Artfully political: The Indigo Girls

From left, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray

The Indigo Girls are a socially conscious folk duo known for their beautiful harmonies — and for being out of the closet at a time when being so put their musical careers at risk. With a couple of dozen studio, live, and compilation albums under their belt, the singer-songwriters have a devoted, multigenerational following. Their fan base grew from their days of gigging around Atlanta and Athens, Georgia, to their mainstream breakthrough in the early 1990s, when songs like “Closer to Fine” and “Galileo” captured the hearts and minds of the college students who sang along with Emily Saliers’ and Amy Ray’s knowing, no-nonsense lyrics about their collective inner lives.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains

I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains

There’s more than one answer to these questions

Pointing me in a crooked line

And the less I seek my source for some definitive

The closer I am to fine

Saliers and Ray met in elementary school in DeKalb County, Georgia. Saliers’ father was a progressive theologian and academic, and her mother was a librarian. Ray’s family was conservative: Amy attended church with them several times a week. The friends began playing music together in high school and performing as the Indigo Girls when they were students at Emory University in the mid-1980s. Since their first album, Strange Fire, in 1987, they have found metaphors to transform some of life’s darkest moments of indecision into windows onto a hopeful future. They also sing about Native American rights, environmentalism, immigration, and other hot-button issues with the sensibility of storytellers, in much the same way they have sung about more conventional themes like first love, grief, and fear.

The Indigo Girls play an all-ages concert at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center on Thursday, Feb. 6. The event, under the heading It Takes a Village, is a fundraiser for the Traditional Native American Farmers Association and for Honor the Earth, an organization supporting Native environmental issues that Saliers and Ray founded with Ojibwe activist Winona LaDuke in 1993. LaDuke will address the audience, followed by an opening performance by the indigenous poet and singer Lyla June Johnston.

Ray spoke with Pasatiempo from her home in Atlanta about the arc of the Indigo Girls’ activism and how it works its way into their music.

Pasatiempo: Do you remember the first songs you wrote? Did they have a social message?

Amy Ray: The first songs that I wrote weren’t necessarily message songs. I was thinking about love and loneliness and the bubble of high school. I probably had a lot of religious overtones in my music because that was the vocabulary that I knew. That’s how I was raised. I used that symbolism and those stories in metaphorical ways, early on, to achieve my goal, which was to talk about social justice and equality. I can’t remember all the songs, but we probably sang things about, like, loving your neighbor and peace and stuff like that. Then we started doing benefits and meeting people that were activists, and we started learning more about issues, and it started becoming more of our vocabulary.

Pasa: Do you remember the first couple of causes that you felt pulled to address?

Ray: We did Meals on Wheels projects for people with AIDS in the early ’80s in Atlanta. There was a lot going on, and we didn’t really understand it all. Remember the Save the Whales campaign? We were into that environmental movement. There were a lot of homeless shelters around Atlanta, and a lot of our friends were involved with that movement. We were slowly immersing ourselves in a community that was educated, political, and savvy about what was really going on and what needed to be changed. And then as we worked more in the environmental movement and met Winona LaDuke in the early ’90s, that’s when we started Honor the Earth.

Pasa: How did you meet LaDuke?

Ray: We met her at an Earth Day show in Boston. We were playing and she was speaking. I was moved by what she said and about looking at things through the lens of Native activism. I introduced myself and Emily, and we just started talking. Within a year, we had the beginnings of Honor the Earth and were working on raising money and the mission of the group — building a bridge between Native and non-Native communities through grants to existing activist groups that were Native-run, and raising awareness in non-Native communities about Native issues.

Pasa: Did working with Native communities affect your activism?

Ray: It affected our activism on immigration issues, feminist issues, queer issues. They had a model that was kind of community-based. It wasn’t corporate. It wasn’t top-down. It was the mission of what you were doing — the process being as important as the end result. You didn’t want a corporate structure for your group if you were fighting corporations. When you’re working with Native communities, you don’t want the white people to be in charge all of a sudden. We really learned a consciousness about how all that works, and then we applied that to other social justice issues that we’d been working on. As we were learning about issues, there was probably more content coming into our songs and [they were] becoming more specific and nuanced. You learn that everything’s not so black and white. And you learn that even the terms black and white are kind of weird. The activism affects your whole cosmos.

Pasa: How do you make sure your political and protest songs remain artful? Sometimes such songs are so on-the-nose about issues that the poetry disappears. The Indigo Girls don’t seem to suffer from that problem.

Ray: We have suffered from that, but I know exactly what you mean. What we’ve learned, or what we’re trying to put into practice, is that you serve the song first and that will serve the issue — because you can’t be effective if the song is weak. There are groups that are more didactic, like Rage Against the Machine, but they do their research and write in such a clever way, so it’s not so on-the-nose.

Pasa: The Indigo Girls broke through when it was still rare for mainstream musicians to be out about their sexuality — the other notable exception being Melissa Etheridge. Do you have feelings about your legacy in that regard?

Ray: What I know is that Emily and I were scared. We probably had internalized some homophobia. We had to learn at the same time as the community around us was learning and the same time our audience was learning. We were young and our audience was young. We weren’t super brave. We took our time and waited until the right moment for us [in the early 1990s]. It wasn’t a big press thing. It was just when we felt we weren’t scared anymore. We were into the idea that people have their own trajectory, because we had our own trajectory. We weren’t into outing people. I always see things as a continuum, and everybody is lighting their candle from the person who came before them, and helping light someone else’s, and you keep going. Younger people are super-influential on us as well: the movements around gender and trans people and Black Lives Matter. We’ve learned from all those activists.

Pasa: You have several truly iconic songs that enormous crowds of people sing along with at your concerts. Do you know what your most requested song is? And is there a physical sensation at a concert when all those people are singing with you?

Ray: “Watershed” is very requested. “The Wood Song,” “Galileo,” “Power of Two.” People assume we’re going to do “Closer to Fine,” so they don’t really request it. I don’t even know how to describe it when crowds sing along. It’s a physical thing because it’s sound waves, and it’s overwhelming. I love it. I couldn’t do the songs over and over again if it was just us playing without that kind of participation and community vibe. It would be boring to me. For me, that makes it feel different all the time. You hear different things. Some crowds have people singing harmonies and counter melodies. I always feel lucky. ◀

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