By Chris Azzopardi
Photo: Jeremy Cowart
The day before I got on a call with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, famously known as the Indigo Girls, the longtime folk-rock duo and LGBTQ activists were playing a set for fans during a Facebook Live concert. They had planned on performing in public venues, but their set of scheduled dates were canceled due to the pandemic.
Before the livestream performance, Ray and Saliers had been quarantining separately, long enough to feel they could safely and comfortably perform six feet apart in their manager’s empty, sterilized office. They were gearing up to release their 16th album, Long Look, which was released on May 22. A departure from the work they’ve created since the release of their 1989 breakout album, Long Look finds the Indigo Girls lyrically and musically untethered.
During our conversation in early May, Saliers and Ray discussed artistic freedom, intensified inequality during the Trump era, and honoring the true legacy of Pride.
How are you holding up right now?
Saliers: Well, so there’s homeschooling to be done. Amy has a young child and I have a young child, so that occupies a lot of my time. I’m sort of splitting it up with my wife and she’s working remotely, and then Amy and I are doing promo for the album. And then we do the live streams and stuff like that. And there’s a lot of catching up on other life that wasn’t able to be managed while on the road. And just keeping in touch with whom we can reach out to. Helping friends. Staying in communication. It’s been actually a very, very busy time.
How do you like doing these virtual concerts?
Ray: I think they’re super fun. It’s challenging because it’s a whole different way of trying to engage. I mean, we’ve done a lot of live streams from the studio or from soundcheck, just kind of spontaneous things, and we’re just trying to keep things engaged; luckily, we have this awesome community of people who tune in and they sort of talk to each other. They kind of create a whole community around it, so they’re so engaged and we know that that’s happening when we see the comments, so it really helps us really do the songs and do them honestly and with energy and have a lot of feelings around it. And we get a lot out of it too. It’s definitely a kick in the butt. It’s good for us to stay on our toes.
Has quarantine been a creative time for you?
Saliers: I have found that it’s a creative time, but there’s not a lot of time to create. It’s challenging for me to have a 7-year-old home all the time; that’s a very different thing. So my wife and I are just kind of going back to the drawing board and carving out the things that we need to try to keep our personal lives in balance, which includes personal time away from each other, work time away from each other, family time, schooling. So, I haven’t been practicing Indigo Girls as much as I’ve been feeling very creative and working with my recording software. But actually finding the time to complete anything like I usually can in normal life has been impossible.
Going into this, everyone thought they’d have all this time to do everything.
Ray: I was trying to analyze that, because I’ve been hearing other people from all walks of life – from my neighbors, who kind of work normal construction jobs, to people who have no kids – and everybody is experiencing it differently. But one thing people seem to be saying is, “I thought I’d have all this time, and now we’re just making meals and doing dishes and cleaning all the time.” I think it makes us understand how much we kind of eat out and get our meals in these really convenient packaged ways instead of that less wasteful way of eating at home and eating what you have. It’s very interesting to see. For me I’ve realized this is the way it is if you don’t get to eat out all the time. (Laughs.)
There’s an eerily prescient line on the album’s title track: “Everyone I know can sense Armageddon.” I’m not sure that you knew this is what Armageddon would look like, but when you sing a line like that now and reflect on where you were when you wrote it, what comes to mind?
Saliers: Well, the Armageddon that I’ve been experiencing is the day that Trump got elected president and the country’s divisions were magnified. And it’s not that the problems didn’t exist before, the systemic problems like racism and social inequality and all of the things that we’re aware about. But I believe they’ve gotten worse. I see the schisms in this country, and social media platforms don’t really help. There’s a lot of access to information and opinions that’s really not helping anyone and most of us engage in that in one way or another, so there’s sort of a societal illness that’s tied into social media.
And when I say illness, I also believe that the earth is so sick and she’s pissed. The natural world is the leader. And so we think we’re so important and we’ve achieved all these things and blah, blah. And it’s nothing when mother nature gets pissed. I believe that’s what’s happening, and we can sense that, and that leads to feelings of unrest and the thought of Armageddon.
Armageddon is a very extreme word to use, but it was indicative of the social malaise: unrest, no answers. And now, of course, the unknown causes most everybody I know a great deal of anxiety: How long will the virus last? What happens when there are outbreaks of it? Why have people’s attitudes changed about it? When am I ever gonna work again?
Are you wrestling with those questions yourself?
Saliers: I’m very privileged, so I’m not wrestling with, “Where’s my next meal gonna come from?” But because I’ve read a lot of history, and there are patterns that happen when there’s a complete lack of leadership, I see the writing on the wall for what happens to nations and civilizations where that continues. I think about it in a prophetic way based on what I know about history, and that’s kind of depressing. I seek my joy in human communication and people who are resilient over difficulties. So my joy comes in little things, and my despair comes in big things.
When you look back at recording your first album, how do you compare that experience to recording Long Look?
Ray: This was a really special, standout time for us because it was the reunion of the group of people we met back in the late ’90s when we played Lilith Fair. There was a band backing Sinead O’Connor that we became friends with and we all sort of hung out together and then we started playing music together. They’re all from England and Ireland, and their musicality was incredible. Then we made a record called Come On Now Social and recorded it in 1999, and this band is the reunion of that band, without Sinead.
They’ve kind of been our musical compass all these years, but we haven’t gotten to make a whole record with them and have everybody together in one place; it’s been here and there. It was a great experience. We were in England at Real World Studio near Bath and we lived there, and it was a short thing. We just worked every day and ate meals together.
Because Long Look explores how the past shapes us, what did you learn about yourselves while making it? And did you learn anything new about each other in the process?
Saliers: There’s a song called “Sorrow and Joy” I wrote about some very personal things that happened in my family. When my sister died, there was a time when it was an impossible thought for me to think that I could ever write about that, even though that was stuck in the center of me and I couldn’t break it up. So, I learned that. Didn’t learn it but it was a reminder of, things shift. And it was a reminder of, whenever I get a feeling like I’m never gonna be this way, or I can’t do this, that things shift over time. So it just was very interesting to me that I went to a subject matter that I could never talk or write about to something that I could.
The older I get the more I draw on the past for what to write about, even though Amy and I are very much centered in the present with wanting to create music and play shows and feeling like we are still a working band. We just know what it takes to keep our balances and stay creative. I don’t know if I’ve learned anything new about us. I know we went into recording the album not having a ton of time to prearrange everything. I’m not saying we went into it blindly, but we went into it thinking we were gonna go into the studio and just see what happens.
If I look back on our career, at the very beginning, of course, we were much more controlling about what happened and what the arrangements were and what we would or wouldn’t have on the album. Now I know that we can just sort of float in this freedom of, “Something cool is gonna happen,” because we’re with the right people and we know what to do with each other, and so that was really cool.
Ray: I didn’t learn anything new specifically about Emily, but I did hear some guitar parts that I had not heard before and was really happy with. Musically speaking, I definitely felt like there was new territory and stuff, which is always good and inspiring. It’s funny. You gotta have discipline to be looser. (Laughs.) That’s kind of what we did. We just really worked hard, but it paid off. We worked hard but we didn’t limit ourselves, and I think that’s important.
What do you hope Pride might look like this year?
Ray: This is just a monumentally different time than we’ve ever had in our lives, so how do you deal with that? I think as time goes on we want to get out there, and Pride is one of those times. You want to see your friends; it’s a very celebratory time because we like to celebrate queer people. So I hope people can understand that we still need to hold back from that and think of other ways to celebrate. I think the creative community is so innovative and there are so many rich things to access that people are doing, so that of course can carry on during Pride.
Maybe we can reach out as a gay community and help communities that are really suffering right now, and within our own community making sure that we’re helping the people who need food and need shelter and are homeless or are dealing with a lot of stuff that is really hard to deal with during these times.
Maybe we can reach out and take care of our own and make sure our family at large is doing OK. Pride to me is not just about a big party. It’s also: How can we continue this legacy and truly have Pride and give people the dignity they deserve that they don’t have?
As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.