“When I hear the symphony come in, it’s a convergence of a lot of feelings,” says Emily Saliers, one-half of the iconic Indigo Girls. “First, you can’t believe your good fortune that it’s really happening, and then you’re hit with the power of this enormous, full orchestra coming from behind you. Even when we play by ourselves now, I can’t perform these songs without hearing the orchestra in my head.”
In 2012, Saliers and her Indigo Girls partner Amy Ray embarked on a bold new chapter, collaborating with a pair of orchestrators to prepare larger-than-life arrangements of their songs to perform with symphonies around the country. It was a challenging endeavor, to say the least, but the GRAMMY-winning duo managed to find that elusive sonic sweet spot with the project, creating a seamless blend of folk, rock, pop, and classical that elevated their songs to new emotional heights without sacrificing any of the emotional intimacy and honesty that have defined their music for decades. Now, after more than 50 performances with symphonies across America, the experience has finally been captured in all its grandeur on the band’s stunning new album, ‘Indigo Girls Live With The University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra.’
Recorded in front of a sold-out audience in Boulder, CO, and deftly mixed by GRAMMY-winner Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris), the record showcases Indigo Girls at their finest: raw, real, and revelatory. Ray and Saliers’ voices are both powerful and delicate here, their intertwined harmonies riding on the crest of an emotional tidal wave created by Sean O’Loughlin and Stephen Barber’s dazzling arrangements. The orchestrations are as richly cinematic as a film score (think John Williams rather than J.S. Bach), and the 64-piece symphony wrings every ounce of passion from them, helping to bring the band’s evocative storytelling to more vivid life than ever before.
“We didn’t want to just slap some classical music on an Indigo Girls track and call it a day,” says Ray. “We wanted these songs to be as dramatic and as big as they could be. We wanted active arrangements that would make full use of the symphony and give them total reign. There was no way we were going to get onstage with all those amazing musicians and waste their talent.”
Spanning material from throughout the band’s career, the 22-song set features a mix of reimagined classics, unexpected deep cuts, and tracks from Indigo Girls’ latest studio album, ‘One Lost Day.’ “Compromise” wraps its punk roots around spaghetti western strings, while the brass on “Go” flexes explosive marching band muscle, and “The Power Of Two” nods to the lush arrangements of legendary songwriters like Tom Waits and Harry Nilsson. The energy in the room that night was infectious, with both the musicians and fans feeding off the same visceral electricity, and the crowd couldn’t help but join in for a massive sing-along on “Closer To Fine.” There’s an unmistakable sense of community and inclusion on the album, in part because that’s a hallmark of every Indigo Girls show, but also in part because Ray and Saliers considered themselves pieces of the orchestra for the performance, no more and no less important than any other artist on the stage.
“It was essential to me that everyone was on an even playing field,” explains Ray. “I didn’t want the audience to feel like they were just seeing Emily and me backed by a symphony. Every single musician was integral, and the whole performance transcended what anyone could do by themselves.”
The power of unity, both in music and in life, has been an Indigo Girls calling card ever since they burst into the spotlight with their 1989 self-titled breakout album. Since then, the band has racked up a slew of Gold and Platinum records, taken home a coveted GRAMMY Award, and earned the respect of high profile peers-turned-collaborators from Michael Stipe to Joan Baez. NPR’s Mountain Stage called the group “one of the finest folk duos of all time,” while Rolling Stone said they “personify what happens when two distinct sensibilities, voices, and worldviews come together to create something transcendently its own,” and The New York Times raved that “gleeful profanities, righteous protest anthems and impeccable folk songwriting have carried this duo for thirty years.”
Saliers and Ray have never been ones to rest on their laurels, though. Each has released critically acclaimed solo music in their downtime and engaged in outspoken political and social activism, and they remain perpetually on the hunt for the next great challenge. When they were first approached about performing with symphonies, it was a daunting prospect, but that only made it all the more irresistible.
“Amy and I have always tried to grow in our songwriting and work with different instruments and producers and players along the way,” reflects Saliers. “The symphony shows were an opportunity to present ourselves in a completely different incarnation, to do something totally new and big and different.”
“I’ve come away from these shows with a deeper understanding of how music works,” adds Ray. “I’ve learned so much about the mechanisms of different time signatures and how it affects the pace of songs to switch them up. All these things I picked up from watching the conductors are starting to come out in my own writing now.”
When it came to recording the album, Ray and Saliers had an exceptional conductor by their side in Gary Lewis. Under Lewis’ able direction, the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra is one of the most diverse and adaptable groups around, boasting performances with everyone from Academy Award winning composer Dave Grusin, to multi-platinum singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant. After a sold-out show with the orchestra in the spring of 2016, it was clear to Ray and Saliers that Lewis and the ensemble would be perfect for a live album.
“We had an emotional connection with that symphony right away,” says Ray. “They had a fluidity and a swagger and the kind of dynamics that we wanted to capture. When we really connect with a group, it’s because everybody’s playing as one force.”
That cohesion shines throughout album, reflecting a singleness of mind and spirit that often takes years for musicians to develop. Chalk it up to the power of the songs or the strength of the duo’s connection or the versatility of the symphony, but one thing’s clear: Indigo Girls love a good challenge.
ONE LOST DAY:
The Indigo Girls (Emily Saliers and Amy Ray) release their sixteenth studio album, One Lost Day, on June 2nd, 2015. Vast in its reach, but unified by the traveler’s sense of wonder, gratitude, and empathy, One Lost Day moves like a centrifuge, pulling the listener close to linger in the small moment, then casting out onto sonic currents. This is music of the past, present, and future — a boundlessness earned and not bestowed. One Lost Day has a feeling of music composed across time, not just in time. These songs are rooted in tradition and inventive, too: nourished in dark soils, leafing and luminous.
Memories here are more than specters; they are evolutions. The album maps the dim corridors of the heart and mind, lifting and landing the listener across state lines and continents. Place is a character rich in the universal specific: “Boots on a board in a barn” in “Texas Was Clean,” boys “under the bridge on the river shoals off GA 9” in “Fishtails,” the New Orleans’ 1788 fire and the fence around the St. Louis cemetery in “Elizabeth,” the “sunny twist of Venice Chez Jay” in “Southern California is Your Girlfriend,” and the devil-spawned Angola prison in Louisiana where three black men sat wrongly convicted for decades, confined in solitary.
The dirge-like ballad “Findlay, Ohio 1968” opens with a searing string and piano arrangement that feels like slipping through a tear in the space-time continuum. After we reach the violin’s held high-C and the heartbeat drums, and before Saliers kicks in with her chilling vocals, we hover, suspended in time, before landing gently on the hot asphalt of Grammy’s driveway in 1968, “poking hot tar bubbles with a stick…the smell of the trash and leaves burning in the can.” What unfolds is pure narrative intuition, wherein the stuff of life, life’s inventory — the pall of the impending Kent State massacre, Sexton’s poetry, Cathy’s grief-stricken, beer-drinking mom, the dad who never returned from Vietnam, the fence-scaling girl ripping jeans, the boy with wandering heart and hands, the smell of Trenton’s refineries and the slapping of the station wagon’s wheels — are the metaphoric legs that carry the story and this song across time and distance.
“Fishtails” tackles similar themes — loss of innocence, coming of age — but through a much different lens. Here, the narrator is the observer reflecting on the tender recklessness of neighborhood kids, killing time in an abandoned copper mine, waiting to flee the confines of their small world, raging and hoping and “fishtailing in the dark from the time that they are born.” But the song is infused with new meaning in the juxtaposition of the boys’ lives with Ray’s father’s long-ago Florida boyhood — so similar in its restlessness, its sweet violence. Circularity rings like a keening bell, dazzling and devastating. A multi-layered instrumentalism allows the long notes of the past to cradle the mid-tempo of the present, a lush but understated orchestration.
Regarding the aching ballad, “If I Don’t Leave Here Now,” Saliers says, “The song explores the terrible affliction of addiction and was partly inspired right after Philip Seymour Hoffman died. I was deeply affected by his death, but also know that addiction seldom spares the user. It is a song about the desperate attempt to leave a bad situation where no amount of anything is ever enough.” The elegiac, stripped-down sound pairs beautifully with tender lyrics that recognize addiction not as a denial of life, but as a dangerous insatiability for life (“Killing yourself to keep from running out of life”) — turning the conventional addiction narrative on its head.
“I’d rather have the strength to see through the lens of reality than rose-colored glasses,” Ray says in reference to the raucous, rollicking “Happy in the Sorrow Key.” “Musically, I was inspired by the feel of Paul Weller and The Jam, but then I also wanted this big orchestral bridge to mirror the feeling of lying in my bunk at night on the tour bus and drifting off to sleep — scared but in awe of the process of life.” The dissonance between the plaintive lyrics and the quick-tempoed, lush instrumentalism nails the ambiguity of the emotion, while also managing to create a rock song that is both fun and dirty.
A majority of the songs in this collection explore a time and place endemic to the narrator’s sense of self. “Texas Was Clean” is a plucky, whispery elegy to lands loved and left behind. “It became about how a place gets reinvented and defined by your experiences over time,” says Ray. “When I was young, Texas seemed so far away and remote, but now it feels like it is part of me — for the lives it’s claimed and for the life it’s given to me.” “Elizabeth,” the album’s joyful opener, takes place in New Orleans, “with its ghosts and underbelly,” explains Saliers. “It’s the story of kinship and music and whiskey, L’il Queenie and the Big Easy whose bloody print is indelible. It’s denying Facebook and simply allowing someone from your past to remain in all her splendid glory.” In fact, much of this album seems to argue against our culture’s obsession with immediate gratification, both a musical and lyrical affinity for the journey and not the journey’s memento.
Venturing further north, “Alberta” is about the indelible impressions of a place and its history, those that we keep close and those that we leave behind. “Olympia Inn” pays homage to a bus driver named Johnny who called everyone “darling” and shared his lost loves, triumphs, and failures late at night as the band toured the UK and Ireland. It’s a wild, rocking ride of a song. “It’s meant to be romp with some swagger and self-deprecation thrown in for good measure,” says Ray. “Emily experimented with different guitar sounds and vocal approaches to bring her parts to life, and then Jordan [producer and contributing musician] put the organ down at the end and used The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as an inspiration.”
Like a good book, One Lost Day builds to the climactic “The Rise of The Black Messiah” about two-thirds of the way through the album, imbuing the whole with a structural integrity inherent to the best storytelling. This hard-hitting rock song is chilling, a battle-cry for victims of institutional racism. “My friend I heard you tell of slavery’s end but have you heard of mass incarceration/That ol’ Jim Crow he just keeps getting born with a new hanging rope for the black man’s scourge,” bellows Ray. The song was inspired by a letter Ray received about seven years ago from Herman Wallace, one of the so-called “Angola 3”: a trio of young black men framed for the murder of a prison guard as punishment for speaking out about the horrifying conditions in the Angola prison in Louisiana. Wallace spent decades in solitary confinement before finally receiving “compassionate release” just days before his death from cancer. In his letter, he asked Ray to share his story, and “The Rise of The Black Messiah” is Ray’s anthemic response; a slow-building, thunderous rock song anchored by Brady Blade’s spirited, soulful drums.
On One Lost Day, the Girl’s signature harmonies are in full display: rolling, recursive, hot and capacious as prayer. Through dynamic soundscapes created in tandem with producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin, the album reveals structural innovations that enhance meaning. A classically-trained horn player, Hamlin contributed “layered ethereal horn parts and a strong vision and ear,” says Saliers. With Hamlin, the Girls took new risks that paid huge dividends. The collaborative spirit is loud here, utilizing a host of musicians both familiar and new to the duo. One Lost Day was recorded in studios in Nashville, TN and mixed by Brian Joseph at Justin Vernon’s (of Bon Iver) April Base Studios in Fall Creek, WI and at the Parhelion Recording Studios in Atlanta, GA. Amy and Emily brought in Lex Price (k.d. lang, Mindy Smith), Butterfly Boucher (Ingrid Michaelson, Katie Herzig, Mat Kearney), Fred Eltringham (Sheryl Crow, The Wallflowers, Gigolo Aunts) and Chris Donohue (Dave Matthews, Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams, Robert Plant) to bring a good dose of infectious energy and creativity to the scene. Additionally, musicians Brady Blade and Carol Isaacs — longstanding studio collaborators and live-show band members with the Girls — returned, along with the current Indigo Girls’ touring band. Isaacs contributes haunting piano parts on songs such as “Come a Long Way,” “If I Don’t Leave Here Now,” and “Fishtails,” and sonorous accordion parts to “Spread the Pain Around” and “Findlay, Ohio 1968.” Blade offers his free-wheelin’, Louisiana drumming style to “Fishtails,” “Elizabeth,” “Texas Was Clean,” and the “The Rise of The Black Messiah.” The inputs of many of the contributing musicians are captured in a series of videos by the talented Kathlyn Horan, who filmed the crew during the recording of the album. The videos are available on the Indigo Girls’ website and in them we glimpse the ferocity and attention to detail that has helped the Indigo Girls thrive through the various capitulations of a changing music industry. Starting with 2009’s Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, their eleventh studio album, the Girls formed their own label, IG Recordings, which is now distributed by Vanguard/Concord Music Group. The move aligns with their long held commitment to creative freedom, energy they’ve also devoted to various social and environmental causes.
The Indigo Girls have spent thirty-five years performing together, produced fifteen albums (seven gold, four platinum, and one double platinum), earned a Grammy and seven Grammy nominations, and have toured arenas, festivals, and clubs the world over. It is rare to find musicians together so long, rarer still with such profound successes. Their music lives in the hearts of generations of dedicated fans and continues to inspire young musicians. This loyalty is not accidental. Perhaps their relevance over three decades can be credited to the mighty collisions of distinct aesthetics forging new paths over time. The Girls’ refinement — not only of style and skill, but of their own creative processes — allows access to ever new and liminal spaces.
A long creative marriage fosters its own scrappy beauty, though, and theirs grows more nuanced, weatherworn, and lovely in each successive album. Saliers and Ray live separate lives, take on independent projects, but share “the same set of values,” says Saliers. “We both embrace the struggle, share the same energy. We are sisters in our embrace of life. Observers.” That sort of artistic kinship is rare and cosmic. Here, then, are the stars of that labor, the next chapter.
– Jessica Hendry
MORE ABOUT THE INDIGO GIRLS:
Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are Indigo Girls. Rolling Stone describes them as the “ideal duet partners. Their voices soar and swoop as one, alternately raucous and soothing. When they sing together, they radiate a sense of shared purpose that adds muscle to their lanky, deeply felt folk-tinged pop songs”. Together they write, arrange, record and perform music which over the course of twenty five years has become a vital part of the lives of their legion of devoted fans around the world, informing and rewarding them day to day.
With twelve original studio albums, three live records, various Greatest Hits compilations, a Rarities and a Christmas record to their credit, the iconic duo continues to challenge itself creatively, over and over again, adding to a body of work that contains such contemporary classic songs as Galileo, Shame on You, Closer To Fine, Kid Fears, Love of Our Lives, Making Promises, Get out the Map, Moment of Forgiveness, Least Complicated and Go. After numerous Grammy nominations and awards and gold and platinum certifications and decades of touring in clubs, arenas and everything in between, Indigo Girls remain active and relevant, always viewing their music as a fresh opportunity for exploration and discovery. “We really work hard to not lean on any tried and true path in making our albums,” says Ray. “So when it comes to writing new songs and working and performing with different musicians, every record and every tour feels like a completely different adventure for us.
Amy and Emily first met as fifth and sixth-graders in Decatur, Georgia and began singing together during high school. Originally billed as Saliers & Ray, the pair adopted the name Indigo Girls during their undergraduate days at Atlanta’s Emory University. The Indigos were attending classes by day and performing as an acoustic duo in local clubs by night when they made their first stab at recording in 1985 with the single Crazy Game / Everybody’s Waiting (for Someone To Come Home) which they issued on their own label, followed by an EP and in 1987, their first full length LP, Strange Fire, produced by John Keane.
In 1988, the big-time beckoned Indigo Girls. Signed to Epic Records and EMI Music, they recorded Indigo Girls with producer Scott Litt at Ocean Way Studios in L.A. With Amy and Emily on vocals and acoustic guitars, Indigo Girls featured contributions from REM, Hothouse Flowers and Luka Bloom. The record was released in 1989 (the Boston Globe stated “The Indigo Girls have simply made the best debut album so far this year”) and the Indigo Girls began criss-crossing the country on tour (a process that has continued without pause throughout their career) headlining or supporting the likes of REM, Neil Young and the Violent Femmes.
Decades into their career, the Indigo Girls still amaze conventional pundits with their ability to grow and thrive no matter what the state of the music industry is at any given point. The duo’s constant touring, as well as staunch dedication to a number of social and environmental causes, has earned them a fervidly devoted following over the years. So many artists who launched their careers in the late 1980s have slipped from our collective memory. In contrast, the Indigo Girls stand tall, having earned the lasting respect and devotion of a multi-generational audience which continues to experience their creative evolution in the studio and on stage. The adventure may take the form of an adrenaline-fueled live CD or a warm reflective holiday album or a collection of songs that can veer from the raucous to intimate in the blink of an eye. No matter where their creative journey takes them, they hold out a hand to their listeners and we get to feel it all.