PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
March 27, 2007

Strawberry Indigo

by Jim Newsom

In a pop music world where bands come and go, form and break up seemingly overnight while fans move on to the next big thing, the Indigo Girls have had a remarkable shelf life.

“There are a lot of good reasons for that,” Emily Saliers told me in a recent conversation. “We’re kinda like family; our families grew up in the same neighborhood and we had this really rock solid foundation. We write separately and have separate lives and do things independently, but then when we get together it’s still fun. And we have amazing fans.”

Saliers is the strawberry blonde half of the acoustic guitar slinging duo that performs at the NorVa Tuesday night. She’s been making music with childhood friend Amy Ray since they were a year apart at Shamrock High School in Decatur, Georgia:

“We met in elementary school and went to the same high school. I first went off to college at Tulane for a couple of years and she went to Vanderbilt, but we both transferred back to Emory. So we both ended up graduating from Emory. While we were there, we were playing a lot locally and doing some touring. By the time we graduated we started a career.

“Back then with Athens and Atlanta, they were two separate music scenes but they were so eclectic. It was a period of time when everybody was supporting everybody else and we all wanted everyone to do well. It was an innocent time. When REM gave us a leg on their Green tour, it was huge for us. And we got signed around the time of Melissa Etheridge and Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega—the music industry follows trends and we were lucky to get in on that trend.”

Their self titled Epic Records debut made waves after its release in 1989, powered by Saliers’ catchy “Closer to Fine.” Though they lost to the fake group Milli Vanilli for Best New Artist, they did take home the Grammy that year for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. But folk music was only one of the ingredients mixed into the Indigo stew.

“The first record I ever bought was a Jackson 5 record,” Saliers said. “I always loved them and I loved Motown and that kind of stuff. But when I started to write songs, I’d say I was listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and Amy and I useta learn covers of early James Taylor and Carole King. Then Amy started to branch off into a more alternative bent with bands like The Clash and Patti Smith, and I was going into more of a narrative singer-songwriter direction.”

In fact, the two are not collaborative composers. Each has her own distinctive voice, and that diversity is a hallmark of the duo’s appeal.

“I think it keeps it interesting for fans,” she explained, “and it keeps it interesting for me and Amy. If she wrote like I did or vice-versa, I think we’d get bored. But this way I have two musical lives that I can live—one is mine and one is hers. And apparently, even though we write separately, we have a knack for arranging songs together. It’s always come naturally. So it’s the best of all worlds.”

The latest Indigo Girls album, Despite Our Differences, kicks off with Saliers’ rockin’ anthem, “Pendulum Swinger.”

“That’s a purging,” she laughed. “It’s an attack on the patriarchy of the church that’s held back the voice and presence of women, and it’s also an attack on the Bush administration. The chorus is about ‘you don’t get to rule the world by being a bully anymore.’ And it’s under the guise of a pop song. So that was fun to get all that vitriolic stuff out and do it in a catchy pop song.

“On this last record, I wanted to make sure that I had enough high energy songs that spoke to things that were not just sweet. I wanted to explore that part of my psyche in my writing.”

From the beginning, listeners have noticed a spiritual depth in much of Saliers’ songwriting. And the Indigo Girls are well known for their political activism, especially in the areas of women’s rights, gay rights, environmentalism and social justice. For Emily, such conscious awareness began at home with a father who is Professor of Theology and Worship at Emory University:

“We grew up sitting around the table on Sunday after church talking about all kinds of stuff, mostly questioning things. He was a very patient man—he had four daughters who were asking him probing theological questions like ‘does God exist?’ And he always had an answer, but in humility. So we grew up thinking about religion. I don’t subscribe to one doctrine; I’m kind of a religious mutt. But my faith has certainly guided my life and my activism.

“Everybody has associated Christianity with the far Christian right and all the damage that has been done by that kind of thinking, where people are oppressed and ostracized. I never bought into that. But now I’m coming back around to accepting what I was brought up in and how progressive it was, and how it augmented my life rather than making me feel diminished. You come back around to the little nuggets of truth that are really helpful in life.”

Saliers has a song on the new CD called “I Believe in Love.” I asked if she really does.

“I do believe in love,” she replied. “I think we get in our own way, we make things more complex than they have to be. But love is the greatest force in life, it’s why we’re here, and the more we learn about it, the more we’re able to do it, the better off the whole world is for everybody.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.