2017-11-03 / Ticket

Q & A with Emily Saliers

The Indigo Girls member speaks about going solo, musical inspiration & activism
BY JOHN SWINCONECK
Times Record Staff


PHOTO BY JEREMY COWART PHOTO BY JEREMY COWART Emily Saliers has been recording music as one half of folk rock duo Indigo Girls since the 1980s. A dozen studio albums have produced hits such as “Galileo,” “Least Complicated” and “Closer To Fine,” as well as international recognition. Despite a near-constant touring schedule, the two have also dedicated themselves to causes near to their hearts, including peace, equality, native peoples and the environment.

It wasn’t until August, however, that Saliers finally released a solo album, “Murmuration Nation.” Touring with her band in support of “Murmuration Nation,” Saliers will be making two stops in Maine: in Brownfield on Nov. 16 and in Rockland Nov. 17.

Recently, Saliers spoke with The Times Record about her song writing process, the inspiration that comes from black music and what’s next for her solo career and for the Indigo Girls.

The Times Record: Why did you wait until now to release your first solo record?

Emily Saliers: I started to feel like I really wanted to make some independent music that was very groove- and rhythmic-oriented at its core. Amy and I have done some songs — a couple of mine — over the years that have more of a groove-feel to them. But that’s not something that we do a lot together.

Just for fun, I started sending Lyris Hung — who produced the album and who had been touring with me and Amy for a few years — ideas for songs. And she would just produce something in her home studio.

I loved it. What she did hit me so hard. This was exactly what I wanted — this nebulous thing in my mind that I want to create.

I asked her to produce the album and she said yes. That was the point from which we started.

TR: When I think of your music, I tend to think of a more acoustic, folk rock sound — “Last Tears” and “Get Out the Map” come to mind. But songs on your solo record — like “Spider,” for example — have a different vibe. Could you talk a little bit more about how the sound from your album developed?

ES: “Spider,” for instance, Lyris wrote the violin part — it sounds like an electric guitar on the record but it’s a actually a violin. She had that motif to work on as a musical body. I wrote the lyrics and the melody and we developed that one together.

Others had been written a while back and were sitting there, waiting to be recorded. One was “Slow Down, Day Friend,” which I wrote on my first ukelele. Another was “Match,” which I wrote with Kristen Hall, an original founding member of Sugarland.

Other songs I started working on with the Apple Logic recording software at home. I would pick a couple of beats and start to write a song to the beat — whether it was a hip hop beat or something groovy and rhythmic. That really gave these songs a direction they may not have had if I had just sat there with a guitar.

I really wanted the songs to have a groove to them — I just like that kind of music, I’ve been so influenced by hip hop. Earlier on it was Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 — black American music and gospel music. The writing process involved being inspired by that flavor.

TR: I’m familiar with the Bob Dylan and Buffy Sainte-Marie influence on Indigo Girls. But how else did black American artists influence your songwriting?

ES: I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in a largely African American neighborhood. I moved to Atlanta when I was a young girl, but in those very early formative years was steeped in black culture, black art, black music, black politics. I can recall as a child being around the rise of the Black Panther movement.

The first album I bought was the Jackson 5. I was obsessed with the Jackson 5.

I don’t know whether those formative years, where I was hearing James Brown, Otis Redding or Stevie Wonder, really set that course for me, or whether I was born to love rhythmic music. It just moved me, you know? If I went to an African American church and heard the gospel choir sing it would move me to tears. It would move me in a way that other church music didn’t.

I did buy John Denver records and my parents had some folk records, but the music that I really like — besides Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown and Neil Young — was like the funk music of the ‘80s. Rick James and before that, the Commodores.

It was music of the body and of the spirit that I most gravitated to. And you can’t hear it directly, in terms of influence, but in terms of inspiration — it was my go-to.

Once I discovered artists like Public Enemy and Biggie and Tupac, and political rap artists like Talib Kweli and Chance the Rapper — they just blew my mind and my spirit.

TR: You mentioned how, in your songwriting process the act of laying down a beat on your home computer as opposed to picking up the guitar. That’s something you couldn’t necessarily do 30 years ago. How else has your songwriting process changed?

ES: Except for the fact that now I can play a beat and form ideas around it and plug in a world music instrument like an Armenian wind instrument — the sound of the world is at your fingertips on the computer — the general process of songwriting has remained the same. I sit down with an instrument — primarily a guitar or banjo or ukelele — and come up with a chord progression that strikes me. I don’t know how it happens, but the subject matter comes drifting down. I don’t sit down and say, “Today, I’m going to write ‘Ok Corral’ or write a song about guns in America.” What I do is start with a chord progression and suddenly, the subject matter comes down and I put it together. That’s the way I’ve written ever since I started. The only difference now is that I have the sounds on the computer to inspire me.

In the end, we took all the computer stuff off the songs and put human beings behind it. It’s very rhythmically centered — it started out with computer beats and ended up with a live band.

TR: Let’s talk about the current tour. Tell me a little about the musicians your’re touring with.

ES: We have drums, bass, keys — which includes synthesizer, there’s a lot of synth on the record — and Lyris playing violin and Lucy Wainwright Roche, who sang on the album, is doing all the background parts. When we’re in New England, Becky Warren will be doing the background parts and she’ll be opening the shows. The band is tremendous. Sometimes I wish I could stop playing and turn around and just listen to them.

I’ve spent a lot of years playing acoustically. I love that and there’s a place for it — it’s largely what Amy and I do. But to play with a band, it’s about as fun as it gets.

We play all the songs on the album except for one. We play three songs that Indigo Girls recorded and then we have one cover song.

It’s very musically intense. We have a video projection that is evocative of the nature of the songs.

These shows, to me, are quite special, and there just aren’t that many of them.

TR: Through music and activism throughout the years, you’ve addressed racism, civil rights, the rights of the LGBTQ community and the rights of indigenous peoples. These topics are still flashpoints, even more so in the current political climate. Is it frustrating to you that you still have to fight some of these fights?

ES: We’re just a blip in time as a species. I know the struggles inherent in being human are always going to be with us. In a way, I’m not surprised that it feels like one step forward and two steps back. We think we’re so evolved as a species.

But when people, politicians or unsettling things in nature or society poke at those feelings — what we protect and how we judge other creatures — our nature is be defensive or lash out. I look at the world, sometimes, in a natural way, and I also think that part of the challenge of being a person is to continue to work against those primal things that make it worse for the world.

My personal challenge is trying to grow to be a kinder person, to not be part of systems of oppression. That’s my personal challenge. I feel like the more people take on a desire to work for justice — which boils down simply to fighting oppression of people — then the better the world gets. The more people participate the better things get. That’s a fact.

One challenge in America is to get people to the polls and to vote. The low voter turnout, to me, is inexcusable with so much at stake. There are challenges to be met, and we have to get our consciousness raised to the point where we take action. I want to be part of the rallying cry.

TR: Recently there’s been a backlash against entertainers who take stands on controversial issues — that entertainers should just entertain and not rock the boat. How do you respond to that mindset?

ES: (Laughs) If people just want to listen to music and nod their heads and have a good time, I don’t judge that. I just feel that some of the most powerful social change that’s ever happened has happened in conjunction with the music that’s galvanized the movement. Whether it’s apartheid in South Africa or eastern Europe or in the United States with songs of the civil rights movement — “We Shall Overcome” — songwriters were tackling issues that affected people in the most profound of ways. And there’s something about putting that message with the music that really, really stirs people.

I like a good dance song as much as anybody, I like some mindless songs a ton. But the songs that really affect my life are the ones where the lyrics are really digging at something. I like a combination of music that moves me or subject matter that makes me think or feel.

TR: What’s next for you after this tour wraps up?

ES: Amy and I have a big year ahead of us. We have a symphony album coming out in 2018. She’s releasing her next solo album that she’s going to work on. I’m going to continue to tour behind “Murmuration Nation.” Then we’ll be doing more Indigo Girls touring and planning our next Indigo Girls original music album.

My plans as a solo artist will be to continue to release songs a little bit at a time, which I’m looking forward to. More creating, more releasing, more doing the thing that we do.

TR: Is there anything you would like people to know that I haven’t asked you about?

ES: I just want everybody to vote! In every election.

I appreciate our fans so much, they’re incredibly loving and supporting, so I wanted to say how thankful I am for that, for Amy and I to have a career through all these decades, both solo and together. I just want music to inspire us to make good changes, because our country’s really wounded right now. I want healing through music.

For more information on Saliers’ tour, visit emilysaliers.com.

jswinconeck@timesrecord.com

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