Before YouTube, before TV commercials became music videos, before indie became Indie, there were the Indigo Girls.
Amy Ray and Emily Saliers began playing music together as high school students in Decatur, Georgia. At Emory University, they started performing as the Indigo Girls. From 1985-1987, they independently released a single, an EP, and their first complete album, Strange Fire. Eventually, their music connected with the mainstream when their self-titled major label debut won a Grammy in 1990.
In 2015, the folk-rock duo released their 14th studio album, One Lost Day, which the girls are supporting with a full summer tour. Although their last record, Beauty Queen Sister, was released four years ago, Ray and Saliers rarely take extended breaks from making music with each other.
For three decades, they have consistently released albums and continued touring to a sizable fan base, which would be a great accomplishment for any musician. But considering how much the music industry has changed in the past 30 years, the Indigo Girls’ extensive catalog of work is even more impressive, particularly since they often appear driven by their own creative forces and commitment to art.
In many ways, One Lost Day builds on the Indigo Girls’ well-established authenticity of voice and narrative. The album tells stories of loves never realized (“Elizabeth”) and loves left behind (“Learned It On Me”). There are also stories of dealing with grief (“Happy in the Sorrow Key”), addiction (“If I Don’t Leave Here Now”), as well as political accounts such as “The Rise of the Black Messiah” centered on Herman Wallace of the Angola 3. Throughout their career, the Indigo Girls have been known for songs that focus on self-awareness as well as social action.
Yet, even as One Lost Day is informed by the band’s earlier musical paths, there is a definite infusion of new energy.
During a phone interview with PopMatters, Amy Ray shared that the “goal [of One Lost Day] was not to lose the core, central piece of the Indigo Girls: the harmonies, the intricacy of arrangements.” But they “did want to have a new landscape to play against.” Ray notes that there is a “rhythmic difference” in this work, especially in the “style of horn” and how they use more midi keyboard samples than before. She credits having a new producer, Jordan Brooke Hamlin, with opening up this new “sonic landscape” for the Indigo Girls.
Hamlin produced Lucy Wainwright Roche’s There’s a Last Time for Everything (2013), an album on which she played guitars, horns, and hammered dulcimer. According to Ray, Hamlin brought her “sensibilities as a player” to the production of One Lost Day. “What’s stayed the same is us singing,” Ray laughs.
When asked to reflect on their 1990 Grammy win and whether it supported their earliest goals as musicians or presented any challenges, Ray responds without hesitation: “We had already been playing [at that time] for nine years, since we were 15. We had toured a lot, worked a lot. We knew enough that we didn’t take anything for granted. We stayed grounded.”
However, Ray admits there were times when the success made them “stressed and argumentative,” but they quickly found ways to deal with these issues. For example, Ray and Saliers started touring in shorter intervals. These lessons have stayed with them throughout their career: “We make sure we have balance.” She also observes that the accolades “only did good stuff. It brought other musicians into our lives. It gave us access to learn more, create more. It’s all about the music.”
The Indigo Girls continue to build connections with other musicians. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has invited the band to play at his inaugural Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin during July. “He’s a friend, a supporter of our music,” notes Ray.
The Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival features a diverse line-up that includes artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Lizzo, Sylvan Esso, The National, and Bon Iver. At Vernon’s request, the Indigo Girls will play an entire album during their set, the Grammy-nominated Swamp Ophelia which was originally released in 1994.
“We’re so excited about it,” says Ray. “We haven’t been asked to play big festivals like Bonnaroo or Coachella. Indie is a world we love. We feel really grateful.” When asked why she thinks the Indigo Girls haven’t been invited to these larger music festivals, Ray recalls that in earlier days the “festivals didn’t have as many women or gay women.” She also observes that “promoters put us in a specific place,” noting that after all these years, “we’re seen as being a couple of lesbians with guitars.”
In the past, the Indigo Girls may not have been considered by promoters because of “how gay we are, how activist we are.” Yet, she also notes that another reason may be due to the limited spaces for all musicians at these festivals. “But who knows?” says Ray. “We’ve had so many opportunities. To worry about that, it’s letting ego get the best of you.”
This level-headed approach may be why the Indigo Girls have been able to focus on what’s most important to them, particularly on activism related to social and political issues including prison reform, immigration, and the death penalty.
On the power of music and politics, Ray comments, “Music brings people together in a common space. It breaks barriers down. It’s a powerful way to bond people. The Civil Rights Movement is the best example of that. If you have a way to gather people for music, you have a way to talk about issues. It’s a beautiful tool. When you don’t know how to articulate ... when you’re so angry, singing brings it all to fruition. It makes us feel stronger.”
The Indigo Girls have often brought attention to these problems, not only through their music, but also in their statements and actions. In 2013, the Indigo Girls spoke out about the exclusion of transgender women at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, an event that started in 1976 to provide a women-only experience for performers and audiences. However, the Festival limits attendees to womyn-born-womyn and has made no reference to the inclusion of transgender women in this policy.
The Indigo Girls appeared at the 2013 Festival; however, they issued a statement that detailed their opposition to the policy and their support of the protest against it. They also decided to donate the money they made from their performance to transgender activism. Finally, they confirmed that they wouldn’t play the Festival again until there was more movement towards the inclusion of transgender women.
Recently, the Festival announced that this summer’s event would be the last.
Ray shares, “I’m sad it’s going away; [The Festival] has been an important arena, a great place for musicians to play, musicians who don’t get other opportunities.” But she also affirms, “I don’t agree with the policy. For me, it was important to include transgender women in an intentional way.”
Whether they explore different ways of making music, build connections to other musicians, or stand by a commitment to politics, the Indigo Girls continue to expand on their influence as they reach out to longtime fans and new audiences.
Maybe next year, even Coachella will be listening.