Out on Their Own

By Karen Iris Tucker

Originally published on Advocate.com March 25 2009 12:00 AM ET

When Amy Ray and Emily
Saliers first offered up their guileless lyrics, braided
harmonies, and fevered acoustic strums in Atlanta's Little Five
Points pub in the mid '80s, the ladies in the audience
appreciatively tossed bras and underwear at their feet. Pop
culture has since had its fickle way with their careers, but
Indigo Girls are nevertheless icons to a core of lesbian fans
who through the years have comingled with frat boys and
neo-hippies as they all pumped fists in the air at shows to the
duo's signature song "Closer to Fine."

Much has happened since
that single from their self-titled album launched Indigo Girls
to mainstream notoriety in 1989. Nine major-label studio
releases later, the pair is at a crossroads, independently
issuing their most recent imprint,
Poseidon and the Bitter Bug

, after having been dropped from Hollywood Records in 2007,
ostensibly due to poor sales.

Of going indie, Ray,
44, says simply, "It felt liberating." The gravelly
voiced guitarist has always paved her way in DIY subterranean
scenes, both in music and social activism.

Ray is seated in an
empty barroom of West Hollywood's still-shuttered Troubadour
club, dark eyes staring intently. Ahead of the current Indigo
Girls tour, she paused for an interview during sound check for
a solo show -- part of her eight-year-strong side project on
her own Daemon Records label.

As her drummer Melissa
York of the Butchies pounds away in the other room, Ray
explains that on hearing that she and Saliers had
been dropped from their label, famed producer and
keyboardist Mitchell Froom "was like, 'I'm still
in. Pay me whatever you can.'"

Ray says that generous
spirit reigned when, to save money, the act began a breakneck
three-week recording stretch for
Poseidon

, with bassist Clare Kenny, drummer Matt Chamberlain, and
engineer David Boucher on board. The resulting 10-track set
(paired with a second CD of stripped-down acoustic versions of
the same songs, plus one bonus cut) has an unencumbered
breeziness to it -- this despite its decidedly contemplative
subject matter. The opening track, Saliers's "Digging
for Your Dream," is a portrait of domestic abuse featuring
the trenchant line "And you bloody your hands digging for
your dreams."

Longtime listeners will
note that Ray continues to build on her discussion of gender in
the tender ballad "True Romantic," asking,
"Would I still be the girl that suits your fancy? / Would
I still be the boy that rocks your world?"

Of that duality, Ray
explains, "I've struggled to really honor the girl [in
me]. The boy is easy to honor -- that's mostly what I
am."

Indigo Girls x100 (indigo girls) | advocate.com

Later that night, she
takes the stage for a well-attended show, in a men's
button-down shirt and tie. Coursing through Clash-inspired
guitar lines, sweat darkens a long strip of
shirt fabric down her back. Ray and Saliers have
always been impervious to the trappings of image -- to the
pressure to conform to the music industry's take on how to
sell female artists. Their fans have adored them for this
realness, periodically complaining on the fan site IndigoVortex
about them wearing too much makeup in their glossy press
photos.

"I think they kind
of struggled with what to do with us," says Ray of
longtime label Epic, which released most of the duo's CDs.
"They knew that we weren't going to be any different
than we were. They kinda didn't know what to do with what
we were."

By way of explanation,
Ray cites fellow musician Pink, who collaborated on the Indigo
Girls cut "Rock and Roll Heaven's Gate," from the
2007 Hollywood release
Despite Our Differences.

Saliers and Ray also lent backing vocals to Pink's song
"Dear Mr. President," from her album
I'm Not Dead

. "When she sort of refers to bisexuality -- her own
penchant for knowing that part of her sexuality -- she's tough,
but she's femme. She's got an image and it's a little more
acceptable. If a woman is really hot and gay, it's better than
the butch lesbian Indigo Girls."

There was a time,
however, when Indigo Girls were not synonymous with the
negative connotation of "butch" or
"lesbian," when they enjoyed mainstream popularity
and even won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording in
1990. This is simply because their music had the potential for
universal appeal. That largely changed when the pair -- true to
their socially conscious bent -- officially came out in the
media. The tenets of the music stayed the same, but the press
relentlessly branded them anew the "Lesbian Folk
Duo."

"We were
naive," says Ray. "We thought we could hang on to the
universal thing we had going. You get tired of every critic and
every review and every show where you are kind of made a parody
of." Still, she is ultimately happy for what she has.
"Now, I'm just proud, you know? I'm proud of our
community and I'm proud of our audience. And I'm proud
of me and Emily, like, being gay and not shrinking from it all
the time. That would be easy," she says, followed by a deep,
satisfied laugh.

Saliers, in a Skype
Internet interview from Vietnam, where she was traveling, says,
"I have no regrets about the way things have gone down.
If, by being out, we're helping in the evolution of civil
rights, I'm all for it."

Indigo Girls x100 (indigo girls) | advocate.com

Saliers, 45, wrote the
CD's ebullient single "What Are You Like,"
radio-ready pop that sounds like a blissed-out love song. She
says the cut is actually a tribute to two friends "who
really saved me when I was having a rough time." By that
she means, "A relationship breakup and midlife crisis.
That, and the war in Iraq and the Bush administration. That's
about it," she jokes.

"What Are You
Like" has the potential lyrically and stylistically to
endear itself to mainstream listeners. Over the years, Saliers
says, "I do think that we have been boxed in by labels and
that we might be more easily dismissed because of that. I have
always felt that our music had a broader scope than what we
were given credit for."

The latter point stands
up, particularly considering the mid-career success Saliers and
Ray experienced with the female-centered Lilith Fair concert
tour, an ideal forum to showcase their music.
Shaming of the Sun

, released around the time of the tour in 1997, debuted at
number 7 on the Billboard album chart, buoyed by the Lilith
appearances.

"Lilith Fair was
remarkable; I consider that tour a highlight of our entire
career," says Saliers, who recalled reveling in the
camaraderie of all the artists, from headliner and founder
Sarah McLachlan to Sheryl Crow to Angelique
Kidjo.

Since that success,
Indigo Girls' mainstream popularity has ebbed considerably,
while their lesbian fan base has remained true blue. This is
not to say that their shows -- typically held in theaters such
as Radio City Music Hall, in New York, and at summer folk
festivals -- are entirely homogenous. The duo has witnessed a
new generation of both gay and straight fans -- the children of
die-hard enthusiasts -- attending their concerts. The
difference now is that fans snap cell phone
photos rather than tossing lingerie.

"They don't do
that anymore," says Ray, laughing.

Is she saddened that
her audiences are now largely made up of gay women,
with mainstream fandom perhaps a thing of the past?

"When I listen to
Joe Strummer, I'm not thinking,
That's heterosexual white boy music.

I'm thinking,
Wow, I can really relate to that song.

I want some white guy to hear what I am doing and relate to
it," Ray explains. "And I want some black guy to
relate to it. Songwriters want people to relate. You can't
pick that -- you can't choose that. You can't force it.
You just have to be happy for who does relate."

In the context of the
unusual Lilith Fair experience, where female singer-songwriters
rode the airwaves in impressive numbers, Saliers recognizes
where her music is today. "Singer-songwriters will
probably mostly remain on the fringe of popular music,"
she says, "but their fans are loyal. They buy records --
not just singles -- and they come to shows. Serious women
writers and artists are able to maintain long, successful, and
meaningful careers. I am thinking of amazing women like Lucinda
Williams or Patty Griffin."

Indigo Girls x100 (indigo girls) | advocate.com

Songwriter Joan Osborne
met Indigo Girls on the road and in recent years lent
backing vocals to two of their CDs. She draws parallels between
the evolution of their careers and her own.

"We have
followings not just from people who have heard the recording
but from people who have come to see live concerts year after
year," says Osborne, who mentions, incidentally, that
rumor has it another Lilith Fair tour is on its way.

"When I have been
around Amy and Emily, I see women who are certainly not selling
millions of records like their first big hit, but who have
found a way to make music they are interested in and proud of.
They have also found a way to work on political causes they are
very much involved in -- sometimes more than their music,"
Osborne says.

Ray, who lives in rural
Georgia with her partner, filmmaker Carrie Schrader, and
Saliers, who lives in Decatur, each lead busy lives outside
their songwriting. Together they founded the organization Honor
the Earth in 1992, dedicated to Native environmental issues.
Saliers is an avid wine collector who co-owns the Decatur-based
restaurant Watershed. She has also written a book about music
and spirituality with her theologian father, and the two give
talks around the country on the topic.

As for their future as
a musical duo, Anthony Columbo,
Billboard

charts manager, sees Indigo Girls as part of those forging
forward within a new paradigm of independent artists.

"It's increasingly
more common for artists to strike out on their own,"
Columbo says. "It's more financially feasible: You can
make a cheaper record with fewer marketing costs and less
overhead."

He points out that
while their last CD,
Despite Our Differences

, sold only 100,000 copies, "It may not have been what
Hollywood signed on to, but it's not a bad number." He
adds, "You don't see a lot of female artists with
careers as lengthy, from a radio and sales standpoint. This is
a group that has been around over 20 years."

So what's the key to
the perennial staying power of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray?
Osborne says it's the least complicated thing you can imagine.
"What you see is what you get with them, in a pretty deep
way. They're wearing their hearts on their sleeves, as far
as their politics go, as far as their music goes."