Emily Saliers on Joan Baez, Michigan Womyn’s Festival, and her someday solo album
After a spring full of their own shows, collaborating with various symphony orchestras, plotting their next album (due sometime in 2014), and working on separate solo projects, the Indigo Girls are hitting the road with Joan Baez this month. The string of performances is sure to be an incredible showcase, considering Baez’s remarkable career both in folk music and activism – a torch the Indigos have carried smartly and strongly throughout their careers.
For example, this summer, they will be playing their last set at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival…at least for a while. They recently released a statement regarding that event, where they’ve performed with some consistency for the past couple decades, stating their opposition to the festival’s “womyn-born only” policy, which excludes transgender people from attending. They’ll make a statement from the stage during their performance this year and, no doubt, pepper their set with some choice selections (“Shame on You,” maybe?) before withholding their performances in future years until or unless the festival changes its stance on that issue.
Indeed, one thing I’ve always admired about the Indigo Girls’ career is their ability sing to the intersection between what role music has in our lives and that of our freedoms. Topical songs and those which tackle socio-political issues are difficult to write. Anymore, nobody wants a song to preach at them. Music has room to be informative but, especially with our 24-hour news cycle, many of us turn to music for comfort and release, for the opportunity to find some beauty or revitalization, or at least to commiserate. Writing a song which speaks to any of that at the same time as recognizing the world’s difficult truths, can be a chore. It can be sort of like juggling knives on a unicycle, crossing a tight rope. It’s precarious but, if done right, incredibly entertaining and even inspiring.
Further, well-considered topical music really does move something. It shifts something in us which helps us connect even more deeply. Especially in a live setting, when you can look around and see everyone else connecting to it. In a world where disconnection is a standard of living, getting people to sing and dance together, next to each other, along to the ideas of peace and connection and preservation, is a feat of balance. It’s the same delicate balance Joan Baez takes up in her music, choosing songs and collaborators who value the same.
Off stage, of course, Baez and the Indigos take their involvement in social justice issues very seriously. Baez’s contributions to the social justice movement are well-known and well-documented, while, among other things, the Indigos started Honor the Earth with Winona LaDuke in 1993 – an organization aimed at raising awareness and funds to empower Native people and protect the environment. Both Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are deeply involved in indigenous and environmental issues, and human rights in general. Saliers – whose partner is Canadian – has become involved in the immigration movement, lending her celebrity and her energy to getting immigration protection for LGBT people. (Saliers and her partner could legally marry in Canada but that marriage would not be recognized in Saliers’ home state of Georgia. Unlike heterosexual couples who could sponsor their spouse from another country for US citizenship, Saliers cannot do the same for her same-sex partner under current or proposed US immigration law.) The willingness of the Indigo Girls to talk about all these things underscores the reality that musicians live in the same world we do, are touched by the same issues, granted or denied rights by the same legal system, and moved to create music based on the way all these things interact in their personal lives.
As I look forward daily to catching the Indigos + Joan show in Atlanta in a few weeks (here are the full dates), I thought I’d share this brief interview I had with Saliers recently about her at-long-last solo disc, the tour with Baez, the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, topical songwriting, and her interest in appearing as a guest star on The Simpsons (among other things):
Kim Ruehl: I’ve talked with Amy [Ray] several times in the past year and I know she’s been working on a solo country record. What have you been up to?
Emily Saliers: I’ve been in Canada. My partner is Canadian and she’s been working, so I’ve been up there the past three months. The Indigos have been doing these symphony concerts. We did a tour in March. We just got back from a couple dates in Texas. We did this really neat High Fidelity Musical Review thing in New York that we were invited to do. I’ve just been being a family person and doing a little bit of Indigos stuff, but I’m also planning on making a solo record probably sometime within the span of a year.
I know that’s been rumored for a long time. Have you taken other stabs at it that haven’t worked out, or has it just gotten put off because of life?
I guess I’m not the type of person who can focus on a lot of things at one time. I have a mound of creative energy that gets used up then has to be refreshed. Life’s kept me pretty busy and I’ve always wanted to do a solo record, but I’ve never had the burning desire to take the energy and make the pieces fit. But now, my friend Lyris Hung, who’s played violin with us before…we just started messing around with some creative ideas. I realized we’re completely sympatico in the way we like to arrange and produce ideas, and what we like to hear. The mish-mosh of what feels good to us is very similar. We’re going to start sprinkling back-and-forth with ideas, which we’ve already done some, and then we’ll take it to the place where we have songs ready to go into a studio. Things just take me fifty years where they take Amy five years.
I know you’re about to start this tour with Joan Baez. How did that come to be? Have you worked with her before?
We have worked with Joan. I think it’s been about 10 years now. We toured with her before and did a lot of colleges. She opened the show for kids who weren’t really familiar with her or her music. It was a very interesting and cool thing. Obviously she just blew them away because she’s Joan Baez and she’s a legend. It was a very profound experience for me and Amy to be driving around with Joan and singing with her in a car, then introducing these college kids to the power of her voice and vision. We also did Four Voices with her and Dar Williams. So this is sort of a reunion. I think we were looking for something interesting to do during the summer. Her manager and our manager are pretty closely connected, so it just came together.
I’m excited about it. Will you be singing together? Will there be collaboration, or are you keeping it a surprise?
Yeah we’ll be performing with this band called theShadowboxers. They’re a new band out of Atlanta. They’ll be opening our shows – they have a new record out, they’re just starting their career. They’re going to go out with us to be our band. We’ll start the show, do an Indigo Girls set with them, then Joan will do her set, then Amy and I and Joan will do a few songs together, the three of us. It’s kind of inter-generational and that feels really good to me.
There’s been an ongoing discussion since the Bush years about how newer artists are trying to be as apolitical as possible. I always wonder what folks like you think about that. It’s a strange reality since a lot of these younger artists are independent and in charge of their own records. Do you have any thoughts about why that is?
I’m always a little wary about generalizations about what artists are doing or not doing. A lot of the artists working on these issues may be under the radar of what’s popular or played on the radio, or whatever. There are plenty of young artists who are willing to jump at the chance to do [benefits for] environmental issues or social issues. If we had a benefit show and wanted the Shadowboxers to do that – play for free, raise awareness – they’d do it in a heartbeat. I was just reading about some local artists who are helping with people who have been in prison and exonerated for their crimes. It’s more community-based. So, I’m wary of that [generalization]. I think a lot of it is under the radar.
I think it’s been difficult to find where those folks are. But maybe that is because they’re under the radar. They’ve always been under the radar.
I also think huge artists can do huge benefit concerts for World AID or Farm AID or this kind of aid or that kind of aid. It used to be that benefit records could make a lot of money for a cause but now they can’t anymore. The effectiveness of large, in-the-public-eye activism has changed as well.
True. I was thinking more along the lines of what you and Amy have done in terms of raising a voice for the LGBT community. Not all of your music is political but some of it is. There aren’t a lot of those quasi-political songwriters rising above the fray these days.
I think that’s true. When Joan Baez started her career, so many more songs were political and social issue-oriented. We certainly have done that because that’s what we’re interested in. And then artists like Ani DiFranco and certainly Dar Williams and others of our ilk and generation. When you think about the number of artists from our generation or Joan’s generation when songs were politically targeted toward issues, I think it’s not the norm anymore. I don’t know if there’s a reason for that. I think it’s kind of a sociological study.
[Speaking of politics,] I’ve heard some controversy about you guys and the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. Can you talk about that?
Yes, the issue with the Michigan Womyn’s Festival is that the organizers of the festivals have a policy or intention which is that Michigan is a “womyn-born womyn” festival. What that means is that the trans community is excluded because of [the festival’s] intention. It’s an issue that’s been around, Amy said, for a decade, but it’s come to a head. It’s complex because the women who want the “womyn-born only” aspect of the festival believe that “womyn-born only” is a gender unto itself with its own experience and its own need for a safe and special place. On the other hand, for me and Amy, this is the last year we’ll play unless the intention is changed. For me, it feels discriminatory in a festival that has come to represent diversity and the expression of all kinds of women – creatively, politically, socially, in terms of body image, in terms of all kinds of things. That is the controversy. We’ve been in a lot of thoughtful discussions with Lisa Vogel who started that festival. The festival’s meant a lot to us and many, many, many other women for 30 years. It’s a complex issue and a painful issue. But Amy and I, through a lot of careful thought and conversation, dialogue and input have decided this will be our last year unless that intention is changed and trans women are welcome.
Right on. Moving away from the serious questions. I know I’ve seen you guys play in some really great venues, but I’m wondering what’s the worst show you’ve ever played?
The worst show? Oh my god. I’m going to have to think back in my mind. There aren’t that many bad shows. I have to go way back when Amy and I were a bar band and we played at a resort on, I think it must have been on St. Simons Island. We were a cover band and the waitress asked us to cut our set short early because nobody cared and she wanted to go home.
When was that?
Oh that must have been in the early ‘80s.
Nice. What are you reading these days?
I just discovered Ann Carson – a Canadian writer and poet. Her stuff has just blown me away. This year I read Lolita for the first time and The Brothers Karamazov which absolutely blew me away. I’ve been reading Russian writers that I think I didn’t have the patience for earlier on. Lolita is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. It set me afire thinking about what it’s like to be so engrossed in the artistry of a book and so disturbed by the content at the same time. I haven’t read Louise Erdrich’s new one yet but I just got that. I’m a big fan of Olive Kittredge – Elizabeth Strout. I’m finishing The New Jim Crow which is very depressing, about mass incarceration, but very enlightening. I’ve got a lot.
That’s a lot of heavy stuff.
I like heavy stuff. I like real meat or mysteries when I’m reading. I’m not one of those summertime book readers. I like stuff that really stirs me, as opposed to what I listen to in music. I like pop music or really thoughtful music. But when it comes to reading, I like a book that really shakes my world up. If I get into a book and it’s not doing that, I just put it down. The Autobiography of Red – that’s Ann Carson’s book that just made me… like, holy shit.
One more from my Twitter followers, I usually ask them if they have anything. Have you or would you ever voice a character of yourself on the Simpsons?
[laughs] Yeah, why not? We get parodied so often. We haven’t been invited to sing on Saturday Night Live but we’ve been parodied on Saturday Night Live. I’m pretty good with parody. It just depends on how heavy the joke was about lesbians and stereotypes and things like that.