It's been 30 years since the Indigo Girls independently released their first single, "Crazy Game" in 1985. Appropriately, it's been a wild ride for Emily Saliers and Amy Ray through the decades that have followed.
The pair has a friendship that goes back to elementary school. By high school, they were already working on their first songs together and they quickly discovered that they had a unique chemistry.
"When we first got together, it was so fun," Saliers recalls during a recent phone conversation. "Amy had a lower voice and she strummed really solid, and I was more of a guitar picker and I had a higher voice and so we just immediately had fun. It was like different pieces of a puzzle that fit. We got a lot of encouragement from our high school English teacher, and we always used school as sort of a springboard to build a small following.
"But at the core of everything is our friendship. You know, we never really had huge ego struggles and now they're barely detectable if there are any at all, just because we have such an appreciation for what the other one does. So that's all it was."
Saliers says the band has had its struggles along the way, especially after they signed to a major label and "everything got big and weird."
"We were touring for weeks and weeks and weeks at a time, and it wasn't sustainable for us," she says. "We're just not that kind of band, and we're homebodies. We want to be with our people, and we want to live normal lives and stuff. We figured it out."
Even before things got "big and weird," Saliers and Ray had already been working hard and playing a lot of shows. After the release of "Crazy Game," they took a DIY approach to get their music in the hands of the right people at college radio stations, hopeful that those connections would share their music with a wider audience. But as Saliers remembers, they didn't necessarily have grand aspirations, but instead thought of it as "fun."
"We didn't really aspire to be famous or have big careers; we just thought, 'Oh man, if we can get out of the medium rotations at this college station, then maybe we can go into heavy rotation," she says. "We strategized and we had lists — Amy had names and numbers to call and I had names and numbers to call and then we set up our own gigs at different clubs. We would just scour the indie newspapers for what clubs to play.
"Amy was so smart — she had a natural ability to sort of help us pick what to try to go for next. She's awesome at it. So we loved it. It wasn't like, 'We're doing this to get somewhere.' It was like, 'This is really fun.' 'Oh my God, the next biggest gig,' or, 'Oh my God, we just got into heavy rotation at this college station,' and, 'Oh my God, 15 people came instead of two!'"
Saliers wonders if bands today would even have the patience to take the route they took. "They might expect that things are going to happen more quickly," she says. "But also, there's barely a way to afford being a band anymore, you know, because you practically pay to play at clubs and it's expensive to travel and if you have a family, forget about it. We were lucky, we were young and didn't have families and the time was right."
Their breakout hit "Closer to Fine" introduced their music to a wider audience when their self-titled major label debut was released in 1989. "I was sitting on a porch in Vermont on a family vacation, and it felt good to sing," Saliers says, looking back on writing the song. "That's how I know to keep songs, you know, if they feel good and I want to keep playing them again and again — then I figure they're keepers."
They've continued to use that philosophy with the hefty stack of fan favorites they've accumulated over their years of recording and playing shows together. "We play what we like to play, honestly," she says. "Fortunately, we never get tired of 'Closer to Fine,' 'Shame on You' or 'Galileo' — we play those songs almost every night. But we make a fresh set list, and we don't pick songs that we don't feel like playing, so we're just always engaged. We want to play the songs that we pick, and that feels good."
With the recent release of One Lost Day, their 15th studio release, Saliers and Ray have assembled another powerful collection of songs and stories that will hit home with both longtime fans and newcomers. The duo continue to write from its own personal perspective, and "If I Don't Leave Here Now," partially inspired by the passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a particularly poignant moment on the album, written by Saliers, who says, "I've gone through my own journey — I'll put it that way."
"I didn't know him personally at all," she says. "I just admired his work and I thought, 'It's very easy for addiction to kill anyone.' And not only does it happen to great actors, it can happen to anyone and it does happen. You can get derailed without even knowing it, and now, you know, in our country, we have this terrible meth problem and also addiction to painkillers and then if you can't get the painkillers you go to heroin. I've known people who have died and of course I read about it all of the time. So it just became a very personal song about what it feels like to be addicted and how easy it is to go and how you have to remove yourself from that place with the help of others or you'll never get out of it."
"Elizabeth" recalls young love and wild times in New Orleans that are now years past. While you could probably find that person on Facebook, the song explores the idea that perhaps some things should stay buried in the past as they are and as we remember them.
"'Elizabeth' is a true story," Saliers says. "Elizabeth and I went to Tulane and we lived in New Orleans and crazy shit happened and I was young and every word in that song is true. But there is a lot of, like, I can't help but make a cultural statement, the way that ... and I do it too, [with] everything my daughter, Cleo, does. [I say,] 'Oh, let me get the camera out and let me film it,' rather than just being in that moment and letting it pass and remembering how sweet it was, you know, but not being able to recapture it."
"It's always been the beauty of live music to me and now of course everybody can record live music on their phones. But I just did take one shot at the beauty of not doing that with this particular relationship. I haven't looked this person up — I don't even know where she is or what she's doing. But I like that song and it's really, really personal and fun to sing."
The Indigo Girls will be on the road through mid-November supporting the new album, and where there's free time, Saliers will be working to complete her first solo album, something that has been in the works for a while. She says the developing collection is "more about rhythms, more about grooves," embracing her love of hip- hop and R&B, and hearing her call it a "kitchen sink project," it doesn't sound like she's holding anything back. Seven songs have been recorded for the album so far and Saliers plans to release it in 2016. The Indigo Girls perform on Sunday, Nov. 15 at the SoundBoard at MotorCity Casino Hotel; Doors at 7:30 p.m.; 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit; soundboarddetroit.com; Tickets $27-45.
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