We were very privileged to hear it.”
I was feeling thoroughly envious of the pair of them for having been in Cuba at all, never mind at having experienced such things. A change of tack was needed before I this time turned green. Still on the social justice side of matters, I asked about the Girls’ relationship with fellow agit-folk-rocker Ani DiFranco, with whom they’d recorded a song as a tribute to Woody Guthrie. Did she have much in common with them?
“We’re just fans and I’m a friend,” says Amy. “The expression of our agendas is different although the agendas are similar. She works in a different way politically. We do a lot of benefits and active things, she sort of runs her business socially consciously all the time. She has a little world that she’s making a big difference in. Her company stayed in Buffalo (where she’s from) and she employs people from there – that’s a city that needed economic input. She donates a certain amount from ticket sales for every show to a local organisation. We have pretty much the same politics. She started Righteous Babe to put her own stuff out while we started Daemon to put other people’s out. Then I released my own record on Daemon and now she’s releasing other people’s records. We did it oppositely. We’re really supportive of doing her own label like that. I’m in awe of what she does – but you have to have a big staff to do it.”
Ah yes, Daemon Records. Set up by Amy as an Indigo Girls offshoot to release records she liked, she released her first solo album, Stag, on the label last year. It created much fevered speculation that the Indigo Girls had split up. Clearly, such fears were and are unfounded. But how does one get signed to Daemon? What takes Amy’s fancy? And why set up her own label anyway?
“I sign stuff that’s kinda regional, stuff from the south-east, usually bands that are going to tour a lot,” she begins. “I only put out about four or five records a year so it’s pretty limited, but it’s a co-op. My staff bring ideas to the table and we all decide what to do. A lot of the time they come up with more stuff than I do coz they’re always going out and seeing music in Atlanta. They tend to be more with it. I just bring in some demo tape I’ve heard and I don’t know if they (the artists) are even still around anymore. My staff will hear a band, like, last night and think they’re amazing, they’re playing all the time, let’s do a record with them. If we all agree we do it. When we go home we go off into our own separate worlds.” Fans are also reminded that Emily has her own restaurant, the Flying Biscuit; she also has a life outside of Indigo Girls.
I couldn’t help wondering what Indigo Girls’ label, Sony’s Epic division, thought about Daemon. “Sony doesn’t really care what we do that much,” says Amy matter-of-factly. “Stag was just one record and it was easy to slip it out and no-one bothered. But our friends at Sony have sometimes helped us with mailings and databases and have supported what me and Emily do subversively with their resources.” All very hollistic, then.
Become You is the first release proper since Daemon released Stag. I’d wondered if Amy’s input to this album was influenced by her experience with Stag. “Yeah. Just technical things, like which vocal mic I use. Stag was super-low budget, you know, a twentieth of what we’d spend on one of our records. That was good for me. You get used to working with a big budget and it taught me that you don’t need to, you could work with a smaller budget, work faster. I’m one of those people who likes to do everything a million times to get it right and with Stag I couldn’t do that because I only had one day to do a song and that was the moment that I caught. If it didn’t sound that great then there was nothing I could do about it. It freed me up. It’s always good to do other projects.”
“When we go home we go off into our own separate worlds.”
– Amy Ray on organising time.
I’d been getting the feeling that, while Amy was enthused at the direction the questions were taking, I’d not heard quite as much from Emily. I changed the direction of my questioning a little, lest Emily overdose on tea as Amy spoke.
I asked her how Become You differs to other Indigo Girls albums from her point of view. “There’s less production on it,” she rejoined. “It doesn’t have loops or samples and it’s very organic. Some people say it feels a little rootsy, perhaps due to production simplicity.”
Amy’s always certain that, whichever album she’s just finished recording, that’s the best she’s done. “Rites of Passage was a pivotal record,” she muses, “but Become You combines our earlier sound with better songwriting. I’m not consistently proud of my songwriting on earlier albums – I’d go for the later stuff.” Emily is also happy with Become You, and tells me why. “So many great moments; from the drummer stomping on this platform that got mic-ed underneath which adds this cool percussive thing in the song Bitter Root… but it is his spirit out there, laughing and talking and stomping… and there was a really soulful camaraderie with people we worked with on this record. Also, the World Trade Center attacks had just happened on the second day of our rehearsal, so there was a lot of talking about that, bonding about the issues that it all brought up so there was a lot of discussion outside of our own musical experiences.”
I’d also noticed that on Become You, once again, the Girls each write their own songs and do not share writing credits. Emily explains. “We have different sensibilities and might use different chords. We arrange the songs instrumentally together.” Almost apologetically, she adds, “We have collaborated before, but this is just the natural way in which we operate.” Amy, having refreshed her vocal chords with even more tea, pipes up. “We have similar writing processes, but our tastes and vocabularies are different. We’re different people,” she says with a shrug.
Was it always thus? How did Indigo Girls start? Emily picks up the story. “We met at elementary school. I was 10, Amy was 9. We were both in the chorus and became friends, playing for our English class, then moving on to play gigs. We made a decision to make a career…” and Amy picks up the tale. “I remember seeing Emily at lunch in the school cafeteria playing guitar with all her friends gathered round her – it was pretty neat. We had an English teacher in high school who encouraged us to have a career and I still see him at least twice a year. We still live where we grew up so we still see people. My mum’s just had a party with all the teachers and the principal from high school, so it’s all still there on a neighbourhood level.”
It’s there on an international level too. Indigo Girls fans are a legendary breed and their loyalty to the duo – and how that might manifest itself – was something I wanted to ask them about.
“They’re definitely loyal…” Amy begins, looking at Emily to pick up the thread. Which she does. “If someone’s psychologically off then it’s a sad situation that needs to be dealt with respectfully,” she says somewhat unexpectedly. “We have fans who follow us all over the country and they’re very supportive and for the most part they are really respectful,” she says, qualifying her statement, before going on. “We have some fans who think they part-own us because they’ve been supporting us for so long and there are some weird vibes with that… but I feel very thankful for our fans.” One gets the impression with Emily that she’ll say what she means, think she’s caused offence and then back-track to politeness, which can be disconcerting, but also rather endearing.
Amy decides to talk positive. “Some guy organised a bus tour a couple of years ago. They pooled their money and bought this big old… vehicle… and went to a whole bunch of shows. They worked with our manager on making sure everyone had tickets for all the shows – things like that are cool.” Emily is nodding and chirps in with her own upbeat tale. “A woman in France has developed her own fan club. We don’t have a lot of support in France and she’s gone to a huge effort to create that – that’s great.”
But one thing’s for certain. They like their privacy. “If we have to drive to the next place we don’t have time, but we’ll sign things,” says Amy, “but not at the hotel. When we go to the hotel I want to feel like a person. I don’t want to pose for pictures.” Happily, I don’t have my camera out…
But anyway, here they were in the UK for the first time in something like seven years. I wondered if they didn’t like the place and was informed otherwise as both Amy and Emily vied to speak at the same time. “Tea!” laughs Amy. “We love the tea! And our bass and keyboard players and producer are from here. And the interviews are better over here, more provocative than in the USA.” As I turn bright red again, Emily’s busy listing yet more UK glories. “I love some of the history, like the Bloomsbury Group. I’m a Virginia Woolf fan. And I love our fans here. They’re very loyal…” After three dates this time round, we are promised return visits this same year, so they’re obviously eager to make amends for their quite inexcusable absence. After all, if we have to wait another seven years, mightn’t Indigo Girls be no more?
Emily takes up the tongue-in-cheek challenge. “We could always come together to be Indigo Girls. I still love it and I don’t have any wishes for it to stop, despite what goes on in our own lives.” Amy agrees. “At some point it would be great to cut back on how much time we spend on the road, maybe teach school for a year. There’re so many experiences in life to be had – but never to the exclusion of Indigo Girls, because these experiences bring new ideas into what we do.”