The Way of the Indigo Girls: Collaboration, Support, Community
Even as the internet pulls citizens of the world closer together, issues push us further apart. At the heart of both matters are the ideas of connectedness and commonality. Whether a community is online or on the ground, the age-old search for belonging continues to be a driving force in society. We all want to find “our people,” whomever and wherever they are. For many, what bonds us with likeminded souls is not DNA or even proximity; it’s passion and purpose. That is especially true for fans of the Indigo Girls. There is, after all, something about Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — and the music they make — that reflects who we are and who we want to be.
Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins was in ninth grade in 1984 when Ray came to sing for and talk to his class. At the time, she was a college student at Emory University, pursuing music and working at a vinyl manufacturing plant. “She sang ‘Blood and Fire’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” he remembers, “and burned a hole through the whole class. It was kind of a class of misfits. She had a Hüsker Dü T-shirt on and we were all a bunch of punks. It was just like, ‘Yeah! This is what I want to do!’ That was a real big, pivotal, positive thing for me.”
Ray resonated so deeply with him that Mullins skipped his next two classes that day to hang out and swap songs with her. “She asked for my address and I gave it to her,” he says. “She ended up writing me this beautiful letter that I’m sure I have somewhere. I guess she could tell I was kind of a troubled kid. She was basically just giving me really good, nurturing talk, but also saying, ‘Hey, you gotta go get this, if you want it. I can tell that you’ve got some talent, but it’s not about talent. It’s going to be about your work ethic and why you’re doing it, and living what you talk about.’
“I was 15 and playing guitar in a punk band, not really knowing what to do,” he continues. “But, when I saw her stand up there with that acoustic guitar and blow everybody away, I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do right there – tell a story and make somebody feel something.’ She was a total badass.” He laughs, then adds, “Still is!”
At the time, in the early ’80s, Saliers and Ray — who’d known each other since elementary school — were gigging around Atlanta at clubs like the Dugout, the Point, and Little Five Points Pub, honing their craft and building their base. They’d actually started out playing open mic night at Good Ol’ Days while they were in high school. That’s where a couple of older musicians — Caroline Aiken and DeDe Vogt — took an interest and invited them to play during the breaks between their sets. Soon enough, Saliers and Ray were at the heart of a community that included, on one side, singer-songwriters like Aiken, Vogt, Gerard McHugh, and Michelle Malone and, on the other, bands like Drivin’ N Cryin’, the Squalls, and the Nightporters. Because the Girls walked that line, they eventually found themselves opening shows at clubs that didn’t normally cater to singer-songwriters.
“We had a mixture of community pubs and bars that had been punk clubs that turned into alt-rock, left-of-the-dial, original music clubs,” Ray recalls. “[These were] places that The Replacements would play, and all those post-punk bands. We straddled in between those two worlds a little bit. Our main gig was Little Five Points Pub. That was the gig that we started to flourish in. We became the house band and played three nights a week. It was a super-diverse crowd — hippies and punkers … homeless people would come in, and poets and conservatives.”
She laughs thinking about those who gathered to hear them play. “It was a listening crowd, believe it or not,” she says. “When we played, we’d have different people come up. DeDe [Vogt] would play bass with us sometimes or we’d have somebody else come and play percussion. Sometimes this guy named Benjamin, who waited tables in drag, would come up and read poetry in between our sets. It was a totally varied experience for us. That was our main gig in ’86-’87, right before we got signed. And that was the world we were coming from — everybody sharing music, lots of different kinds of music. If anybody got a good opportunity, they usually tried to pull up other people with them. I wouldn’t say it was competitive. It was very compassionate and team-oriented.”
Recalling the music scene that the Indigo Girls anchored, Mullins echoes Ray’s sentiment, “The first thing that comes to mind is community. There was something really cool about that late-’80s-into-the-mid-’90s scene … kind of all the way up to when I got signed and had to hit the road. When I entered it in ’90 — when I felt like I was really starting to do it — by then, Kristen Hall was a big acoustic act and Michelle Malone was huge. There was all kinds of other music, too. With the acoustic scene, it was mostly women, when I entered it, so you had the lack of testosterone. It was more about peace and love and expressing yourself.”
During those years, between 1985 and 1987, the Indigo Girls released a vinyl single of “Crazy Game” and “Everybody’s Waiting (for Someone to Come Home),” followed by a six-song eponymous EP and their debut album, Strange Fire. The combination of releases got them a deal with Epic Records, which released their Indigo Girls LP in 1989. As Saliers wrote for their “A Year a Month” Tumblr diary, “For me, getting signed to a major label was mind-boggling. It was dazzling. It was exciting! How did THIS happen? … Lots of labels were poking around the Athens/Atlanta scene back then. R.E.M. was exploding, and the area was a wellspring of fresh music. Additionally, the trend gods were shining upon women with acoustic guitars: Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and so on.”
Further, thanks to Michael Stipe’s appearance on “Kid Fears” and the sing-along anthem that is “Closer to Fine,” the self-titled set won them a broader audience and a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. That same year, they were nominated for Best New Artist, which they lost to Milli Vanilli.
Days to Months and Months to Years
The momentum continued as the Indigo Girls released Nomads Indians Saints in 1990 and Rites of Passage in 1992, the latter of which saw them really find their voices, individually and together. “I was so excited by getting signed to Epic and having things become a whirlwind that I didn’t have the same capacity to absorb the first albums as whole entities and to critique them with keen perspective,” Saliers says. “I remember Rites being incredibly exciting to make because we had such a wish list of people who played on the record with varying textures and sensibilities, and we had Peter Collins at the helm. I felt very relaxed working with Peter. I think Rites was the first really good record we made. I think of Indigo Girls and Nomads more nostalgically, but I don’t particularly like the way my voice sounds on those records, more dark and rounded and closed. The world sort of opened up on Rites and continued with Swamp Ophelia , as we were able to bring a slew of talented artists on board to help shape the records. Some were our musical idols, like Jackson Browne, David Crosby, the Roches, and Jane Siberry. Those were the days of big budgets!”
Swamp Ophelia welcomed a whole new generation of fans who were born around the time that Ray was singing to Mullins’ high school class a decade earlier. One of those new fans was singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who remembers, “I first heard them on the Philadelphia soundtrack. I loved that film and that soundtrack with their version of ‘I Don’t Want to Talk about It.’ … I asked another girl at school about it and she lent me her Swamp Ophelia CD.”
At the same time that Carlile was having her future altered over in Washington State, Justin Vernon, the mastermind behind Bon Iver, was having his life changed in Wisconsin. “My sister was in college,” he remembers. “She’s nine years older than me, and I think it was her third or fourth year in college when Swamp Ophelia came out. That was my entry point. Eighth grade. I heard a couple songs and liked it, so I went to a concert with my mom and sister down in Madison on the Swamp Ophelia tour. And it was that quintessential, life-changing moment. At that point, they were my favorite group and stayed that way forever.”
Like so many people who have stumbled into the Indigo Girls catalog at the right time in their lives, both Carlile and Vernon were quick to go back and dig deep. “I don’t do anything halfway,” Carlile says and laughs. “Emily Saliers, lyrically, had probably almost more influence on me than anyone as a teenager. It was Emily Saliers and Bernie Taupin. Those were my hero poets.”
As is often the case in the Indigo Nation, fans tend to lean toward one Girl or the other — dictated by their internal processes or external circumstances. For Vernon, it was Ray’s work on Swamp Ophelia that brought things into focus. “There was a strength in that record, an anger,” he offers. “I think it was the first time I’d heard or seen somebody be that angry and that celebratory of life, at the same time. I think that opened a lot of doors for me. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow. That is freedom. That is being who you are.’ Especially Amy in my early years, it just reflected on me so much.”
The musically adventurous spirit that filled Swamp Ophelia overflowed on the albums that came next — Shaming of the Sun in 1997 and Come on Now Social in 1999. Though critics might disagree, for many of their fans those three albums stand together as a sort of holy trinity in the Indigo Girls catalog, but not always for the same reasons. The way Vernon sees it, “Swamp Ophelia is the beginning of it all for me, but those next few records — Shaming of the Sun and Come on Now Social — you also saw them not fighting to stay relevant. They’d had such huge success, but they were writing rock songs. Amy’s punk thing was coming out. Emily was playing electric guitar. Those three records, to me, are the middle of their youth or something. It wasn’t when they were in their 20s, but it was like that — them getting out everything. The songwriting is so strong and they were riding their success, but not riding it for financial gain. They were riding it for freedom in writing songs and putting bands together and getting Garth Hudson and Rick Danko to play on their songs. They seem to really care about the craft of it all, as well as the songwriting. The records sounded really good to me. They were creative and weren’t just singer-songwriter albums. I mean, they never really were. They were always an extension of a person and a guitar. And their harmonies are just so insane, the way they make multiple melodies happen at one time. I could go on and on forever about that.”
Coming on the heels of those releases, Become You (2002) and All That We Let In (2004) had some huge shoes to fill, so the Girls circled back to work with producer Peter Collins who had helmed those two early stunners — Rites of Passage and Swamp Ophelia. Ray and Saliers both delivered the goods as well, filling the minutes with forward-moving songs like “Moment of Forgiveness,” “She’s Saving Me,” “Fill It Up Again,” and “Perfect World.”
Of those two collections, Ray is partial to Become You, feeling like she took some missteps, production-wise, on All That We Let In. “We play a lot of songs from Become You … well, I play a lot of songs from Become You,” she says with a laugh, “so I know that’s a record I really love. We had made Come on Now Social and I had made Stag. So the rock and roll thing … I’d had my fill, in a good way. I was satisfied and didn’t need to play any more rock right then. So I was hankering to do an acoustic, more rootsy record. I don’t think Emily felt the same way, so we were kind of on … different pages.”
In the five years that followed, the Indigo Girls left Epic Records and dropped three other records on independent labels — Despite Our Differences, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, and Beauty Queen Sister — that included standout cuts like “Sugar Tongue,” “Love of Our Lives,” and “Share the Moon.” Despite a handful of great songs here and there, those albums slipped in favor with fans and critics. Ray notes, “Mitchell Froom [who produced Differences and Poseidon] taught me so much as a producer, probably more than anybody. But I would say, for me personally, it wasn’t my strongest songwriting.”
In contrast, Saliers says, “I loved working on Despite Our Differences and Poseidon because Mitchell Froom produced them, and he has a way of putting everything in its musical place. He’s not into ‘fuss’ or extraneous musical parts; each part is thought through. This approach helped me appreciate a more simple, well-placed part — like a guitar solo [‘Love of Our Lives’] in lieu of a sort of ‘off-the-cuff’ meandering or multi-tracked part. … BQS feels very different from those earlier two because we brought Peter [Collins] back to produce and used traditional players like Luke Bulla and Allison Brown.”
Though there are always parts of recordings that either work or don’t, Ray feels like those five years spelled out a transitional period for her as a songwriter, if not for the Indigo Girls as a band. “On Despite Our Differences, I really love some of the production, but … I felt like you could take those three records and probably make one record out of them, that’s really strong. Not to dis them, but when I’m really critical about it, I kind of feel that way.
“It’s art,” she says, chalking up the hits and misses on these records to the creative process. “Everything can’t be the best thing you’ve ever done, as far as your own opinion of yourself. You have to keep doing things and moving through it. Some things aren’t as good, but they’re worthy to put out there because it’s a process.”
This Time, Don’t Assume Anything
Coming out of that transitional period and getting ready to head back into the studio for what became One Lost Day, released last Tuesday on Vanguard Records, Ray and Saliers wanted to collaborate with someone new. Enter Jordan Brooke Hamlin — known for her work with Lucy Wainwright Roche, Katie Herzig, and Vienna Teng.
“When Emily first called me and asked me to do the record, she called me out of the blue,” Hamlin says. “We’d never talked on the phone. … We shot the shit for a few minutes, then she said, ‘I guess you’re wondering why I’m calling.’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ So she asked me if I would be interested in producing the record and I was like, ‘Do you have the right number? Is there some sort of confusion? Am I being punked? I don’t know if this is a trick, but… yes.’”
The Girls loved what Hamlin, who is two decades their junior, had done as the producer of Roche’s There’s a Last Time for Everything and felt like she was the shot in the arm their music needed. Ray explains, “I knew what Emily wanted to do on this record. I had a feeling of where she was at and I just thought, especially for her songs, Jordan would do that thing she did with Lucy where she just brought out this whole other side of Lucy that was more edgy, maybe — not in an edgy volume way, but with textures and being more risky, a little groovier and cooler… new. That’s what I was thinking. For me, I had no idea what it was going to do with my music. I just knew I liked Jordan’s taste and I like what she’d done with other people. I’d seen her play and I liked her as a person.
“Everybody we’ve worked with has been pretty amazing and I think we vet it pretty well,” Ray continues. “But I think it’s still hard, when you’ve been around this long, for anybody to get excited about it. And Jordan was so enthusiastic and brimming with ideas. She’s such a go-getter. She’s self-made, in every way. She’s like a renaissance woman to the hundredth degree. It’s crazy how many things she has her hand in and how good she is at everything.”
While Ray insists that Hamlin was an obvious choice, not a bold one, it’s a different story from Hamlin’s perspective. Like Carlile and Vernon, she grew up with the Indigo Girls on a bit of a pedestal, learning how to play guitar by watching Saliers on VHS tapes. “Everything about this, for me, defied logic,” Hamlin says. “There were no logical lines where it was like, ‘You know what? I worked for years for this and I deserve this project.’ That wasn’t a thing that was true.”
But, also like Carlile and Vernon, Hamlin had gotten to know Saliers and Ray while opening for them on tour with Roche, so she had already overcome the fawning fan phase. Though she maintained a healthy respect for the Girls and their talent, when it came time to make the record, Hamlin set the awe aside and got down to business. She says. “They’re so genuine and some of the most soulful people I’ve ever met, that I never felt intimidated. I think we trusted each other, so I didn’t feel like I couldn’t tell them the truth … It’s a credit to them that they were like, ‘Bring it on.’ So I did, because I cared enough about them, as artists, to push them to the places I believed, whole-heartedly, they could go. I didn’t want to accept anything else and they were up for it.”
To that end, Hamlin held the bar high, shifting tempos and shaping arrangements, even during the writing stage. “Early on, when Amy hadn’t finished writing, everything they came to me with started out within four BPMs of each other — all mid-tempo,” Hamlin recalls. “Amy was like, ‘I know you’re thinking it and I’m thinking it, too. Where’s my ‘Go’? I’m just not writing ‘Go’ anymore.’ But there are two songs on this record — ‘Happy in the Sorrow Key’ is one of them — where it’s like, ‘Yeah, you are!’”
Ray’s trademark edge is, in fact, alive and well on that cut as well as “The Rise of the Black Messiah.” The latter is an urgent plea that flips the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program COINTELPRO’s line (“The prevention of the rise of a black messiah”) around, into a tribute to the late Herman Wallace. Wallace was one of three men – known as the Angola 3 – placed in prison on minor charges then later framed in the murder of a prison guard. He served 41 years in solitary confinement and died days after he was finally acquitted and released. Ray wrote the song after Wallace sent her a letter asking her to help raise awareness about their cause. Hamlin worked with Ray to get what she wanted out of the song for the record — a raw, live powerhouse of a performance.
In another bold move, Hamlin also convinced Saliers to record her vocals for “If I Don’t Leave Here Now” live, in tandem with her guitar. And they got it in one take, with no after-the-fact fixes. That’s not something Saliers has ever done — especially at the end of a long day when she’s tired and cranky. But Saliers’ wariness and weariness combined to great effect in her voice on the tender ballad about addiction.
“The great thing about Jordan was that I felt like I could always be honest with her,” Saliers says, adding that she could tell Hamlin, “‘I don’t like this. I don’t want this. I don’t care if you like it or not.’ That sort of thing. That just felt comfortable. I felt like we were peers and that worked well.”
To record, Hamlin lured the Girls to Nashville and recruited some new musicians, who just happen to be some of the best in town, including Butterfly Boucher, Fred Eltringham, and Lex Price. From the moment they walked in, Saliers, says, “You just know right away that they’re killer players. Butterfly, I knew her solo work and I’d seen her play with Sarah [McLachlan] and her work with Missy Higgins, who I love. So I knew her already through her music, but we’d never played together on a record. She played the style of bass that Paul McCartney played — Hofner. We’d never, that I can remember, recorded with something like that sound. And I loved her melodies. … That combination of really talented people and wonderful human beings, it just makes for an experience in the studio that’s inspiring and it pushes you. It just fills you with gratitude. When we sat down and started jamming with these new players, immediately it felt good.”
In fact, getting the right mix of people together is one of Hamlin’s favorite parts of producing. “I love finding the right person for the right job because, otherwise, everybody’s getting a subpar experience whether they know it or not,” she says. When Saliers said she wanted to play the guitar parts on this project rather than bring in a ringer, Hamlin knew it was a no-brainer. “With Emily, for instance, I totally think she was the right player. Can you replace Dylan’s guitar on ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ and it be tighter? Yes. Is that better? I don’t think so.
“Half of why I love production is the psychology of it,” Hamlin adds. “I love thinking about what a person needs and doesn’t need, in the moment. Some people really need you to get away from them to have focus and go into a state. And that’s the way that they’re going to perform best. Some people need you to push back on them, really challenge them. Some people need you to encourage them, and kid glove them.”
This same approach — balancing pushing back with pulling forward — is integral to Saliers and Ray’s collaboration three decades into it. “Mostly we try to do positive reinforcements — like training a pet — instead of negative reinforcement,” Ray says, before giving an example. “That line in ‘Elizabeth’ — ‘Put on Little Queenie, bring me another whiskey’ — I would say, ‘Emily, that’s the line.’ That is the line that everyone’s going to sing. And it’s the line that, every time I hear it, it evokes so many images for me, and maybe because I know Emily. So I’m like, ‘We should use that more than once in the song.’ We do things like that when we’re in the process.”
“We have such a deep respect for what the other one does,” Saliers adds. “In the past, there have been songs that may not have … some, you immediately jive with and some not so much. I would say, on this record, every single one of her songs I liked immediately. I really wanted to work on it. I love the way they turned out on the record. There’s nothing that I can’t relate to in them. And I think that, forever and ever, we’ve had a really good working relationship and, as the years have gone on, we’ve just developed this deep trust and faith in each other’s work and the integrity of our purpose. And that’s just gotten stronger as time has gone on.”
With this latest batch of compositions, Saliers took a fairly linear and literal approach to songs like “Elizabeth,” “Findlay, Ohio 1968,” and “Alberta,” forsaking poetic flourishes in favor of straight-up storytelling. Even while her new tunes harken back to past efforts, they do so with gentle twists. “‘Alberta’ is a pretty straightforward, sort of mid-tempo to slow, reflective song of mine, so it’s very much of an ilk that I create a lot,” Saliers concedes, adding, “and it probably makes sense that some of the production would feel the same way … although I think the notes that Amy chose in her harmonies were different-sounding. Under the words ‘wild rose,’ there’s just a little bit of a different note choice and feeling to it.”
Similarly, on Ray’s captivating “Texas Was Clean,” the team doubled up the vocals on the main melody — something they’ve only done once before, on Poseidon and the Bitter Bug’s “Love of Our Lives.” It’s a technique they’ve tried on other songs, as well, but it doesn’t often work. Ray says, “When we were in the studio recording it, I decided I wanted Emily to double the melody. I wanted it to be a double, then a breakaway. But then I wanted to double each other’s part, too, so we ended up doing almost like a quadruple on some of the lines, which I liked because it made it spookier.”
On another one of Ray’s finest moments, “Fishtails,” Hamlin knew what to do as soon as she heard it. “I had a visceral response to it because the writing is so evocative,” she says. “It immediately painted a picture for me. That song made my job really easy: ‘This is what it wants to be and I’m excited to help it become that.’ It’s some of the best writing she’s done in years.” Indeed, both “Texas Was Clean” and “Fishtails” rival and recall Ray’s personal favorite song, “Share the Moon” from Beauty Queen Sister.
Even so, Ray didn’t get there easily. “A lot of these songs took me a long time to write,” she confides. “I labored over most of them more than usual, for different reasons. And I’m glad I did. Sometimes I think it’s better to write a song really quickly, but these songs, I personally feel like I really wrestled with them to get what I wanted, so I feel pretty good about it.”
Saliers, too, turned in some of her freshest compositions since Poseidon and the Bitter Bug. Praising the teamwork of One Lost Day, while holding fast to her teenage hero, Carlile enthuses, “I can hear Jordan’s brilliance all over it. I can hear her love for them in it because I know what Jordan does, musically. … Emily’s writing, to me, feels like springtime, like it’s coming through something — a really beautiful new beginning.”
My People Taught Me Well
Like others in the circle, it’s not just the music that Carlile loves. Even after knowing the Indigo Girls for 10 years, she’s still wonderstruck in their presence. “It doesn’t go away. You get to the point where you know Amy and you know Emily, and then the Indigo Girls are another thing — they’re other people with different experiences with different paths. The music and all of the mystery around it is still absolutely awe-inspiring to me. They’re each, individually, very powerful people. They don’t give a lot of advice because they don’t want the gravity of influence to be what shapes someone that admires them, so I’ve learned to just sit with them in a quiet space and absorb what they are.”
In Carlile’s experience, the way Saliers and Ray wield that power is not by talking the talk, but by walking the walk. The Girls have worked tirelessly over the years for a multitude of causes, including Native American issues, LGBTQ rights, and environmental matters. In each case, they gather their communities around them, because they know there is both safety and power in numbers. “They have a ‘no compete’ zone around them,” Carlile explains. “They only collaborate. They only include. They only support. They only uplift. That is their underlying philosophy. They don’t even need to talk about it for us all to know that that’s what they’re doing. So I’ve always found it really uplifting and enticing to be a part of the community that doesn’t compete like that.”
That’s a practice that goes all the way back to the beginning with them — to those gigs at Good Ol’ Days and the Little Five Points Pub. Thinking back over the 30 years he’s known them, Mullins says, “One of the first times I talked to Emily — again, I was probably 17 or 18 — I remember telling her how much I loved her songwriting and her voice. She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Thank you so much, Shawn. That makes me feel so good.’ That’s the ideal thing you want that person to say. You want them to really understand and hear you. As crazy as things have gotten for them, over the years, that’s always still maintained — that really taking it in as best you can. I’ve learned from that. Musically, I love what they do. But it’s kind of more about how they walk the planet.”
Vernon, who first came to love the Indigo Girls 20 years ago, has also become a bona fide fan-friend. “It makes me think about circles and cycles and the way things connect not just in the physical plane. I’m not a religious person at all, nor do I have any theories about strings or time or anything like that, but I had such a strong pull toward Amy and Emily. I think every Indigo Girls fan has years where they spend loving Amy’s songs more or Emily’s songs more. I probably have very even amounts, actually. But, especially Amy, from when I was a kid, I’m just so drawn to her spirit and how palpable it was. To now be friends with her, nothing about that is different and yet I can sit in a room with her and she is every bit as special and spiritually powerful and funny and real as I could’ve expected her to be. I don’t know what to do with that kind of information, to be honest. I don’t know how to digest it. To go back and to tell me that I would be in the position that I’m in to hang out with her, talk with her, and ask her deep questions … I’m beside myself.”
Just don’t try to tell Saliers and Ray how much they’ve meant to you and yours over the years. “They don’t even want to hear about it,” Carlile says with a laugh. “They do everything they can to make you stop talking about it when you start talking about it. They don’t want to be seen as iconic. They really, truly have their feet on the ground and their hands in the dirt. They’re salt-of-the-earth people.”
The Indigo Girls mapped that path for themselves 25 years ago in “Hammer and a Nail” off Nomads Indians Saints:
Gotta get out of bed get a hammer and a nail
learn how to use my hands
not just my head, I think myself into jail
Now I know a refuge never grows
From a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose
Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose.
They’ve followed their own advice ever since — in their artistry, their activism, and their actuality — showing the rest of us the way.
Lead image by Jeremy Cowart.