Rites of Passage

Despite their differences, the Indigo Girls are doing better than ever

When the Indigo Girls’ Despite Our Differences tour brings them to Radio City Music Hall on October 13, everyone involved will be giddy. For Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, even the legendary venue’s creaky elevators help make New York her favorite city in the world. For Amy Ray, who considers New York a second home, the show will be a chance to make up for losing her voice before the band’s last Radio City appearance. And for several thousand fans, there will be the thrill of seeing long-loved artists, strong as ever, begin a new chapter of their careers.

After 18 years and eight studio albums with major label Epic, Despite Our Differences, which debuted on September 19, is the Indigo Girls’ first album under a new deal with Hollywood Records. “We just sort of feel like it’s a new life,” says Saliers. “To have a new label be interested at this point in our careers was very energizing for us. We feel like we’re with a bunch of really good people; a smaller, supportive group. Not just a bunch of record industry talking heads.”

The transition to a more intimate arrangement is fitting for a group that is defined nearly as much by its commitment to human dignity as by its harmony-laden folk rock. Long-time champions for gay rights, the environment, Native American rights and other causes, the Indigo Girls are also dedicated members of the Atlanta independent music community that spawned them. On August 31, Saliers and Ray helped organize a fundraiser for a fellow Atlanta musician who faced enormous medical bills from a sudden aneurism; the next evening, they played to benefit the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault. The next week, they began rehearsals for the current tour, which will continue through at least the middle of November.

Despite Our Differences includes themes of relationships and politics, such as the opener “Pendulum Swinger,” which Saliers says is a “pro-feminist spirit song” about, among other things, “being pissed off at Bush.” But despite these familiar Indigo Girls themes, both Saliers and Ray say that recording Despite Our Differences was a very new and challenging experience, and a key part of their newfound energy. This energy got an additional jolt from Pink, who joined the Indigo Girls to record the track “Rock and Roll at Heaven’s Gate.” The three had also collaborated earlier this year on the song “Dear Mr. President” from Pink’s album I’m Not Dead. “She’s a force of nature,” says Ray, who said she wrote the additional vocals on “Rock and Roll at Heaven’s Gate” with Pink’s voice in mind. “She has strong convictions. She really believes in music and believes in women, and it’s nice to rock out with someone who’s really different from Emily and me.” “She really lifted that song up,” says Saliers. “She brought a great soulful, rocking voice and a punk sensibility. She brought Pink.”

The album is also the duo’s first project with veteran producer Mitchell Froom, known for his work with Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos, the Ditty Bops and many others. Recorded in Froom’s home studio with everyone in the same room, Despite Our Differences was produced much more family-style than would be done in the cold isolation of a large studio. “Mitchell is really a teacher,” says Ray. “Many great musicians are teachers, but you don’t always get a chance to have a personal relationship with them.” Saliers says that Froom tries to “fight for the music,” in that he doesn’t overproduce but instead pushes for ways to help each song come through on its own. “He raised the bar on each song,” she says. “He really encouraged me to just experiment in a way I hadn’t before.” Best of all, says Saliers, “he works really quickly. We’d work for several hours each day, and then have the mornings and evenings free.”

Given how much Saliers and Ray have going on in their lives outside of the Indigo Girls, it’s no wonder this freedom was appreciated. Ray has released two solo rock albums, Stag and Prom, and in 1990 founded the not-for-profit, artist-run label Daemon Records, which has signed bands including Ellen James Society, Magnapop and Girlyman. Ray also makes time to be with her partner, Carrie Schrader, a film grad student at Columbia University. Saliers has not yet recorded a solo album, but has a number of extra-Indigo projects including being co-owner of the Watershed Restaurant in Decatur, Georgia. “Eight years ago, my partner Leslie [Zweben] and I, along with our two best friends, wanted to go into business together,” she says. “We’re all foodies, which is another reason I love New York, and so a restaurant was natural.” The restaurant is a close-knit community, with some of the employees having been there since the beginning, including executive chef Scott Peacock. “It’s a casual setting, but the food is as good as it gets,” she says. “Lots of cream and butter, what your grandma would make if you grew up in the South.”

That enticement notwithstanding, the pair’s renewed enthusiasm for their work together will keep them busy as the Indigo Girls for a while. “I’ve started thinking of ideas for a solo album,” says Saliers, “but most of them ended up on Despite Our Differences.” She says a future solo project wouldn’t be a massive departure from the music she makes with Ray, but probably more beat- and groove-influenced. “I don’t have burning desire to do a solo album. It would just be a fun experiment. There’s nothing I need to get out that I haven’t been able to with the Indigo Girls,” she says. “But that could change as I get into the project. I’ve been talking about this for so long, though, that I’m not even going to say anything about when that might be.” Although Ray is planning her next solo album, a “sort of punky record with some country thrown in,” it won’t be released until sometime later next year. “The Indigo Girls and my solo work are just day and night because of the infrastructure around me,” says Ray. “My own recording is so much more indie and DIY.” Daemon Records has also slowed down this year, and is holding off on new releases other than a live collection of Ray’s solo touring that will only be available through mail-order and iTunes.

As for future Indigo Girls projects, Ray says that she and Saliers write separately and write all the time, so projects emerge organically. “The collection just kind of comes together,” she says. “Once we have about 10 songs, we look at them and decide if we have a good thing or a bad thing.” The Indigo Girls’ have a two-record deal with Hollywood, but they are focused on Despite Our Differences for the time being. “We’re still right in the thick of this album,” says Saliers. “Every time you get one done you just breathe a huge sigh of relief. I’m sure the time to do the next one will be right around the corner, but right now we really love this record and can’t wait to tour.”

The Indigo Girls both say, at least when asked by a New York reporter, that Radio City will be the most exciting stop on the tour. “I absolutely adore New York,” says Saliers. “It’s vibrant in every season. I love walking the streets, love visiting Central Park, it just blows my mind every time.” Ray says it would be her favorite city even if it weren’t also the home of her partner. “After you’ve been there for a few weeks, you’re so tired,” she says. “Everything is difficult, but I love it.” Truer words.

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