Indigo Girls 46:340:00/46:34
Season 2 Episode 1
season 1 episode 2 transcription
There are several pivotal moments in roots and pop music history where the game just changes. Many believe the Weavers 1955 concert at Carnegie Hall was the spark that lit what came to be known as the folk music revival.
Bob Dylan did it twice. Once when he showed up at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1961…
And again at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when he plugged in and went electric…
Or maybe it was Elvis or the Beatles making their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Or how about going way back to that weekend in 1927 when the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers showed up to record for Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tennessee…
I’m sure there are examples of this in almost all genres of music. The one thing they all have in common is this: after they occurred, there was a shift in the musical landscape. I believe this happened again in 1989 when two young songwriters from Georgia—Emily Sailers and Amy Ray—who knew each other since grade school—recorded and released a record under the name Indigo Girls that spoke to a generation of women and men in a way that changed lives. Their self-titled release wasn’t their first recording, but it was the first one on a major label, and it was the first one to bust through the pop charts sitting along names like Madonna, Paula Abdul, Prince and Millie Vanilli. The record appealed to all sorts of folks, but what made it so groundbreaking is how it spoke, and gave voice to an at-risk, underserved and marginalized community—and it wasn’t just the lyrics or the music or the combination of both—it was the convergence of sound and culture ready to begin the movement toward—not just tolerance—but inclusion—and it changed lives. Let’s listen to a few clips of Brandi Carlisle presenting the Indigo Girls with the Spirit of americana Free Speech in Music Award at Americana Fest in September 0f 2022…
Now I must admit, pop music of the late 1980s and early 1990s was barely on my radar. At that point I was immersed in building my own folk music career and producing shows for public radio in Detroit. I came to realize the influence and impact of the Indigo girls in my role as host of the almost weekly open mic night at the famed Ark folk music club in Ann Arbor. I started noticing a growing number of female duos signing up to do their three songs on a Wednesday night. It became clear that this duo from Georgia was inspiring women to sing and write just like Joan, Judy and Joni did in the 1960s. Because I wasn’t directly impacted by the Indigo Girls self titled major label debut, I have decided to bring in a couple of friends who absolutely were to help me go through this record track by track. Meet Cara Valenti and Laura Jones.
My name is Carra Valente and I, uh, love the Indigo Girls. I feel like we're in an AA meeting right now. I am a music educator and I'm a singer and songwriter. Laura and I play in a duo together, and I heard Indigo Girls for the first time when I was probably, I think a ninth grader. My friend's dad made me a tape and mymy dad passed away when I was young, and I think my friend's dad sort of a little saw that he was like a musical mentor to me, which he, I think he really was. And so he was trying to expose me to things other than just like the Basic radio stuff that I listened to at that point, just all the pop music in the top 40, whatever. And so he gave me a cassette tape that had Indigo Girls, Indigo Girls on one side and writes a passage on the other side. And I, um, like exploded my brain and it was like nothing I had ever heard before.
I'm Laura Jones and I love the Indigo Girls. I'm a longtime singer and wannabe songwriter. My first exposure to the Indigo Girls, I was in the back row of my dad's Dodge Ram with my friend Kenzie, and she said, let's play this cassette tape, Rites of passage and I think you'll like it. And she put it on. And I, from that moment on, was a super fan. I think it took me two months to consume everything they had done, which at that point was three albums. I remember sitting in my attic just learning every word, every harmony, every everything.
I asked Cara to do the best she could to describe the effect the Indigo Girls had on her…
Well, I think a big piece of it was the, was the intimacy and the personal. The personalness that it felt so incredibly direct from a person, and I think it was the first time that I was hearing music that was written to be sung by the person who wrote it. It was very intentionally singer songwriter music, even though I don't even know that I knew that term at that point, you know. I don't even think I really thought that much about. music. I loved music. I took piano lessons. I liked to sing, but I didn't really think about the music I consumed very much. I was very passive. If it was on the radio, I listened to it, you know, and this was the first time where I really like, listened to lyrics and dug in and, and learned harmonies and heard very specific things that these people were trying to say. Songs that meant a real thing that I could actually identify with.
Amy ray sings with raw emotions. She's singing anger and pain and need and longing. And I think at a time when other singers, as Cara said, were not doing that, but also women were not really supposed to express those emotions. It was at a time where you weren't really supposed to feel them, let alone express them. And here is this woman on a record just singing about her pain and, man, it was so powerful. I mean, it just grabs you and pulls you outta your body and throws you on the ground.
Almost every woman I talked to about this album mentioned how the sound awakened something in them that was hard to explain with words. Here’s Cara…
But what I remember very specifically is I remember sitting in class in high school and I had maybe like an Entertainment Weekly magazine, and there was like a tiny little like back of the magazine story about the Indigo Girls that I was excited to read, and it had a little thumbnail shot of the two of them, you know, with their guitars or something. And I can remember looking at that picture and thinking like, huh, these don't look like most of the women that I know or that I see around my high school. And I was reading the article and this kid walked by and I actually, in my memory, this was like the only kid at my high school who was gay and who was out, um, no, he wasn't the only gay kid at my high school, but he was the only out gay kid at my high school. And just offhandedly, he walked by and he said, oh, look at the lesbians. And whether he knew that they were lesbians or he just saw them in the picture and immediately recognized. I was completely taken back. I was shocked by that statement. And uh, and also it gave me a little bit of gay panic because I wasn't out to myself at all, but I was experiencing something incredibly personal in their music. And I definitely had a panic moment that I recognize now as like, oh God, if they're gay, what does that mean about me? Um, and it was after that, before I came out. But that obviously that tiny moment, that less than 30 second moment that happened lots of years ago, it has stuck with me all this time. So it was like that moment of recognizing something in someone and then recognizing something in
you, and it was pretty powerful for me.
One of the things that made The Indigo Girls so influential was that feeling of accessibility—it felt like, with a lot of practice of course, you could create powerful songs with beautiful harmony. Here’s Cara…
This is a very embarrassing early Indigo girl story for me. But of course, my first experience to them was on a cassette tape where there was just handwritten track titles, so I didn't have a photo, I didn't have liner notes, I didn't have lyrics, I didn't have anything. I just wore out this cassette tape beyond anything else. And, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but especially on the album Rites of Passage, there's all this harmony, and I think it's the Roches that are their backup singers on that album. So a lot of it sounds kind of choral, or at least that was what I could compare it to as a young high school music nerd. And so I thought this was like a group. I thought there were like a bunch of them. So I wrote a letter, I'm pretty sure I mailed it to like Arista records, and asked if I could join. I was like, ‘I am in high school and I'm a pretty good singer and I'm really good at harmony and you guys sound awesome. How do I join, how do I join the Indigo Girls?’ Um, I was pretty hopeful about it. They didn't ever write me back or not.
I wrote them the same letter yesterday. Maybe they'll write back this time.
Sad to say that as of this taping, neither Laura or Cara have been asked to join the group. They were, however, asked, by me, to comment on on the Indigo Girls first, self-titled, major label release track by track. And what a song to start with—Closer To Fine.
It's so ubiquitous that you forget It's a really good song. The lyrics, the structure, the harmony, everything about it. Just the, the theme of the song makes you wanna sing along, It makes you want to, like go to church, but a good one, you know. it’s got this sort of, uh, I'm ready to go take on the world kind of feeling to it.
There are some songs that, the first time you hear them, it feels like they've existed in your brain forever. And I think Closer To Fine is one of those songs. I think, again, like Laura said, the song feels so ubiquitous. It's one of those songs that, even if someone doesn't know The Indigo Girls, they're gonna kind of know that song. They're gonna kind of be able to sing along. And so for a long time I just sang along to it. Until recently I was listening to the lyrics and I was like, ‘these lyrics are really good. This isn't just like a bop. This isn't just a song that gets people singing around a campfire.’ This song feels like it could have been written right now and yet we've had it for all of these years and we've gotten to, yeah, and it also is the perfect, perfect illustration of Amy/ Emily harmony work. The way that they intertwine melody and harmony and the way that, you know, Emily wrote the song, so she is mostly lead on it, but Amy's part is just as important. And when you sing along without sort of, without performing it, you just sing along to closer to fine, you almost, you know, inevitably are gonna sing some Emily and some Amy, because the it doesn't feel like melody/ harmony, It feels like two equally important parts that come together to create this song. And that to me is the perfect illustration of what the Indigo Girls are.
Secure Yourself is the song from this album that Laura and I found ourselves questioning, oh wait, is that an Amy song or an Emily song? Because it rides a middle ground. A lot of songs, like you mentioned, are very stylistically, clearly Amy or Emily, but we both found ourselves going, oh wait, Secure Yourself, Is that Amy or is that Emily? And it is an Amy song, which is unique because the way it kind of starts with that lovely kind of acapella-ish thing with a drone underneath. It has a little bit of a lighter feel to it maybe is what I'm trying to say. I feel like secure yourself is another one that when you hear it, you feel like you heard it already, and not in a, like, it sounds like something else kind of way, but
but just a way that it is so, so well-crafted and very accessible.
Secure Yourself just like hits your soul immediately and, and we were talking about this last night. We both were like, “what does this song mean? We didn't really know. And we're reading the lyrics and having this discussion about what the song means and is it death? Is it loss? Is it something more uplifting? It's so cool that you can know a song for what, like 30 years and not know what it means, but love it anyway.
The song Kid Fears always sticks out to me on this album because Michael Stipe sings on it. It's interesting that a band that is so known for being a duo had this famous person singing on their song. REM was coming up in the similar, you know, music scene in Athens or whatever. Right? And that they sort of lent some cred to this album, is what it, what it feels like. Michael Stipe singing on the on the song is notable and also one of those things that, when you see them in concert, the whole audience with their whole face can sing the Stipe part, you know, and like, it's just such a like great moment.
When Michael Stipe comes in, Michael Stipe and Emily are singing together for like a bit, and then Amy comes in in the middle on the chorus and again, it just rips your heart out. It's so good
But I always thought that Kid Fears was about like childhood abuse or childhood sexual assault. That's what that song feels like it's about to me. But when Laura and I were discussing it, we realized she doesn't think that at all. And in fact, she heard an interview with Amy and that. It seems that's not what it's about, so that's fascinating to me that a song that I've known for 30 plus years I thought was about a very specific thing, and it maybe is not about that.
On the other hand, maybe that's evidence that it's just a really good song.
What I wanted to say about Prince of Darkness is, we were talking, how young were they when this album came out? Like really young, like in their early, early twenties, they were writing these songs. So when I look at lyrics, like my heart flew like a bird from a cage in a blood upon my sleeve, like that's, that's a little, that's a little cringe, right? If I wrote that lyric, I would never, I would keep it in my journal and not show it to anyone. But I just think that that speaks to like how we identify so much with Emily Saliers on the way that she writes that like her young cringy lyrics. it almost feels like it's my young cringy lyrics. I love this song. When I pick this song apart, I'm a little like horrified by some of the, by some of the lyrics. But man, if I were to open my journal from when I was 22, I would have really embarrassing things in there too. Just nobody ever put 'em on a record
This is a really good song. The structure's really complex. The melodies change. I was looking in the songbook to see what it thinks the structure is. I wrote down what I think the structure is. Cara had a totally different idea of what the structure is. No one knows what the chorus is or what the verse is, but it's awesome. And the greatest harmony moment on the album. Oh yes,
(They both start singing)
Blood and Fire. This is sort of the dark heart-wrenching Amy solo, which becomes a thing on subsequent albums. And the first lyric: I have spent nights with matches and knives leaning over ledges, only two flights up. You know, everything you need to know about the song in that one lyric. You know who she is, you know what she's feeling, and then she sings it like, like her heart is just coming out through her voice. I mean, you can't listen to that song and not feel feelings. It's such a good song.
One of the things I love in revisiting this album is looking at how it, it's a blueprint for every subsequent album. Other than the four Emily, six Amy, which is unusual. Normally they have an equal split, but other than that, every album from this point forward has a solo Amy song and a solo Emily song. And the solo Amy song always is this Incredible, oh, like, like a, a laid bare of her heart, just Amy and a guitar growling those lyrics singing, you know, singing this thing that like you are gonna sob in the shower when you're breaking up with someone, like listening to this song—That’s what I love about Blood and Fire. It is, it's like the original Amy Solo and then she goes on to sing Romeo and Juliet on Rites of passage. It just prepares you for what's to come in the Amy catalog. I don't know if you asked me of all the Amy solo songs, I don't know that Blood fire would be my favorite, but it's like the one that they all were born from.
For me, love's Recovery has one of my very favorite Emily lyrics of of all time, which is, ‘Oh, how I wish I were a trinity / So if I lost a part of me / there’d still be two of the same to live. Oh my God. That's insane. And it also, like, again, it refers back to her use of spiritual and religious imagery to portray things that are real life things. Again, that's a, that's not even, it's like a thing I'm realizing right now. As a kid, church was separate from life. You went to church cuz your mom made you go to church or, or you didn't go to church or whatever. There was no like, sort of like, ‘church is gonna tell me a thing about my real life or religion or the Bible's gonna tell me something about my real life.’ And here was Emily, a queer woman who, I was pretty sure wasn't like, you know, like a churchy lady, but she's singing about things that have to do with religion and like comparing them to heartbreak. That's that's revolutionary. That’s crazy.
Well, I just wanna say, when Amy comes in with the harmony on the second verse, it's like the musical equivalent of like a hot homemade cinnamon bun. It’s like just so satisfying and so wonderful. And then also, uh, Cara and I obviously were influenced by the Indigo girls, but they do, they sing in octaves. The sing on the repeat of ‘eating us away,’ man, we love to do that to this day, is sing octaves
but they taught us that—exactly right.
I know I keep talking about the blueprint, but I can't help it. It's like this song is, this album is Indigo Girls 101. So when I listen to Center Stage, I hear Center Stage and then I hear Chicken Man, and I hear the other, Amy writes these songs that, on the album might be like three and a half, four minutes long, but then when they do them live, they're, you know, they add like their sexy, electric, violin player and like, you know, and It's an eight minute long jam band song and that's not even my favorite style, but when Amy does it, it's so good. I have no idea what Center Stage is about. No. There's all this weird sort of magery about lthe Queen and the king and the, the Alice In Wonderland. I don't know what center stage is about other than it's about like something sad, but I don't really care what stage is about. It's just fun to listen to it. There's, there's a bunch of different live versions that, that you can hear that all play out differently. And it's not Amy Solo, cuz Emily does sing on it, but it is so through and through distinctly and Amy Ray song.
Center Stage for me it's this: there’s a line while your rhythm is off I replied, Which is just a mundane phrase. Wait, your rhythm is off, I replied, but Amy sings it like, (Laura sings) don't play me, lay her . Um, and you're like, ‘hell yeah. Hell yeah it is, she go t you…’
One thing we talked about with History Of Us is the beauty of the double meaning of the title of the song. Because of course when you hear the title History Of Us, you're like, oh, it's a song about the history of us and our relationship or the family. But the line is actually, until we become ashes to dust until time makes history of us. I think it's a song about sort of getting perspective after a breakup of, you know, like, you know, she says, I went all the way to Paris to forget your face. Like, woo . And, and she's sort of saying like, you know, I'm, I'm wrapped up in this moment, in, in whatever our disagreement was. But then she's looking at all this ancient artwork and thinking about like how, how small they are in their relationship and this larger like, context of history and the world. And in the end she's kind of like, you know what we can do? The best thing we can do is try to let this love survive. Which is a very beautiful thought anyway, instead of ending with bitterness, like ending with, with hopefulness. But as a teen and hearing a, a lyric like that that has these two meanings, you know, the history of us and then time makes history of us. I don't know that that would feel groundbreaking to me now, but man in the moment, like a lyric that had that much thoughtfulness to it and, and so beautifully set up as like it's the song title. So you're already thinking about it before the song even begins. And then you sort of delve into the emotion of it and the imagery of it.
And then she sings until time makes history of us. And you're like, oh shit.
History Of Us is such a great ending to an album because it leaves you with this sense of longing like this wistfulness and this desire for more. It's not just like you know, it's this moment that almost hangs in the air and you don't wanna leave. You just want more and more and more of that. I mean, that, that's what makes you go back and buy the old albums and get the new albums and, and consume everything they have.
As I sat reading the amazing memoir by Mary Gauthier, Saved By A Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting, I knew she was the one I needed to talk to about the Indigo Girls. The story she tells in the book is a clear example of how art saves lives. It saved hers. Mary has recorded 11 records, including a collection of collaborations with war veterans and their families called Rifles & Rosary Beads. The Associated Press called her quote, One of the best songwriters of her generation, unquote. I happen to agree. Not only does Mary write great songs, she understands how songs and writing can heal a wounded soul and a wounded world. I caught up with Mary in the green room before her performance at the Greenwood Coffeehouse in Ann Arbor Michigan in the Autumn of 2022. She was eager to talk about Emily Sailers and Amy Ray.
The first time I heard the Indigo Girls music was coming off WUMB Radio out of Boston—all folk radio all the time. And I was, 26 years old and I was an alcoholic. I was in the restaurant business. I was part owner of a restaurant and I was miserable. I was drinking too much. I was very overweight. I was unhappy. I was coming home in my dirty chef coat after a long day at work. I had WUMB on and I heard a song with these two voices that we've come to know as the Indigo Girls. And it was a driveway moment as NPR listeners would describe where I couldn't get out of the car. I had to listen to the song in its completion.
Uh, and something about the sound, I don't remember the words, was something about the sound, uh, nailed me to, to the back of my seat, and my hands were clenched on the steering wheel. It was a sound I'd never heard before and it meant something, and I was trying rapidly in my inebriated state to try to make sense of what it meant.
It riveted me and there was something about it that was utterly compelling and also something about it that made me terribly ill. It made me nauseous and frustrated. It hurt, it ached. It tapped into, I think of it as a, a tap root into something in me that was unlived, and I don't know how to describe that without getting a little mystical and teary-eyed. Uh, because I can't find the words that aren't a little ethereal to describe the sensation. I think it was tapping into, uh, a very personal pain that I didn't even know I was carrying a life unlived that I didn't even know I was missing out on. And it was personal. Uh, and it turns out a lot of people felt that way when the Indigo girls came out, Yeah. It wasn't just me, but this is the power and it's why the record is, uh, is a classic record and it's, it's why music and song really matter. They put their finger on what we don't yet know to be true or have words for when it's working on eye level. Like, like what the Indigo Girls were capable of.
July 13th, 1990, I got arrested for drunk driving. That is my sobriety date. So 32 years ago I got sober and I've managed to stay sober with a lot of support and help, uh, therapy and oh my God, you name it, I've done it to, to, uh, to keep myself between the white lines. So I got sober, uh, and uh, went to see the Indigo Girls at, um, at Paradise Rock Club in Boston. Uh, cuz I remembered hearing them on the radio that first time when I was still drunk. And then between that and me getting sober, they got a record deal and then closer to fine raced its way up to the charts. I don't know if it was a number one single, but it was a very, very popular song. It was everywhere in 1990 and 91. And, uh, I was newly sober. They were at the Paradise Rock Club. Uh, and I bought myself a ticket. I went to a, it was the first bar I went to sober. I got a sparkling water with lime and stood in the back of the room against the wall and wait for it to come out. And the place was packed. And when they took the stage, it was hundreds and hundreds of women mostly. The, the Indigo girls came out and the women started screaming like The Beatles were on stage.
I'd never seen anything like it, Women screaming for women. It was astonishing to me. It blew my mind. It was blowing their mind too. It it, you know, just a little bit before that they were playing in a park for free and it was a really, really incredible experience and it, it made me honestly sick. I went in the bathroom and I thought I was gonna get sick. And I didn't know why, cuz I loved it. I loved what was happening. I loved what I heard. I loved what I saw. But it, it, it, all I can say is my body had wisdom that my mind didn't possess. There was something inside of me that was not right and it was hurting when I heard them sing. And I can't explain it to this day really, except to say I didn't belong in the restaurant business. And even then, I hadn't written a song yet. I didn't see myself on stage doing that. Uh, it wasn't something that was conscious for me.
There was something infused in the energy of what they were doing that collided with the energy in what I wasn't doing. And it opened doors, it opened doors in our culture, and it opened doors in me personally. It's bigger than all of us. It's bigger than them. I've been interviewed by Amy Ray, uh, for my book, and I've taught workshops with Emily. I've gotten to know them. This was bigger than them. There is an invisible hand that moves through us artists and it reaches out and does things in the world, and it does things that move us in a direction that it wants us and needs us to go. If there is an interventions, God, it comes in my experience through art and, and many times art is a form of prayer. It's, it's, uh, incredible what happened in that experience for me personally, but for us culturally, nobody had ever seen hundreds and hundreds and then eventually thousands and thousands of women screaming for women. And, and, and I think that a lot of the women screaming for women were gay or bisexual. And a lot of the women screaming for women were not, It wasn't necessarily a gay thing. It was bigger than sexuality. Um, the Indigo girls did not radiate sexuality. They radiated something else It was a, a form of freedom, I think, to be who you are.
When you're, uh, terrified you, you don't sing to your own gender, you sing to you. And K.D. Lang did that. I did that. They did that. When I talked to Amy about this, uh, when she read the passage in the book that we're talking about and interviewed me about it, she said, Mary, you don't understand. We hated ourself. We were in the closet. We, at that time, they were in the yes, they were in the closet. Wow. Uh, and we were trying to hide and we couldn't successfully do it. Uh, and we, we didn't know what to do. It was exploding around us. We were on a rocket ship that we didn't understand so well. You still were, I think, uh, being, uh, guided, uh, in a way that was so much bigger than a choice.
They headlined the Newport Folk Festival for a decade. They headlined it. And it was the place where Dylan plugged in and transformed folk music into rock and roll, and they headlined it for a decade. I remember seeing 'em the first time they played it and they headlined it and Closer To Fine was they played it. It was driving rain and I was still newly sober, in my early days of recovery and I was in the rain and I was singing at the top of my voice, and it was one of the most joyful moments of my early sobriety.
I was no longer feeling sick when I saw, because I had started going to open mics and beginning to manifest my own destiny as a songwriter. And so that sick feeling of, of what's wrong, why does this hurt? It was gone, because I was starting down the path of a life I think that I was born to live, uh, instead of a life interrupted by addiction. And I do, I credit their music very much with bringing that, uh, to my consciousness by causing me pain, oddly. But basically, the way that they opened my, uh, you know, uh, perceptions and windows of awareness was through an ache that I couldn't name a, a wound. They touched a wound, and that's why I think w hen people tell me that my songs can make them cry, I think that that's a good thing, that there's something in that emotion that's got information and that catharsis is pointing to something that needs healing and something that is, uh, inside you that you carry. I didn't create that. I just helped it to surface.
It was this, the sound of something changing and it was the sound of something, uh, opening. It was an opening, uh, that, that, that veil got pierced and something opened.
But yeah, what they did was, uh, a form of permission. Uh, and that permission has been granted now, and yet we are still in the battles. Uh, and certainly, uh, uh, it's not something we could take for granted cuz it can be taken away and, and they would take it away if they could take it away and they might try to take it away. I don't think they'll succeed. I think the tide has turned, but we'll see.
You can find information about Mary Gauthier’s live performances, recordings, and her book— Saved By A Song, at marygauthier.com. That’s Mary G A U T H I E R. com. Thanks to Mary and my two other guests, Laura Jones and Cara Valenti for sharing their love of this music with all of us.