It’s easy to take the Indigo Girls for granted. They keep the albums coming every couple years, play the D.C. region often and despite their insistence on keeping things fresh, still manage to feel — and sound — like sonic comfort food.
From her home in Atlanta on the eve of embarking on a 10-date mini-tour with Joan Baez (sandwiched between a slew of other dates), Emily Saliers took a few minutes with us and was as unpretentious and down-to-earth as she’s always been. They play Wolf Trap Wednesday night. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.
BLADE: Why Joan, why now?
SALIERS: Our manager knows Joan’s and we’ve been friends for about 10 years and have toured with her before. The timing was just right and Joan was wanting to do it.
BLADE: Full band?
SALIERS: Yeah, we’re bringing the Shadowboxers with us. They’re a great group of young guys and an up-and-coming band. Usually they open for us but since this will be a full show with two sets, they’re the house band. We call Joan our matriarch and then these guys are younger so I really like the intergenerational aspects of the tour.
BLADE: Will you be collaborating with Joan on anything or is it separate sets?
SALIERS: We’ll do ours first, then Joan, then we’ll do a handful of songs together.
BLADE: Picked the songs yet for the collaborations?
SALIERS: We know we’ll do “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” but the others are still in the works. We might do a couple Indigo Girls songs and a couple of Joan’s. There’ll be others we might do some nights and others on other nights.
BLADE: For some musical acts — perhaps even most — the general public tends to heavily identify the band or singer with the era in which it had its biggest commercial success. This would be true of both Joan Baez and Indigo Girls. Yet fans know there’s usually so much more to an artist than one era. Does this bother you?
SALIERS: I know that kind of typecasting musically exists. It doesn’t really bother me although I wish people would be a little more broad minded when it comes to such things. We continue to put out new records every couple of years and we’ve had our fingers all over the board in all kinds of genres. I think our discography proves we’re still viable and relevant. For a long time we were just the lesbian band or people just thought of the skits on “Saturday Night Live.” But Amy and I would be so bored if that’s all we were and we feel we’ve done our very best work since then. It’s the same thing in many ways with Joan. She was and still is a tremendous activist and it just goes on and on and on. She’s been very brave and courageous in dangerous times and she’s been true to her vision of social justice. It’s not just old stuff from the ‘70s. She’s that kind of person to us and hopefully we can inspire people the same way.
BLADE: So many acts now are just touring on their catalog or might do an EP here or there yet the Indigo Girls, like you said, have kept up with adding to your discography. Has there been any sense that they’ve yielded diminishing returns in some ways or are they creatively satisfying enough for you to have kept at it?
SALIERS: We really don’t make any money selling records, I’ll tell you that. Those days are long, long gone. But I get so fucking excited when an artist I love has a new album out so we try to think of the fans and approach it that way. It’s important for the fans and also for our own musical growth. And yes, we have to think economically, which is a total bummer. There were some glory days when we didn’t have to. It does suck sometimes. Like just recently we were going to do a symphonic record and right in the middle of planning it, the union law changed for the musicians and the studio scale just took it totally out of our league. It’s a shame because we were dying to make that record, but of course we’re also not going to go in the hole for tens of thousands of dollars to do it. It’s just a very different landscape than we came up in so we make a lot of tactful decisions based on economics while also honoring our belief that we have to keep making new music.
BLADE: You play D.C. regularly. How are audiences here different from other comparable-size regions?
SALIERS: D.C. audiences are really distinctive. Like Florida in the sense that, well, it’s just so different from anyplace else. Just kind of this strange, exotic place. D.C. has been very loyal to us and we love playing Wolf Trap which in some ways I can’t believe we can still play it because it’s one of the larger venues but we always do well there and we have such a great time. With many amphitheaters the spacial difference can really sop up a lot of the energy but that doesn’t happen at Wolf Trap.
BLADE: There are many, many lesbian singer/songwriter-type musicians who have and have had loyal followings in certain circles but never cracked the mainstream zeitgeist in any way. How do you think you and Amy managed to do that?
SALIERS: I think a lot of it was really just timing. We were signed in the era when you had people like Tracy Chapman and Melissa Etheridge and Jewel and Suzanne Vega and a slew of women with acoustic guitars selling a bunch of records. We got signed at that time and radio was friendly to us then. REM gave us a leg of their tour which really helped with visibility. If we came out now, we’d just totally be swimming upstream to maintain successful long careers. I also think because Amy’s music is different from mine, there’s kind of two musical lives playing out here, people don’t get bored by it. We don’t just think of it as music with acoustic guitars. I mean Amy rocks hard. But the reality is it’s a male-dominated business and most women artists have to sell their sexuality to be successful. For men it’s true to a degree but not the same extent. Rock and roll is a male genre and that’s really its power structure.
BLADE: How many guitars do you travel with?
SALIERS: We have these massive guitar coffins, they’re called, these travel cases where a bunch can fit in rather than having to line them all up individually. Let’s see, probably about 15-20 including banjo, mandolin and classical guitar, which we use for a few songs.
BLADE: Some folks — perhaps the less musically inclined — have asked if it’s really necessary to keep changing guitars every song. Is it because different tunings are used for different songs, overall sonic variety or what? I’m sure you have a guitar tech, right?
SALIERS: It’s all those things, yes. It may seem a bit absurd but trust me, if we didn’t do that or have a guitar tech, which is a very necessary luxury. Our guitar tech Sully has been with us 17 years and really is part of the fabric of the Indigo Girls. But yes, we’d spend half our set just tuning if we didn’t have her. It really contributes a lot to show flow. It really disrupts the flow of things if you have to stand there and keep tuning. So part of it is keeping things interesting for the audience, too. Doing some on mandolin or some on banjo varies it up. If it were all the same sonically it would be very boring.
BLADE: Did you have to learn good pitch, both with the guitar and vocally, or did that always just come natural for you? Are there ever times where you go back and think, “Yikes, we went a little flat there.”
SALIERS: Oh yeah, it happens all the time but I grew up in a very musical family and singing in choirs so we were taught to be very mindful of pitch and learned all the little tricks you can do to stay on pitch. I have a good ear and can always tell if something’s a little flat or sharp. I’m very mindful of that, especially on records. In fact, that’s one way Amy and I differ a little. Her feeling would be if a take catches the vibe but is a little pitchy, she’d be more inclined to go with it. I have a little different approach. If the pitch is off, I just can’t live with it.
BLADE: How long of a set do you have planned for next week?
SALIERS: Probably an hour to and hour-15 then about four songs with Joan.
BLADE: Thanks for your time!
SALIERS: Thanks, take care.