The Sun spoke over the phone with Emily Saliers from the Indigo Girls about inspiration for her music, her political activism and her work with Amy Ray.
The Sun: You and Amy [Ray] have known each other for a really long time, since elementary school, in fact. Was there a specific time, like a bonding moment out in the playground during recess, when you two became buddies for life?
Emily Saliers: It wasn’t out on the playground during recess ... I was always aware of that other girl that played guitar. We went to the same high school, and we were in chorus together, that’s when we became best friends. We both played guitar, wrote songs, loved music, so we just started to get together, and it was immediately the funnest thing in the entire world I had ever done. We first played for our English class, and then right after that, we got fake IDs and played our first professional gig in [the] 1980’s, so we were babies.
Sun: You and Amy often write your music separately. How do you arrange the music together so that it becomes something distinctive to the Indigo Girls as opposed to you or Amy?
E.S.: We always write our songs separately and I think that’s been one of the keys to our being able to stick together … that really creative independence and freedom and vulnerability at the very core where … the song begins. We’re not able to write together, we’ve tried it before. But we are able to arrange together. It’s kind of a brainstorming session where we talk about, “Do I want to play ukulele on this? Or should it be a harmonica? Or should we play it on electric guitar?”
Sun: You play the ukulele — I was just playing the ukulele today, in fact.
E.S.: Oh, I love the ukulele! I got my first ukulele when I visited Hawaii and I got a handmade ukelele there. And I just loved it … different instruments [can] take you in a different direction with a song. And now, all of a sudden, the ukulele got really popular. I think it can be quite a haunting instrument … Amy has an old ukulele that I think her aunt owned, or someone in her family, and that’s what she wanted me to try on her song, “Share the Moon.” So ukulele features prominently in our lives.
Sun: Are there elements in your music that appeal to some listeners more than others? “Closer to Fine” was your first hit, and since then you’ve had a number of successful singles; do you think “Closer to Fine” was more accessible for a wider audience?
E.S.: I think “Closer to Fine” has a standard chorus, a verse; it’s structurally pretty accessible, I’d say. We don’t think of ourselves as a band with hit songs though, you know ... I think the ones that really stick around for a long, long time are the ones that people can sing with, like “Shame on You.” Everybody sings with that, and fortunately for us, we’re able to ruminate our life and get it in the form of a contract for a pop song. But we write a lot of obscure songs, too, and a lot of the time, those are the ones that resonate the most. Some of the old, obscure ones … are quite satisfying to write in their obscurity. But I personally don’t think, when I’m writing a song, “Are people going to like this? Are they going to take to it?” I don’t think Amy does either.
Sun: As an outspoken gay rights activist, do you feel there has been substantial progress for gay rights over the past few years?
E.S.: There is no doubt there’s been substantial progress. I know there are a lot of haters who are like “Who cares about Obama? He hasn’t given us what we wanted.” I don’t feel that way, I think the Obama administration certainly has done more for queer rights than any other administration … He’s come out to support gay marriage, which was huge. And not to implement DOMA and discriminatory policies against gays and lesbians. It’s unfathomable, really, to think that that would happen ten years ago. And it was Bill Clinton who signed DOMA into law, and I love Bill Clinton, but that was a grievous misstep, in my opinion.
My partner is Canadian and we have a lot of issues around the immigration, and it’s very scary to think that your only option is to leave your country. And then I look at the U.S., when so many other countries that have legalized gay marriage and I think, “Why are we still behind?” But it’s one of those things ... people who don’t support queer rights think that they’re really on the wrong side of history and they have to search their hearts and see what the big deal is about, that it’s about human rights. So, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go. The Supreme Court’s decisions in the next year or year and a half are going to completely paint the picture. If the Supreme Court doesn’t protect our civil rights, it may be another ten years before they get their view in the court. So, it’s a critical time.
Sun: Did you have anything else you wanted to say?
E.S.: Well, we’re psyched to be back in Ithaca! It’s such a beautiful town and Cornell is so beautiful … The Shadowboxers are an awesome band, and they’re opening the show … I guess the only other thing is that tell everybody to register and vote.
Indigo Girls play the State Theatre on October 30.