Interview: Indigo Girls

March 22, 2007 10:35 AM
by John Voket
LiveDaily Contributor

As Amy Ray of Indigo Girls tells it, back in the mid-'80s, when she was jamming around Athens, GA, with her musical cohort Emily Saliers, the pair had a few luxurious gigs where they could settle into a club for a few days.

Ray said in a recent interview that those back-to-back shows, sometimes for five or six days at a stretch, gave the Indigo Girls a chance to really explore songs they hadn't played in a long time, just to keep the set list from getting stagnant over the course of the run.

Some 22 years later, Amy and Emily got another chance to dig deep into their repertoire when they kicked off their spring tour in Connecticut last week with a five-show run at the Mohegan Sun Casino's intimate Cabaret.

Saliers and Ray are hitting more intimate rooms playing in duo format, possibly sprinkling in a new song or two among their hits and a good dose of material from Indigo Girls' latest release, "Despite Our Differences." Dates are currently confirmed well into the summer; details are in the itinerary below.

Before playing the Mohegan Sun shows, Ray and Saliers chatted with LiveDaily about music, politics and the whole band-versus-duo dynamic.

LiveDaily: It's been almost two years since you started working out material that became "Despite Our Differences," and since its release, you've been touring on and off with a full band. Do you find yourself performing the material differently than when it's just you two?

Amy Ray: With the new record, we had to sit down on a couple of songs to make sure we [were] approaching them the right way without the band. It's pretty easy for us to go back and adjust. I have all the songs on my iPod for practicing. There's a new song, "Money Made You Mean," that we decided to do more of an extended version--and on the song "Dairy Queen," from the previous record, where I played electric guitar but I wanted to also have an acoustic version of it for when it's just the two of us.

Emily Saliers: My approach to the songs doesn't really change. You know, when we went back out as a duo after playing with a band, I really missed the drums, or when the bass used to kick in. There's a certain amount of energy and focus you have to put out when it's just the duo. We haven't been doing "Rock and Roll Heaven's Gate" and "All the Way," because those songs just seem to click better with a band than with a duo. You sort of get used to having the band carry you along. It has a certain spontaneity--it has an energy of its own. But I don't sing the songs very differently without the band. Sonically, it's stripped down. There's a huge safety net with the band, and there's something really focused and intense when we're playing as a duo that's very different from with the band.

Since the beginning, Amy, you've been characterized as the more edgy, hard rocker, while Emily has been cast more as the lyrical lighter touch between the two of you. But your songs on the latest record and some of the solo material you've generated recently is pretty deep--some might even say intense. I mean, it almost hurts to hear you sing "Dirt and Dead Ends."

AR: I'm changing my songwriting approach all the time because I'm just trying to get better at it. About eight years ago, I consciously started practicing more, and I had a few conversations with a few songwriters and asked them about their writing style. Then I read a Stephen King book, "On Writing," and started being really deliberate about it. I labor over songs a lot, and it worked for me to sit down for three hours and work on stuff. I started trying to tell specific stories about people, and trying to be more specific with my images, which opens you up more as a writer. Basically, it got to the point where I just felt I was lagging so far behind Emily, and I didn't feel it was right to do that.

ES: I don't totally agree. I mean, her earlier stuff--there are some great songs there, too. I know there was a period of time when she made the switch to focus on the craft of her songs, but Amy's always been a great songwriter. I think, for both of us, we inspire and motivate each other in ways that can't be articulated all the time. I know Amy is always pushing me--not overtly, but just because she is so great and inspiring to work with. It makes me want to be better too, and that's just something that happens between us. We're fortunate for that; instead of us being threatened by each other's gifts, we're inspired by them.

So the tour will bring you around the north and east coast before you're off to Long Beach for the Pride Festival. But this opening run of five days at Mohegan Sun is something of a historical event for Indigo Girls, isn't it?

ES: The last time we played Mohegan Sun, we did two dates there. And the room was so nice and small and intimate with such nice crowds, and it was such a nice experience. The tours are less orthodox than they used to be--it's more challenging now to string dates together. So, when an offer like this comes in, knowing the venue, it was appealing, so we just went for it. We talked about how fun it will be to just dig out some obscure things and just try and do something different with the set list, since we'll be there so many nights.

AR: I think this is the longest run of shows since we used to play bars. When we were younger, we had a couple of standing gigs where we played every night of the week for awhile. When [the Mohegan Sun] asked us, we said, "Why not?" It's a really fun room and we really liked the casino. Some don't have a great vibe and some do, so, basically, if we play one where the vibe is good and it feels good to be there, we'll come back and play again. Every time we play a Native-run casino, we're sort of happier, I guess. It's probably the connection we have from working on all the Native American community stuff we've done. It just feels good.

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