Inside the Indigo Girls' Tennessee takeover

The Indigo Girls are everywhere. First, Amy Ray brought her solo country album Goodnight Tender to 3rd and Lindsley at the end of April. Then, just last week Amy Ray and Emily Saliers played the Thistle Stop Café as part of the organization’s fundraising Thursday night music series. And before their anticipated headlining performance at Knoxville Pride on June 21, the ladies will take the stage at the immaculate Schermerhorn Symphony Center with the Nashville Symphony on Friday, May 23.

We caught up with Emily Saliers to talk about those outfits from their bar band days, the Indigo Girls’ activism over their career and how much work there is still left do.

Out &About Nashville: Welcome back to Nashville! Let’s start simple. What’s your favorite place to play in Nashville?

Emily Saliers: I have to say the Ryman. It’s so full of history. When you stand on that stage it’s hard to believe you’re standing where so many have stood before. It feels pretty intimate and when the crowd is into it there’s a great energy created.

O&AN: What’s the difference between playing a show like Knoxville Pride versus a show at the Schermerhorn with the Nashville Symphony?

ES: It’s interesting because at Knoxville Pride we’re playing with a band. We’ll probably write a pretty upbeat set and rock out a bit. The symphony shows are completely different. It’s not quite as raucous as a normal Indigo Girls show but it gets close because we’re all excited. But the set is preplanned because we can only do so many songs with the orchestra. They get the scores and we do a two and a half hour rehearsal that day. It’s intense. The other shows are more spontaneous.

O&AN: I love that you post your set lists on Facebook.

ES: We make a different set list every night. We’ve been doing that forever and ever and posting them for a long time as well.

O&AN: You guys have a pretty good handle on technology and seem to have weathered other changes in the industry really well.

ES: We’ve seen the industry change completely. Back when we were signed to Epic, major labels were nurturing the life of bands like us and that just doesn’t happen anymore. When we became independent again, by that time we had developed all the relationships we needed. I think because we’ve always had a good team, we’re not trying to chase any trends. It’s tighter, financially, but because we have such a loyal following we can play the same cities again and again and people come to the shows. We’re so fortunate. We’ve been able to build a really grassroots career over the years.

O&AN: You guys started a great Tumblr blog that I love. What brought about you starting a Tumblr?

ES: Our manager was talking to us about doing a book and other artists have done books. But we didn’t want to do it like, “This is the end of our career and we’re looking back.” We still feel like we have a lot of time and music left in us. We thought the blog would be a good way to give people who are interested a taste of our history without having to pay for it. When the time comes we’ll collect pieces, maybe interesting and fun pictures that no one else would be able to get their hands on, things like that. The blog was sort of a way to create that for people for free. I have really enjoyed doing the blog. It’s a lot of work and in some ways it is quite intense. Amy and I put a lot of work and thought into it. We’re going back and combing through our history. It’s been a great thing to do.

O&AN: I also love looking at your outfits on the Tumblr. Did you ever try to dress a certain way back then?

ES: Oh, god, no. I look back at those pictures and wish I had a stylist. They’re terrible, the things I wore: shorts with a blazer, striped shirts with high-waisted jeans, hi-tops. Just god-awful hairstyles. So the answer to that is no. [laughs] We were a bar band. We just showed up in a bar dressed in what we normally wore.

O&AN: I know exactly how you feel.

ES: My favorite thing now is just to wear black t-shirts and black jeans. I’m wearing red shoes right now.

O&AN: I’m also wearing red shoes. Converse hi-tops.

ES: They’re the greatest.

O&AN: You guys each have a lot going on. Amy has the solo career and her own label, you have a restaurant and your writing. How do you guys stay balanced and find time to maintain Indigo Girls?

ES: Indigo Girls has always been fed by the fact that we have autonomous lives. The fact that we nurture those keeps it great when we’re together. We’re like a Yin Yang. Both Amy and I have a drive to keep things interesting. It’s why sometimes we play as a duo, sometimes as a band, play with the symphonies, do the blog... We try to stay on top of growing. We’ve learned different instruments through the years. The way to find balance for us is not to put too much into Indigo Girls by overextending our time and energy. Collectively, we’ve found a good balance. Who knows why; it’s kind of a mystery.

O&AN: I don’t think it’s a mystery, I think you guys are smart.

ES: We don’t go out on the road for a month like some bands. We just can’t do it. We burn out. We’re both family people; we want to get home to our families. We’ve found a way to work it out.

O&AN: I want to talk a little about your activism. You just did a show benefiting Thistle Farms here in Nashville, you played a Keystone pipeline protest in DC, and Honor the Earth is at least 20 years old now. How has your focus on activism changed over the years?

ES: The one good thing is we’ve been able to network over the years and find people who are incredibly motivating and inspirational activists and mentors. That just comes from being around a long time, running into people at other events, and learning about new issues. Like anything else in life, the more you do it the better you become. I think we’ve become more effective activists. We don’t want to just throw a performance at a cause. We want to make sure the cause is connected to the community and that it’s going to have a positive effect and not just kind of be like, “Well we did that and now it’s over.” We tend to stay connected to the causes we’re involved in. Early on, we decided with Honor the Earth that we couldn’t be environmentalists without looking through the indigenous lens because of their connectivity to the earth and life forces like water and air. That was a no brainer. All the issues inform our music and our lives. We’ve just gotten better at it. We’ve come across incredible people who continue to guide us and they just kind of passed the torch along.

O&AN: Speaking of torch-passing, gay representation and female representation is so prominent in the news today with Michael being drafted and the presidential election in 2016. Why is it important to you guys to remain active in the queer community?

ES: There are still people who are being killed for being gay or being beaten up or being ostracized. There’s a lot of suffering. The suicide rate for queer youth is astronomically higher than other demographics. There’s still a lot of pain. So many states still haven’t legalized marriage and still have sodomy laws on the books. There are class issues within the queer community; we need to fully embrace the trans community. There’s just a lot of work to be done. On a very simple level, if we can make life easier or someone else’s path to fully being dignified in their sexuality and whole personhood, then that’s an awesome thing and we’re happy to be there.

O&AN: Do you think your career would have been different if there had been more gay voices in the media when you were starting out?

ES: I think so. But before homophobia there’s sexism. That’s at the heart of the issue: how women are perceived, treated, and handled in a male-dominated society and business. We believe in the spiritual power and force of women and what women are capable of. I’d rather be on the side of that kind of change than the most powerful rich woman in the world who’s placed in a male paradigm of what success is. So it’s all good. There’s a lot of pain and a lot of work to be done but we’re where we want to be and who we want to be.

Click here for tickets to the Indigo Girls with the Nashville Symphony. For more information about Knoxville Pride, click here.

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