Indigo Girls
Photos: Jeremy Cowart

Everyone in the queer community and the music industry knows who the Indigo Girls are.

For the last 30 years and change, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have become one of popular music’s most reliable duos, turning out consistently fine albums of literate folk-rock every few years.

I’ve interviewed the Indigo Girls several times for Curve.

But talking with them in April of 2020 was different, right off the bat. Two weeks before this interview, America had essentially gone under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic — an unprecedented and terrifying situation made worse by the fact that we have a narcissistic sociopath in the White House. I’ve done several interviews in the two months since, but the Indigo Girls were the first people I talked to since we entered this new reality.

Their new album, Look Long, arrived on May 22nd and is significant for a couple of reasons. Their sound hasn’t really changed; this album is simply solid, reliable Indigo Girls music. But in a sense, that is the change. Hard as it is to believe, Look Long is their first studio effort in almost five years! Which is not to say they haven’t stayed busy since the release of 2015’s One Lost Day. Both Ray and Saliers released solo albums during that five-year gap (Saliers for the first time ever!). And in 2018, they unveiled Live With the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra — a double disc set that featured songs from their entire career backed by full orchestral accompaniment. So in a way, Look Long could be considered a return to the Girls’ roots. This album also reunites them with John Reynolds, who produced one of their most popular discs, Come On Now Social, back in 1999.

By definition, duos have a harder time staying together than bands with three or more people (see Simon & Garfunkel, Tears For Fears, etc.) as there’s often a struggle for control or a difference in vision. That hasn’t been the case with the Indigo Girls. More than three decades on, they still get along, they still release great music and their talents seem to effortlessly balance each other out. More importantly, they’re just good people. For anyone who may be wondering if Saliers and Ray are as nice in person as they seem on record, the answer is no: they’re even nicer! They are, in fact, the very two people you want to talk to when there’s a global pandemic going on.

This is the first interview I’ve done during a plague [and] my question list has been changed a little by the circumstances of the world. I want to start by asking both of you any thoughts you have about the virus: how it’s affecting you, any words of wisdom or solace that you might have for the readers of Curve.

Emily Saliers: Well, in my own personal life, the sacrifices we’re making are very small compared to the sacrifices that first responders and the medical community and people who work in grocery stores are making. And also the families of those who are getting very sick with COVID and dying. So there’s this whole other global pain that I’m constantly aware of as I go through my day. But then there are changes in my own personal life that, as I say, are not great sacrifices. But they are adjustments.

I don’t think things that happen like this are any accident of nature; I think that the Earth has been ill for awhile, and this is a reflection of [that] illness. It’s a huge wakeup call for us to get back to really honoring and having a functional relationship with the Earth… I’m a person who prays. I pray for those who are suffering. And I pray to be a good home-schooler to my kid. There’s a lot of sadness because she just found out that her school year is not gonna happen. She loves her teacher, and it’s first grade, and stuff like that. There’s just all kinds of things that you only experience in a global pandemic like this. But we just have to keep on doing everything we can, supporting each other and primarily being responsible to not spread the illness [and] to not pick it up. Those are the things I’ve been thinking about.

Amy Ray: I would add that there’s probably a chance for people to reach out in the queer community to people they know [who] have to shelter in place with a family that’s not accepting. Just to reach out and try to make contact with people that might be in situations that are hard or could be potentially volatile. Keep in touch with those people via social media, texting or whatever. Because this is a period of time when domestic abuse goes up and a lot of things happen because people are under pressure. I know a couple of people, through my niece, that are going through that right now. So my advice is to use your own resources to reach out to other people and make sure they’re okay. This is the time when we need to be doing that — whether it’s someone that’s really young, or an older person who doesn’t maybe have a lot of community. Even if you can’t go see them physically, be in touch.

For me, this is a sad time when I see what’s going on outside of myself… What helps me deal is to try to help somebody every day, or do something to focus outside of my own little bubble. Also, I think it’s good to find one or two trusted news sources, pay attention to those and turn everything else off. You’ve gotta find a news source that you trust — whether it’s NPR or PBS or The Guardian or Politico. Use those and turn the other stuff off if you can, especially if you have kids. Try to make it a time of reflection and curiosity and finding ways to discover each other.

I understand that you recorded Look Long in the UK and worked with [producer] John Reynolds for the first time in many years. Tell me a little bit about the recording process and what it was like reuniting with him.

ES: John Reynolds and [that whole] contingent — they’re like family to us. We met them at Lilith Fair many years ago [and] as musicians, they blew our minds. But as great musicians as they are, they’re even more fabulous human beings. I think we were both elated at the thought of not only working with John but working with Carol Isaacs on keyboards, Clare Kenny on bass and all the other players. We were very excited about getting together with these people that feel like our family across the pond. And then to get to make it at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio, near Bath — I mean, it’s beautiful there. It’s a very good place to live and to work. So the environment was inspiring.

We didn’t know any of John’s production ideas until we really got there! It was like, ‘What’s gonna happen?” [But] we got there and he started laying his production ideas and his approach to the rhythmic center of the songs and it was just like, this is what he does. He’s like a magician.

Can I ask you about a couple of specific tunes? Tell me about the first single, “Shit Kickin’.”

AR: [Laughter] Well, it’s very autobiographical. Very literal. You know, I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. When I was eight or nine, we got a lake house [in] an agricultural sort of area. The core of engineers would build these big dams and put these lakes up. So it like this suburban culture: boats and skis and fishing. All these weekend, upper middle class families. I always thought of it [as] invading the farmlands.

So we befriended this farmer, we would ride horses and we had Honda dirt bikes. It was just kinda about that tomboy stuff. But as the song continues, I’m sort of talking about discovering that it’s not as innocent as it seems. The clash of cultures in some ways, what’s underneath my culture and what’s underneath the other culture. Just discovering myself as a tomboy, kinda queer person, you know, who is from the South. And discovering things about my own relatives and my family that are kinda like skeletons in the closet. How you love yourself and your family through that [but] at the same time have your eyes open enough to know what’s wrong with your legacy and what you have to repair… The things that give us joy, sometimes when you look back on them, you realize a lot of the baggage from that. Not only the economic and structural changes of those communities but also what [they] were going through in the early ‘70s. Some of them were fraught with racism and Klan activity. So I packed a lot of thought into this kinda swampy, Southern song.

Amy, one other thing I wanted to ask you — and it’s funny that you just mentioned a clash of cultures in the South. One of the times [we spoke], I remember you talking about The Clash.

AR: Oh yeah!

I asked you both what the differences were in your musical influences growing up and you told me you were more of a punk rock fan for awhile. [So] I specifically wanted to ask you about The Clash. I’ve been listening to London Calling non-stop this year! It just feels more appropriate than ever. So yeah — just any thoughts about The Clash that you might have.

AR: I mean — The Clash is one of the greatest folk-populist-punk rock bands that ever was! Joe Strummer, to me, was like the Hank Williams of punk rock. [He] talked about community, talked about rising up but [there was] a compassion in his language. [He] was trying to understand where people were coming at the same time as being angry — which I think was an interesting way to be as a punk rocker in that time period. You know, if you look at his lyrics very carefully, [they’re] not as black and white as The Sex Pistols might have been. There’s some true nuance and thought and history behind what [The Clash were] talking about. So I think that’s a good record to listen to right now! Kind of like Star Wars is a good movie to watch. The resistance! [laughter].

Emily, there were a couple of tunes that I think are yours that I was curious about. But the main one was “Country Radio.” I’m guessing that was also autobiographical?

ES: Totally autobiographical. You know, as a queer person…. I didn’t even have a language for my gay-ness in high school. I knew I was different. I was trying to fit into the heteronormative, high school reality. I dated a bunch of guys [and] it turns out they were all gay! But the point is that I felt different. I remember when I was at Tulane, Cris Williamson came to play. And I felt this feeling of, “Oh my God, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!” They were all lesbians in the band, and they were all out. And I was completely enthralled and completely terrified.

Everybody knows that as an oppressed group of people, we need representation — in music, in film, in the arts and in politics. So I wrote “Country Radio.” I’m 55 years old but I [still] love Nashville. The songs are so crafted; they’re almost real to me, but I can’t get in it because I”m queer. So I wrote a song about [that] feeling. I put myself in the shoes of a kid who’s most likely in a rural town, doesn’t have a lot of support [or] expression for their sexuality. And how this kid — either he or she or they — they close their eyes and imagine themselves in these songs. “Country Radio” is about the beauty of those stories and the desire to fit into [them] and how challenging it is sometimes to not be validated by the world of men and women falling in love.

And of course, there’s a part in there about the church. The little church marquees, or whatever they’re called, where they spell out something. A lot of it is about damnation. You know, you’re sinning and [you should] turn to Jesus and all this stuff. A lot of them are specifically homophobic. So I include that just as a completely societal and infiltrating sense that you are not valid and yet your heart yearns to love and find your place in a song. So that’s what it’s about. Completely autobiographical — except that I’m not, at this point in my life, a kid in a small town! [laughter].

Just to wrap up — anything [else] want me to cover, about the new album, about the world right now, about your plans for later this year?

AR: We planned on touring all summer but I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. So we’ll just move it to the time when everybody can do it, when it’s safe and healthy for everybody. But that’s the hope — that we do a full band tour.

Emily, did you wanna add anything?

ES: Politically, I have high hopes that the way Trump and his Republican cohorts have handled this situation will [mean] the end of his administration. That’s my hope. And I think it is okay that the way Trump has handled this crisis is being politicized, because he’s a politician and he’s the President. It’s been horrendous to watch him be completely ineffectual at handling [this]. Everybody I know is uncertain about the future. No one knows when the virus will be contained. No one knows how long the suffering and experiencing the death of loved ones will haunt generations to come, even. So there’s a lot of uncertainty. But I also believe that we have to keep a close eye politically on what’s going on and remember it when it’s time to vote. And for all the readers out there — if there are any of you aren’t familiar with Stacey Abrams, she ran for Governor, lost the election to [Brian] Kemp in Georgia. But she started Fair Fight Action, she does a lot of work on voter suppression and things like this. So if you want a real heroine to follow during these times, keep an eye out and listen to the words of Stacey Abrams. Both Amy and I are staunch believers in her as a person and her politics and leadership. So there is hope on the political landscape.

AR: Yeah… Look at our health care system. And look at all the things that we’re learning about what we need in a health care system. Look at climate change. And don’t negate all the work we’ve done on it by rushing to have every single thing in the world shipped to you and all the fossil fuels burned up, you know? [laughs]. This is a time when if we lose that focus politically on who’s leading us, we are gonna be in really big trouble. So we need to work on that at the same time that we’re adjusting to all this. Somehow keep our eyes on the prize. And I think we can. I think Emily’s right, with people like Stacey Abrams as a heroine. You know, working to solidify elections in the midst of all this chaos. Chaos is when we start losing control of the things we should not lose control of — which is our democracy.

Well, I agree with everything you both just said. And if it’s not inappropriate, I wanna personally tell you that I always love talking to you. I know the readers of Curve love you. And I just want you to know that there’s a straight male in New York City who loves and appreciates you both.

AR: [Laughter] Thank you. We love to talk to you too. [And] we appreciate Curve so much.

Look Long by the Indigo Girls is out now.