By Christopher Treacy
8 p.m. June 19
121 Fletcher St, Ann Arbor
“One Lost Day,” the 13th studio release of original material from the Indigo Girls, bursts with renewal and refreshment. It’s unmistakably Indigo Girls – the tone, the harmonies, the melding of pop and folkie sensibilities. It all bears the Indigo stamp.
But if the Indigo Girls are a deck of cards, “One Lost Day” presents a fresh shuffle. The duo comes to the Ann Arbor Summer Festival on June 19 for a set that’ll cover both the old and the new, but the sound of the new collection, out June 2, is something that can be largely attributed to producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin.
“It’s true, I guess a lot of people don’t really understand what it is a producer actually does,” Saliers says over the phone from Georgia, birthplace of the Indigos and also where she and wife/former tour manager Tristin Chipman are raising a daughter together.
Saliers has a point, and it’s less a judgment than a mere observation: Outside of the most musically enthused circles, production is a lost concept. And yet it has so much to do with how the sound of new recordings comes together (or doesn’t). Despite the culture of singles created by iTunes and streaming services, hardcore music fans still perceive albums as unified sets of songs – a whole. A producer is brought in to shape that whole, to cast a tone and help bring out the best in the artists while lending a sense of creative direction. Each scenario is different.
That said, it’s always telling when you see a multitude of production credits in the liner notes of a new release… evidence of partially failed creative relationships from which the best tracks are salvaged. Discs with many producers often lack cohesion, but Indigo Girls have had notoriously fruitful relationships with revered production stars like Mitchell Froom, David Leonard and John Reynolds, in addition to their recurring creative union with Peter Collins (who has overseen about half of their output). With Hamlin, they took a chance on an underdog. They sought change and found it.
“We loved Jordan’s work with Lucy Wainwright Roche,” Saliers explains, referencing Wainwright-Roche’s stunning 2013 release, “There’s a Last Time for Everything.” “She has a classical background and a love of woodwinds and horns – really eclectic tastes and influences. When Amy and I sent her these songs in their nascent stage, she took our rough demos and added in horns, moody swatches of electric guitar, and little bits of oddball percussion. Later she brought us ideas for string arrangements, as well as new engineers and players we’d never worked with before. She brought us a new team, basically.”
This is particularly telling. Not all artists are able to set egos aside to let someone come in and rearrange the furniture of their creative space so wholeheartedly. But this many years into the duo’s career, making it work with a new producer is the way that sonic ruts are avoided. The result? Progress. The fact that Saliers and Ray, both 51, are able to yield to a new creative partner is proof of their dedication to keeping it compelling for their fans. Even still, there were some moments of tension along the way.
“Jordan had very clear, strong ideas,” Saliers says. “Sometimes there was tension suggesting things – either on our part or on hers – that didn’t necessarily jibe with the other’s vision for the song. Not all producers are musicians in their own right, but Jordan is, and she wanted to play on this record, which is something Amy and I had to adjust to. There were also a lot of parts on the record that she worked on when we weren’t there – she really set up her chemistry lab and tested out her potions – which was also an uncomfortable feeling for us at the time. There was a very real process of letting go involved.”
Saliers and Ray are proud of “One Lost Day,” which arrives just in time for them to celebrate 30 years of making music together and also just in time for Pride season, to which Saliers expressed a healthy sense of disconnection.
“Pride feels like partying to me, and I don’t really have a place in my life for that anymore,” she admits. “It’s a celebration for sure, but people tend to associate that with a lot of drinking and getting high. Don’t get me wrong – we definitely have a lot to celebrate. We need to be visible, to do our dance, walk our walk, and play our music loud. But we also need to better focus on pressing issues, to find ways to alleviate the suffering of queer teens on the path to suicide, to deal with prostitution and homelessness. We’re still a marginalized community.
“I want to see Pride better function as both a party and a platform for activism and change,” she adds, noting that, “We still play Pride sometimes and it can be really fun, but it’s got to bring you something that’s good for your soul and your spirit.”
When asked about specific career accomplishments that do instill a sense of pride, Saliers says she prefers to speak in terms of gratitude. She reminisced about climbing the scaffolding at the historic marches on Washington, the duo’s support of Honor the Earth for over 20 years and, in general, the power of music to inspire social change.
“Long-term relationships with a dedication to certain forms of work are what stands out for me – I feel very glad for that work; it feels really good to work hard,” she says. “In addition, to open for the Grateful Dead and Neil Young, to participate in Lilith Fair – those are unforgettable honors. And at the center of it all is my relationship with Amy, who I adore and love so deeply. We’ve weathered a lot of stuff, a lot of personal losses, and I feel so grateful for what we still have together after all this time.”