It's been a typically busy year for the Indigo Girls, filled with social activism, fruitful world travel, and ample opportunity to collaborate, exchange ideas and jam out. Their new album, Come On Now Social (Epic), reflects their restless musical energy, their ever-searching conscience and the benefits of inspiring new friends.
Emily Saliers caught up with the Independent by telephone last week in the midst of the latest leg of the band's on-going tour, recalling crossing paths with the Indy during an early-spring performance in Cuba, where Saliers and fellow Indigo Girl Amy Ray participated in a weeklong songwriting workshop with some of the top musicians from the United States and Cuba.
The format was for all the musicians to literally put their names in a hat and then draw them out to find intercultural writing partners for the week, culminating in a concert of new material from the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffet, Joan Osborne, Mick Fleetwood and their Cuban counterparts. Ironically, Saliers and Ray got picked together, collaborating with Cubans Yosavani Terry and Luis de la Cruz. "We just sat around in a room and started jamming on some ideas. Initially, the thing that was the most difficult was the rhythms, because they're so complex. They just find places to stick things into every possible chasm of rhythm."
Although the Indigo Girls thrive on these kinds of musical exchanges and collaborations, it was a change of pace for them to write with other musicians. Even as a duo, they write their songs individually. "The interaction comes when we arrange the songs. We get together before we're about to record an album, and we start talking about what kind of harmony we want on it or should I play a guitar part during this part, should I play a lead. Will Amy do a picking part or a strumming part? Should we add another chorus? That kind of thing, where we start brainstorming on the arrangements, that's where the collaboration comes in."
The Cuban song-fest was just one event in the midst of a full year of inspiring exchanges and tours with a variety of artists from around the world, including last year's Suffragette Sessions tour, their third straight Lilith Fair and extended jam sessions with members of the Irish-English band Ghostland, who they met on last year's Lilith Tour and with whom they recorded Come On Now Social. "We just think the most fun you have with music is when you share it with other people. Having opportunities like Lilith that further that whole vibe is just great."
Other highlights of a consistently collaborative career include memories of playing with Joan Baez ("We call Joan our matriarch, just because we appreciate her politics so much and her social-activism history"); the Grateful Dead ("Opening for them in Eugene, Oregon, was one of the highlights of our career"); the Dixie Chicks ("They're killer. I was blown away by them. By Natalie's energy, by her voice, by the songs, by the way Marty and Emily played their instruments"); Pete Seeger ("What a thrill! The guy is like 80 years old, still as active as ever"); and Neil Young ("I love just the diversity in his music. He can sing a tender ballad or he can rock out better than anybody else. A song like "Down by the River" is a song you can really sink your teeth into. He's got so many great songs like that. He's just one of the greatest artists of all time, in our opinion").
The new album's "We Are Together" reflects Joni Mitchell's inspiration. "I've heard people say that," Saliers confirmed. "It's funny, because when I was writing it, I didn't think that at all, but now, in listening to it, I can see how the melody's kind of lilting, so it sounds like maybe some of her early, earlier stuff. I can hear that. I went through a period of time where I was so heavily influenced by her, but it's been a long time since then, so I guess she will just always resurface for me. She's my favorite."
Saliers singles out Sheryl Crow as one of her few contemporaries who directly inspires her. "I so dig her pop sensibility. Her melodies and her hook choruses." Saliers serves up her own carefree escapism on another of the album's tracks, with Crow chiming in on lyrics claiming: "Only two things bound to soothe my soul/Are cold beer and remote control."
The other obvious influence was encountering Ghostland on last year's Lilith tour. Saliers and Ray were impressed enough to scratch the core band of Jerry Marotta and Sara Lee, who have backed them for years, and to record and tour with members of Ghostland. "It was all amicable," said Saliers. "It just seemed like a natural juncture to make the change. And it keeps things fresh. It's good to change things up. Critical for us."
Come On Now Social is a departure from the sound of the old band, but the social conscience and the blending of southern, Appalachian traditions with a '90s rock sensibility is as strong as ever. "The most natural thing in the world for us is to marry social activism with our music, because our music is so deeply rooted in the life issues," Saliers said.
The album opens with a scorching song called "Go" that exemplifies that musical marriage. The song hearkens back to previous generations: "Grandma was a suffragette/Blacklisted for her publication/Blacklisted for my generation" and moves toward a call to "undermine the underground." One of the highlights, however, is a more ambling, escapist ode to the road, "Gone Again," featuring a back-porch band made up of Rick Danko and Garth Hudson from the Band, Marotta and Crow. The song evokes the junkie-girl smile that "swindled my last twenty/For a kiss and some poetry."
Producer and Ghostland drummer John Reynolds' occasional drum loops give an industrial undertone to dark songs like "Sister," but "Peace Tonight" counters that mood with the presence of a bright horn trio and Joan Osborne's backing vocals. The album also captures the folksy atmosphere that makes audiences feel so familiar with the group. "Ozilline" is a song for Ray's grandmother that blends banjo picking and mandolin rhythms with Ozilline's own spoken words and Ray's lyrics about putting the dog down: "I watched that sweet old life/Become a bag of bones."
Saliers resists the offer to look ahead to future albums, noting "Amy keeps saying we're going to make an all-acoustic record. I'm not in that head space yet, but we'll see what happens." Ray is also throwing around the idea of releasing a solo album, but Saliers doesn't let the rumors already brewing about the future of the band faze her. "I sort of take it one song at a time, one record at a time. Our career has unfolded in such an amazing way for me. I'm really grateful for it."