Indigo Girls still a powerful two
The Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers.
The Indigo Girls
8 p.m. March 7
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Updated: April 1, 2013 6:09AM
Though their longtime friends and associates REM have recently disbanded, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are still going strong as the Grammy-winning folk-rock duo Indigo Girls.
The social and environmental activists and gay rights champions are nearing their third decade together as recording artists.
In fact, the Girls are currently touring in support of their 14th studio album, “Beauty Queen Sister” and headed for a March 7 concert at the North Shore Center for Performing Arts in Skokie.
We caught up with Amy Ray between shows for a quick chat about the new album, how she and Emily Saliers have kept things interesting for so many years and why she doesn’t expect to hear Indigo Girls songs on country radio anytime soon.
Q: Now that “Beauty Queen Sister” is completed and you’re on tour with the new songs, which ones are you particularly happy with?
A: Definitely “Share the Moon.” I felt when we were working on it as a band that it all came together in a way that felt so good. I think Emily’s song “Gone” also came together in a cool way, because it’s kind of a country song and it really worked well with the country players we hired for the recording sessions in Nashville. It sounds almost like it could be on country radio. Alhough, that would never happen for us. (Laughs)
A: Country radio isn’t into the Indigo Girls?
Q: No. I think it’s because we’re so. . .gay. You know? (Laughs) Well, I don’t think it’s just because we’re gay. I think if we were gay but we were apolitical and we had more of a feminine image, that people could adjust to. . . But we are what we are. We’re older, too. So, we have a lot of things that work against us in that world. It’s a bummer, because I love country music.
Q: Speaking of how long the Indigo Girls have been around, how have you and Emily managed to keep things fresh as writers and performers?
A: It’s still fresh for us because we try to look forward as writers. We don’t do a lot of rehashing of old stuff. We really like writing new songs and working with different players and bring new opening bands on the road to create new experiences musically for ourselves. We try to do stuff that shows some growth or at least sends us out on a new tangent.
I think our audience sees that. The overall audience gets smaller or bigger depending on what’s going on in the world, but there’s a core group of people that have always stayed with us. And they want to hear new stuff, too. That’s great, because it makes us feel like we’re still relevant and we’re not just playing the old hits over and over
Q: And your personal and working relationship? How have you and Emily kept things going smoothly for almost 30 years? Particularly in light of REM disbanding.
A: Well, we’re two people instead of four, which helps. (Laughs) Those guys had a great working relationship and, musically, they’re definitely one of my favorite bands of all time. But they got to the point where they said, “We’re ready to call it quits and do other things.” And I respect that.
I think Emily and I feel that if we got to that point, we’d be able to look at ourselves and say, “Okay, it’s time to quit.” But I don’t see that happening. We have a lot of activism going on, we both have individual things going on in our lives and we have our thing together. So, when we get together and do our thing, we still have fun.
Q: Has your perspective as a songwriter changed since the early days?
A: Yeah, well, your perspective changes a lot when you grow up. It’s not like I’ve changed as a person, or like my outlook on activism or my general place in the cosmos has changed. It’s just that the process of living — meeting people, reading books, seeing movies, hearing music and having experiences — informs the work so much. Hopefully, your perspective just deepens and has more dimension.
Q: I remember hearing that Paul Simon, later in his career, felt embarrassed by “The Sounds of Silence”
A: Yeah, Emily and I have some old songs that we don’t work with because we’re embarrassed by them. (Laughs.) Someone will request it and we’ll say “We can’t go there.”
There’s a song of Emily’s called “High Horse” on one of the super-early records that she. . .hates. People ask for it and she’s nice about it, but afterwards, she’ll say to me, “God, I would never do that song again.” The same is true for my song “Blood and Fire,” which people ask for a lot. It would have to be a rare moment for me to feel like singing that song again because it’s. . . It’s just had its time.
Sometimes you can feel embarrassed about earlier work you did because it sounds overwrought. And that’s probably just because it’s coming from such a young, vulnerable place.
Q: Aside from the new songs, what will you be playing on tour this fall? Is it true that you change the set list for every show?
A: Yeah. Every night it changes. We are going to be playing a lot of songs from the new record, but we also play a lot of old songs. We have a band on this tour called the Shadowboxers and they’re amazing. They’ve got three harmony singers, so we’ve got all the backing vocals we ever wanted. (Laughs) And that’s really fun. Basically we learned about 30 old songs with them, drawing from every record. And we’re learning stuff on the road, too.
Q. After so many tours, so many performances, what has to happen to make you think, ‘That was a really great show’? To make a show stand out for you as something special?
A: For me, it’s mostly about our intonation, how our harmonies are fitting together. If my pitch is really on that night and I have control of my voice, but I don’t have to think about it the whole time, and the music is really hanging together—that really transcends everything for me. If I’m sure about that, it really makes me feel good.
Other than that, it’s whenever we have an audience that’s really engaged with us and we can feel it. If the room feels like a community, that’s a good show.