Interview With The Indigo Girls: Mutually Beneficial

Getting dumped by a major label is usually a serious career pitfall for a band. But in the case of the folk rock team Amy Ray and Emily Saliers—aka the Indigo Girls—getting dropped by Hollywood Records proved to be a blessing in disguise.

“It was sort of forced on us, but we were really happy about it,” Ray says, on the phone, driving near her home in Georgia. “I feel like the kind of music that we make—it’s got some pop elements to it because Emily can really write a pop song—but as people, we sort of go against the grain as far as marketing goes. We’re getting older, and we’re queer, and we’re very political and that’s kind of a nightmare for a major label—let’s be real.”

The Indigo Girls, an iconic band in both the folk worlds and among the LGBT communities, have been making music as a pair for more than two decades. Ray says signing with an independent versus a major label was one area they never really agreed on. So after parting ways with Hollywood Records in ’07, the girls’ most recent delivery, Poseidon And The Bitter Bug, was released independently and distributed through Vanguard Records. The strength of their songwriting and the quality of the album are proof that the independent route was undoubtedly the right path for them.

“We’re really happy this way. Creatively, we’ve always had a lot of freedom but on a business level it feels very different to be working for yourself, and knowing where the money’s going, and feeling like you’re not wasting as much—and you’re making it based on your own vision.”

Contrary to many money-focused bands in the scene, the Indigo Girls have served up a double-disc CD pack for fans. Poseidon And The Bitter Bug comes equipped with a full-length studio recording as well as a stripped-down acoustic record. Ray says it was their producer’s idea to give fans both versions of their new songs, and they loved the idea. “It was definitely harder than I thought it would be to record live acoustic versions of songs, which is a good lesson, but people seem to really like it, and it’s a good representation of the way things start out and the way they end up,” she says. “We don’t really think about (the financial returns). We were excited about something that we could do that would make it more interesting for people. For us it’s all about… what we can do different this time that will be interesting to us, and a new challenge for us and also our audience. If you just do the least amount, you can’t expect anything back from that.”

Packed with infectious hooks, raw emotions, and the pair’s trademark killer harmonies, the Indigo Girls’ new record marks another huge leap forward. In the same fashion as when they started out, the duo write individually and bring their songs to the table to work together on the arrangements. Even after 24 years, Ray says the arrangement procedure is no less nerve-racking now than when they began.

“Our process of arrangement is very similar to when we started, but we’re better at it. We have more notes to choose from, and a little bit more of an expanded vocabulary. We’re older now and as we’ve grown, we’ve both gained more musical knowledge and more songwriting skills. Both of us realize that we have to, as individuals, do the work and evolve within ourselves in order to bring a new challenge to the group and make it interesting,” she says. “When we get together, it’s still pretty scary because you’re bringing your songs in and wondering what the other person thinks, and whether they’re going to like them or not. And that never really goes away, you know. I don’t think that ever becomes routine and just rote. It still feels kind of scary and it’s still hard to imagine when you write your song, how it’s going to be as a duo.”