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Livewire's One on One
Interview by Alison Fensterstock
Interview transcribed and organized,
live photo and intro by Mary Andrews

Portrait: Publicity Photo
Indigo Girls A conversation with the Indigo Girls at New Orleans Jazz Fest

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Bew Orleans, LA April 28, 2019

There was a plethora of great interviews done during the 2019 New Orleans jazz and Heritage Festival. The Indigo Girls provided one of the most informative and entertaining conversations. Here are the highlights of their interview.

Alison Fensterstock: Let's go back to the beginning, if I may. There has been a lot of celebration marking the 30th anniversary of your self-titled breakout album. However, you girls got together quite a while before that happened.

Emily Saliers: We did. We met in elementary school when we were nine and ten years old. We went to the same high school. We joined the chorus together. That's when we became really close friends. Amy played guitar and wrote songs and I played guitar and wrote songs. We had that in common and as two good friends we started doing that for fun. It was just the funnest thing ever and that's the reason why we kept writing and playing songs. We had English teachers that kept encouraging us to keep going and to play a little concert for the class and the PTA. We had a career from high school on.

AF: Was there a particular thing that you remember clicking over? A song you both realized you liked or was it hey. you're playing guitar and I have a guitar?

Amy Ray: I think like for us or for me I was thrilled about the harmony. I was struck by the fact that Emily was so good at singing harmony. I was still learning about that. I was in a church choir. I didn't know how to sing harmony that well. It was a mystery to me. When Emily started doing it, it was one of those things that blew my mind. I felt like we could do all these cover songs that was super fun. When you are in high school, anytime you find something that feels special and you can express yourself through that, it's a gold mine. It keeps you safe.

AF: Also, I want to your leaving for college and coming back, but I wanted to talk a little bit about the 80s in Georgia. It was a pretty cool time for rock culture. You had the B-52s around, R.E.M.

ES: Amy and I got started playing at a little ‘5-Points Pub,' mostly in Atlanta and started building a little following. All kinds of musicians were just hanging out and it was a really fertile time for music. Athens and Atlanta felt like sister cities. I don't remember there being any big competition. We all supported each other. We were happy that we were all playing music. It was just very vibrant and alive. People hung out together who didn't necessarily play the same genre of music at the 5-Pints Pub. You had people who played in an alternative music band and, then, we were whatever we were. Someone would come play the bongos with us, whatever. We had a lot of friends like a band called the Paper Dolls and before that, The Scallion Sisters. So we all just joined each other on stage. We would have a hootenanny. It was a very encouraging, fertile, vibrant time to play music in that part of the country.

AF: I'm thinking about what you said about genre and everyone in the scene playing together and hanging out together. How were you guys cloistered in genre or if you felt like you were as female folk rockers at the time? People like Suzanne Vega, Ani di Franco, and Traci Chapman were getting very big. Your contemporaries were R.E.M. were charting on the rock chart. They also had something called college rock. Have you felt constrained by genre? Do you think of yourself as a particular genre?

AR: I don't think it was integrated racially in the city. There was this whole R&B and hip-hop scene that we didn't know anything about. Within the white culture of music, we were playing punk rock clubs right after the punk era with acoustic guitars and rock clubs and some folk clubs. The folk clubs weren't as open to us honestly. I think because we were pretty loud and our fans were loud. We were gay. It was very disruptive.
When we started making records and touring as an independent band, it's true that college radio and radio in general was a lot more open as far as genre goes. It has come back around where there is a space now for that because of the internet. At the time, R.E.M. and the Indigos and more would all be played on one radio station. Radio was a really big thing. College radio was a thing that you did as a young artist that maybe crossed over to other major label territory. When the major labels started hitting college radio hard trying to get them to play the songs because they saw how successful it was, it kind of screwed college radio up to a certain degree. They made it not as much of a farm team kind of place.
Payola started happening and all of that. It's a long history, but for us, and a lot of other people, it was just not the same. There was a brief period of time when it was a real struggle because you didn't have what was going on with the internet and ways of getting your music out there. It was a hard ‘where do we go?' It did get so genre specific. We got put in to that niche of lesbian, acoustic guitar, duo, masculine people. (Laughter). It was lots of genre things.

AF: We were talking back there and you were talking that you had a favorite college radio station.

Indigo Girls ES: I spent my first two years at Tulane University and WTUL was really a life force for me. It was a very big deal. Amy came down to New Orleans to visit and it was super fun. We were still continuing on together but not full force because we were both in college. When I got to go into WTUL and play on the station or pick a song for the day to play, I know that TUL sponsored all the music for what was happening on the campus. It was so rich and full like bands like the Radiators and the Nevilles were playing on campus. I think Lil' Queenie was playing on campus. I'm just obsessed with Lil' Queenie. TUL connected all that stuff. I played at a little coffee house. It was called the Penny Post back then. College radio was so important. Also there is a regionalism to music. That doesn't really exist in the same way that when corporations, Clear Channel, bought up all the radio stations, a lot of that flare was gone. The music that was coming out of the northwest, the post punk and the feminists in music and a lot of that stuff that was coming out. The Bodeans in the midwest, Georgia Satellites and us coming out of the south and different pop across the country were examples of that regionalism. I really miss that. Radio gave you a flavor of where the bands were coming on and what was going on there.

AF: Speaking of your time at Tulane, you have a song that you did there.

ES: That sounds like a segway. Introduces Aaron their guitar tech. (Tuning). New Orleans, as you all know, can get under skin and stay there and be in your blood. All of the parts of this song are true. I actually left Atlanta for two years. I was a bit of a fragile songwriter. I wrote a lot of songs in my dorm room at Sophie Newcomb. I started going out and I had to go home. I did the touristy thing when I got back yesterday. I had to have a Muffelatta from Central Grocery and grab some beignets. With the history of New Orleans, and it's very easy to draw back into my history here and at Tulane. My memories are so visceral, colorful and vibrant that it is very easy to write a song about my history here that I've never gotten over. The song is called "Elizabeth." She was a real person. I've never looked her up since. I loved her in the college way that you can.

AR: Her name is not Elizabeth.

ES: Her name is Elizabeth.

AR: OMG! All this time, I've been trying to figure out who this was.

ES: I swear I'm getting senile because this has been a secret and I just outed her. If you know her, tell her I said 'Hey." This song is for her. They proceed to sing the song.

AR: I always figured you used a fake name. A piece of the puzzle is solved.

AF: This might be a good segway into talking about your major label self titled first album that contained "Coming to Fine." I listened to that as a 15-year old. In retrospect, it felt like a coming of age album. I don't know if it was like that for you. I thought after that that you were thrust into these extraordinary circumstances of being on a major label and out there and being nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy Award. The question is what was that like?

ES: It's like eating a lot of cotton candy and just having your head explode. It was surreal actually. We were a bar band. It wasn't like there was a bidding war for people to sign us. This quirky, eccentric guy from Epic Records, CBS Records back then. He came down, poking around like all of the majors did. R.E.M. was about to sign their next record deal. Roger came to the pub and he liked us and believed in us. We got signed and to have the first album do so well was completely unexpected. The Grammys were unexpected. All of a sudden we had all these shows set up.
We traveling all over and honestly it was the most stressful time of our whole career because we started planning these six week tours. It was the only time in our careen where Amy and me had fights. It was too strange of a life. At that point, we said we are not going out for more than three weeks at a time and that's it. For the next decades that's what we did.
Because we are just normal people from Georgia, (Laughter) whatever that is. I can't speak for Amy, but for me it was quite exciting playing Madison Square Garden, to win a Grammy, and meet people like Neil Young and you know. It was surreal and exciting. I have to tell you after all these years, to still have a career and still be playing and having a loyal fan base is the ultimate. We've never had to sacrifice or compromise our values or have to make music for any other reason than why we make music. If we sold enough tickets to play Madison Square Garden, I wouldn't complain at this point.

AR: I didn't realize we had played Madison Square Garden. I always get in to these arguments with people that we haven't played certain gigs. I go back and look at the list of gigs we've played and we have. I was telling my driver today to write down everything because when you get old, there can be some really big thing that you don't remember doing. We did this thing when Emmylou Harris sang with us. One time, I said to my friend Brian, "I would give anything to sing with Emmylou Harris." He said, "That's funny because you have." I said, ‘I know we haven't. I would know if I had sang with Emmylou." He pulled up You Tube and there it was. Unbelievable. At this point everything's good. It's an accomplishment to be here. I feel good about it. I'm just making sure, we didn't ever play with Joni Mitchell, right?" No Brian would remember that. I might not. Your memory is better than mine now.

ES: It has certain holes things fall through and others still have some fascia left.

AF: I don't think Joni Mitchell could ever fall through a hole though.

ES: Amy met her one time by accident. They started talking politics and the war and stuff.

AR: It's a long story ya'll. I was supposed to be meeting Marcheline Bertrand, Angelina Jolie's mother, to talk to her about some native artist's funding, who I had a record out on my record label. This was a really important meeting but I was talking to Joni Mitchell when Bertrand showed up, so I had to interrupt Joni so I could be on time for my meeting. That was a conundrum because at the time I was single and I was thinking that Angelina Jolie might be an awesome option. I live in a fantasy world. I dodged that bullet. (Laughter). That's what happened, but Joni was great though.

AF: Going back to the 90s, me being your adolescent listener, to you and all these other bands, it was a bazaar time when major labels were looking for the next R.E.M. or Tracy Chapman or the next Nirvana. Some of these sound like very peculiar people to get large contracts. It was very lucky for me, at my age as a listener, to get these bands that were well funded and well distributed. It was also a lot of women, from Lilith Faire to Riot Girl. Were you conciseness of that at the time? Was it a great moment for female artists?

AR: We were totally conscience of it. We were thankful all the time. We were always like, "I can't believe this has happened to us." When looking at all the women who were getting signed and getting played, it was amazing. There were small hints of backlash coming. I could feel it when we would do radio interviews. That's typically what happens in anything having to do with women's accomplishments. I felt like it was wide open. There was a point where I felt that finally it was getting integrated gender wise. Riot Girl was becoming something people had heard about. Kathleen Hanna was somebody people knew about. You would read interviews and she would say smart things about feminism. It was a good moment in time. You had fans that were feminist. The guys in Nirvana were feminists. There were guys who were brought up in this age to be feminists. That was very refreshing to me.

ES: I agree with Amy. When Lilith Fair came along, people thought there was no way this would sell tickets. Lilith Fair was mainstream, but it was a reminder of all the stigma of all these women and you kind of got shrunk into a category or genre. It's unfortunate because music has such breadth to it. There are so many influences and nothing comes from nothing. They did have stages that allowed local women to play. Every night they donated a dollar from every ticket sold to go to a Women's shelter or organization. So in that sense, Sarah McLachlan was very conscious about that.
As Amy said, it was a rich time. Whenever women gain some power, there is a big powerful backlash. Then, we are just dikes with guitars again. (Laughter)

AR: The thing about Lilith Fair again is that Sarah had her eyes on the prize. She envisioned the prize was for Lilith to become more integrated and not segregated as well. She wanted more women artists as well as more women behind the scenes doing engineering and doing those jobs and being in the backing band. There was still more men than women that were there when you look at all the jobs in total. At the same time you had this model of utopia for women in Michigan's Women's Fest. Where women were doing all the jobs. That was a cool thing in the underground to compare to and get power from. One day we can have more women doing more sound, guitar teching, playing drums, and all things that are hard to get women in to those positions. It is happening.

AF: There did seem to be a post-millennial backlash. The progress should have aggregated more.

ES: Today, for instance, in country radio, programmers don't think country fans want to hear women's music and women's songs. They believe fans want to hear bro-country. They want sexy guys and that's all they want out of country music. They believe and perpetrate that. That's why there is such a dearth of women on the radio in country. You've got Marin Morris' who is outstanding and a few others, but compared to those incredible women country artists that are there and that are not getting on radio, the number is small. It's that same old thing. Women are this thing and people don't want to hear it. It's considered a sub-category. The same as it ever was. There is room for both. You CAN have Bro-country and women country. I don't understand how they can't embrace a Bro country song next to say a Dixie Chicks song. It's crazy.

AF: For a long time you have been involved in advocacy and activism for LGBT, women's issues, the environment, and Native issues. What does it mean to you to be an artist and an activist? To have those two things combine in your head?

ES: Both Amy and I were brought up in families that felt you weren't in just isolation, but you were a part of a community and had responsibility to engage in your community. These are just basic things that both Amy's parents and mine taught us and so we grew up being citizens of our community by natural extension into the world. We were writing songs about things that troubled us that were on our mind about social issues or issues of justice and environments. Very early on, we found out it was very easy to get like-minded musicians or even musicians who are on the cusp to become a part of the activist circuit and have a benefit concert. It feels good, and still to this day, benefit concerts feel the best of any concerts.

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