By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
My friend Adrienne and I would stay up all night in her dorm room,
smoking and playing guitar. She had already learned nearly every
song on the Indigo Girls' debut indie record, and somehow I always
got saddled with singing the high part in a wavering falsetto. We'd
venture off into other tunes — wheezing through Melissa Etheridge
and mumbling through R.E.M. — but we'd always come back to the
Indigos' “Strange Fire,'' “Make It Easier'' and my favorite,
“They're so beautiful and so easy to play,'' Adrienne would say. “I
mean, I could write this stuff, but think about how great they're going to
be in a few years when they've got 1,000 performances and some cynicism
under their belts.''
Nearly 10 years later, with several thousand performances and a vital,
sincere activism instead of mere cynicism under their belts, the greatness
of the Indigo Girls — Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — has matured and aged
like good wine. But they haven't mellowed. In fact, the newest record,
“Shaming of the Sun'' (due in stores April 29) finds the Indigo Girls
bolder and louder than ever while remaining in the tag-team folk-rock form
that nurtures the duo's inviting harmonies and easily approachable social
As the pair wound its way across the Midwest collegiate circuit last
week, I caught up with Amy Ray — the growling, passionate yang to Saliers'
studied, introverted yin — after a show in Davenport, Iowa. She talked
about the new album, the pair's approach to writing songs and the Indigo
Girls' constant challenge to maintain an activist integrity while safely
inked into a major-label recording contract.
Thomas Conner: I'm really taken with the new record. As the two of
you get older, you're getting louder — both in the music and your
political voice. It's usually the other way around. Why the
Amy Ray: This is a loud record, isn't it? We'll probably
do a soft one after this to show our true colors. We keep planning
a straight-up folk record, and then this happens. This time around
when I was writing, I was kind of reverting to when I was younger
and finding my way again. The lyrics are very literal on this
record. We're more comfortable that way now. I've always been
fairly outspoken, and Emily's gone through some politicizing in the
last two years. We're becoming more aware of how to speak on
certain things we're involved in, from Native American issues to
gay rights. We went into the studio and just let it all hang
TC: The song “Shame on You'' is the most radio-friendly song
as well as the most overtly political. Is that by design?
AR: No, I just wrote it and it ended up that way. It didn't start to be
about politics. I was hanging out with my friends in a park. There's a lot
of immigration and illegal alien concerns in my area, and a lot of the
poultry industry that hires these Chicano and Hispanic workers. They're not
only underpaid and mistreated at work, but they are hassled all the time.
That just all came up while I was writing the song.
TC: I always think of the Indigo Girls as politically important
musicians, yet I'm hard-pressed to think of a bona fide protest song in your
AR: Hmm. Well, “This Train'' from the last record (“Swamp Ophelia'') is
a pretty good social commentary on the Holocaust and genocide in general.
It's not like we're Billy Bragg, though, with a history of writing labor
songs. That's part of the thing. We just write what we write. In my life,
everything I see is through a political lens. As a gay woman — or just as a
woman — everything I do is more political. So even the songs about
relationships, even though they're not written with some agenda in mind,
have some political stake.
TC: You've never necessarily denied your sexuality, but you've never
grabbed at the cover of The Advocate to tell the world about it, either. Why
choose the low-key approach?
AR: Emily was less concerned with it early on than I was. I did a lot of
interviews for gay publications by myself when we were starting. I remember
doing one with this journalist from Hits! and he asked, “Are you gay?'' and
I said, “Well, yeah,'' and felt so good that the question had finally been
asked and was done with. Then he didn't even print it. I was so miffed. They
give musicians such hassle for not coming out, but then they don't care when
you're forthright about it. They usually only care unless you don't want it
known. We've never made a big issue of it because it's not a big issue, but
we feel it's worth sacrificing some of our personal life to talk about it
when we need to.
TC: What are the differences between the way you and Emily each write
AR: Emily's more disciplined about it. She can make space and time for
herself and sit down to write and really craft the song and the lyrics. She
has a very large chord vocabulary ... and a very large word vocabulary, too.
I'm not articulate that way. I write whenever it comes to me, wherever I am.
I feel I'm hard-pressed to take it when it comes.
TC: Both of your songs tend to be intensely personal. I know it's
sometimes easy to write a very personal song but that performing and
recording it tend to be a burden. Have you experienced that?
AR: The sharing of things doesn't bother me. We both feel a certain
amount of protection because of the music, and in the spirit of the music
we're willing to bear that. We're protected by its good energy — by the
good witch of music. (Laughs.) The problem I have is having to relive it
every time I sing it. Sometimes it's painful. I write something to get it
off my chest, and when I relive it, it's like, "Oh, jeez, I'm gonna have to
sing this every night for a year. How am I going to do it?' The songs have
to take on an esoteric meaning for me to get through it.
TC: I was warned to prepare myself for a drastic difference in
the sound of this album, but I wasn't really that shocked. The
presence of more electric instruments really doesn't sound so out
of place. The difference I noted was that the songs and their
arrangements are more ... tortured. Am I getting it?
AR: Oh yeah, you're getting it. The sound really isn't that different. I
had a couple of hard years during our time off. There were some hard things
I had to deal with. They were hard but I learned a lot. My songs and the
arrangements of them are more tortured, and there's a reason for it. Emily's
lyrics aren't as tortured, but there's something going on in her musically
that's intense. She expresses anger well through music — very dignified.
For instance, the song “Scooter Boys'' was recorded completely off the
cuff. She doesn't even know what tuning she was in. We were jamming on
something completely different, we moved into this song idea I had and what
came out of her was from a completely different place. I don't even know if
she knew what I was singing about.
TC: When you were on the “Politics and Music'' panel at last
month's South by Southwest conference in Austin, some panelists made a point
I was glad to hear voiced: that the argument over major labels vs. indie
labels is irrelevant. Do you agree with that?
AR: I think that's right on some level, but I don't agree on another
level. Logistically speaking, a major label is bigger and there are more
people, so it's more bureaucratic and you automatically lose some quality
control except for the niche of people close to you. The people close to us
at Epic are great, but when you look at the whole company, you know there
are probably people there with questionable integrity. In an indie, you can
spot those people quickly and get rid of them.
As a person who has an indie label, I agree with the capitalism
argument. An indie is selling a product just like a major is, and they'll
screw you just as quickly as a major will. People who cut down major labels
as being more capitalistic than indies are lying. But an indie is a
different spirit. It's harder for a major label to have a grassroots effort,
but it's easy for an indie.
TC: How has Epic responded to your activism?
AR: Epic's very cool about the poltics. Rage
Against the Machine is on Epic, and so is Pearl Jam. Those two
bands are constantly pushing the boundaries with the label. Every
chance they get to express their opinions, they do. We just went on
a trip to Chiapas, Mexico, with Zach de la Rocha from Rage. The
Epic publicist worked really hard for that event, and the label
donated video cameras and equipment so we could document the work
down there. This wasn't a project that would make anyone a lot of
money or even make the label look better; they did it to support
our interests and because they feel our politics have a certain
amount of importance.
TC: Was the idea for the upcoming (in June) Pay-Per-View special
yours or Epic's?
AR: It was theirs, and that's the kind of thing I would totally shy
away from. But Epic helped us keep the price low and are allowing us to hook
up with politically correct sponsors, like The Advocate. They said we've got
three hours of air-time to do with however we please. So we're like,
“Great! What bands do we want to push? What politics do we want to talk
Still, it's frustrating at times... But you have to fight things from the
inside out. We'll stay with Epic until we need to go.
With the Scud Mountain Boys
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Expo Square Pavilion, 17th Street and New Haven Avenue Tickets:
$19.50, available at The Ticket Office at Expo Square, call 747-0001
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.