On The Download: Indigo Girls
First Published: April 3, 2009 6:22 PM EDT Credit: Matt Odom
LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- It’s been 20 years since the Indigo Girls broke through to the mainstream with their seminal trademark Grammy-winning song, “Closer To Fine.” Since then, the Georgia duo has produced 10 major label studio albums and toured the country multiple times for an entire generation of music lovers who have been drawn to their unique supplementary harmonies.
Like many major artists with their vast experience, now that they’ve finished their label contract, they’ve gone independent (again, in their case!) with their newly-formed IG Recordings. Their new double-disc album, “Poseidon and the Bitter Bug,” came out last week, and they launch a tour this weekend, kicking things off at the Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs.
I caught up with half of the duo, ethereal-vocalist Emily Saliers, to discuss the new album, the state of gay marriage rights, long-term relationships and… Katy Perry.
Jeremy Blacklow: This is your first album on your own indie label — what’s different for you guys this time around? What does that feel like for you guys now that you are no longer attached to a major label?
Emily Saliers: Well, it’s a couple different things – it’s full circle because we did make our first full length LP independently [“Strange Fire”] in 1987, so it’s kind of like the 20-year circle and it’s come back around. I can tell you we were very, very thrilled to be independent — because you make your own decisions there’s not some marketing team from a label that’s a distant form making decisions for you that you wouldn’t necessarily really make. You know, it’s all in house and because we’ve been around so long we’ve established most of the relationships that we need to with radio programmers or media or retail… or whatever it is. We can implement those resources on our own and there’s really nothing that a record label can do for us any more — we found that out when we signed with Hollywood after being with Epic all those years. And we had a really good relationship with Epic it just ran its course and then Hollywood signed us and dropped us after one record so were just like, ‘OK, this is a no brainer.’ And we just found that with the album, it just came out last week and charted # 29 already, so that’s pretty good for us, you know?
JB: Well, you guys definitely still have it! The new album is really just signature Indigo Girls — I really think it’s amongst the best stuff that you have really ever done. In this album you chose to put out an accompanying acoustic disc, which really presents the songs in a totally different way for fans. What was that process like for you guys? And what does that second disc bring to the table?
ES: Well, it was Mitchell’s [Froom’s] idea — he produced the record and for whatever reason, the magic was there. So he just thought that the fans would really appreciate having an acoustic version. He thinks that some of the fans don’t even want him mucking stuff up with production on the main disc; that they’d just rather hear us acoustically. So, in deference to them, and I think you’re right … they’re independent of each other — they’re not meant to be closely compared or listened to together necessarily. They have their own lives and their own identities and the band recorded it in three weeks. We cut 10 tracks in four days and we made the record quickly because we were on budgetary restrictions and time restrictions because we were doing it independently.
JB: Had you written all the songs before hand?
ES: Yeah, all the songs were written already.
JB: It was just the recording process and making it was 3 weeks.
ES: Yep, Mitchell came down to Atlanta and we came to Amy’s house we came to my house and we did pre-production. He’s an excellent arranger. He did a lot of work before we actually went into the studio, just you know, tweaking the songs and the cord arrangements and all those kinds of things and how they were going to be arranged once we got in the studio, so we didn’t waste any time. And then the acoustic record; when we finished the band record we just did the acoustic record in three days. Amy and I just sat around a bunch of microphones an played the songs just stripped down — very little changed in terms of the arrangements in terms of the way we played on it. Obviously, the band stuff isn’t there, but it’s just how it would be for fans if they heard the song just after [Amy] and I had arranged it before it hit the big production stage. So, we just thought that would be cool for them to have both.
JB: You’ve talked about how two of the songs, and I think these are both your songs, a “Fleet of Hope” and “Love of Our Lives,” are really about questioning the ability for love to last, and the maintenance of long lasting relationships. Is it coming from a very personal place for you guys? For a lack of better term… are you bitter about love right now?
ES: No! It’s so funny because if you didn’t know me you would think I was a very depressed person, you know, who had lost all hope, but it was actually a pretty bleak time. And it’s true, I mean just about, I mean my own relationship just ended and then just about everybody I knew who was in decade plus relationships all started breaking up. And then it was also a time of life where your parents start passing away and just the longer you live, the more shit happens, you know? Hopefully, you learn enough to be able to weather those storms but it becomes particularly challenging, or for me personally at that stage in my life, it was becoming very challenging trying to make sense of anything lasting and so it’s all very reflected in the lyrics of the songs. They’re the bleakest lyrics I’ve probably ever written as in a group of songs since we started. The only happy one is “What Are You Like.” And the rest of them are just loaded with questions and efforts of trying to understand and trying to hold on to hope for how to make love last. That’s my personality, that’s all I think about, and that’s all I want to have happen for everybody.
JB: The lead single, “Digging For Your Dream,” is just a classic Emily song, it’s just really your classic vocals. You talk about it being the closest to R&B you’ll ever become. Did you feel like you were going for a sound departure there a little bit?
ES: Yeah, I kept begging Mitchell for more beats! I mean, I was like, ‘I just want to be an R&B singer, it’s all I ever wanted to be.’ My first record was The Jackson 5 and I just love black American music more than anything else. And so, I’m just this white girl who’s trying to do it, you know? And so it’s because it’s the music I love so much that I’m really attracted to grooves and rhythm and vibe, and so from that song in particular, I really went for it. Even though it’s a very depressing song, another bleak one. But in terms of the vibe I really—it is as close to R&B as I’ve ever gotten in terms of production and style.
JB: It’s been 20 years ago since you broke through—I mean there weren’t really a lot of out gay artists then, like there are today — there was Freddie Mercury — but Elton John and George Michael hadn’t come out yet. How have things changed in your mind over the last twp decades for artists in the music industry to be out?
ES: You know, I think there was more of a climate of fear about what would happen to your career if you came out back then in those days. I mean, a lot has changed in 20 years. Obviously, we still have a long way to go. Like with Prop 8, when that happens, it’s like, ‘Damn, have we come far or have we not?’ Maybe not, you know? I don’t think that there’s the same concern in terms of coming out and how it’s going to affect your career now. I mean if you look like at Clay Aiken, who’s an American Idol, coming out, and with people like Elton out and Ellen, Portia de Rossi, main stream artists or actors or people in the arts… it really helps the cause a lot. Or Lance Bass, you know, who would think that a guy like that would come out? So obviously more people would come out, which means they’re more comfortable to come out, which means they’re less concerned with what could happen to their career. And that is a positive climate to be in.
Now legislatively and politically we still have a long way to go. But artists have always set the tone for being the most out there anyway so then you have a lot of people in the straight community to support the right to marriage and who hang out with gay artists; it’s just one big happy functional family. So we’ve come a long way. But politically… legislatively, we’ve got a long way to go.
JB: One of the biggest hits in pop music in 2008 was a song called “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry. What are your thoughts on a straight woman appropriating lesbian behavior for mainstream success?
ES: I don’t lose sleep over it, but it definitely gets under my skin. You know, I think it’s… that song is a pop song and it’s very catchy. It didn’t make me angry but it’s a little bit like, ‘Come on!’ When you sing a song about kissing a girl and it’s just a pop song and you go back to your boyfriend and nothing politically has shifted in the social consciousness, what good is that? So, for me, it’s not offensive, but it’s not responsible either. And any time you appropriate something that’s not yours and start expressing things about it, it’s, you know, you’re removed from the reality. So I just think it’s a pop song, and it’s a little misguided, but she probably didn’t mean any harm by it and life goes on.
JB: You guys have always been involved in so many causes. Indigenous rights and anti-poverty campaigns. What other causes are both you and Amy most passionate about right now in 2009?
ES: There’s no doubt that we’re completely passionate and involved in indigenous causes and particularly with environmental justice issues. In Indian country there’s a lot going on right now. There’s a whole movement called Green Jobs for Brown People and what it is doing is setting up infrastructures, positive energy, green energy involvement that will sustain economies rather than build a new power plant or a nuclear plant that just poisons people and destroys an ecosystem (just so that people can survive and make money). You know, that’s just environmental injustice. So we’re working toward supporting projects that are putting green energy up on the grid and sort of trying to shift the paradigm of how Americans think about energy.
And you see it happening more and more in the general consciousness, I think, but we have to really implement the green power; we can’t just talk about it and say we’re green… we have to support projects that are actually doing it. So we’re really involved with Honor The Earth all the time on stuff like that. That’s a group we helped start a long time ago with Winona LaDuke and we filter, channel all our energies for — for energy issues through Honor The Earth, and our work with them.
And then on the road this year we’re going to do food drives, working with Rock for a Remedy, which is a group that encourages civic minded musicians and civic minded fans to come together. They basically just bring food to the shows and then those get donated to local food banks so it’s all community based. Some banks need particular kinds of food more than others and all of that stuff gets sorted out and they help to orchestrate all of that, so we’re also going to be getting pet food for cats and dogs to be donated to shelters and places like that. It’s just really, really hard times right now. There’s something like 35 million Americans who are hungry and so we’re very grateful Rock for a Remedy and working with them and doing food drives. We’re going to do it for every single show for this whole tour throughout the summer.
JB: You guys are heading out on the road again. Does the road still have the excitement for you that it did 20 years ago? What’s different now about touring than 20 years ago?
ES: Well, it’s pretty much a well-oiled machine now I mean there were days when we were really big in pop, when we played Madison Square Garden, and you know, places like that that, It was really sort of head trippy, like, ‘What are we doing on this stage? Now over the course of our 20 plus year career, things have leveled out and we’re at this wonderful place we have very loyal fans who, god bless them, keep coming back to the shows. And certain cities well play larger crowds but in a lot of cities it’s just small theaters which makes for a very nice, intimate experience and what really keeps things fresh on the road for us is our opening acts because we hand pick them, and we love them. They play with us on stage and especially the younger acts, they really give us a newfound energy.
JB: And you’ve really always done that, right?
ES: Yeah, I mean we grew up as a bar band. You know when we were playing seven nights a week in a bar until 3 AM we had all our friends join us on stage it was just a big hootenanny, and came from that spirit and it still hasn’t changed. But everything else is down to a T — you know, get on the bus and then you drive through the night, get up in the morning and you have your routine and then you go to the gig and you sound check and we eat dinner together and make a brand new set list every night. So that keeps it fresh and it’s just kind of very structured. So that’s cool. I need structure.
JB: Which new artists are you really digging right now?
ES: Brandi Carlisle. She’s fantastic. She’s one of our favorites and we try to get her out on the road with us as much as possible so we can just stand back in awe of her gorgeous voice and just her gift. She’s got such a great energy and she’s a good person and it’s just really cool; she’s great.
5 QUICK QUESTIONS FOR EMILY SALIERS:
BIGGEST MUSICAL INSPIRATION? Stevie Wonder
FAVORITE CITY TO PLAY LIVE IN?New York City
FAVORITE LOCATION TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL? The Beach in Florida… white sand and blue water
SOMETHING YOU WANT TO TRY THAT YOU’VE NEVER TRIED BEFORE? Making a solo record
GUILTY PLEASURE? Red wine!
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