By Gregg Shapiro
Photo: Carrie Schrader, Brian Fisher
Years in the making, Indigo Girls Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Rounder) is a breathtaking experience. Even if you don’t like live albums, this one is an exception. Comprised of 22 songs, representing nine of the Indigo Girls’ (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) baker’s dozen studio albums, Indigo Girls do an excellent job of representing the. As familiar as your oldest friends, you’ll never hear these songs the same way again.
Never one to sit idle, Ray is also releasing a new solo record in September 2018, her sixth. Holler (Compass/ Daemon) continues in a similar countrified vain as 2014’s Goodnight Tender. Featuring guest musicians including Brandi Carlile, Vince Gill, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) and Rutha Mae Harris (of The Freedom Singers), Holler is another powerful musical statement from Ray.
Indigo Girls are no strangers to live albums, with at least two such previous releases – 1995’s 1200 Curfews and 2010’s Staring Down the Brilliant Dream. Why was now the right time for a new live album such as Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra?
Mostly because we’ve been touring with symphonies for about four or five years now. We felt like we’d gotten to a place where we knew the material well enough and wanted to document it. When we came upon a symphony that fit all the parameters that we needed to make a live record with a symphony; that was the University of Colorado Symphony. So, it worked out. It was kind of a long process. We had been hoping to get it done for a couple of years.
What were the parameters that the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra met?
Number one, they’re just really good. The conductor was someone we felt like we could work with on a project like this. Where we could say: “We’re going to need to come in and have an extra-long rehearsal, record rehearsal and then record the show, and may have to do a song over.” They’re grad students and community members. They’re at a university, so it’s not under the guidance of a union, which gives us a lot more leeway on how many times we can do a song and how long it takes. With a union symphony, they kind of changed the rules around. It used to be where you paid one set cost to record with the whole symphony. Now you pay each member individually. For us, we wouldn’t sell enough records to cover that. We had to find a way to record it where we could pay the symphony what they deserve, but it would be a smaller symphony and more student-oriented. In the end, it was probably a better move. They symphony was made up of grad students, community members and professional players, running the gamut of different styles and approaches. The dynamics end up being a little more engaged in a way. The players are fresher to what we’re doing. Some of them are younger. Every orchestra we played with was amazing! It was already on another echelon from what we were doing. But the thing that makes it special with this particular symphony, and we had played with them before…as soon as we played with them, to Emily I was like, “This is the one!”
Of the 22 songs chosen for the album, were there any for which the transition to an orchestral setting or arrangement proved to be more challenging than expected?
Yes. I would say that it depended on the symphony, too. There are songs where some symphonies would nail a song and some symphonies wouldn’t. It’s all about people’s preferences and the way they play and the way we’re playing that day. There are certain ones that are inherently more difficult, like “Happy in the Sorrow Key”. “Come On Home” is a pretty hard song. One of the measures of who we wanted to record with was a symphony that landed the difficult songs, too. It’s not a judgment on who’s better, symphony-wise. Some symphonies get some songs, and others don’t.
Your new solo album Holler continues the country-oriented style of your 2014 solo album Goodnight Tender. Is this a direction you see yourself going in for the near future?
I don’t know. This was just what I was writing. I have a band that I’ve been touring with for four or five years. This is really a strong suit for them and for us together. As we tour, and get more and more in the groove with them, we’ve been working in old songs from the rock and punkier stuff. It’s adaptable to that. When I was writing Stag and Prom, I was playing a lot with the Butchies and I was writing to their style. My collaborators typically have a lot of influence over what I’m writing. They’re who I’m creating with, touring with, playing with from day to day. I like a lot of different kinds of music. I don’t prefer this to that, it’s where I’m at. This record has a little more of the earlier, punky, eclectic style mixed in with traditional country. I think I was crossing over into that line in my writing a little bit.
In the four years between the release of Holler and Goodnight Tender, we have had to endure the election of Donald Trump and all that came with it. Am I on the right track when I say it sounds to me like you address that somewhat in the songs “Sure Feels Good” and “Didn’t Know A Damn Thing”?
Yes, for sure! I don’t know if it was so much effected specifically by the presidential election as more of the whole vibe of the country and my own community. The polarization and thinking about issues around being a Southerner. Trying to take on some accountability myself, and to try to understand where people are coming from, as well. “Sure Feels Good” is my song of where I live and the dynamics of people like me that are coming from a different place than other folks. How do we rectify that? How do we understand each other? It’s easy to dismiss people because they don’t agree with you about things because you dogmatically think they’re going to feel a certain way about things. Or it’s not possible for them to come around to a place of tolerance or understanding. That’s not where I exist. I exist in a place where you get to know your neighbors and you help each other out, regardless of where you come from. Eventually those barriers start to fall away and you begin to understand each other. Hopefully, things change. Racism is the hardest thing to change in the South. But I’ve found that there are still people who do change. I’ve also found that there are people who have a knee-jerk reaction because of the way we’re put into niches and demographics who aren’t being their best selves all the time, and I say, “I know you’re a better person than this. I’ve seen you in my community. I’ve seen the things you do to help other people. And I’ve seen you at church. I know you have it in you to be better than this.” We all can be better than this.
Every year there seems to be more and more queer female country artists releasing albums, including performers such as H.C. McEntire and Sarah Shook in 2018. Because Holler is so steeped in that tradition, what do you think that says about country music and its listeners?
I think country music is opening up. Sarah Shook and Heather (H.C. McEntire), I’m a big fan of both of them. Both of those artists have found that they have a place in Americana, which is the progressive side of “country”. It’s the place where people who play country, but don’t fit into a more conservative demographic feel comfortable. Pop country musicians like Sugarland and Dixie Chicks and others probably also feel like they don’t want to be restricted by being expected to have a certain political perspective. I don’t think music categories need to be restricted by political perspectives in any way on any side. It’s great to me that all these artists are getting some play and that they have some place where they can sit comfortably and be honored in a way that makes sense to everybody.