Interview: Emily Saliers

Here’s an odd revelation from me to all of you: I pretty much exclusively listen to the Indigo Girls. Yes, I’m a giant weirdo lesbian with a very strange preference for just one musical duo. But what a duo they are, right? Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. I mean, if I’m going to restrict myself with this kind of extremely specific fandom why not have it be dedicated to two massively talented women who over the course of 25 years have put out 14 studio albums and consistently toured? I get to see them perform live at least once a year and they never leave me wanting for new, amazing music. Their songs are full, solid efforts each and every single time. The instrumental capabilities, the harmonizing, and lyrics that leave me feeling like I just remembered who I am, what I can be, and why we are all here. I think the Indigo Girls are absolutely brilliant artists and I will forever be grateful to them for their contributions to music, activism, and – at the risk of sounding overly melodramatic here – my life. They are simply the kind of performers that make being a fan so fun. So, all that said, imagine how thrilled I was when “Beauty Queen Sister,” their latest release, arrived last month. In typical Amy and Emily fashion the album provides heart opening love songs, introspective commentaries on war and politics, and instant sing-along classics. Half way through my first listen of the 14 tracks I actually said “This music moves me,” out loud, to no one. 

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Emily about her 14th studio release with Amy and somehow managed to keep my personal adoration for her to myself… for the most part. Here, we talk about her songs, her convenient avoidance of fame, and our mutual love of dogs. As if I needed another reason to think she’s awesome.

CherryGRRL (CG): Congrats on the new album. It’s amazing, which is really no surprise at all. How does number 14 feel? That’s quite an accomplishment.

Emily Saliers (ES): Well it feels really good because, first of all, we’re independent – we don’t have a record label. We have Vanguard, who distributes it, and we love those guys. But we made it quickly and we brought in tremendous players, great musicians, and we were so inspired by what they played – like on violin or banjo or piano or whatever it is. We’re on the road right now and we’re so loving playing the new stuff. It’s being well received. So the answer is: we feel great.

CG: I’ve read that you commented that the creation of this album was more of an organic approach for you and Amy than with past releases. How so? What differed?

ES: I think the whole idea is to get the songs arranged between me and Amy, which we do firsthand, and then Peter Collins, the producer, came down and he tweaked some things and then basically we get in the studio with these awesome players and just play the songs. So in that sense, it’s completely organic. No tricks.

CG: You recorded Beauty Queen Sister in Nashville. Many years ago Rites of Passage featured the song “Nashville,” which if taken as a reflection of yours and Amy’s feelings about the city would lead listeners to believe that you didn’t have fond feelings for the music industry there. Can you speak to that and why you returned there with such a different perspective this time around?

ES: Well that’s one song in time and Amy wrote it… probably in 1983 or 84… so you’re talking about, you know, 20+ years. I think Nashville has changed a lot since then. Amy was in college there at Vanderbilt and just wasn’t well suited to the school and the school to her – but we love Nashville. And I particularly have taken a liking to it because politically it’s a blue city in a red state and you walk into a club and you hear the best country music or bluegrass or songwriting of your life. We have a bunch of friends there now, including Peter Collins, so I think that song is not reflective of our whole – even then – approach to Nashville. And now, personally, I have nothing but gratitude for a great city that is chock full of arts and good politics.

CG: I want to talk about a few of your songs off this new album. On “Able to Sing” you reference the deaths of the Arkansas red-winged blackbirds. “Still I see them in the night / with their blood red wings alight / while the rocket’s red glare – gives proof through the night – that something’s not right, something’s not right.” What are you commenting on there, through use of the blackbirds?

ES: The song started out inspired by the tragic death of all those birds. I woke up on July 5th two years ago and I heard the news about all those birds, and I love birds, personally… I love them all (laughs). I watch them and listen to them and think that they have great things to say to people even if we don’t understand it. And when all those birds died I was so sad and… struck. And then I started to read about it and what became interesting to me was that the scientists were on the case right away to explain, “well maybe the fireworks from July 4th caused their death…” It was determined that they died of blunt force trauma, all these things. But on the other hand there were a bunch of people thinking that it was an apocalyptic sign. So that song, in fact, is probably my favorite song of mine on the record, besides “Feed and Water the Horses.” It’s about a death that people freak out over and then try to explain really quickly, as fast as they can. It’s about just being “Able to Sing” – being free to sing after you’ve died, or if you’re “baked in a pie,” like the children’s rhyme. “Some days are fairytales” like the wedding… all those references like the fireworks that related to our national anthem and war… It’s quite a complex song but it sprung initially from a deep sadness that all those birds had died.

CG: You mentioned “Feed and Water the Horses,” which is another one I wanted to discuss with you.  Aside from just being another beautifully written and executed song there was a point made there by you about technology and questioning whether it’s “the beginning of the end” or a “reinvention of the wheel.”

ES: I don’t think that song is a commentary on whether it’s this or that. The question is: “Is it a reinvention of the wheel?” or “Is it the end?” I don’t know, as a 48-year-old woman, when I’m asked the question. The one thing that that song does say is if you have any sort of spiritual or greater than you guide, take care of it. Be in relationship with it in the midst of all these questions. And that’s exactly what that song is about.

CG: And “We Get to Feel it All” was a favorite of mine. What are you saying about love in that one?

ES: Well the crux of the song is “We get to feel it all” – June to October, all the months, all the weather changes, and whatever you experience…you get to feel it all. And I’ve always believed – like harkening back to a song like “All That We Let In” – it’s like whatever comes in is meant to come in, and it’s all good. (continued on next page)

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