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Indigo Girls make Aspen debut

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Matt OdomThe Indigo Girls - Emily Saliers, left, and Amy Ray - perform Tuesday, April 13 at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN – Amy Ray, half of the female folk-rock group the Indigo Girls, says that so many things make up a songwriter’s sensibility, and that these influences can be so subtle and indirect, that pinpointing them can be a wearying task. Ray mentions the rural environment that she has always yearned for, and that she has lived in for nearly two decades. There was the tendency toward community involvement that was instilled in her by her parents. The creative relationship she has had with her bandmate, Emily Saliers, since they were teenagers has to count for plenty, as does the fact that both Ray and Saliers are gay and liberal, and inclined toward activism on those and other issues.

But when it comes to a particular quality of the Indigo Girls’ music – the seriousness of purpose, the general darkness of the emotional content – one aspect of Ray’s background seems to stand out. Ray and Saliers are Southerners – they met as kids growing up in Atlanta, and Ray now lives in small-town Georgia – and are connected to the storytelling of the American Southeast. When the subject matter of the Indigo Girls’ latest album, “Poseidon and the Bitter Bug,” comes up – the album, released last year, is filled with genocide and suicide, apologies and unpaid bills, and other tales of human wreckage – Ray lets loose a sigh, and a long, downbeat “Yeahhh,” before discussing the regional flair of her writing.

“There’s definitely different literature to grab in the South,” Ray said from her home in Georgia, a few days before she and Saliers were scheduled to kick off a two-week acoustic tour of the mountains and Midwest with their first-ever Aspen appearance, Tuesday, April 13, at Belly Up. “And the most overwhelming thing is that Southern Gothic – William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, who are so dark. I read all of them. Those writers are important to me; the images and the stories they tell are what I grew up on – and also hearing other people talk about them. I’m steeped in that.”

I bring up a lyric to “Galileo,” a song from the Indigo Girls’ 1992 album “Rites of Passage” that, despite being about reincarnation, existentialist angst and the 17th-century thinker Galileo Galilei, became a top 10 hit. The lyric could well describe the Indigo Girls as songwriters: “I’m not making a joke, you know me/ I take everything so seriously.” Ray doesn’t recognize the lines right away; “That’s one of Emily’s songs,” she explains, adding that she and Saliers rarely collaborate in the writing process. But she acknowledges that the words contain some autobiographical truth.

“There’s a fluff song now and then,” Ray said (without specifying one). “But for the most part, it’s just life. We’re not comedians in our songwriting. We do try to get some irony in there.”

• • • •

Here’s a hint of irony: Ray doesn’t hesitate to say that the writer who has had the most direct impact on her is one of the most Northern of writers, Stephen King of Maine. Ray calls “On Writing,” King’s book about the craft of the written word, “the single most influential book” regarding her songwriting process.

Ray and Saliers, who have made 11 studio albums together in 21 years as Indigo Girls, have known one another since before they were teenagers, and they have much in common – lesbianism, instincts for social activism, roots in Atlanta. Their voices blend beautifully; their harmony singing is integral to their success. And they are about the same age; on the day of the Aspen gig, they will both be 46.

But they are not the same age. Ray’s birthday is on Monday, April 12, while Saliers turns 47 in July. Not a big difference at the moment, but the nine-month separation meant that Saliers was a grade ahead of Ray when they were kids – a fairly big deal. “I always felt a little bit of a step behind Emily,” Ray said.

That gap was only widened in their musical existence. Saliers was already writing songs when the two met in grade school, but Ray didn’t begin writing her own material until 1985, when the duo graduated from folkie coffeehouses to the kinds of Atlanta clubs where it was expected that the acts would play original songs.

“I’ve had to work a little harder to catch up musically,” Ray said. “[Emily’s] always just going to be a better musician than me. She’s just gifted, has a specific thing she does really well. I’ll always respect what she does.”

Ray says her forte was on the business side. That balance has been important to the health and longevity of Indigo Girls, and it has also spurred both members to strengthen their weaker sides. Saliers, Ray said, has become more business-savvy. And Ray has devoted herself to the creative aspect.

Fairly recently in the history of Indigo Girls, Ray began writing the harmony parts for her own songs, a step she considers significant in her growth as a musician. And from Mitchell Froom, who produced “Poseidon and the Bitter Bug,” she learned the art of blending melody and chords. But more important has been the way she has thrown herself into writing.

That began with King’s book from 2000. “Until 10 years ago, I didn’t make it a craft,” Ray said. “I got my process out of [“On Writing”], the description that to be a writer you had to sit down and write. And that if you’re not writing, then read something that will inspire you to write.”

Ray mentions two additional books that have influenced her development as a writer: “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” by Anne Lamott; and “Writing Down the Birds: Freeing the Writer Within,” by Natalie Goldberg.

“I made a point to learn from people, and really started taking writing seriously – not sitting around waiting for the muse to hit me,” she said. “I really worked on my process, and it kind of worked. I write four to five days a week.”

It is possible that Ray and Saliers have been leaders themselves, specifically by expanding the niche of female singer-songwriters. Indigo Girls, for instance, opened a pair of concerts for the Grateful Dead back in 1993. Ray recalls thinking that few Deadheads were going to listen to a pair of chick singers, but she now calls it a career highlight, mostly because of the unexpectedly warm reception she and Saliers were given.

Ray, though, isn’t about to give Indigo Girls too much credit for breaking down any gender doors. If anything, she was simply a part of a larger contingent of female musicians expanding the territory.

“We were in that fringe of people. But I don’t know if we influenced it,” she said. “We were a part of that critical mass. But I know we weren’t the Beatles, that’s for sure.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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