Indigos Shine Light on Politics, Gay Marriage and Making Music

by Cindy Filipenko

It’s a typical muggy July afternoon in Vancouver. Inside the Commodore Ballroom—a relic from the ’20s restored to its art deco splendour five years ago—the Indigo Girls’ sound check is dragging.

Amy Ray, the dark-haired Indigo Girl known for her gravelly vocals and edgier songwriting style, is a little frustrated as she runs through the evening’s set list and corrects the levels for the duo’s plethora of stringed instruments.

It’s a typical muggy July afternoon in Vancouver. Inside the Commodore Ballroom—a relic from the ’20s restored to its art deco splendour five years ago—the Indigo Girls’ sound check is dragging.

Amy Ray, the dark-haired Indigo Girl known for her gravelly vocals and edgier songwriting style, is a little frustrated as she runs through the evening’s set list and corrects the levels for the duo’s plethora of stringed instruments.

When Emily Saliers, the blonde musician that your parents would really like, joins her on stage, there is a high-frequency problem that’s making Saliers’ s’s sound slippery. The technician knocks the tone down, but the result sounds a little muddy for Ray’s taste.

“Are you singing it the same way?” Ray asks Saliers. Saliers assures Ray that she is.

After a couple of alterations, Ray seems happy. By the time they getting around to checking the acoustics on “Perfect World,” the sound is—well, perfect. It’s been almost a year since the Indigo Girls have been on tour in support of All That We Let In, their ninth studio project. Vancouver was the only Canadian gig on this leg of the tour, and Herizons was lucky enough to score an interview with North America’s best known feminist sirens.

What makes this Atlanta-based duo engaging after ore than 20 years of performing is the fact that hey have remained true to the two major conventions of folk music: producing lyrically strong acoustic music and speaking up on political issues. And like most politically-involved Americans, the openly lesbian Indigo Girls have definite opinions on the upcoming US presidential election.

In Georgia, Saliers has been actively supporting Cathy Woolard, an out lesbian vying for a congressional seat. Both women agree the most important thing is getting people motivated to vote.

“I think a lot of people are apathetic and don’t vote because they feel they get very little real information about what’s going on,” Ray says.

The Indigo Girls even offer space at their concerts for voter registration. Ray adds that supporting a free and independent press is essential to a fair representation of issues on both sides of the border.

“It reverberates when any country has a rightwing government,” says Ray. “Like the Zapatistas used to say, ‘Take care of your own neighbourhood and it will spread throughout the world.’”

The avid politico seems surprised by the recent Canadian federal election. “I didn’t realize there was any chance that a right-wing person could get into office—Canada has always seemed so practical,” observes Ray. She adds that even when Canadians are moderate, they’re often more progressive than their American counterparts. Saliers, who has been politically and musically active through the Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. administrations, has no problem ranking the current Bush administration.

“It’s the worst—with the development of Homeland Security, pre-emptive strikes, going to war over lies told to the public, creating an environment of fear—with very simple, childlike guides like a colour code for the alert stages,” says Saliers. And that’s just for starters.

“There’s really deep shit going on, and it’s just so simplified…. I think this is a really bad administration and it’s causing horrible problems, not just in our country, but all over the world.” The Reagan administration was the start of a new low in American politics, according to Saliers.

“With trickle-down economics, turning a blind eye to AIDS and ignoring urban communities, they had a really bad effect that has carried on…. But [the Bush administration] is worse, indeed.” Ray chimes in that one of the most effective ways of stemming the conservative tide is coalitions and alliances.

“A lot of the time we’re fighting the same enemies, especially as corporations become more dominant in the power structure.” Ray points out that those corporations often attain and exercise more power than governments. And since it’s minorities—gays and lesbians, people of colour and women—who are generally hurt by these abuses of power, it makes sense to band together.

“When we do environmental work, there are lots of coalitions around that. There are queer groups that will get involved because they want it to be part of their agenda. There are people of colour who get involved because there’s a PCB problem in their communities,” Ray explains. She says the same companies have an impact on different groups of people for different reasons because the corporations are so huge.

“We can build coalitions that focus on certain battles, instead of having to examine how each battle threatens any one group,” Ray says. “And within our own groups, we have to always be aware of gender issues, race issues and issues of class.”

Her point is for us to broaden our perspectives and make connections with others, no matter which group we belong to. For example, reproductive choice tends to be the domain of white, middle-class women. “I think choice is an important issue, but it’s not the only issue,” Ray says, “just like gay marriage is not the only issue for gays.”

Although the Indigo Girls have played and lobbied in support of gay marriage, they seem divided on the issue.

“To me, it’s so scary that the [anti-gay marriage] policy is all right-wing, religious right-driven stuff,” Saliers says. “Church and state are getting harder to discern from each other.”

Saliers believes the fact that gay marriage is such a hot issue in the US signals a positive change. While the battle may be long, she predicts that in the end gays and lesbians will win the right to marry. Ray agrees it’s important, but she worries that gay marriage has become too much of a focal point. “I think that as a human rights issue, it’s important, as it brings people around to thinking we all deserve equality. I was talking to a bunch of friends, and [we] were talking about how it’s important not to have all the resources funnelled into one battle when there are so many other important things that need resources,” Ray explains.

She identifies high suicide rates for queer youth, poverty and the ongoing AIDS crisis as issues that all need contributions of time and money. Those discussions with friends, and a recent edition of The Nation devoted entirely to gay marriage, led Ray to question the prominence of gay marriage on the queer agenda.

“A lot of things are slipping through. We’re losing ground in places because we’re focusing so much on this,” Ray opines. For the Indigo Girls, the political truly is the personal, especially when referring to the politics of music. While Canadian courts have agreed that downloading music off the Internet is not illegal, the jury’s still out on that one south of the border.

“CD prices have been so high that a lot people just can’t afford to go out and try a lot of music. And there’s a lot of crap out there,” Saliers says in defence of downloading. Acknowledging that a lack of sales might hurt smaller acts, Saliers nonetheless believes that downloading is getting people excited about music again. She doesn’t believe record companies should go after individuals.

“It’s just another way for record companies to step in and control things, when they’ve been making mistakes all along.” Hopefully, the Indigo Girls won’t be subjected to record company mistakes for much longer. Their relationship with Epic, a Sony Music subsidiary, comes to a close at the end of this year when they release a collection tentatively titled Rarities.

But the end of their contract with Epic doesn’t mean the end of the Indigo Girls. “We will be getting back in the studio and making another record, but we’re just leaving it open,” says Ray. “I am personally not interested in a major-label deal—not even remotely.” While Ray is committed to going the independent route, the label won’t be her own Daemon Records— even though the label, with its roster of 30 artists—is certainly large enough. “It wouldn’t be right. I wouldn’t want to be on it with Emily—it would feel like a conflict of interest,” Ray says.

“I seriously doubt that a major label would come along and offer something that would make sense for us. I’m not completely closed to the idea, but in my heart I feel that’s not going to happen,” Saliers says. “We’re still going to be making music. As long as we have our fans and we can tour, that’s all I want to do.”

The girlhood friends brim with respect for each other as songwriters, both on stage and off. When asked about which of each other’s songs they would record on solo projects if given a chance, they both become quiet. Ray breaks the thoughtful silence.

“I think I would try to do a punk version of ‘Something Real’ off the new album. I really like the story. It’s compelling. I could hear it in the style of The Replacements’ melodic punk sound,” she says. “I might want to do a groove-oriented beat track with ‘Chicken Man,’” Saliers says of the tune renowned for Ray’s stream-of-consciousness rant. Few musicians so inspire audiences that they sing along to every song. The Indigo Girls are among the rare acts who welcome audience participation. “It’s great. The spirit moves people to sing,” explains Saliers. “To me it’s joyful.”

“I love it,” enthuses Ray. “We get people singing different parts. Sometimes they add a third harmony. We have good singers in our audiences.” And a lot of those good singers hail from north of the 49th parallel, something that offers the Indigo Girls another perspective.

“Canadian audiences are different. There’s really focused listening, but the energy afterwards is really appealing and fired up,” says Saliers. “[Canada’s] got a real cool thing about it—it’s a different vibe from playing in the States. It’s like there’s an ethereal sensibility, a Canada-ness, you know? And I really enjoy that.”

In concert later that evening, Ray and Saliers run through a virtual greatest hits package, interspersed with selections from All That We Let In. “Canadaness” abounds. The enthusiastic audience is rewarded with two encores, including the surprisingly whimsical “Drivers Education”—a solo number that will hopefully appear on Ray’s sophomore solo recording due out next spring. But the best part of the evening is Amy Ray’s parting promise: “We’ll do our best to get Bush out of office for y’all.”

And if anyone’s committed to licking Bush, it’s these women