Few artist are willing to take on topics as complex as the prison industrial complex, painkiller addiction and faith — let alone on one album — but the Indigo Girls certainly don’t shy away from getting to the root of serious social issues. And, on their latest release “One Lost Day,” they tackle each of these topics. After releasing 16 studio albums and performing for over 30 years together, the folk rock duo that is Amy Ray and Emily Saliers is set to perform at Detroit’s MotorCity Casino Hotel on April 22.
Between The Lines caught up with Saliers in-between tour stops to talk about how songs change in importance over time, the struggle of the creative process and new projects currently in the works.
“One Lost Day” is your newest release, but it’s a few years old now. Have you found that some of the songs on that record have changed their meaning?
You’re exactly right that over time, songs do change what they mean to you or you can experience them differently emotionally even though you wrote them a long, long time ago. For instance, the song on “One Lost Day” called “Come A Long Way” that’s a song about a spiritual journey of mine and it’s still very fresh to me … that happens for a lot of the older songs, but for the songs for the newest album they still feel new.
Are you ever surprised that a song you may have written a long time ago becomes topical again with age?
I know what you mean. I feel like a lot of times, the subject that we write about are things like systemic oppression, systemic racism, a long human history of conflict and war or refugees. These are really, really deep problems that the human race faces, and so even if the song was written 10, even 20 years ago, it’s going to still be relevant today because we’re still working on those issues. We may timestamp a song by listing something specific like, for instance, Amy mentions Karla Faye Tucker in “Faye Tucker” so you could look at the time that Karla Faye Tucker was executed and look at the time there, but you have the same issues showing up in “Rise of the Black Messiah.” Where Black inmates who were what most everybody believes to be wrongly accused of something they didn’t do and then put in solitary confinement for decades. Just supreme injustice.
Do you think that because you’re part of the LGBTQ community you’re more able to empathize with social justice issues? Does that inform your creative process?
Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. I definitely know what it feels like to feel ostracized, to have society say, “You’re not valid. You can’t get married.” People who are fundamentalists or conservative Christians taking their faith to put harsh judgment and oppression on queer people. I would never compare my struggle as a queer person and trying to work toward acceptance and gay rights and things like that point by point to the Black civil rights struggle in America. They’re different struggles but they do have in common the perception of being oppressed.
Have you ever had a fan come up to you and say you’ve changed their mind about issues? For instance, helped someone deal with homophobia?
(Laughs) You know, not specifically that. But I have to say that the music has opened their minds, opened their spirits and those kind of things. And, definitely, I have heard that from listeners that maybe they thought that Indigo Girls was just for lesbians or women or whatever. We’ll have men fans come up and explain what the music has meant to them after their sister or their wife or whomever introduced them to the music. So, we definitely get feedback about how they have appreciated what the music has brought to them in a way that maybe they didn’t think about or experience before.
Do you ever create too much content for an album and end up with leftover songs to use on other projects?
There are some, but there aren’t a lot. I think when we were younger we would be perhaps more prolific. I know when I was college age or whatever I could write five songs a day (laughs), but now a song takes a lot more time. We’re more disciplined about sitting in our workspaces and getting to work and just working away at a song. After writing all the songs that we have, we have to make sure you’re not repeating yourself and we’re always looking for new images. So, by the time we get to make a new album, there aren’t really extra songs laying around. Everything has been written with the intent to go on the new album, and if I start a song and just cannot feel satisfied with it, I just let it go.
Has your new family life affected your creative process at all?
It definitely is. Amy has a daughter and I have a daughter and they’re little kids. They’re in preschool and both of our partners work — my wife works and Amy’s partner works — and then Amy and I have to tour — not have to, but it takes us away from home — and we’re always involved in other projects or activism work. So, we have very, very busy lives. That’s why songwriting has become like, “OK, you put on your calendar that on Monday morning between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. I’m going into my workspace and I’m working on my music for three hours.” It’s become a really disciplined, scheduled block of time.
Does it ever get hard to be creative at such a specific period of time?
Yeah, totally. But, I do believe now through experience that something always comes. Even if it’s the germ of an idea or even if you know to let go of something that’s not working, so it’s kind of like, you know, when your therapist or teacher says, “Now start writing and don’t stop for three minutes.” You go, “I can’t write anymore,” and your subconscious takes off and your stream of consciousness takes off and before you know it, you have thoughts that you didn’t know were going to come out. That’s what I believe is important about the discipline or blocking off time, rather than just going, “Ugh, I guess I’ll go down there today.” You have to sit through the discomfort of not feeling inspired. And then, invariably, something comes.
So has the scope of your work changed at all because of that? Do you find yourself focusing on different things now that your creative process is different and your daughter is in your life?
I would say that the main difference is that I just have become so sensitive, you know? I’m seeing where how sometimes life can chip away at your sense of wonder, I have that sense of wonder that’s come back through Cleo. The largest thing that’s happened is that I’m crystalizing my beliefs that my life will be most well-lived by what I can give back to other people, by coming from a place of truth and compassion and participating in what’s going on in the human race. Having a child, you learn that you’re not the most important person on the Earth anymore and having her has brought back this sense of wonder, made me sensitive to suffering in the world and also made me really feel like I know what my purpose is on Earth. Those are pretty big things and they come out in the songs.
So what are some of the things you’re paying attention to for inspiration now?
Well on my solo album I mentioned Standing Rock and a lot about the gun issues, and “Spider” is all about the military industrial complex as a metaphor. There’s a lot of heavy issue stuff on that album, and I’m feeling at the beginning of writing for this next album a lot of interpersonal reflection instead. We’re totally focused right now on stopping Pipeline 3 in the Midwest, working on lobbying on that, working with getting out the vote — we’ve got voting groups coming out with us on the road just to make sure that everybody can get registered. We’re really involved in that and sensible gun laws. We have a group called Moms Demand Action coming out to table with us on the road. So, even if that material doesn’t show up in live songs, we’re still thinking actively about it, but you never know what’s going to come out in a song. Right now, in the songs that I’ve started, they’re more stories about people and their relationships and the difficulty of love and things like that.
Are you working on any new projects right now?
Yeah, there are plans! We’re releasing a full symphony album that we recorded with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra last April. We’ve been touring orchestras across North America for several years now at least, so we’re releasing that. We’re really, really proud of it. Those are songs that we’ve already had, they’re not new songs that are on that new album. But then, we’re going to London at the beginning of the new year and we’re going to make another Indigo Girls record with brand-new music. We’re going back with the same team that did “Come On Now Social.” That’s one of my favorite albums in our discography and we love our British cohorts.
The Indigo Girls will be at the Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel in Detroit on Sunday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m. For more details about the upcoming performance go to indigogirls.com or ticketmaster.com. Tickets start at $24.