Solo nation: an interview with Emily Saliers
By Gregg Shapiro
A long time in the making, Emily Saliers’ Murmuration Nation (Emily Saliers Music) is the Indigo Girl’s solo debut album. Worth the wait, the 12-song album reveals a thrilling new side to Saliers, beginning with the rocking and riveting opener “Spider”, and continuing with the dance break in “Serpent Love”, the moody and rhythmic “I’m High I’m On High”, and the various shifts in “Hello Vietnam”. Naturally, Saliers doesn’t forsake longtime fans, as is evident on “Train Inside”, “Slow Day Friend” and “Sad One”. I spoke with Emily about the album and the state of the world in early autumn 2017.
Gregg Shapiro: Congratulations on the release of Murmuration Nation, your first solo album. Why was now the right time release a solo disc?
Emily Saliers: It was kind of a culmination of things. I’d been talking about it as if were just an idea for a long, long time. Also, what Amy (Ray) and I did together, was very fulfilling to me in all musical ways. But then, little by little I started to have a strong desire to do something more rhythmic and groove-centered, which Amy and I don’t do a lot of together. Hip-hop, R&B, all the groove music that has so inspired me my whole life. Then, when I met Lyris Hung, who produced the album, and she plays violin with Indigo Girls, and does many things. We worked really well together on a song for a film. I started sending her ideas for fun. She started doing little production responses in her studio. What she did was exactly what I couldn’t create myself in production. Basically, when I found Lyris and I wanted to do more of a groove-centered R&B record, she agreed to produce it. From that point on, the record was on its way. It still took three years from the time I asked her [laughs] to the time we actually got in the studio with the pledge campaign in between and all that.
GS: Were all the songs on Murmuration Nation written specifically for the album or did some of them begin as Indigo Girls songs?
ES: There are a couple of songs on the album that are very old. The song “Match” I wrote with my friend Kristen Hall. We go way back. That song “Match” is kind of a shimmery pop song that we wrote more than 15 years ago, I’m sure. In the studio, it got transformed into what it is today. But I always knew that I wanted to record it. It was always just hanging around. Another song, “Slow Down Day Friend”, was the first song I ever wrote on ukulele. That was also hanging around; Amy and I never recorded it. Everything else I can think of was written specifically for the solo album over the course of three years.
GS: I’m so glad you mentioned Kristen Hall. There is an interesting Sugarland connection on Murmuration Nation. You talked about the song “Match”, co-written by Kristen, an original member of Sugarland. You also sing a duet on “Long Haul” with Jennifer Nettles, who was lead vocalist of Sugarland.
ES: Both Kristen and Jennifer came out of the Atlanta and Decatur music scene. We’re old friends. The community has remained very tight over the years. Sugarland went off and exploded. We used to see them at teeny tiny places. I knew they were going to explode and they did. We remained friends through the years. I love Jennifer’s voice. I made a wish list of people I want to sing on my album. When I asked Jennifer, she immediately agreed, which was very generous of her because she’s very busy. I didn’t know what it was going to be. I just wanted her voice on the album. I had decided on “Long Haul” and she came in and did it so well, knocked it out of the park, that it became a duet. It was undeniable. Yeah, man, this is a duet [laughs], because of Jennifer’s voice. Her presence in the studio is so positive. It’s a nice thing to have old friends that record or sing with you. They’re stamped forever on your project. I don’t know how to describe that feeling, but it’s one of the most gratifying feelings of the whole music experience that Amy and I have had.
GS: I’m glad you brought that up. In addition to Jennifer, there are some other marvelous guest musicians on the album, including Jonatha Brooke, Lucy Wainwright Roche and Sierra Hull, to name a few. It reminded me of how you and Amy organized the legendary Suffragette Sessions tour (featuring female singer/songwriters). Please say something about the role of community when it comes to making music.
ES: First of all, we call ourselves a hootenanny band. When we were playing in the local bars, everybody was invited up on stage. It was a motley crew. I have to give thanks and credit to our original followers, women and lesbian followers, who helped us have a career. Then it was just a matter of loving to play with these people, these women. We’ve all remained friends over the years. In the end, collaborating and sharing is the best part of the musical experience. Which is why we never get tired of singing a song like “Closer To Fine”, and having the opening act sing a verse or the audience sings a verse. There’s different participation all the time. Music is meant to be shared. We love joining up with other people. Even Amy, on her solo records, will tell you that she’s a collaborator and she loves her band. I loved working with Lyris and I learned so much from her. I can’t wait to go out with a band. We just like being around other people playing music.
GS: Throughout your career, you have also found a way to include social and political commentary in your work and songs such as “OK Corral”, “Fly”, “Spider” and “I’m High I’m On High” on Murmuration Nation continue in that tradition. Please say something about the importance of including that in your music.
ES: It’s not really like I’m going to sit down and write something about a social issue. It’s more like the only reason we ever wrote songs was to try and get out what we’re feeling and thinking about. I use music and lyrics to understand the world around me. For instance, there’s a lot of social issues and politically charged material on the solo album because of what’s going on in our country. I can’t help it. With the situation with guns and religious zealotry and all those things. The last song written for the album was “Fly” and that was written right after the election. It’s a result of why I write songs. Some end up being about relationships and some are about social issues as I explore my world.
GS: With that in mind, as a musician and an activist, in what way, other than through the songs on this album, do you make your voice heard in terms of the 2018 and 2020 elections?
ES: I’m going to have a group called HeadCount go out on the road with me. They’ve been out a lot with Amy and me. They engage people in the voting system. They register people if they’re not registered. They’re a great outreach group to get people involved in voting. If it’s difficult for people, they make it easier for them. It’s a bipartisan effort to get people to the polls. Another way Amy and I have done it historically, not just with regard to the election, but regarding issues, we have groups such as Amnesty International come out and (staff a) table at the shows. We have local queer groups doing work in the community, wherever the show is, come out and (have a) table. We make announcements from the stage about things that are going on in your community. As we know, community outreach and work is critical. It can’t just be about big federal issues, but what’s going on in our community as we build the groundswell of response to hatred, exclusion and racism, things like that. That’s another way that I will engage in my own activism.
GS: You are embarking on your first solo tour. Will you be incorporating Indigo Girls songs into your set along with the songs from Murmuration Nation?
ES: Yes. We also have beautifully filmed videos by my friend filmmaker Kathlyn Horan. There’s going to be video production, some still and some moving. There will be a full band. It’s going to be a texturally dense experience. I think we’ll take a break from that and do an isolated acoustic set or break down some old Indigo Girls songs and do them in a new fashion. There will definitely be that element. We’re going to throw in a cover or two. I won’t reveal that [laughs], but I’m very excited about the song that I picked. It’s from the `70s, of course [laughs]! We’ll mix it up like that.