One of my biggest regrets in college was that I turned down my first chance to see the Indigo Girls in concert so I could finish a paper due the next day. I, of course, no longer have any clue what
the paper was about, but I almost immediately knew that I should’ve gone to the concert and then pulled an all-nighter to finish the paper.
That was fairly early in the Indigo Girls’ career, back when their self-titled second album was a must-listen for college kids, with key songs like “Closer to Fine” and “Kid Fears” reminding us that music can be both beautiful and thought-provoking.
Many other wonderful albums followed, and by now Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been together as the Indigo Girls for almost three decades. Along the way their music has evolved — perhaps most notably they started plugging in their guitars more often — but their wonderful lyrics and harmonies have always continued to shine.
On Wednesday, the Indigo Girls will be performing at the Santa Barbara Bowl, along with folk music legend Joan Baez. Click here to purchase tickets online. And consider yourself warned — if you miss this one, you’ll probably regret it.
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Jeff Moehlis: You’ll be sharing the bill with Joan Baez. Were you a fan of her when you were growing up?
Amy Ray: Oh, definitely, for sure. And she’s been a mentor for us. Early on she really helped show us the ropes. We became good friends, and over the years have played every now and again with her, and kept tabs on each other and supported each other. Yeah, definitely a fan. She was someone who I listened to, and also had a really big fascination for the civil rights work that she has done and her
politics and her pacifism, and her approach to things. She’s a force of nature. She’s been around a long time and has done a lot of really great things, and is quite a performer. I had her records growing up, and my parents had her records, and my sisters had her records. So they were around.
JM: How has your approach to songwriting changed over the years?
AR: Well, back in the early days, for me, I probably didn’t spend as much time as I should’ve on songwriting. I’m kind of one of those when-the-muse-hits-me-I’ll-write kind of people. I guess in the ’90s I was still floundering in that way a little bit, and probably wasn’t as disciplined as I needed to be. And you can see it, you can hear it in my writing, I think, to a certain degree. I read a few books about writing and talked to some other musicians, and started making it really a mission to improve myself, and really become a better songwriter. Emily always held up more of the musical side of us, and I did a lot of business stuff. That’s kind of the way things were, and I just wanted to grow beyond that, to do it equally.
I feel like maybe 15 years ago or so I really started a totally different process, which was to sit down and write as many days a week as I can. So maybe five days a week spend two hours, three hours on
writing. Rather than, like, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for a song, I’m going to work on it,” and then not necessarily have that idea except once a week, or something. Because I think you’ve got to be in the
room, you’ve got to be actively working on things for them to come to you. You can’t just think that things are going to fall out of the sky for you to write. I think they do every now and then. But you’ve got to be sitting in the chair, and working. So that was a big lesson I learned, and it really helped my process, and my process became much more disciplined after that.
JM: There aren’t many music duos that have stayed together as long as the Indigo Girls have, at least while seemingly getting along with each other for the whole time. Do you have a secret formula for how you and Emily work together that let you stay together all these years?
AR: You have to give each other room to express yourselves artistically. We write separately from each other, and that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to write separately. But that’s one thing that gives each of us artistic space. Because the ego needs its own space sometimes, you know? (laughs) I think that’s one thing.
And I think we got lucky, too. We just have a certain chemistry and work together well. We’re very, very, very different from each other. We don’t hang out a lot together in our off time. When we started out we were very close friends, obviously in high school before we even started playing. Music kind of brought us together, and then the friendship sort of kept us doing it.
Then it moved into its own realm of it being a thing itself, that was bigger than a friendship. A business, and an artistic endeavor that was growing and growing. We found ways to protect the relationship, and some of that was just giving each other more space, and being in different communities.
If Emily wants to do a side project she does it, and if I want to I do it. We don’t worry about it. We don’t let it affect who we are or our egos, or anything. And I think we always prioritize Indigos, so
if either one of us is doing extra things, we know, we trust that the other person is always going to prioritize for the good of the group. So everything’s kind of for the good of the group in our world.
That’s what makes it work. You can’t focus on your ego and fame, and wanting to be the “bigger Indigo Girl,” or something like that (laughs). You have to always realize that it takes both of you, and that’s the magic.
JM: This might be an easy or a hard question, I don’t know. Do you have a favorite song that Emily wrote for the Indigo Girls?
AR: (laughs) That’s a hard question. Because there are so many of them. (long pause) You know, it’s older and it’s classic, and I hate to say an older one because she’s written some great newer stuff, too. But I always think “Ghost” is one of her best songs ever. She just hit something lyrically and melodically that work together, and the images and the feeling in it. It’s a special song.
JM: This might be as hard of a question. Do you have a favorite of your own songs? Or is that even possible to answer?
AR: (laughs again) A favorite of my own Indigo songs … I do, actually, right now. This also changes all the time for both of us. Right now my favorite song that I’ve written for Indigos is a song called “Share the Moon,” from Beauty Queen Sister. It’s a song that I worked on quite a lot. It came from me exploring my songwriting and working more on melody, and having some kind of unique guitar thing.
So I was proud of it. But also it just summed up a feeling in a way that really worked for me.
Click here for the full interview with Amy Ray.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.