Writer’s Block: Indigo Girls on Their Songwriting Evolution

First meeting in elementary school, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers began performing while in high school in Decatur, Georgia, going by a number of different names before landing on Indigo Girls in 1985. The folk duo released their debut Strange Fire in 1987 and a self-titled follow-up in 1989, which won them a 1990 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Now 15 albums out, the Indigo Girls had just released their latest album, Look long, when the pandemic hit in 2020, and were forced to cancel their tour. Ray and Saliers have teamed up with members of their backing band as well as star guests from around the world to create a special career-spanning concert, Look for a long time: togetherwhich was recorded in Atlanta at 800 East Studio and Brighter Shade Studios, owned by John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band.

On Look long, Brady Blue laid down the drums from his home in Stockholm, Sweden; guitarist Jeff Fielder added electric rhythm guitars, dobro slide guitar, and Seattle mandolin; keyboardist Carol Isaacs and bassist Clare Kenny sent tracks from London, England; violinist Lyris Hung recorded from New York. In the film, everyone was broadcasting from anywhere in the world: London, Stockholm and Seattle.

“We were so disappointed with this summer tour because the band we had put together was our dream band,” Ray said. American songwriter earlier this year. “These are people who were our barometers, our musical parameters in life, and we were just excited because we hadn’t toured with a band in a long time. Everything was going to fall into place and it was a mix of all the people we’ve enjoyed playing with over the years.

Continuing to work on individual solo projects and new Indigo Girls material, Saliers and Ray spoke with American songwriter on how they’ve “gotten better” at songwriting, staying connected to the inspirations and stories around them, and the longevity of the Indigo Girls.

American Songwriter: Now that you’ve been doing this for over 35 years, do you feel like the songs come to you the same way? How has this evolved over the years?

Amy Ray: I hope I’m doing better. I was really faking it until I did back then. I was so young and didn’t know much and was too precious at times, and didn’t want to listen to what other people had to say about writing or producing. And I learned a lot. Now my writing has changed in that I’m just willing to take it apart and reduce it to its minimal state, what works and what doesn’t, and really be willing to drop things and not not lean on sentiment and try to be objective. I have a few people that I really trust, other songwriters and producers that I’m going to turn to and say “I’m having trouble with this, what do you think?” I never would have done this 20 years ago, but my process has changed a bit. I’m just more open to criticism and always up for editing stuff. I also have more curiosity about it. I don’t see it as a bad day when I have to lose a chorus or change a bridge. I just think of it as a curiosity of “what would happen if I did that instead”.

Music is meant to be fun. Have fun with it. Play with it. Change the chords. Use a minor instead of a major and see what happens. Just be curious. It doesn’t have to be so heavy. You don’t have to be so precious about everything. This is not the end of the world. You are a songwriter. You are not like waging war in Ukraine. You are supposed to provide refuge and a sort of respite for people. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the hard stuff. It just means that you have to tell the story in a way that isn’t so hard for people to understand.

Emilie Saliers: The only difference between today and decades ago is that we both have some kind of diet where we go to our “office”, much like a day job. When I was very young, I always wrote. The muse was always visiting. Now it’s a bit more about building songs with discipline and focus. I think I grew up as a writer. I think maybe I wrote songs that are pretty good a long time ago. I feel more consistently like the writer I want to be, and I become that writer.

You also continue to be influenced by other artists, art, life and things happening in the world. There is always something to inspire you. We both still feel very inspired to write.

Indigo Girls (Photo: Jeremy Cowert)

AS: It seems that both of you are still very influenced by what’s going on around you and inside of you, and you can transfer that into the lyrics.. What else inspires you now?

ES: Amy lives in a rural area and draws a lot of inspiration from what she sees around her in the natural world. I dig a lot into my past to find stuff for songs, but one of the ways I like to grow as a writer is to listen to other people’s stories and write about them as if they were the mine. I really like Bonnie Raitt’s new album [Just Like That…]. This song about the guy who shows up with his son’s heart [“Just Like That”]. You wouldn’t know it was someone else’s story. I think his new album is his best. I’ve listened to all of his music and I love it, but this song is an example of what I’d like to do more of as a writer, take someone else’s story and make it my own.

AS: When do you know that a song resonates with the others?

ES: You can tell when a song resonates emotionally with an audience. I feel the greatest gratitude for the people who come to our shows and stay with us. There are always people who really want to hear the old stuff, and that’s cool. I understand that. Sometimes when I go to see one of my favorite bands I want to hear the songs I knew, grew up with and shaped my life, but our fans were also especially interested in hearing new things. They kind of grew up with our music and live with our music, and that keeps us playing and they keep coming back to gigs, so we’re really grateful for the longevity.

AS: Now that the songs of Look long are out, what’s next individually and for Indigo Girls?

ES: I’m working on two different musicals, so most of my current writing is geared towards that, but Amy and I have started talking about when we’ll do our next album. Basically, I set aside some time for myself, and then I focus all my efforts on writing my songs for the next Indigo Girls album.

AR: I just finished doing a solo record. I have a country band and started doing solo records in 2000 – punk and rock stuff, then moved to country. The things I was writing about after Look long was informed by dismantling racism. Some of them have also been informed by just trying to write a comfort record, like having cross-division camaraderie due to all the COVID isolation. Then some of them were informed by things like climate change. Nothing is literal. These are just pictures and stories because the country [music] is different. It’s about so many stories, so I wanted to write a record that was about healing and about people knowing they weren’t alone.

I write all the time. During the pandemic I lived in the woods on 80 acres and had absolute heaven. I was just with my family in a bubble. I built a treehouse and used my father’s tools. He is dead [in 2013]but it also made me think of him and I wanted to write about him.

Main photo: Rounder Records

About Joan J. Hernandez

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