Marriage equality was a mere pipe dream when Indigo Girls duo Emily Saliers and Amy Ray came out in 1988, coinciding with the release of their eponymous Epic Records debut. There was no groundbreaking "Ellen" sitcom. Melissa Etheridge wasn't formally out, and wouldn't be until 1993, when she released "Yes I Am." With regard to popular entertainment, particularly within the music business, Saliers and Ray were at the forefront of the queer rights movement. They won a Grammy and released chart-toppers like "Closer to Fine." And they refused to let their sexuality get in the way of their success, brazenly being themselves at a time when being a gay public figure was uncommon and even downright scary.
I caught up with Saliers, 53, and Ray, 52, at the beginning of 2017, just days before Donald Trump would become our 45th president. The trailblazers talked about how music will unify despite the divisiveness of his administration, why "this is a really good time for artists to come to the forefront and stand up and be brave," and their initial grade-school encounter that led to a devoted musical career and dear friendship spanning three decades.
You're on the road fairly frequently. What keeps you touring as often as you do?
Amy Ray: Every audience is different, so every experience is different, and I just think it's good to get out there and play in front of people and keep that community… build it and keep it vibrant and have that exchange.
Emily Saliers: The demographic is more mixed now, and there are younger people who come to the shows. I don't know how they find out about us, maybe their parents. Also, a lot of young women who are looking for bands that have a feminist reality about them. Self-empowered, self-worth, self-questioning – all those things that are all over our lyrics. Even though we've gotten much older, I don't feel like the experience of going to one of our shows is like we're just this old band that's been around forever. It still feels new and fresh. I love it as much or more than I ever have.
Given the divisiveness of what's happening politically, is building that sense of community more important now?
Ray: It might be. I guess in some ways there are other levels where community is always important, because even when you have the best kind of administration and a president that you love, there are still pockets within our own country that need community and need that glue where there's hard things going on, whether it's different queer communities or Native American communities or communities of color that are disenfranchised in some way. But right now, it's pretty daunting. There might be reversals that are negative environmentally and human rights-wise. I think it's definitely a time to batten down the hatches and roll up the sleeves and start working.
What part do you think the arts, including music, will play in the political climate of Trump's America?
Ray: This is a really good time for artists to come to the forefront and stand up and be brave and make themselves known, and not be worried about alienating people with their art. Sometimes in the music community – still – there are people who go, "Oh, we don't want to rock the boat and alienate our audience." But I feel like people are feeling less of that and more like, "Screw it." I can see it happening around me with my friends even, who didn't want to rock the boat, who might've been scared to alienate somebody in their audience. But now I think it's like, "Well, what do we have to lose?"
Visual art and movies and theater right now are very important – music, also. Popular culture, like with "Ellen," the original sitcom, for instance, really impacted people. It broadened a lot of people's horizons, and "Transparent" does that as far as issues around queerness and trans issues and issues around Jewishness.
During Obama's administration, there was, in a good way, a lot of permission given to all this really beautiful art to blossom, and I think that's good because there's this strong groundwork that's been laid that just needs to continue happening well into the next administration. Art can really bring people together who might feel alienated from each other, like in my community. I live in a rural community where maybe 80 or 90 percent of the people voted for Trump, but I don't really demonize people. I can't go there 'cause they're my neighbors, and I know them. I know them in their best moments. And I just try to understand where they're coming from.
Saliers: I think (art is) going to play a huge part. For me, personally, the second the election was over I wrote a song about it, and it's gonna be on my new record, because for my own personal reasons, I had to have a catharsis. I know people need music to help speak their challenges and their struggles, and I think music is going to do two things, maybe more. First of all, for people who are just horrified that he's our president, and the cabinet that he's bringing in – possibly the Supreme Court justices – it's gonna let them know they're not alone. They're gonna be able to tap into music that makes them realize that they're part of a vast community of people who are opposed to all that stuff, and that's really important. It's going to remind Trump that the musical culture is not with him. That can be a very real pressure – that there is a movement against hate. Also, it's a way for us to soothe our souls in troubled times. Go out and hear live music and listen to music and keep the conversation going, and don't forget that we have elected someone who is frightening and incapable. Americans get lethargic, and we forget bad things happen. But this is an ongoing reality. We can't forget, and I really believe music is going to keep reminding all of us what we're up against.
Amy, what was your post-election catharsis?
Ray: I definitely wrote. I write all the time. I just didn't have the visceral… it didn't totally surprise me, I guess. I've worked it out in my community. I really made this commitment to myself to reach out to people even though I know they voted for Trump (laughs) – family members. I really tried to take Michelle Obama's word and "go high." She's a very important person to me, and so is Barack. I just really tried to look at how they were dealing with the situation and follow their example. I hate to say that, because I am my own person, but in some ways, I needed some inspiration, and they inspire me in a lot of ways to reach beyond my little world and little bubble of friends. I'm the kind of person who processes by doing, and so volunteering – something concrete – is how I process stuff. Writing helps me. Generally, I write every day, so I'm always processing everything. But I haven't written an anti-Trump song, and I probably won't.
People have long revered you as gay icons.
Ray: (Laughs.) I think it's funny.
Why is it funny?
Ray: I mean, it's flattering, but my god, we have such a lot to learn. I feel like we've been students more than teachers in the world of activism. The people who came before us and the people who are younger than us have really constantly challenged us to think about things and look at intersectionality, things that more people in their teens and 20s are really focusing on.
Our activism is really an area that is constantly evolving and morphing, so it's hard to think about myself as an icon when I still think of myself as a student.
I guess we've been at it a long time and we're older, and we certainly have seen a lot of things change. We're stronger than we used to be in our convictions and are able to love ourselves more than we used to, so in some ways I guess we have some experience. A little bit of gained wisdom. But that's always been a long road, and we've made mistakes along the way and been scared, so in that way we can still understand people and how they feel if they're struggling with it. We don't forget our struggles.
Emily, what does being a gay icon mean to you?
Saliers: I feel humbled to hear that, but I don't feel like an icon. I always feel like somebody built the bridge, paved the path and suffered more before I got to be part of the movement.
Someone's gotta carry the torch, though.
Saliers: I feel like a torch-carrier, that's what I feel like. I also feel like the fact that we've been able to be out, open and supportive of the queer rights movement and of the trans evolution and of civil rights now has just been – I'm so grateful for it. I'm happy that we've been able to be out and free for so long, and real active members for the community, standing up for our family members who are still suffering.
Does being an out artist mean anything different to you now than it did when you first came out?
Ray: When we first came out, we were fearful of what it meant. Our biggest fear was alienating part of our audience – I wouldn't even think about that now, honestly. It's a more positive thing now. Back then it was… there was so much derogatory language around us being gay in the first half of our career. So many reviews that would refer to us in a really negative way, and people would make fun of our audience. We were always the punching bag for gay humor. It just felt like a bummer sometimes. Over time, we've had to learn how to just look at it as a positive thing.
Back then, I did think about visibility, and that's probably what spurred us to (come out). We were feeling guilty because we were hiding something. We were out in our communities and we were community activists, so our lens, even in the late '80s, early '90s, was a political lens, although it definitely got more and more political through the '90s. But we did think about (visibility) because where we lived in Atlanta, post high school, when we were in college at Emory, HIV/AIDS activism was really big, and they were trying to get artists, actors and people in the arts to come out in support of HIV/AIDS activism. So, it was something we were thinking about. It wasn't like we were scared we were going to get caught and then crucified. It was more like, "This is a compelling reason. If we're sitting in front of our audience and talking about the importance of self-esteem and individualism, and we're activists and we're not willing to be visible when all these other people are willing to be visible, there's something wrong with that." That was our conversation with each other.
Saliers: We were always out in our lives, and with our families, friends and locally, and then we got signed to a major label and the national press wanted to talk about it. I had a lot of fear at that time about talking about it in the national press. When I got the courage to be out, it was a feeling of relief and pride. I had fears that we'd be stigmatized and judged and the same old crap. We ended up being all those things, but it didn't matter. The way I felt about being an out musician then was like (whispers), "OK, we've announced it. We're in it." Now, it's like, this is really who we are and we are part of a community and things are too important not to take a stand.
I think it's become a very important part of what the Indigo Girls represent.
Saliers: And I'm really thankful for that. Over time, and with age and wisdom, I think you just have a different perspective on how important it is.
Are you working on any solo material, Amy?
Ray: I'm writing right now for it, and I'd say I'm about a third of the way through. It'll be a country-tinged record with punk influences. Emily's got her record coming out; we just gotta figure out timing. And how to make another Indigo record, 'cause we're both like, "We're ready for the next record," but then we're like, "When are we gonna write for the next record?" I think her solo record is gonna be bigger than she thinks it will be, so I'm standing back a little bit. She wrote me a text and was like, "I'm really excited to write for the next Indigo record." She's such a team player. It's good for us. We're both in it for each other.
Amy, what's your earliest memory of Emily?
Ray: I remember seeing her in the lunchroom with a gaggle of girls around her and she was playing a song on her guitar and singing. I think a couple of them were singing with her, maybe, and I was like, "That's the new girl and she plays and sings." I was playing guitar already too. And I think my first memory was immediately realizing how far ahead she was of the curve. (Laughs) It kind of made me feel intimidated. She was a year older, and you know, we didn't get to be friends until high school, when we were around 15. I was 9 when I first saw her.
You were just admiring her from afar?
Ray: Yeah, just kind of taking stock. Emily has this revision of history that she wasn't popular, and I beg to differ with her about that all the time. I'm always like, "Well, to me, you were popular because I always saw you with all these people around you, and you were always singing and everybody was adoring you, and I was totally intimidated. So, in my little world, you were very popular." We ended up being the best of friends, so it all worked out.
Was there ever a moment in your career when you wanted to pursue something outside of music?
Saliers: The only time I ever thought about the possibility of not doing what I was doing was when I had stage fright for a year-and-a-half, and it just derailed me. I thought, "I can't do this." This was a long, long time ago – over 10, 15 years ago. Honestly, that's the only time I've ever thought, "I can't do this." And it was because of the fear, not anything else. Also, we get to do so many outside projects from Indigo Girls I've never felt like I'd rather be doing something else. I just finished tracking my solo record! I'm very excited. I've been talking about it for years. It's very rhythm-centric. A lot of R&B inspiration. I set out to make a record for what I wanted that I wasn't hearing. I really wanted the African-American presence of drummers who come from the soul-gospel-church background.
When can we expect your debut solo album?
Saliers: In the spring. I hope for April, maybe May. In the spring, (Amy and I are) gonna go record with University of Colorado's symphony orchestra, and we're gonna make a record of symphonically performed songs. We're also working toward making another Indigo Girls studio record. It's just onto the next thing. There's no stopping us.