The Indigo Girls Share Secrets Behind Their Prolific Songwriting

Calling from their Georgia homes, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray of the legendary folk rock duo Indigo Girls say they’re happy to release their latest album, Look Long (read the review), even if it must happen during a pandemic. “It’s been ready for a long time, so I’m really excited to get the whole thing out,” says Saliers.

No doubt their fervent fan base will welcome their latest batch of heartfelt songs as a way to alleviate the stress during the current lockdown.

Look Long is the duo’s 16th studio album, but both Saliers and Ray say that they have never had any problems with coming up with new material, even after playing together for 35 years (though they admit that becoming wives and mothers does require them to be much more disciplined about working at their craft).

“Typically, I’m writing continuously because I think it’s always good to exercise that muscle,” Ray says. “I have lyrics journal and I write in it pretty often during the week. I mess around on the guitar and record everything I’m doing. Then I go back and review all my recordings and make notes about little snippets here and there that I think are good. Every now and then I’ll write a whole song at one time, but it’s pretty rare.”

Saliers also takes a continuous and meticulous approach to songwriting. “If I find a chord progression I like, or if I think of a lyric that I know I’ll forget it if I don’t write it down or record it, I use my voice memos on my phone,” she says. “I collect a folder of voice memos on my [computer] desktop and I named it ‘New Song Ideas,’ and then I go into that and check out the ideas. Usually it becomes pretty clear to me what ones are really sticking with me.”

While writing songs may come relatively easily to both of them, Saliers says that it also requires a bit of conscious effort, at this point, to keep coming up with fresh ideas. “I could write ballads until the cows come home, but I try to branch out. This time, I wrote a song on electric guitar and I wrote a song on banjo, which I haven’t done for a while – just try to present variety within my own group of songs.”

Once each of them has written a batch of songs, Ray and Saliers come together to see what they can make of the material as a team. Both of them clearly find this to be the best part of the process. “I always love Amy’s songs – that’s the exciting part,” Saliers says. “I get tired of my own stuff almost immediately, or I think it’s not that good. But with Amy’s songs in the mix, it broadens the musical world because our sensibilities and the way we express ourselves are different.”

This is not to say that everything each of them brings to the table will be successful. “As we play something, I can tell if the song actually doesn’t hold up, so things weed themselves out,” Ray says. “We each have veto power over our own songs. Whoever wrote the song is the person in charge at that moment.

“It can be scary and nerve-wracking sometimes,” Ray continues, “but it’s a good thing and we’ve done it for so long that we have faith that it’s going to turn out and we’re going to have a group of songs at the end that are the strongest ones. You just try to not hang on too tightly to anything or be too precious about stuff, but really try to look at what serves the record. It could be a good song but just not work as a duo song, or not work for this particular record. There’s so many variables. I’m not sentimental about it. I’ll be like, ‘I need to go back to the drawing board, this is not good enough.’”

Although Ray and Saliers have always started the songwriting process separately, they are noted for their ability to turn that initial output into songs that mesh together remarkably well. Fans can probably pick out which of them wrote a particular song, but the ultimate result – as evident on Look Long – is a unified, unmistakable Indigo Girls sound.

“I think part of it is that we’re on the road a lot together and we’re experiencing some of the same things at the same time,” Saliers says of their ability to mold their work into a cohesive whole. “We’re in the same age range. We both have a young child now, which informs both of our lives profoundly. Also, we arrange the songs together, so that becomes the glue between us. And then our basic values and the way that we view the world. Our path has been together for so long, it stands to reason that even though we write separately, it becomes a gestalt.”

This compatibility began when they first met when they were 10 years old, growing up in Atlanta, Georgia. When they got to high school, they finally began playing music together, which they both say was a revelation. “We became really, really good friends,” Saliers recalls of those early days. “We both were writing songs, and I remember the very first days of going over to Amy’s house and practicing in her basement. It was like you’d discovered the most fun thing you’ve ever done in your life.” She describes their friendship, to this day, as being “very uncomplicated.”

But, Ray admits, her relative inexperience made things a bit difficult when they first began playing together. “I sang in church choir and did a lot of these kind of things where you would think I would know how to write harmonies, but I wasn’t that good at it. And Emily knew really well how to write harmonies. And I was not that accomplished a guitar player. Emily was already venturing into different tunings and playing a lot more complicated [parts] than mine.”

Eventually, however, Ray found ways to circumvent this disparity – which became the very elements that eventually helped make the Indigo Girls so distinctive. First, Ray says, she found a way to harmonize by emulating Simon & Garfunkel, “where you could learn your part almost as if it’s its own song, so the parts have equality between them.” As for her guitar playing, “I would play an easier version or a different tuning so there was a way I could approach it. That became the thing that we do, which is to have really distinct, strong parts so it’s not like a lead singer and a backup singer – it’s a true duo.”

With their own unique sound finally in place, the Indigo Girls started out performing at talent shows at their high school, then graduated to playing cover songs at bars. “But we were always interested in inserting our own songs into the set list,” Saliers says.

They continued performing through college, when Saliers recalls having to decide whether or not they were going to try to make Indigo Girls a professional career. “I guess the moment actually came when Amy was doing all the work and I was getting ready to go to grad school, and I was on the fence between a music career or an English teacher career.” Saliers chose music, “and I never looked back.”

But Ray dismisses the idea that they must have felt immense pressure to decide their fate as a band in that moment. “The idea of everything falling apart because we hadn’t made the big time wasn’t really going to happen, because we knew if things weren’t going well, we could play music and still have another career. It wasn’t like there wasn’t a plan B,” she says, though she adds, “But at that point, I knew that we could turn it from just a hobby that we were having fun with to something more serious if we just invested time to see what it would do.”

Both Saliers and Ray also credit others’ encouragement for helping them take the leap into becoming professional musicians. “Our friends and fellow musicians and our community was so supportive – it was this insistence that was so passionate that you couldn’t really turn away from that. It made you believe in yourself,” Ray says.

This belief in the band was definitely justified when their self-title 1989 album immediately became a massive hit, earning platinum sales status and earning them a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. They’ve maintained a consistently successful career ever since, earning numerous Grammy nominations and other accolades along the way.

But this immense success hasn’t made either of the Indigo Girls forget their fans the community that has nurtured them. During the pandemic, they’ve put on numerous livestreamed shows in an effort to lift fans’ spirits – including one the night before this interview, which raised an astonishing $170,000 for charity. “We were honestly completely shocked,” Ray says of finding out the amount that had been donated. “We were like, is it real? Is there a catch? Is it something weird with Facebook that we don’t know about?”

Those proceeds went to Honor the Earth, a charitable organization that the Indigo Girls helped found in the early ‘90s. “It puts money into Native American communities for environmental and cultural sustainability work,” Ray says. “Right now, Native America is really going through it, but they’re also super innovative. There’s a lot of farming things going on and greenhouses being built to secure their food through the summer and the fall.”

“We just can’t say enough about our fans,” Saliers says. “There aren’t any more superlatives to describe how involved and inspiring they are. This [fundraiser] is just another reason that is indicative of that.”

In return, Ray and Saliers say that they work hard to give back to their fans by continually striving to create interesting and innovative music, as they have done on Look Long. “We try to keep things interesting by continuing to try to grow as musicians, pick up different instruments or different sounds, try to keep the textures expanding musically, and really work on our writing,” Saliers says. “And we want to keep giving really good, vibrant, relevant shows to people. We just want to do the best that we can do.”

Check out our Behind the Song of “Change My Heart” from the Look Long album.

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