Spotlight On Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray

Preparing to tour in support of the first Indigo Girls studio release in four years, Amy Ray fields a Q&A about her and Emily Saliers’ three decades-plus music career, telling Pollstar, “When we were young we did a lot of covers. … That’s probably where we were learning about chord structure, melodies and harmonies.”

Set to be released June 2 on IG Recordings/Vanguard Records, One Lost Day is the first studio album from the Indigo Girls since 2011’s Beauty Queen Sister.  During the past few years both artists have become parents, an especially poignant moment for Ray considering she lost her father just two weeks before her daughter Ozie was born.

Saliers and Ray started playing music together while in high school in Decatur, Ga. They both eventually enrolled at Atlanta’s Emory University where they spent their nights playing gigs at local clubs.

Now, more than three decades later and with a discography stretching all the way back to the Reagan Administration, the Indigo Girls have their latest effort coming out in a couple of weeks.  Recorded in Nashville and mixed at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios in Fall Creek, Wis., One Lost Day was produced by Jordan Brooke Hamlin (Lucy Wainwright Roche). 

“We took some chances on the making of One Lost Day, with a new producer, engineer, and various musicians,” Saliers said while doing press for the album.  “Each song tells a story of where we’ve been and what we’ve thought about, whom we’ve met, and the travels we’ve had.  It is a travelogue on lessons learned and love lived.  I’m so glad we brought Jordan Hamlin on board to take us to new musical landscapes for this group of songs.  And my relationship with Amy feels further strengthened by the collection of these songs and the diligent effort to make them the best they could be.”

(Please click on image for complete album cover)

With everything that’s happened since the first Indigo Girls album, including your solo career, managing your own label and becoming a mom, if you were to create a graph showing how much time you devote to each aspect of your life, what would it look like?

It depends on the day.  When we’re in the middle of getting ready for a tour, making a record or anything where there’s a heavy Indigo thing happening.  Like today I’ll spend four hours with Emily, and I’ll spend a couple of hours tonight on a bunch of stuff I have to do for Indigo Girls – social media stuff.  I did an hour this morning with my dogs and another hour later.  I have a babysitter today, luckily.  But some days I’m with Ozie, my child, for the whole day.  So I might spend an hour on Indigo Girls stuff and that’s it.  So it really rotates.  When I’m doing solo stuff, I’m doing my solo stuff all the time.  When I’m doing Indigo Girls, I’ve kind of started compartmentalizing it so I’m not doing a lot of overlap.  Every  now and then … when I had a record out, for my country record I was touring in between Indigo Girls stuff. … There’s no way to graph that kind of thing where like if I had 15 extra minutes I’ll go clean the yard up, or do [something] for the dogs, or I’ll go do a blog.  [I’m] constantly multitasking, hovering over all the projects I need to do and deciding which thing to go to next.

How much time do you spend on the business of Indigo Girls?

We have management, we have [booking agent Frank Riley [of High Road Touring], we have a publicist, we have Vanguard Records doing our marketing.  We have a social media crew right now, we only have that when we have a record coming out. The time we spend on the business is just having meetings and doing social media stuff. We each did a ton of prep work for doing these audio diaries on SoundCloud.  Each of us spend a few hours recording audio diaries. And we’re working on a blog on Tumblr that we always write once a month.  I have to spend time collecting all the photographs and archives for it.  Then Emily and I do our separate blogs. … So there’s a lot of content-oriented stuff that we spend a lot of time on.  When we do a record, our hands are in everything, but I wouldn’t say we’re at our manager’s office all of the time. We do have a lot of people helping with the business.  We’re pretty pro-active and we’re pretty entangled in the web of things.

Haven’t the two of you been with your manager, Russell Carter, since pretty close to the beginning?

Yep.  We started when we were about 15. We put a couple of indie records out and around 1986 we asked him for some legal advice.  Then, in ’87, he was willing to send our record out to a few people.  When we got signed, we didn’t have a manager or an agent, so we hired Russell, who was our lawyer, to do the record deal.  Then we hired him to be our manager.  We hired our agent [Frank] right after that.  And we’ve been with him since the beginning, too.

It sounds like you and Emily are extremely loyal to people who are loyal to you.

What we figured out, in the way we work, it would be best for us to build a family and to grow together, and sort of learn together as we went.  So Frank … he was sort of early in his career.  Russell, too.  They knew more than us but they weren’t at the place they are now.  If we had problems with Frank or Russell or if they have problems with us, we don’t see that as a sign to separate. We see it as a sign to have a meeting and figure out what’s going on and move from there.  Personally, the artists that I know that are constantly changing management and agents – they’re working so hard changing that they can’t focus on anything else.  I know there are times when you need to make a change, but for us what has paid off is to not do that and have this solid ground and work off of that.

Photo: John Davisson
MagnoliaFest, Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak, Fla.

What do you think the new album will surprise and/or challenge fans?

The challenge will be for fans who might prefer our material when it’s really acoustic and not a lot of production, effects or modern sounds … digital trickery. … Then, there’s some stuff on it that might be a little heavy, rock-wise, for people who don’t like the louder side of us.  But most of our fans, like hardcore fans, they kind of expect that there will be a few things they may not like.  They’re going to get some stuff they love and some stuff they don’t.  Because we’re so different from each other there’s always going to be people who fall on one side or the other.  Then there’s people who like everything. But we don’t expect everybody to like everything. 

I think what’s great about this record, probably for people who have listened to us for a long time, we had a lot of good focus on this album, a good intention going into it and we really worked on our harmonies and arrangements … because we had so much time between records, it feels … fresh.  Like when you make your first record you have to spend a lot of time on it and you’ve really built up to it.  [The new album] feels very much like a new start in some ways because we had a big break and stepped back from everything we were doing. But we’re still us.  We approached the harmonies and the practice sessions the way we used to. I think there’s a certain sentiment and intention … from the old days and it carries on.

I think there have been records where it didn’t show up as much. Even though we were trying very hard, you couldn’t feel us the same.  I think this record is very palatable. You can feel our emotions, can feel our writing and our struggle to make a record. It feels like we were really in it.  I think that’s going to make our fans like and appreciate it because you can hear how much work went into it.  It’s not labored but you can tell we take it seriously and we’re not just going through the motions.

I think you can change all of the production, change the landscape … it’s like there’s a couple of trees [and the] landscape keeps changing around it but the trees stay the same.  They grow a little bit, extra branches here and there, but it’s still the core.  And that’s who we are.  And our harmonies are the thing that defines us. If we don’t sing in harmony, we’re not doing what we do. But if we do sing in harmony, we’re pretty much giving it away right away. So it’s kind of like you like it or you don’t.

When performing onstage, can you hear the harmony or are you listening to other elements?

I use in-ears and I have a mix where I can hear everything. I don’t have to hear Emily super loud but she’s pretty much up there.  Even though we could probably sing without hearing each other, I like to listen to everything that’s going on and have us reacting to each other and playing off each other.

When in the studio, do you try to record the tracks live or do it track by track?

It’s track by track on some tracks, live on others. Emily and I approach our vocals slightly differently some times. I tend to want to get my vocals live and most of my rhythm guitar.  What I ultimately love to do is get my rhythm guitar, my vocals and the bass, and Emily’s guitar, live. If we’re doing acoustic, her vocals are not going to be live.  The bleed is prohibitive, so typically on my songs we’ll capture me, live, and the drums and bass.  Then Emily will go in and play guitar and sing to a scratch [track] that she did while we were playing. I mean, we’ll have her playing [in there]. A lot of times we don’t use it, but sometimes it all sounds great and we [do].  Emily … likes to work on it and craft it to the way she wants it.  I’m kind of the other ilk. I just want to get it all live.  If I have to move one line over or mix and match, I’ll do that if I have to.  But I prefer to get it all down.

Sometimes, everything is live but I have a whole other vocal I did that we can superimpose over it. If I’m playing electric guitar, especially, because there is no bleed.  And I’ll do that. I’ll mix and match, like verses and stuff, I felt were better.

Some songs, like on this record, you can definitely hear it, there’s layering.  We might have gotten the core – bass, drums and vocals, for “Happy In The Sorrow Key” but then we laid in track-by-track the strings, the horns, Emily’s part … anything else that went on.  But on a song like “The Rise Of The Black Messiah” … Emily and the violin, her guitar, were done afterwards, but all the other stuff, the performance, was one take.  In fact, I’m even standing in front of the drummer, singing … playing my mandolin.  It’s really live.

“Southern California,” though, Emily’s song,  is layered track-by-track.  I went in there and built my guitar part, built my harmonies, didn’t even know what I was going to do at first.

How long might you work on a song before you play it for Emily?

I’m a long term songwriter.  For me, I might have 10 songs percolating for five years. She’ll hear a piece of it, over and over, for five years.  And we’ll play it until it’s done. 

I think “Texas Was Clean” is the shortest.  That song I wrote over a year period but Emily was hearing it while I was writing it. We hear each other working on songs through the dressing room door or maybe at the show during sound check.  Some of the stuff we have a glimmer of what might happen.  But we don’t present it to the other person formally.

During the early days of the Indigo Girls, did you ever look at other duos and wonder how they do it?

Definitely The Roches, although they’re a trio.  We spent a lot of time studying how they did their harmonies. I listened to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel when I was young, and Everly Brothers. To learn the idea of singing harmony almost as if you’re both singing a melody, which, I think, is how I had to approach it because I was sort of harmony deficient when we started.

We did listen to other people because we’re fans of everything they do, songwriting and everything.  When we were young we did a lot of covers.  So we did James Taylor, Elton John, Carole King, Joni Mitchell.  Then we started throwing in Elvis Costello, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions, groups that were coming up. … Rickie Lee Jones.  We’d just cover stuff we’d like.  That’s probably where we were learning about chord structure, melodies and harmonies, how to do this and that.

We’re really different from each other.  I wasn’t a great harmony  singer when we started. … I always had to think of it as a melody.  I couldn’t play guitar that well so I had to either play in different tunings so the chords would be easier or play a different set of chords if she was in a special tuning. So the things that were kind of our negatives at the beginning became the things that defined us.  And we carried on doing things that way, being in different tunings from each other, doing counter melodies.  Sometimes it’s easier to build a song this way and it’s easier to do if you think of it as two melodies.

It kind of gave [us] it our style and we jumped off from there.  And I became better and could write my own harmonies, do things I couldn’t do before, but … we still had that other stylistic tool that we could use. 

We definitely tried to build on our weaknesses.  We weren’t looking at other groups and saying, “How can we do this trick without sounding like them?” because we were still figuring out the elementary stuff of playing together because we were only in high school.  We were so young.

Did you ever think it would last this long?

We did not even think about it.  It was like, “Hey!  Maybe next week we can play at Big Al’s Sub Shop.”  Really, really small thinking.  I considered music to be what [I was] going to do for the rest of my life, whether I make a living or not.  But I didn’t think the Indigo Girls were going to put out 15 records, or whatever. I did think, when I was in high school, “This is the person I want to play with the rest of my life.”  Because I was so enamored and it was such a mystical experience when we first started, to hear how that harmony all went down. I was so excited.  “This is all I want to do.  I’ll go to college and I’ll have a ‘B’plan, but I’m doing this.” (laughs)

What was your ‘B’ plan?

Teaching English and history. I majored in English and religion. I was going to be a substitute teacher … while we were playing gigs.  I was filling my application out to be a substitute teacher and pretty much the next day we got word we were getting signed. So I was like, “I don’t have to do that.”  But I still want to teach one day.  I want to get my teacher’s certificate and teach when I’m older. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’d teach English to high school kids.

English, religion and history are all subjects songwriters have drawn inspiration from.  It almost sounds as if you were taking classes to provide material for a songwriting career.

I was taking classes that I loved and I was really intentional about having a double major and working very hard because I just loved it.  I had thought about going to theology school for a while. … But then I was like, “You know, I probably won’t go to theology school.  I’ll probably teach if I don’t play music.”  But I was playing all the time.  We were playing six shows a week. At some point I finished [school] and I did everything I was supposed to do and I really enjoyed it.  But there was a point where I was like, “I really gotta to make [music] work.  This is what I want to do.  This is what makes me happy.”

Are you ever surprised by the finished record?

Not on this record.  On this record, maybe the song, “Fishtails.” I guess I’m surprised because it’s exactly … what I was hearing in my head. … These songs, I was writing for years.  We worked on the pre-production for so long.  The producer, Jordan Brooke Hamlin, would mock up a framework around the demo.  I’d make a demo by myself, without Emily.  [Hamlin] played a lot of instruments so she’d mock up keys, horns, drums, whatever, that she felt would make the song come to fruition.  Then we’d listen to that and go back to the drawing board and she’d mock up something else.

So there was a lot of pre-production.  By the time we got to the record we pretty much knew how things were going to lay out.

But there have been records in the past when songs turned out completely different.  It’s not a typical thing for us because we’re so immersed in it from the beginning to the end. We always use a producer but we’re there with them.  A producer is the visionary with us but it’s to build a bridge between us as well and to help us get through the recording experience in a way that serves both of us and helps us negotiate and navigate having such disparate musicalities. … It’s a team.  Even if it doesn’t say, “produced by Amy and Emily.”  With our records, it’s a lot of people working together.

When it comes to song material, who do you think is the darker of the two?

On this record, I think Emily is definitely pretty dark (laughs). But there’s so much redemption in it that it’s not a darkness that’s alone in a void.  But it’s heavy.  There’s some heavy stuff of mine, but there’s also some stuff that’s not dark.  “The Rise Of The Black Messiah,” is pretty dark.

I think there’s darkness that feels heavy and kind of … “How am I going to get myself out of this?” or “How is this ever going to work out?”  Then there’s darkness that has that triumphant energy to it, where, no matter what, nothing’s going to let me down, kind of thing.  “Rise …” is like that.  It’s dark. It’s a really dark situation in America.  This is like a statement. All of this stuff can be happening but the human spirit still rises above that.  There’s a guy in solitary confinement for 35 years but can still write a letter that’s positive. How is that possible?  It’s possible because that’s the human spirit.

Are you and Emily ever 100 percent satisfied with your albums?

I’m not. I’m not sure about Emily.  On this record there’s a couple of vocal moments where I … wish I had given it one more shot but we ran out of time, or the mic wasn’t right … but now it’s too late to go back and it’s not worth $5,000 to fix one phrase. That kind of thing?  You’ve  got to let it go at some point.

You and Emily have played a few ocean-going events. Do you enjoy music cruises?

I don’t like the cruise part. I’m not a cruiser.  There are some people who love cruises.  I do not at all.  I don’t like being on big boat. It’s like a hotel with buffets all the time and food that’s free but all tastes alike. I’d rather go to Taco Bell and stay at a Motel 6.

But I love the music part of the music cruises so much that I’m willing to put up with everything else.  And it’s a good job.  You get paid well and you get to see all of your friends. It’s a good life.  I’d never go on a cruise as a vacation, but if it’s a work thing it’s pretty nice.

What do you like to do for a vacation?

I like to go hiking, go to the beach.  Really simple things.  My family has a beach house that my granddad built.  It’s like a touchstone.  I like to go there. I like to stay at home and go hiking in the woods, spend time doing that.  I’m not a world traveler vacation type person.  Emily, she’ll go to Vietnam, Thailand, she’ll do really big things.  If I have that much time off, I just don’t want to go anywhere.  I’m like, “I want to ride my motorcycle for two days.”

What is the most surprising setting or place where you’ve heard your music played?

It doesn’t surprise me, necessarily, but if I’m in a grocery store late at night, and have my pajamas on, and “Up On The Watershed” starts playing really loud in Walmart or someplace, I feel so embarrassed.  I don’t even think anyone recognizes me and I’m embarrassed. I’m checking out and hear our voices really loud. … It’s a panic attack, basically.  And I have to get out as soon as I can.  It can happen at grocery stores, Walmart, at a shopping mall, or something.  Or I’ll be at a restaurant and I’ll be ordering, and all of a sudden an Indigo Girls [song] starts up really loud and I’m like, “This is so embarrassing.” It’s like a moment where … it’s too awkward to acknowledge what’s going on but you’re hearing yourself talking.

How about when you’re meeting fans?  Does it feel kind of awkward being put on a pedestal by people wanting your autograph or your thoughts on current events?

Photo: Doug Seymour
World Café Live, Philadelphia, Pa.

Most of our fans are pretty cool.  It’s not awkward, it’s more like a conversation.  The only time it’s been awkward for me if it’s somebody I’m a huge fan of and they say they’re a fan.  I’m star-struck.  I don’t really believe it … I don’t know how to handle it, basically.

Who have you met that you were so star-struck that you didn’t know what to say?

When I met Justin Vernon for the first time, I was really star-struck by him.  And he was an Indigo Girl fan.  A big fan.  Had my lyrics tattooed on his arm, or something.  But he was so disarming, charming, sweet and so real … such an awesome person.  His family and his friends – it’s this whole community of people who are so cool – that I was totally blown away by it. And still am.  There are a lot of these guys he’s friends with and I’ve met them.  They live in different areas and I play with them, and I’m constantly surprised and happy about what good people they are.  And that’s a good thing.

Bonnie Raitt is a great example. We met her, it was in a benefit situation and then she ended up doing a bunch of benefits with us for the organization we have.  She was really, really, real, and supportive of us, and knew who we are.  She’s one of the most solid people you’ll ever know.  And Jackson Browne is the same way.  People who are so big and you sit on a tour bus with them for 10 hours and you’re like, “Whoa!  I know every single lyric to every one of your songs.  And we’re talking about the Sandinistas. This is crazy.”

You and Emily recorded “Fountain Of Sorrow” for that Jackson Browne tribute compilation album, Looking Into You.  When you were approached to do a track for the album, did you have your pick from all of Browne’s songs or were you and Emily asked to record that specific track?

They gave us a choice of a few songs.  We love that song and had covered it when we were much younger.  Each of us, even individually, had covered it.  They could have given us any song and we would have been happy because we know all of his songs … his whole catalogue. … It’s a gut- wrenching, kind of heartache song. We knew we wanted to record it with these friends of ours who we had been playing with a lot.  They would be perfect for it and have great harmonies in the background.  It’s one of those things where we were thinking of the whole picture.  Then we got Chuck Leavell on it. He’s an old friend and, man, he’s just an amazing person … and he’s such a gentleman.  He’s so nice you don’t believe he’s famous.

What can you tell us about the upcoming tour?

The tour is going to be a full band, including the keyboard player Carol Isaacs who we’ve been playing with on records ever since we met her when she was playing with Sinead O’Connor in the late ’90s. We haven’t gotten to tour with her in quite a while because she’s from England and visas are just … that whole situation. She’s back with us.

We have our violinist, Lyris Hung, who is great and our rhythm section, [bassist] Benjamin [Ryan Williams] and [drummer] Jaron [Pearlman], who we have been playing with the last couple of years.  We’re pretty much going to try to emulate the record.  We’re going to do the new record but we’ll also be doing a lot of material from the old days.  We’re going to do this one festival in Eau Claire, Wis. [Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival] that Justin Vernon asked us to play.  He asked us to play the whole record, Swamp Ophelia, from start to finish.  So we’re doing that whole record.  So we’ll have some songs from that one as well.

What would you tell a college-age Amy Ray about the future?

I probably would say the advice I always give myself which is always try to be in the moment.  Seriously, I know that’s like a cliché but it’s really true and it works.  It can keep you from getting overwhelmed and it can make you have a much better life.  As far as what you’re going to do in your life, like your endeavors, it’s really true that you need to practice whatever your art is … as many hours as you can.  It will really make you better at what you do.

I can say that I wish I spent more time, earlier on, on my songwriting and my guitar playing, and I had to catch up.  Now I spend hours and hours on it and I love it and enjoy it.  The payoff makes you enjoy it more because you realize as you’re doing it that you’re going to get better.  So now I always say that if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to write and you’ve got to read.  You gotta do both of those things as much as you can. 

Upcoming shows for the Indigo Girls:

May 23: Lenox, Mass., Tanglewood Music Center
June 17 – Grand Rapids, Mich., Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
June 19 – Ann Arbor, Mich., Power Center
June 20 – Dayton, Ohio, Schuster Performing Arts Center
June 21 – Charlottesville, Va., Ntelos Wireless Pavilion
June 23 – Asheville, N.C., The Orange Peel
June 24 – Chattanooga, Tenn., Track 29
June 25 – Mobile, Ala., Saenger Theatre
June 26 – Atlanta, Ga., Chastain Park Amphitheatre
July 5 – San Diego, Calif., Humphrey’s Concerts By The Bay
July 7 – Los Angeles, Calif., El Rey Theatre
July 8 – Saratoga, Calif., Montalvo Arts Center
July 9 – Saratoga, Calif., Montalvo Arts Center
July 11 – Portland, Ore, Oregon Zoo Amphitheatre
July 12 – Seattle, Wash., Woodland Park Zoo
July 14 – Layton, Utah, Kenley Amphitheatre
July 15 – Boulder, Colo., Chautauqua Auditorium
July 17 – Apple Valley, Minn., Minnesota Zoo Amphitheater
July 18 – Eau Claire, Wis., Foster Farm (Eaux Claires Music And Arts Festival)
July 19 – Madison, Wis., Capitol Theater
July 21 – Chicago, Ill., Vic Theatre
July 23 – New York, N.Y., City Winery NYC
July 24 – Englewood, N.J., Bergen Performing Arts Ctr.
July 25 – Westhampton Beach, N.Y., Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center
July 26 – Camden, N.J., Wiggins Park (XPoNential Music Festival)
July 28 – Vienna, Va., Filene Center At Wolf Trap
July 29 – Selbyville, Del., Freeman Stage At Bayside
Aug. 7 – Indianapolis, Ind., Indiana State Fair Grandstand (Indiana State Fair)

For more information, please visit the Indigo Girls’ website, Facebook page, on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.