Able to sing: an interview with Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls
Thu. May 30, 2013 by Gregg Shapiro
I think playing a queer fest is especially meaningful with the Supreme Court considering its cases and immigration law, which affects my life personally
Not content to rest on their laurels, Saliers and Ray have continued to evolve as songwriters and performers on more recent albums, including the double disc set "Poseidon and the Bitter Bug" and 2011's dazzling "Beauty Queen Sister." I spoke with Emily about the newer album and about the Indigo Girls' return to Milwaukee Pridefest on June 8. Their previous appearance there a few years ago was cut short due to rain, so let's hope Mother Nature cooperates with clear skies and warm temperatures.
Gregg Shapiro: The "Beauty Queen Sister" CD artwork, by Joseph Peery, has a tattoo-style to it. Tattoos also appear in the title cut (reference to "ink" and hearing "the needle whisper") and "War Rugs" (both of which were written by Indigo Girl Amy Ray). Do you have any tattoos to speak of?
ES: (Emily Saliers) I do have two small tattoos. One on my left inner wrist and one on my right inner wrist.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Do they say something special or are they images?
ES: One is an image of infinity and the other is an initial. They're small. Amy is quite tatted; you may know that. You're probably less likely to find me writing about tattoos than Amy. But I do have my two small ones. I'm pretty sure I'm going to get more. I like tattoos and I like the thought that goes into wanting to put a piece of art or a remembrance permanently (on your skin) that is with you wherever you go. I'm an admirer of good tattoos.
GS: You have a reputation for writing beautiful and distinctive love songs and "We Get To Feel It All" is no exception. Do those kinds of songs come easier to you or are they harder to write?
ES: They're so easy! I swear, I fight myself over them sometimes. If all I had to do was write pretty love songs, it wouldn't take that much effort for me. (Although) lyrics are always tough. I definitely am drawn to a pretty melody first and then an emotional lyric about love and personal relationships. When I want to stretch myself I have to go outside of that. That's my oeuvre, my natural thing to go to.
GS: You co-wrote the song "Gone" with Annie Roboff, with whom you also collaborated on "Hope Alone" on the "Become You" disc. As a songwriter known for writing songs on your own, what do you like about collaboration and collaborating with Annie?
ES: Annie is a very old friend, a dear friend. She teaches me a lot about writing because no one can write a bridge like Annie. I started writing these skeletal, musical parts of "Gone" very long ago and she and I sat down and wrote the body of it. It always stuck with me. I sing it at sound checks. So I went back to Annie's house when I was visiting and we wrote it. She wrote that great bridge. She knows how to connect sections musically, which isn't something that I'm not as good at. She co-wrote the song "This Kiss" for Faith Hill and she's written or co-written an amazing number of songs for other people. She's kind of like a mentor to me. Because she's a good friend I really enjoy that process and I admire her gifts. She's so musical. I like co-writing.
I really like it with Annie and I've dabbled in it a lot. In some ways it holds you back, if you're used to writing on your own. In some ways it expands what you're capable of. For instance, in the song "Hope Alone," the chorus and the word "you," (sings) "You looking for your distance."
I never would have stretched out the word "you" before. She taught me that you don't have to fill every word with a beat. That's something I have to work against doing naturally. I need to just shut up a little bit [laughs] and stretch it out.
GS: "Able to Sing" is a song about a wedding. Have you written or been asked to write any songs for a same-sex wedding?
ES: Yes, I have! Two of my very best friends got married a couple of years ago. I wrote a song for their wedding. It was a beautiful experience. I'm going to record it and give them a special copy of it when I get to it. I've written songs for straight weddings before as well, but that was really special because they were my friends and it was very easy to access imagery knowing their history and being around their love and things like that. But "Able To Sing" has a lot going on in it. It's about the wedding, but it was really inspired by the death of all the Red-winged Blackbirds on the Fourth of July and the ensuing dialogue between scientists and people of faith and how people want to explain bizarre things that happen. That got me thinking about the Fourth of July and patriotism and blood and faith and all kinds of stuff. I was really on a roll with that one. It's one of my favorites of mine on the record, if not my very favorite.
GS: It's one I've also returned to repeatedly. In recent years, Duncan Sheik and Green Day, among others, have created well-received musicals for the Broadway stage. Is it possible that there might be an Indigo Girls musical down the line if there isn't already one in the works?
ES: It's something that I've always had an interest in and my interest gets stronger especially following the symphony shows. We've been playing with symphonies mostly in the states and across North America. When you hear your songs in symphonic arrangements it made me realize that they are able to be applied to a different incarnation. That made me think that it would be really fun to write music for a musical. Nothing's in the works yet, although we have been invited to be part of a musical performance of a playwright coming up soon in New York.
For our own thing it's probably something that will happen down the line, I would say. With Amy or I'll just do it myself.
GS: It's interesting that you mention the symphonic setting. A lot of artists have gone into the studio and re-recorded their songs with a symphony, as Joni Mitchell did with her "Travelogue" and "Both Sides Now" discs.
ES: I was just reading about Joni Mitchell last night and that very thing, about the ballet she was doing in Alberta (Canada). The answer is yes. We are recording a symphonic album with the Birmingham Symphony. We are doing that the first week of June, this summer. That will be done and probably out if not by the end of the year than the beginning of next year.
GS: Look at that – we are on the same wavelength!
ES: [Laughs] I know! Totally!
GS: The Indigo Girls are headlining the Milwaukee Pridefest on June 8. What does it mean you to be performing at an event such as that?
ES: We've done it before we had an absolute blast. But there was a huge thunderstorm and we had to quit early, which was a bummer. It was a few years ago and it was really fun. We often go to the city of Milwaukee and we're really good friends with (queer Wisconsin duo) Mrs. Fun. They're good friends of ours and we always try to rope them in somehow. The other thing is that the movement for rights for our communities, it's quite dynamic what's going on right now. There's a lot of positive change and there's a lot of chance for change which hasn't happened yet. I think playing a queer fest is especially meaningful with the Supreme Court considering its cases and immigration law, which affects my life personally because my partner is Canadian. Pride fests are always a celebration, but particularly poignant and galvanizing this year in the context of what's happening politically and socially.
GS: I'm so glad that you mentioned the political and social aspects. Indigo Girls have made a name for themselves as outspoken activists. With the policies of conservative Republican governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin, and the state capitol Madison, became the site of a number of protests and political actions. Were you and Amy able to take part in any of the rallies or protests?
ES: We weren't involved in those specifically. We were hoping that Mr. Walker came down [laughs], but it didn't turn out that way. It's not party versus party but ideology versus ideology -- there's always, for me, a welcomed reaction to Scott Walker's policies and what happened in Wisconsin. What we deal with, specifically in Wisconsin, through our group Honor Earth, we do a lot of environmental justice work. We work with indigenous peoples, particularly across the Americas, and there are a lot of mining issues in Wisconsin, historically and currently. When Pridefest is over were planning on coming back to the area and focusing on some of those issues.
The Indigo Girls rock Milwaukee PrideFest, Sat. June 8 at 10:30 p.m.
The Indigo Girls join the nation's largest showcase of LGBT entertainment, including Friday night headliner Andy Bell of Erasure, as well as God-Des & She, Sophie B. Hawkins, ABBA Salute, Big Bad Gina, Bad Romance, the Wisconsin Royalty Drag Show, the Windy City Beauties, Furrlesque, Chicago legends DJ Teri Bristol and Psycho Bitch, and many, many more.
Visit PrideFest.com for more information.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.