Thirty Years On, The Indigo Girls Continue To Grow With Beauty Queen Sister
By Peter Zimmerman
December 19, 2011
Earlier this year, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, otherwise known as the Indigo Girls, released their fourteenth studio album Beauty Queen Sister. After having been together for almost thirty years, their consistent drive to refine their sound and write songs that merge the personal and political spheres marks their relevance as a duo in the pop/folk world. After many of their contemporaries have either fallen away or stopped trying to push the envelope, the Indigo Girls continue to try and find new ways to expand their aesthetic and experiment.
Glide Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with Amy Ray about the writing and recording of the newest album, as well as her feelings about the role of activism in their work, her relationship with Emily Saliers as songwriters, what it’s like to balance her Indigo Girls and solo work and why she doesn’t play “Blood and Fire” anymore.
Amy, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today about your new Indigo Girls record, Beauty Queen Sister-- the fourteenth studio album with musical partner Emily Saliers. I want to start off talking about the new material and how it came into being. Would you walk me through the lifespan of these songs-- where they came from, and what compelled this specific set of songs?
Oh God, that is always a big question. (laughs) Emily and I write separately, so a lot of times what’s going on in our lives is similar because we’re touring together, but on our off time we’re not really checking in with each other to get a sense of what each of us is writing. So, we write on our own and then come together to see if it makes sense as a whole. That’s part of the process of arranging the songs and finding out what will work on the record.
For me, these songs are a smattering of personal experiences and then different stuff that either my friends have inspired me to write or a response to current affairs. There wasn’t one motivating road that I was on. I was just writing on a sort of day-to-day schedule, just picking up what was coming in. Musically, I was really trying to focus on melody. I was specifically working on my craft of song-writing, trying to tighten things up. The last song on the album “Yoke” is definitely fairly self-indulgent (laughs), and “Damo” is kind of the same way, but with the rest of the stuff I was focusing on taking an initial song that I was inspired to write and then trying to mold it and really learn from mentors that I have about song-writing, incorporating in what they’ve taught me.
I don’t really know what Emily’s impetus was. It’s funny, but we don’t actually communicate about that stuff-- it’s a kind of unspoken thing between us. But, definitely her song-writing had, in my opinion, upped the ante, as quality goes. When I heard what she was coming up with, I was very impressed and felt I had to double down on my efforts. When I first started out with material for this record, I sent some ideas to Peter [Collins, Beauty Queen Sister’s producer] and he sent me back an email saying essentially, “You need to work more…” (laughs) He rejected the first batch, thankfully, because they’re not as good or as formed as they needed to be. And then I heard Emily’s songs and realized that I had to go back to the drawing board and work a little bit harder. It’s good to have that happen, though.
You’ve released quite a few records as a solo act, in between other Indigo Girls albums, and it’s definitely in more of a punk rock, roots-based sound. When you sit down to write a song, do you have a barometer in your mind where you can tell if it’s going to be an Amy Ray song or an Indigo Girls song?
I know pretty early on in the process. I can hear Emily’s voice in my head when I’m writing if it’s an Indigo Girls song. It becomes quite clear to me what the collaboration take would be. When it’s an Amy Ray song now, because I play with a lot of the same core musicians on records or even touring, I can hear what they’re going to do, too. There’s stuff I just know is the other part of my psyche-- it’s innate at some point. I actually was working on a solo record at the same time I was working on Beauty Queen Sister, and now my solo record is being mixed and will come out later. So, songs like “Share the Moon,” “Making Promises” and “Beauty Queen Sister” were written in North Carolina while I was working on my solo record. I would go home late at night after working and recording the solo material, and I’d stay up late and write the Indigo Girls songs until 3 AM or something.
That’s a pretty intense work ethic.
I know it sounds like it is, but it really isn’t that tough, because it’s those times where I feel really musical. Because I’ve been sitting with the producer who works with me on the solo material, he’s such a great songwriter as well that after spending the day with him, I’m totally inspired and I try to capture and tap into all that creativity that’s in my brain from working with him. It’s not like I get up at 8 AM, either-- I like to sleep until noon. (laughs) It’s just a different schedule.
A couple of songs come to mind, like “Sugar Tongue” and “Ghost of the Gang,” where you started performing them solo before ever adding in Emily. Are there pieces of your solo songs that Emily reaches out to you and says, “I know you want to put that on your next solo album, but I want to do this song together?”
Yeah, it happens… but she’s very careful and polite about the whole thing. She’ll overhear me singing a song at soundcheck and she’ll be like, “I don’t really want to ask, but can we do that song together?” Or she’ll say something like, “I hope that’s an Indigo Girls song!” And that makes me feel awesome, because she doesn’t say anything if she doesn’t hope it’s an Indigo Girls song (laughs). It makes me feel really good when she says that. And she definitely does reach out and give me some comments, and we ask each other for feedback about certain things with our songs, just checking in now and then with something that we’re really questioning.
And she has songs that are solo that she’s never recorded that she’ll play during soundcheck, and I’ll reach out to her and say, “You should really consider letting us do that because that’s a hit right there,” and she’ll balk and say, “I cant-- I’m saving it!”
It seems to me that Poseidon and the Bitter Bug was very much a back-to-basics record where you and Emily pulled from your Indigo Girls roots and made an album that made that sound fresh. On Beauty Queen Sister, though, I think it’s your most adventurous album since Come On Now Social-- in terms of the breadth of the work, and it’s very much departure in its experimentation. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, I would actually. And I think that’s because even though we worked with Peter Collins again after Come On Now Social, and that’s way after he’d produced Rites of Passage and Swamp Ophelia, we really intentionally did something that wasn’t as adventurous and kept it in the acoustic realm with a certain side of what we do, which became Become You. It was good for the time, I think. And then we worked with Mitchell Froom on the next two albums (Despite Our Differences and Poseidon), who really focuses on melody, and was just a brilliant producer. But we weren’t necessarily pushing the envelope-- we were just trying to represent songs. But I do think on Beauty Queen Sister that we had this new intention to branch out, and we spoke to Peter about it early on. I told Peter to help us make the Rites of Passage for 2011, because when we made that in 1991 and 1992, that was a huge step up for us, in that it was way more adventurous than anything we’d done before it.
Not that being adventurous is all that’s important to making a record-- certainly not. But, we did reach out to him and want this approach, so we focused on the players. We ended up with two different rhythm sections, which made the record a lot broader, because we had one section that was more like percussion and stand-up bass oriented, and then the other rhythm section was Brady Blade, who is a crazy punk man, and a new bass player that really stretched us, because he’s quite amazing and really dictated many of the directions of the recording sessions with the parts he’d come up with for the songs. Luke Bula, the violin player, is someone we had on the holiday record (Happy Holly Days, 2010), and he really stretches things, because his melodic sense is so keen and really takes the songs to a different level, and then Carol Isaacs on keyboards, accordion and vibraphone would come up to us and ask if we wanted, for example, accordion on a certain song that Emily and I hadn’t imagined having it, and she’d try something where she pushed for a sound that I wouldn’t have thought would come out of an instrument. For me, I realized I had to let the musicians do their own thing, because they were really coming up with these ideas that were superlative, and in many ways better than anything I could come up with.
We spent quite a while arranging, but we only spent two weeks or so recording in the studio. There was that thing that happens when you do a lot of live recording, where the band is really brought out of their skin, because they have to really play it tight and live. For me what makes the record so good is the players-- they’re just phenomenal. I wish we could take all of them on the road with us.
I like how you fit in some more “traditional” sounding Indigo Girls songs, like “John” and “Feed and Water the Horses” with some stuff that just really changes the game-- stuff we’ve never really heard from you-- like “Damo” and “Yoke.” Those first two are Emily songs and the last two are yours. What was the conversation between you and Emily in reconciling all of these songs?
A song like “Damo” came later, because I’d already worked on that song with John Reynolds, who produced Come On Now Social, and together we’d been working via email on “Damo,” where I’d send him the song and he’d send me a loop, where I was using my 8-track machine and he was doing things digitally, and so we created this piece that, as the record developed, became something that I wanted to bring to the table even though it was pretty much finished, because I felt it could add this other element that was needed for the album, soundscape-wise. And Emily’s always open-minded with things like that-- she definitely is not only open but interested in hearing those sorts of things.
And with “Yoke,” it was somewhat similar, in that we’d gotten fairly deep into the song selection process for the record, and I’d written “Yoke” but was sort of unsure about it. I ended up sending it to Peter just saying that I thought it’d be a nice moment where we just let the song be and not try and have another pop song sort of thing. So for me and Emily, towards the end of choosing the material, we start to look at the totality of the project, having the conversation of how the songs fit or need to fit together, and then asking questions about refining pieces, like debating putting a loop in “John” and wondering how that’ll effect the song(s). We just talk through all that stuff, but the majority of the bridge between our conversation and the end process is the producer, so Peter was vital for that. We go to them and often defer to them, because that helps keeps us together and also keeps the songs in sync. Emily and I are so different, and we definitely produce each other’s songs in a very different way, but in the end I always like what happens, but it’s often not my first impulse.
Were there songs that you wrote for Beauty Queen Sister that didn’t make the album? Do you usually have b-sides from your projects?
There were four songs of mine that I mentioned were rejected early on by Peter, and I had initially intended them to be on the record. But, I’d probably rework them if they were ever going to see the light of day. There’s something in them that works, but they’re not evolved enough for me.
In terms of Emily, I don’t think there’s anything else from her. There’s a few songs that she wrote around the same time, but they weren’t intended for Beauty Queen Sister. We edited ourselves as we were writing, in that we’d send a song to Peter or each other and discuss the piece, debating how it stacked up to the other tracks, and so we’d pick and choose, or even throw things out early. There were some that we’d do did that were half-finished but we’d abandon because they just weren’t as good as the other ones we were writing.
I want to step back for a moment and discuss some more general Indigo Girls topics. There are certain beloved songs from your catalogue that you never play anymore, like “Blood and Fire,” “Keeper of My Heart,” “I Don’t Wanna Know,” “Let Me Go Easy,” and until a couple of years ago, “Fugitive.” Is there a reason they don’t make appearances anymore, especially given how adored they are?
“Keeper of My Heart,” hmmm… that’s one of those songs that is just so in and of the moment that it doesn’t really translate that well anymore. “Blood and Fire” just feels really overwrought sometimes. I’ve sung it on a couple of really special occasions, like for my girlfriend’s birthday because she’d always wanted to hear it, or for Michigan’s Womyn’s Festival, (laughs), and I don’t know. With that one, I sometimes do think of pulling it out when I hear someone cover it, and I think “Oh, I could do that and it could be more Leonard Cohen and understated, rather than yelling in desperation.”
I’d love to see a project where you and Emily retrospectively look back at your catalogue, to see how you’d approach and perform some of your older songs now in 2011. Keeping the same lyrics and chords, it’d be pretty intriguing to see where Amy Ray is, or could be, now with a song like “Blood and Fire.”
That’s definitely something to think about (laughs).
“Let Me Go Easy” is an intensely spiritual song of yours that came out of the Rarities era and yet quickly became a highly regarded piece among your other Indigo Girls work. Will we ever see a studio version of that, or just the live one from Rarities?
You might… but I don’t know. It’s a song that we sing in that spirit every now and then, like a good friend of ours that passed away or something. We pull it out for sacred reasons, so to speak. I really like that song in that Grateful Dead kind of way-- it has a certain spirit to it, and I wrote it for a few people who passed away that were huge activists and the ideas still stick with me. So that’s definitely a vote of confidence for the song.
We definitely tried to do it in the studio-- first with a band and it felt disingenuous, so we approached it acoustically and it didn’t feel right that way, but then when we went at it from a live duo point of view, it really worked. So, it’s a difficult question of how to do it and not have it betray the song.
Is there one thing that you feel the press ignores about the Indigo Girls that you wish they wouldn’t?
No, not really (laughs). I think the press that we get now is really respectful and talks fundamentally about the music. There was a time that was really frustrating where the only thing the press talked about was the lesbian phenomenon about the Indigo Girls. I can understand why, because we’re huge activists in that realm, but now it feels like it’s come around to this more “mature” place where we don’t get as much press, but the press that do get is so respectful, conversational and nice, really. I feel like people have, in the last few years especially, really noticed how long we’ve been together and that perseverance factor, which translates into discussions about songwriting, and generally I think that’s been a great thing, so I definitely feel satisfied.