Q&A: ‘Indigo Girl’ Emily Saliers to play at The Birchmere

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Emily Saliers (Photo by Jeremy Cowart)
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By Denise Dunbar | ddunbar@alextimes.com

Emily Saliers, one half of Atlanta-based folk rock duo Indigo Girls, will play the Birchmere on Oct. 11 as a solo act. Thirty years after she and musical partner Amy Ray released their first LP, “Strange Fire,” in 1987, Saliers is branching out with her first individual album and tour.

Saliers made it clear in a recent phone interview with Alexandria Times Editor and Co-Publisher Denise Dunbar that the Indigo Girls are still going strong. She emphasized that solo projects she and Ray pursue are secondary. Nonetheless, Saliers expressed excitement at the release of solo album “Murmuration Nation,” which contains some interesting new twists, but won’t disappoint longtime Indigo Girls fans.

Below are excerpts from their conversation. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full write-up, see alextimes.com.

DD: You’ve enjoyed great success with the Indigo Girls for the past 30 years. What made you decide to do a solo album and tour now?

ES: A lot of it was just timing. Lyris Hung, who plays violin with me and Amy on tour … we worked on a song together for a film. So I knew I liked working with her. So I would just send her little ideas. She … would just mock up production ideas. Everything she did honestly blew me away. When I’m in my studio I can come up with certain ideas but I don’t know how to create everything that I hear in my head. She was creating things that I heard in my head. And I was like, ‘wow, this has never happened quite like this,’ so I asked her to produce a record. And then, it still took us like three years from that point on.

Amy is getting ready to work on her seventh solo record, but for me it was just the right time. I can’t explain it. I just found Lyris and I wanted to focus on a certain musical style or influences from around the world and then it was time to do it.

DD: I hear jazz influences in some of the songs on the album. Was that deliberate? 

ES: For me it feels more like it’s got a groove element, a lot of R&B influence. One of the drummers … also plays a lot of jazz so there’s probably in the musicality a lot of the men and women have jazz chops. That may come into play. Some of the songs are very different from the other songs on the album. We just took each song and treated it as we wanted it to sound and feel.

What were you trying to accomplish with this album?

To me the album is very much a journey, where you have a very straightforward love song like ‘Match,’ or you have very politically charged songs like ‘OK Corral’ and ‘I’m high on high’ and ‘Hello Vietnam’ and then you have some interpersonal relationship songs. So the album is very much like me, thinking about serious things but also have a bit of a lighthearted spirit and I love groove, so I think all those elements come to play in the album.

Some of these songs sound like they’ll be fun for you to play in concert – ‘Fly’ in particular.

‘Fly’ I wrote just after the election. I was disturbed by the divisions in our country and was just trying to make sense of it all. I wrote that song to just sort of work through all those thoughts and feelings. And actually in terms of production on the album it’s a very straightforward and simple production … But I like that song because the message in the end is positive. It’s about us coming together…

There are other songs I’m looking forward to playing, like ‘Spider’ and ‘OK Corral’ because they’re very dense musically. And I think the privilege of having a band that can play those parts and for me not having to stand up there and play the acoustic guitar the whole way … but just to really be able to get into the song and deliver it is going to be very fun for me and very liberating.

Half the songs I haven’t even performed live. It’s brand new and … I’m looking forward to doing it live.

Where did the title ‘Murmuration Nation’ come from?

I’ve always had a strong affinity for birds. I don’t know why, I just do … So the murmuration is a flock of starlings … There are thousands of them and they’re up in the air and they’re shape shifting and turning. So that’s a murmuration and I saw that as a metaphor for the way social change can happen without the usual rules of how things move or get done.

And I thought in the wake of the election … it’s just indicative of the way people can come together with respect to promote good social change and to alleviate suffering and oppression and to just understand each other more.

The Indigo Girls are known first for your great harmonies and also for the songs you and Amy write, but you’re a really terrific guitar player. I think you don’t get enough acclaim for that. Only men are hailed as great guitar players.

I don’t know. There are lots and lots of really good guitar players. … I never think about if I’m good or not good or how good or any of that. I’m just glad that I get to play guitar, quite honestly…

And I think you’re right, it’s very much a man’s club with guitar players. It’s changing a little bit but we have a long way to go. Most of the focus on guitar players is absolutely mostly on men and the way they interpret things.

So how did you become so good at guitar?

I started playing when I was nine and from the moment I started playing I was obsessed with it and it really became the vehicle for me to figure out the world … You know, the way a lot of young guitar players do, just holed up in your room or wherever you can.

I came from a musical family. My sisters and I took various instruments along the way… One day at school, I remember seeing a flyer for guitar lessons at the Y and I just took the flyer home and I showed my parents and said, ‘I want to do this.’ They always encouraged us, but the second I got my hands on a guitar, that was it and it’s still been it. It’s a beautiful friendship. There’s nothing else in my life that I can compare to it in terms of… a gift or an aptitude that I felt when I picked up a guitar… It was just endless joy.

When did you start writing songs?

Even before I started playing guitar I was writing songs as a little child. We grew up going to church and singing hymns and my family was musical. My grandpa toured in the big band era and so songs were all around me all the time and so I really started writing songs when I was about seven.

But then when I got my guitar I started writing songs in earnest. By the time I was in high school I was writing real songs. You could kind of judge them by the point of my life in which I was writing them, but they were real songs.

That was always my way of getting my emotions out. I was a sensitive kid and I thought about things a lot and felt things really deeply and so that was really my way of relating to the world.

Your earlier albums had a lot of songs about loss and longing, and you seem to be comfortable writing more political songs now. Is that a stage of life thing?

Well, there’s a song on the new album called ‘Sad one’ that’s about missed chances. For whatever reason, I’m just able to tap into that space. I really haven’t suffered as much in love as you might think [laughing] from some of the songs that I’ve written. Which is kind of funny. But I always can go back to that subject matter and feel it strongly enough to write about it articulately. I don’t know why. I guess it’s just my sensitive, bleeding heart.

I don’t know if it’s a matter of comfort. I just think it’s a thing that I think about all the time. You know, especially as a parent and thinking about what will you leave for your child and what will the world be like … I think the gun situation in this country is terrible. Just the amount of gun deaths and gun violence. And human beings with guns in their hands, we tend to be spontaneous. If we’re angry, we don’t think things through and you know if you have a weapon of death it’s like the ultimate recipe for disaster.

I have to write about these things because they’re on my mind. And whether or not someone wants to receive that message is up to him or her…

You mentioned being a parent. You have a daughter, right?

Yes, my daughter will be five in November. The homesickness is so terrible. It’s terrible. You know Facetime has made it easier. At least I get to see her face and talk to her… But it’s very, very hard to miss any part of her little life right now. I just try to keep it in perspective: this is what I do. She gets to see a mom who works and loves what she does for work but it becomes harder and harder to be away from her and to miss any part of her life. Because it goes by so fast. And she’s so precious to me in a way that I’ve not experienced preciousness before.

You and Amy have recorded with so many different amazing people through the years, from David Crosby to Jackson Brown to Janis Ian to Michael Stipe of REM. What was that like?

Thrilling. Absolutely thrilling. And it continues to be thrilling. We just did a tour with Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter called “Four Voices” this summer. The best part of it was when Amy and I just got to sit on stage and listen to Chapin sing a song, or Joan sing a song or sing harmony together and go, ‘I can’t even believe this is my life.’ Because as much as I’m a writer or a performer, I’m a music fan. And these are my musical heroes some of them, and it’s just incredibly joyful and overwhelming the reality of getting to play with some of these singers.

You know just people like Michael Stipe who really helped us when we were super young and it was just awesome to hang around him, he’s such an interesting person and committed activist and Jackson Browne was the same way. We just did a show with Bonnie Raitt and she sang a version of ‘Closer to Fine’ and I just fell down it was so good. So even after all these years, the thrill is there.

How much are you touring?

In a way it feels non-stop because we don’t do super long runs. Like the most we go out now [as the Indigo Girls] is two weeks at a time. And so what that ends up doing is sort of spreading it a lot over the course of a year rather than just knocking it all out.

But we’ve never been a band that can just go out and tour for months at a time. Amy and I discovered early on that we couldn’t even do six weeks. We were miserable.

How do you maintain your voice when you’re touring so much?

It gets harder and harder. We have sung full force for over 30 years. And the voice is a muscle and it tires out you know… So you really have to focus much more just taking care of it. Getting sleep and drinking tons of water and eating healthy. But with a kid you’re super sick a lot. Because kids get sick and we get sick. So it’s definitely more emphasis on trying to hold onto our voices and keep them healthy. Much more so than in the past.

What were the origins of the Indigo Girls? 

[Amy and I] met in elementary school … And we ended up going to the same high school. We joined the chorus, and that’s when we became really good friends. And we both played guitar, so we had that in common. So we just got together and started learning songs together … So we got our fake ID’s and, with the blessing of our parents, we started playing shows. And then it honestly, organically developed into a career and, when the timing was right, we were signed by a major record label in 1988 and had some good success out of the box, with a lot of help from groups like R.E.M.

You recorded your first album in Athens, Georgia, during that city’s heyday as a music hub during the 1980s. What was that like?

It was awesome. John Keane, who recorded and produced it had worked with R.E.M. and a lot of Athens bands … The B52s had already landed and R.E. M. of course. There were bands like Love Tractor and the BBQ Killers and I mean it was a rich, rich time musically for me and Amy … We got to make a little road trip up to Athens, which was just far enough away to feel like it was out of your own place, and it was awesome. It was the perfect place to make our first LP. 

How has streaming impacted your career?

For all that streaming is difficult for musicians who are just trying to make a living, I think it does provide an opportunity for kids who might not have the money to buy the music they want to listen to. And it’s a great way of exploring all kinds of music.

How have you kept your music and performances so fresh after performing for 30 years with Amy?

We take time off from each other, so we’re not tired of each other. We make a fresh set list every night. So we don’t play songs we don’t want to. We don’t stay out on the road too long. We love each other’s music. And we always bring out really cool opening bands and they sing with us on ‘Closer to Fine’ or other things, so there’s always fresh happening.

We’re a family … We don’t call each other up and chat but of course we love each other and each other’s partners and kids and families. Our families grew up together and experienced all our milestones together. So we’re intricately tied together.

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