Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met as children in Atlanta and have been playing music together since they were teenagers at Shamrock High School in Decatur. Strange Fire, their first album, was released independently in 1987, shortly before they were signed to Epic Records and rose to international fame with their eponymous major-label debut.
Their new album, Look Long, out today, takes a long, deep and generally joyful look at love, growing up, freedom, loneliness and the importance of family — the one from whence we came as well as the one that we create.
Made with the same producer and musical crew as Come on Now Social 21 years ago, the new record is already receiving enthusiastic reviews and press. The song “Country Radio” in particular, with its refrain “I’m just a gay kid in a small town who loves country radio,” has garnered recent attention in Rolling Stone, The Advocate and other media.
While the Covid-19 virus has sidelined their tour plans for now, the Indigo Girls have found new success and huge fan support with their weekly livestreams on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram — their March 19 online concert attracted about 80,000 viewers, and a May 14 show raised more than $230,000 for Winona LaDuke’s Honor the Earth. The Indigo Girls are scheduled to perform online at 8 p.m. on May 26 at a benefit concert for the Georgia Music Foundation that will stream live on Facebook and at the Georgia Music Foundation website. Amy Ray will serve as co-host for the event.
The Indigo Girls gave one of their more in-depth interviews in years with ArtsATL by phone earlier this week. They talk about the new album, their 16th studio release, as well as their lives as parents and musicians, and reflect on their 35-year career and, of course, life in the time of Covid-19.
ArtsATL: How have you dealt with the virus, the quarantine and the social distancing? Are you both still living in Georgia?
Amy Ray: Yeah, we’re both living in Georgia, in separate places. I’ve got a pretty good setup so it has been OK for me. We decided early on a few people that we would hang out with and playmates for our child and things like that, homeschooling and all that.
So my family is pretty fortunate and I feel like we’re really lucky and it’s been smooth. Obviously everybody is worried about effects on communities that are harder hit and don’t have as much access or as much room, but for me, beyond just the depression about what’s going on in society and the world and how hard it is, my life is pretty good.
ArtsATL: The album is pretty upbeat — you both seem to stay pretty upbeat in general. I’ve seen some of your livestream house concerts and the Q&As with fans. Seems like you keep it on the positive side always.
Emily Saliers: We really are grateful for the power of music to bring people together and make us all feel a little better. As far as the album being upbeat, the album was done over a year ago now, so we made it before the crisis. Thematically, the songs contain a lot of the things that Amy and I observe and write about through the years.
ArtsATL: You were planning on playing the Amplify Decatur Music Festival in April before it was canceled — when might you play in Atlanta again?
Saliers: There’s just no way of knowing. The live performance industry at this point has just been put on hold and no one knows when. I kind of gauge it myself by when would I go to a concert and be around other people and then we have to think about singing as a really, really strong way of spreading a virus — so I think the whole industry has been temporarily decimated and no one is really sure. My feeling is nothing is going to happen until the end of the year at least and probably into 2021, if I had to guess. I don’t know how Amy feels about it.
Ray: I don’t think we’ll be doing anything for a long time. The entertainment industry is trying to figure out if there’s a way to safely have concerts at some point, if there’s a way to shoot new movies, all those kind of things. I think we’re probably looking at the spring of 2021 unless something drastic changes.
ArtsATL: What are your favorite places in Atlanta to play music and to listen to music?
Saliers: Wow. A lot of places. I love some shows at the Tabernacle. I saw Janelle Monáe, I saw Lizzo at the Tabernacle. I mean that place was rocking, you know, from the rafters. So I love a show there. And then for a more old-school ornate environment, I love to see a show at the Fox — I saw Greta Van Fleet at the Fox and that was pretty awesome.
We’ve been playing in Atlanta so long — it’s always great. I’ve always loved Variety Playhouse and we love Terminal West; we do a benefit show there every January. Each place has its own vibe and its own history and honestly, I love them all. Eddie’s Attic, I love playing there.
ArtsATL: The cover of Look Long — the picture of you two as kids — is that from when you first met?
Ray: It’s probably like two years before we met, or three years. I’m like 6 or 7, and Emily is around the same age. Right, Emily? You’re in Connecticut there, right?
Saliers: I’m in Connecticut there. I’m a little bit younger. I ‘m probably like 5 in that picture.
ArtsATL: So you both were about the same age as your kids are now?
Saliers: My kid is now 7 and Amy’s is 6, so yeah, close.
ArtsATL: Are they playing music at all?
Ray: My kid is taking piano lessons and just jamming around with different things.
Saliers: Mine too. She just wrote her first song, which is very exciting for her and for us. We worked on it together, but it was her idea and her melody. So that was pretty cool.
ArtsATL: What is the song about?
Saliers: She wrote it for my wife — so she wrote it for her other mom. And it’s just really awesome.
ArtsATL: How has being a parent changed your life as a musician?
Saliers: It’s made me more sensitive to everything in the world, even more sensitive to suffering, if that was even possible, and just to learn about what it is to give of yourself in ways you’ve never given before. I consider it the greatest honor just to see this little person grow into herself. I haven’t written a song yet about being a parent, but I think a lot about the lessons that I am learning being a parent and how applicable they are to other things in life. In that sense, it has definitely been an inspiration and has had a deep effect on me.
ArtsATL: Who are your all-time favorite musicians and inspirations and influences?
Ray: God, there’s so many. It’s endless. For me, I always go back to writers like Elton John and Carole King and even Dolly Parton. Some of those earlier writers who were such great song craftspeople. Just to really look at songwriting, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell . . . there’s just so many great writers. I like punk rock a lot and a lot of the current Americana music. I was just listening to a great Atlanta artist, Butch Walker, he’s made a ton of great records and been a great producer. There are so many people that I listen to constantly — there might be a favorite one day and then the next day there’s another favorite.
In Atlanta, the musicians that really helped us come up, one of the main people who really took us under her wing, was Caroline Aiken. Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ was another band that really helped us out, and the Squalls, and DeDe Vogt with the Scallion Sisters. Those were the early, early people that we hung out with and they gave us a break and gave us spots opening for them or playing during their breaks, that kind of thing.
ArtsATL: You chose the same producer and musicians from Come On Now Social for Look Long. Why that particular group of people and why did you record in Bath, England, at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios?
Saliers: Well, we’ve known those guys a while. John Reynolds (producer) and Clare Kenny (bass), Carol Isaacs (keyboards) and Justin Smith (electric guitar), they were all on the Lilith Fair tour with Sinead O’Connor. That’s where we first met them and became friends with them. We were just over in the UK touring and had tea with John Reynolds and just said, “Ah, it would be great to make a record together again — let’s make a record!” So we all decided right then that we would.
Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios is a beautiful studio. It has wonderful gear, a wonderful environment. We all lived in the same sort of complex — it was just a really good place to be stuck in for a while to finish the album. Tim Oliver, the guy who engineered it with John, we worked with him on Come On Now Social too. Trina Shoemaker mixed it. There’s just so far fewer women than men mixing engineers in the business. She did a fantastic job. So it was just a team that we really trusted and we love the way they play and the way they work and love them as people and so the timing was just right 20 years later. It was a remarkable experience. It all just worked out.
ArtsATL: You started with a really big label, Epic, and moved to your own label, being distributed by Vanguard and now, for your past two albums, being distributed by Rounder. What is your experience with record labels, and what you think about them these days?
Saliers: I have resentment for big labels that now are making all of the money off of streaming while so many artists who are struggling aren’t seeing anything from that. It’s the same as it ever was, you know, big corporations see profit as the guiding force of business.
We had a good run with Epic and they were supportive. They didn’t really try to do anything different with us than what we were and we had some early radio success. We were never like a band with hits on the radio, but they did a lot for us. They used their big machinery at the outset, and we had some good luck, like R.E.M. singing on the album and us touring with them and just really good fortune that propelled us along and then we just did our own thing.
With Rounder, it’s a distribution deal, so we’re on IG Recordings, which is our own label. For us, there’s really nothing that a major label can do for us that we can’t do ourselves. We have all the relationships in place that we need, in terms of agent and management and we can hire our own good publicists and make our own albums and get great producers and players and all that stuff.
ArtsATL: Amy, is your label Daemon Records still a big force in your life?
Ray: Yeah it is, but the new records that I put out are my own, so I have a lot of solo records out on Daemon and then I have a catalog of records that I put out over the last 30 years. I still have a very active mail order — people order stuff from the catalog. There’s a lot of great records that we put out by Atlanta bands and local artists. Most up and coming artists now are better off putting their own music out and creating their own source of income that way rather than me taking a cut of it. I’m not going to be able to do as much for them as a record label as they can do for themselves because of the way things have changed.
ArtsATL: Emily, are you still in the restaurant business?
Saliers: No. But we had such a good long run with Watershed. I was very proud of that restaurant that we started in Decatur. It was awesome. I have always been a big foodie, but I am less focused on that and certainly not focused on the business anymore. Watershed got sold, that sort of south Buckhead location got sold and now my friends Ross Jones and Susan Owens, who’s like a spiritual partner, have opened a fantastic restaurant named Redbird. So now I’m just a fan.
ArtsATL: Anything else you’d like to share with your Atlanta fans?
Saliers: We’re psyched to have the album come out – it has been a long time. We want to thank everybody for the support they’ve given us on the livestreams. And hope you like the album. We just want everyone to stay safe and wear their masks and stay home as much as possible, and just keep following the advice of the scientists and the doctors.
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