More than 35 years after Amy Ray and Emily Saliers began performing under the Indigo Girls banner, the duo continues to attract capacity crowds to its high-energy concerts.
In 2018, the band issued a live album which found them backed by the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and, in 2020, Saliers says they will release of a new studio album, the pair's first since 2015's One Lost Day.
The Indigo Girls perform at Salina's Stiefel Theatre on Friday, Nov. 15.
Saliers recently spoke with KMUW about the history of the Indigo Girls and how she and Ray prepare for new recordings. Before ending the conversation, she added a simple directive to those planning on attending Friday's concert: "Get there early for Becky Warren. She's a great performer, and you don't want to miss her."
When you prepare for a new leg of a tour, do you approach it differently? "These are the shows where we'll pull out the deep cuts." Things like that?
We always go with what we're feeling. We make a fresh setlist every night. Sometimes we'll play a song that we haven't played in a month or even a year. It just depends on how we're feeling. We try to fit requests from the audience into the setlist. It doesn't become, "We're doing this on this leg" unless it's what's happening in 2020, which is that we're coming out with a new album. We'll have a full band this summer. Right now, it's just me and Amy and our violin player Lyris (Hung). Becky Warren is going to open the show. She's a great singer-songwriter and sings harmonies with us.
Tell me about making the new record.
We always want to create new music. We've been at this a very, very long time as you know. But we don't feel old about making music. We're still reflective songwriters, trying to work on our craft. We're thinking about all the issues facing us today in America. Political issues. Interpersonal issues. Social justice issues. Whatever they may be. There's always stuff to write about and think about. We're not tired of that. We always get a little bit of an itch, like, "It's time to make a new album. Let's do this." We put out a live symphony album last year but then we knew we wanted to make a new album.
We wrote the songs, got together, practiced, and then went to the U.K. and it was a special year for us to make an album. We're back with our British and Irish clan who did our Come On Now Social album 20 years ago. It was really cool to get back together with them.
Each of your records has had its own character and feel. Is that a conscious thing or is that just a matter of the material you had at the time and who you were at that moment?
It has to do with a couple of things. Who gets invited to play on the album? Who gets to produce it? With One Lost Day, Jordan Brooke Hamlin produced that. We'd never had her work in that capacity before. She'd played with us. She's a multi-instrumentalist who brought her own ideas. We used some players we had never used before. So the album took shape texturally in a way that the one before didn't. It's not like we come out and make drastic changes as if we're some sort of renaissance band. We allow the songs to take on whatever life they're going to take on.
I can't recall any co-writes between you and Amy across the discography.
We do write separately. We cannot write together. We're a little bit like oil and water in that way, even though in terms of the trajectory of our career and as friends and in terms of values, we're very solid and as one. We have different sensibilities and ways of expressing ourselves in the way that we write.
What we really do well together is arrange. I write my songs, Amy writes her songs. We know we have an album coming out so we start to plan out dates on the calendar. I either go up to her house or she comes to mine and we start slowly going over arrangements, which are just pure brainstorming sessions. That's how a song that I wrote becomes an Indigo Girls song and vice-versa.
The person who wrote the song gets the final say. If I give an idea for a harmony line that Amy's not feeling with her song, she'll say, "Try this or try this or find something different." You can really stay true to the direction of your song to an extent but then you have the ideas that come out of that brainstorming and collaboration. We work the same way now as when we started.
The Indigo Girls are known for what some people would call activism. That is, you're socially aware and committed to causes. Some artists have that, but they keep it to themselves. Did you ever have any trepidation about standing up and saying, "This is what we support"?
Our music reflects how we feel about things, whether it's personal relationships, things that are going on around us or in our communities. I know that we were raised that way by our parents: You don't grow up in your isolated little family unit. You are a citizen. You are a member of a community. We are in relationship to each other. It starts small, then branches out, so it becomes a global relationship that we're involved in.
So, early on, the combination of what we thought about, which came out in our songwriting, and then it became easy to organize benefit concerts where we could raise awareness or money for particular groups or issues. The catchword is activism but basically what it is is community concern. It came from a very natural place in both me and Amy as writers. There was no way we were ever going to separate it. It's not even something we even thought about. We never had any fear about being too vulnerable or about being too political.
But people who come to see us leave uplifted.
You have a loyal fanbase. There are bands who have a moment where they're the favorite of the year but people don't come back to them. It has to be a good feeling to come back and see some of the faces year after year.
I can't tell you how grateful we are for it. We have fans that come to 40 shows, some even more. I know how that feels as a fan because there are some artists I would see 40 times if I had the time and could do it. There's really a feeling of connectivity with the audience and the idea that we've been through all these things over the years, even though we're not personal friends and we don't have any contact except what happens on the night of the show.
[It means a lot] to have a career. No one can count on album sales anymore. The industry has changed. Now streaming is important. None of our ability to continue rests on any of those shifts in the modern landscape of the music industry. In that sense, we owe it all to the loyalty of our fans. We're able to navigate the changes in the industry. We have to tour to make a living. We don't make money off record sales or streaming or anything else like that. Without the fans, obviously, there'd be nothing. Except for us still writing songs but not being able to play them for people.