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Indigo Girls' True Colors

Folk/rock duo riffs about song inspiration, their relationship with religion, and getting dates.
Tuesday Jul 20, 2010.     By Sarah Terez Rosenblum
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Indigo GirlsIndigo Girls play Morton Arboretum on Saturday night.

In 1990, Milli Vanilli beat out Indigo Girls, nabbing the Grammy for best new artist. But 20 years later, guess who's still selling out concert halls? Hint: 50 percent of Milli Vanili is dead, while Indigo Girls are 100 percent alive and touring. Centerstage spoke with folk/rock duo Amy Ray and Emily Saliers about songwriting, their upcoming holiday album and why Ray can always find a date.

You're touring to support "Staring Down the Brilliant Dream." Why another live album?
Emily Saliers: We did "Back on the Bus" (which isn't one of my favorites) a million years ago, and "1200 Curfews," which was popular with the fans. Our front of house guy recorded shows from 2006 to 2009, a slice of our history, and the recordings turned out really well.
Amy Ray: We don't like to wait too long. We like to have a time period and then document, move on and document the next one.
ES: We had fun sifting through all the songs, some with the band, some acoustic and some with special guest artists.

Do performances blur?
AR: Ninety percent of the time I have a pretty vivid memory. I didn't listen to every minute of every song because I would know from the first minute.

Your career longevity has afforded you the ability to help out newcomers like Brandi Carlile.
AR: Someone like her doesnt really need our help, she's so talented, one of those once-in-a-generation voices. It was more our excitement hearing this new person with new energy and wanting to share it. She knew our songs; it was just easy to sing together.

I asked your Facebook fans for questions, and many heard about your guitar tech, Sulli, having a stroke and sent good wishes.
ES: That's nice. It was a devastating thing to happen for her and for us because were like family and shes so young. But she's home now, she's in PT and she's got her sights set on coming back to work. It's nice to have the support not only of her friends and family but of the fans.

Emily, a fan question, how has your relationship to spirituality changed over time?
ES: My dad is a retired professor of theology and ordained Methodist minister. Every Sunday, my mom would roast a chicken, and we always ate together and could ask my dad pointed questions like, "does god exist?" or "how could a person be the son of god?" So, I grew up able to question religion. When I didn't want to go to church anymore I didn't have to. Now I go when I'm home [but] I have a mixed relationship in terms of what I see the church doing outside of my own personal experience. As much as I've been horrified by the way organized religion can oppress people, stigmatize, judge and hurt them, I also see good work in the church: outreach to prisons, a green movement, affirming congregations and people working toward gay rights.

Amy, I got a number of spirituality/songwriting questions for Emily, but the most frequent question for you was, "Can I get a date?"
AR: Wow, man, Emily gets the songwriting questions and I get a date.

Why is that?
AR: It makes me laugh 'cause ... I don't know why it makes me laugh, 'cause its embarrassing, I guess. I believe we suppress parts of ourselves that are more sensual, and I don't mean sex, just feeling and touching and appreciating beauty. I'm pretty graphic and honest and I walk in the world as a sensual person. Maybe that comes out in the music.

You did get some song questions as well!
AR: (Laughs) It's okay. The Indigo Girls have been together so long, I know where the divisions fall.

What inspired your upcoming holiday album?
AR: Our moms. My mom always wanted us to record "In the Bleak Midwinter" and Emily's mom wanted us to record the same song! Things fell together. We did the record in Nashville with a bluegrass band, kind of an interesting approach to holiday music.

They say writers are influenced by their geography. True for you?
ES: No doubt. The south is a mysterious, murky place with a fascinating and poignant history of civil rights struggle. I wasn't born in the south, but I feel like I was.
AR: I hear a lot of Georgia in her writing in the last 10 years.

What's one aspect your writing process that looks least like writing.
AR: Probably movement. I finish a lot of songs while driving. I write on the road, but at home I have more of a discipline; I write earlier in the day, then doing my chores, I'm still writing in my head. I couldn't just sit at my writing table for six hours. I have to do two, break away [and] let it brew, then come back.
ES: In college, I could write five songs a day, but now it's much more of a discipline. Im learning Logic, Apple's recording software and I'm excited about that, I'm not very technically apt, but I'm working toward a solo project.

This is your first to Amys three.
ES: Amy's really quite a rocker and there are songs she writes [that] we can't do. I haven't needed to get something out that I couldn't through Indigo Girls, but now I'm envisioning a hybrid project: organic instruments, acoustic guitar and piano in conjunction with beats, 'cause I'm an R&B freak. I'd like to couple the contemporary sound of beats with lyrics that dig down deep. I don't know if you could dance to it, but maybe you could snap your fingers.

Catch Indigo Girls Saturday at Morton Arboretum. Tickets are $35-$45, and the show starts at 7 p.m.


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