Writer’s Block: Indigo Girls on Their Evolution of Songwriting

First meeting in elementary school, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers began performing by the time they were in high school in Decatur, Georgia, calling themselves a number of different names before landing on Indigo Girls in 1985. The folk duo released their debut Strange Fire in 1987 and a self-titled follow-up by 1989, which earned them a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

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Now 15 albums in, the Indigo Girls had just released their most recent album, Look Long, when the pandemic hit in 2020, and were forced to cancel their tour. Ray and Saliers regrouped with members of their backing band along with featured guests from around the world to create a career-spanning concert special, Look Long: Together, which was recorded in Atlanta at 800 East Studio and Brighter Shade Studios, owned by Zac Brown Band’s John Driskell Hopkins.

On Look Long, Brady Blue laid down drums from his home in Stockholm, Sweden; guitarist Jeff Fielder added electric rhythm guitars, dobro slide guitar, and mandolin from Seattle; keyboardist Carol Isaacs and bassist Clare Kenny sent tracks from London, England; violinist Lyris Hung recorded from New York City. In the film, everyone was streamed in from wherever they were in the world— London, Stockholm, and Seattle.

“We were so bummed about that summer tour because the band that we had put together our dream band,” Ray told American Songwriter earlier this year. “They’re people that were our barometers, our musical parameters in life, and we were just psyched because we hadn’t toured with a band in a long time. It was all going to come together, and was a combo of all the people we loved to play with over the years.”

Continuing to work on individual solo projects and new Indigo Girls material, Saliers and Ray spoke to American Songwriter about how they’ve gotten “better” at songwriting, remain connected to inspirations and stories surrounding them, and the longevity of Indigo Girls.

American Songwriter: Now 35-plus years into doing this, do you feel like songs come to you in the same way? How has this shifted over the years?

Amy Ray: Hopefully I’m better. I was really faking it till I made it in those days. I was so young and didn’t know a lot and was too precious sometimes, and not willing to listen to what other people had to say about writing or production. And I’ve learned a lot. Now my writing has changed in that I just am willing to take it apart and really tear it down to its minimal state, to what’s working and what’s not, and really be willing to give stuff up and not lean on sentiment and try to be objective. I have a few people that I really trust, other songwriters, and producers that I will turn to and say “I’m having trouble with this, what do y’all think?” I would have never done that 20 years ago, but my process has changed a bit. I’m just more open to criticism and always willing to edit stuff out. I have more curiosity about it, too. I don’t look at it as a bad day when I have to lose a chorus or change a bridge. I just think of it as a curiosity of “what would happen if I did this instead.”

Music is supposed to be fun. Have fun with it. Play around with it. Change the chords out. Use a minor instead of a major, and see what happens. Just be curious. It doesn’t have to be that heavy. You don’t have to be so precious about everything. It’s not the end of the world. You’re a songwriter. You’re not like fighting a war in Ukraine. You’re supposed to be providing a haven and some kind of break for people. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the hard stuff. It just means you have to tell the story in a way that’s not so hard for people to get. 

Emily Saliers: The only difference between now and decades ago is that we both have a sort of regimen where we go into our “office,” kind of like a day job. When I was very young, I was always writing. The muse was always visiting. Now, it’s a little bit more of constructing songs with discipline and focus. I think I’ve grown as a writer. I think I may have written some songs that are pretty good from way back when. I feel more consistently like the writer I want to be, and I’m becoming that writer. 

You also keep getting influenced by other artists and art and life and things going on in the world. There’s always something to inspire you. We still both feel very inspired to write.

Indigo Girls (Photo: Jeremy Cowert)

AS: It sounds like you’re both still very influenced by what’s happening around you, and within, and can transfer that into lyrics. What else is inspiring you now?

ES: Amy lives in a rural area, and she takes a lot of her inspiration from what she sees around her in the natural world. I do a lot of digging into my past to come up with stuff for songs, but one of the ways I like to grow as a writer is to listen to other people’s stories and write about them as if they were my own. I really love Bonnie Raitt’s new album [Just Like That…]. That song about the guy who shows up with her son’s heart [“Just Like That”]. You wouldn’t know that it was someone else’s story. I think her new album is her very best. I’ve listened to all of her music and love her, but that song is an example of what I’d like to do more as a writer, take someone else’s story and make it my own.

AS: When do you know a song is resonating with others?

ES: You can tell when a song resonates emotionally with an audience. I feel the utmost gratitude for the people who come to our shows, and who stick with us. There are always people that really want to hear the old stuff, and that’s cool. I understand that. Sometimes when I go to see one of my favorite bands, I want to hear the songs that I’ve known, that I grew up with, and that shaped my life, but our fans were particularly interested in hearing new stuff as well. They kind of grew up with our music and live with our music, and it allows us to keep playing and they keep coming back to shows, so we’re really grateful for the longevity.

AS: Now that the songs of Look Long are out, what’s next individually and for Indigo Girls?

ES: I’m working on two different musicals, so most of my current writing is directed towards that, but Amy and I started talking about when we’ll make our next album. Basically, I set aside a certain amount of time, and then I focus all my efforts into writing my songs for the next Indigo Girls album. 

AR: I just finished making a solo record. I have a country band, and I started making solo records in 2000—punk and rock stuff, then moved to the country. The stuff I was writing about after Look Long was informed by the dismantling of racism. Some of it was also informed by just trying to write a record that was about comfort, like having camaraderie across divisions because of all the isolation of COVID. Then some of it was informed by things like climate change. Nothing is literal. It’s all just images and storytelling because country [music] is different. It’s so much about stories, so I wanted to write a record that was about healing, and about people knowing that they weren’t alone.

I write all the time. During the pandemic, I lived in the woods on 80 acres and had an absolute place of heaven. I was just with my family in a bubble. I built a treehouse and used my dad’s tools. He passed away [in 2013], but that also made me think about him and want to write about him. 

Main Photo: Rounder Records

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