Indigo Girls a success story
What started as a childhood friendship has turned into an illustrious musical career for Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, otherwise known as the Indigo Girls.
Ray and Saliers met in elementary school and started performing together as high-schoolers in Georgia. They never looked back, building a career and an American folk rock sound spanning more than two decades.
After 14 studio albums, three live records, three greatest hits compilations and seven Grammy nominations, including the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording for hit “Closer To Fine,” the Indigo Girls make their Grand Junction debut in an outdoor show at 7:30 p.m. July 26 at Grande River Vineyards, 787 Elberta Ave., in Palisade.
Tickets are sold out to this all-ages concert. Those attending can bring lawn chairs (blankets aren’t allowed) and decorate their lawn chairs for prizes, but avoid anything tall that could obstruct stage views.
Wine will be on sale for those 21 and older with proper ID. No outside containers, coolers or pets are allowed.
But the Grand Junction show isn’t the Indigo Girls’ only stop in Colorado this month. The women perform a 7 p.m. July 27 show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre with Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
In advance of these two special Colorado shows, Saliers talked to The Daily Sentinel about her interests outside music and the long, successful career of the Indigo Girls. Saliers called July 9 from Toronto, Canada, where she was “losing (her) mind” with excitement in anticipation of seeing the Beyonce and Jay Z show that night.
Melinda Mawdsley: Thank you so much for your time. You play in Grand Junction on the 26th outside at a winery then July 27 at Red Rocks. That sounds like an idyllic weekend for a musician, or is it just me?
Emily Saliers: No, it’s not just you. Colorado is so dreamy. It’s spectacular. We’ve played Red Rocks in lightning and thunder and it’s like a Shakespeare play. You are in the elements in Colorado with astounding beauty. Colorado’s been very good to us during our careers. We are always really happy to be back. To play someplace we’ve never played before and then go play at Red Rocks with Mary Chapin Carpenter? Yeah, (that’s a good weekend.)
Mawdsley: Do the Indigo Girls make a concerted effort to find venues or cities you have never visited before?
Saliers: We are always excited to go to a place we’ve never been before. We’ve got an agent, too, who does a tremendous job of finding places for us to play that work with our career.
Mawdsley: I read you were a wine collector. That’s appropriate for a stop here in Colorado wine country.
Saliers: I used to but I’m not anymore. My wine collecting came out of my restaurant ownership. To be honest, it’s quite an expensive habit, but… I have a real respect for that whole world. It’s not an easy thing. The people I know who grow grapes and make wine are farmers and the land is beautiful. I’ll be happy letting others enjoy the wine.
Mawdsley: You and Amy have separate interests outside the Indigo Girls. Talk to me about your interest in the restaurant industry.
Saliers: I grew up a foodie. I came into the world fascinated with food. I grew up eating around a dinner table with my family and Sunday after church. On Sundays, we had roast chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy and sat down and talked about what we were thinking about, maybe the sermon, social issues. I associate food with connecting to other people. Now, there’s a whole Slow Food Movement and everything having it’s own time. But I don’t work in the kitchen. I’m just a co-owner (of a restaurant.)
Mawdsley: I’m familiar with your music but not the story of you and Amy. When did you set your minds on performing as a duo?
Saliers: We decided we wanted to be a group in high school. We played our first professional gig at 15 years old. We got paid, got fake IDs, we learned a bunch of cover songs and little by little put our original music into sets. These were bars so people wanted to hear Jimmy Buffet and James Taylor. We both ended up graduating from Emory University. I thought about going to grad school to become a teacher, but by that time we already had a career. We were touring, getting regional air play. In 1985, we both fully committed to being Indigo Girls and haven’t looked back. ... It was so organic, really. We were both in chorus. We became good friends. It was something we had in common. We weren’t set up for failure or disappointment because all we did was want to get the next big gig. Getting signed to a major label was weird.
Mawdsley: Have you always had similar music interests or were there some serious discussions about the type of music you’d perform?
Saliers: We did have some discussion. Amy had the foresight to have us play in alternative rock clubs as well as folk club scenes. We plugged in but had more of a raw energy that made the strict folkies a bit uncomfortable. That was a really good move. Amy’s had a lot of influences: Patty Smith, The Clash, a lot of post-punk. She had a lot of that influence. I had a lot less.
Mawdsley: What was life like before the 1989 release of your self-titled album, the one where you won a 1990 Grammy for “Closer To Fine,” and what was life like after that?
Saliers: It was crazy for a while (after 1989). The first Epic record did really well. “Closer to Fine” did really well on the radio. The record went platinum and then won a Grammy and we were nominated for Best New Artist. It was a bit of a whirlwind and was anti to the rest of our lives. We were meeting famous people and really head-spinning. At the same time, Amy and I had more tension and conflict than we ever had before in our lives. We made a fast rule — no more than 3 1/2 weeks out on tour at a time. There was a time when we could sell 16,000 to 18,000 tickets to a show. Now we don’t do that anymore.
Mawdsley: More tension and conflict than ever before?
Saliers: I think we’d both been connected to each other that we both knew it wasn’t the way we wanted to live. We were not going to be a band that went out on the road for two months at a time to make more money and be famous. It just didn’t make us happy. We didn’t want a life like this. It was a great decision.
Mawdsley: I read that you play guitar, banjo, piano, mandolin, ukulele, bouzouki and many other instruments. First off, what’s a bouzouki?
Saliers: It’s sort of a Greek stringed instrument. It’s got four sets of two strings. It’s got a really nice droney sound.
Mawdsley: Second, how many other instruments are there to realistically play?
Saliers: (Laughing) I’m not playing trumpet or harp. Almost all of those are stringed instruments. I’m not a virtuoso at any instrument. I enjoy picking up different instruments. I sort of had a knack for it. I’m really into ukulele right now. I use a baritone uke right now. It takes me a place a guitar won’t.
Mawdsley: You talked a bit in your official bio about releasing “Beauty Queen Sister” in 2011 independently, without a major label, as a positive. Is that easy to say in hindsight or were you pretty confident and open-minded at the time?
Saliers: We were completely confident. By the time we came back around to being independent, the music industry had changed drastically. What was necessary to get a leg up when we started was no longer necessary. We had all the relationships we needed — promoters, radio stations, manager, publicist, agent — all the things necessary to get shows. It was just a matter of being fiscally responsible. The music has always fallen on our shoulders. We can do anything we want now. We don’t have to get permission.
Mawdsley: Was it your goal from the beginning to have your own IG Recordings company?
Saliers: I don’t think it’s the goal of every musician. I think there are a lot of musicians who don’t want to be independent and want someone else to run the show, but there are so many horror stories with companies. For us, especially with Amy, we started an independent record company right after we started. She was always independent-minded anyway. That was just her sensibility. For me, getting signed to Epic was a big deal. We had a long relationship with them, and it was pretty fruitful, but that ran its course.
Mawdsley: You talked about having control over your music, and the Indigo Girls have never shied away from singing about polarizing issues such as social issues or current events. Was that always a concerted effort of the group or were those just the type of songs that resonated most to you growing up?
Saliers: That’s exactly what it was. The first record I bought was Jackson 5 and was in love with Michael Jackson forever, but the first song I ever wrote was a protest song about pollution. Amy grew up listening to Neil Young and The Clash and they were bands that wrote about social issues and human interest, and a lot of it was polarizing, and that’s just the way we express things.
Mawdsley: Have you ever received backlash about your activism and personal beliefs? People who think musicians should just sing about breakups or partying on a Saturday night?
Saliers: I think there are plenty of people who feel that way but they aren’t really affecting us. The music I listen to is thought-provoking, or if it’s not, the music production is great. Justin Timberlake’s new album “The 20/20 Experience” is genius, but he’s not singing about social issues. For me, it’s a combination of lyrics in music. That’s the stuff I love.
Mawdsley: What do you credit for having that decades-long, successful career?
Saliers: A very deep friendship, similar values. We each bring something different to the group that keeps it interesting. We’re very different personalities so we’re not bored, and we’ve had a lot of great fortune along the way. We try to keep it interesting for ourselves and that’s what’s kept it interesting for our fans.