Play It Forward: Indigo Girls' Amy Ray And Emily Saliers On Their 45-Year Kinship | WCAI

Play It Forward: Indigo Girls' Amy Ray And Emily Saliers On Their 45-Year Kinship

Aug 12, 2020
Originally published on August 17, 2020 3:29 pm

We're back with season two of Play It Forward, where we talk with artists about their music and the artists they're thankful for. The band Indigo Girls has shaped a generation of singer-songwriters. Emily Saliers and Amy Ray released their first album in 1989; their latest album, Look Long, came out in May while the country was under stay-at-home orders and they debuted some of their new music in livestreamed concerts on social media, where tens of thousands of people tuned in to bond over music they'd grown up on.

NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke to Emily Saliers and Amy Ray about their lifelong bond, how they think about their place in country music and about the poetic flair of Kae Tempest. Editor's note: Since recording this interview, Kae Tempest put out a statement saying they are going by the name Kae and using them/they pronouns. NPR has received permission to air this interview as recorded. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview below.

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Interview Highlights

On what they're grateful for about each other

Emily Saliers: I'm thankful for Amy's integrity as a person, a human being. And I'm thankful for Amy's songwriting and for her musical sensibilities. Those are just a couple things — there's a million more I could list — but those come to mind.

Amy Ray: I'm grateful for Emily's strength and perseverance in this career, because I think we've needed that in order to survive as long [as we have], and [we've] know each other since we were 10, which is 45 years. So I'm thankful for that and her artistry. She tends to write a lot of songs that folks can sing along with, which is not the same skill set I have. And I'm lucky that she has that and that it enables us to resonate more, I think.

On writing songs about queer identity today versus earlier in their careers

Ray: We were very lucky because we came along at a time when all these icons — like k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, like gay icons — were coming out and other people before us had paved the way, all the feminists that came before us. We were kind of learning from all these different mentors in our community of Atlanta as well. And so we were given that ability to be strong and kind of comfortably come out, and both of us had a lot of self-hate and internalized homophobia along the way, of course, but our community of listeners kind of grew up with us. So as we were learning and becoming politicized in the queer world, they were as well, and they were teaching us.

Saliers: ["Country Radio" is] a song about feeling other than, 'cause I love country music — I love the songs and I love the voices, I love the stories — but I could not fit my life [into it]. I knew that these songs were written by men and women about men and women. It's like our stories don't get told when we're not included. And for me, it turned into an emotional feeling of wistfulness and loneliness and so the song describes that.

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On Kae Tempest and "I Trap You"

Ray: [They're] a poet: like a true poet, like the greats, like the most literary class you can take. You don't even need to hear [their music], you can just read it and feel that way. One track that I think has a resonance that can just rip through you is "I Trap You." I typically don't pick songs about love, but I think it's because of the way [Tempest] talks about love. [They say,] "You make me a microscope / You make me a map / I called it 'love,' I should've called it 'trap.' " It's a beautiful love song but it's also a realization of all the things that [Tempest] wants a relationship to be.

Saliers: [Tempest] brings these big ideas down to something so human that each one of us experiences.

Ray: Thank you [Kae] Tempest and gosh: Carry on, please, carry on.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're back with Season 2 of Play it Forward, where we talk with artists about their music and the music they're thankful for. The Indigo Girls have shaped a generation of singer-songwriters. Emily Saliers and Amy Ray released their first album in 1989. Their latest album, "Look Long," came out in May, while the country was in lockdown. And they debuted some of their new music in livestreamed concerts on social media, where tens of thousands of people tuned in to virtually bond over music they'd grown up on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK LONG")

INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) We want to believe in something. We're unsettled.

SHAPIRO: Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, the Indigo Girls, welcome to Play It Forward.

AMY RAY: Hi.

EMILY SALIERS: Hey.

RAY: It's nice to talk to you.

SALIERS: Yay. We love NPR.

SHAPIRO: Oh, thanks. This whole project is about musical gratitude. And in a few minutes, I'm going to ask you to tell us about a musician you're grateful for, but you two have known each other since elementary school. You've been making music together for more than 30 years. To start off, could you just tell us about what you're grateful for about each other?

SALIERS: A lot of things.

SHAPIRO: Is that Emily?

SALIERS: Yeah, this is Emily. I'm thankful for Amy's integrity as a person, a human being. And I'm thankful for Amy's songwriting and for her musical sensibilities. So those are just a couple things. There's a million more I could list, but those come to mind.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Amy, what are you grateful for about Emily?

RAY: Can I say the same things? No (laughter)...

SHAPIRO: Sure.

RAY: I'm grateful for Emily's - I want to say, like, strength and perseverance in this career because I think we've needed that in order to survive for as long and know each other since we were 10, which is 45 years. So I'm thankful for that and her artistry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK LONG")

INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) Look long. Look long. Look long.

RAY: She tends to write a lot of songs that folks can sing along with, which is not the same skill set I have. And I'm lucky that she has that and that it enables us to resonate more, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY RADIO")

INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) I work at the mall food court. When I get home I fix something to eat, settle into my seat and turn on the country radio.

SHAPIRO: You know, when I was listening to your music in the '90s, I felt like queer identity was just below the surface of a lot of your songs. And on this album, in a song like "Country Radio," it is right there in the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY RADIO")

INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) I'm just a gay kid in a small town who loves country radio.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the difference between the world of music that you were releasing this album into and the one that you were working in earlier in your career.

RAY: Wow.

SALIERS: Amy, do you want to start?

RAY: This is Amy. Yeah. I mean, and you should talk about "Country Radio," I guess but - yeah. We were very lucky because we came along at a time when all these icons like, you know, k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge - like, gay icons were coming out, and other people before us had paved the way and all the feminists that came before us. And we were kind of learning from all these different mentors in our community of Atlanta as well. And so we were given that ability to be strong and kind of comfortably come out. And, you know, both of us, I think, have a lot of self-hate and internalized homophobia along the way, of course, but our community of listeners kind of grew up with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY RADIO")

INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) And I'm under the stars, regular at the bar. Got a perfect girl, I got a worn-in truck. We go down to the river, and the moonlight is silver. But most of all I get to be in love.

SHAPIRO: Emily, you want to weigh in here?

SALIERS: Well, "Country Radio" is really - it's a song about feeling other than because I love country music. I love the songs, and I love the voices. I love the stories. But I could not fit my life - I knew that these songs were written by men and women about men and women. It's like our stories don't get told when we're not included. And for me, it turned into an emotional feeling of wistfulness and loneliness. And so the song describes that.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAE TEMPEST SONG, "LONELY DAZE")

SHAPIRO: OK, now it is your turn to tell us about an artist that you are thankful for, somebody whose music you appreciate. Who do you want to introduce us to?

RAY: There is a poet, spoken-word artist, writer, performer who I just, like, got turned on to her, and this happened when we were in the studio making "Look Long." And John Reynolds said, our producer, have you heard this woman Kate Tempest (ph)? And I was like, no. And then he played something, and I was just shocked. It was so amazingly good and riveting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONELY DAZE")

KAE TEMPEST: (Rapping) ...Sleeping. Grew up in a city where it's hard to be heard and nothing really has much meaning.

RAY: She is a poet, a true poet like the greats, like the most literary class you can take, you know? And you don't even need to hear it. You can just read it and feel that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONELY DAZE")

TEMPEST: (Rapping) But will it be this way forever? These are lonely days. What if she could be the one that makes it better? He looks away, can't hold her gaze.

RAY: One track that I think has a resonance that can just rip through you is a song called "I Trap You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I TRAP YOU")

TEMPEST: (Rapping) Love is a self-made thing. I am free. I stare at the air, and I see patterns.

RAY: I typically don't pick songs about love, but I think it's because of the way she talks about love. I mean, she says, you make me a microscope. You make me a map. I called it love. I should have called it trap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I TRAP YOU")

TEMPEST: (Rapping) I trap you, I should have said tenderly at the end of a long day while we kept each other desperately stagnant.

RAY: It's a beautiful love song, but it's also, like, a realization of all the things that she wants a relationship to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE'S FACES")

TEMPEST: (Rapping) It's coming to pass. My country is coming apart. The whole thing's becoming such a bumbling farce.

SALIERS: She brings these big ideas down to something so human that each one of us experiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE'S FACES")

TEMPEST: (Rapping) And I can feel things changing. Even when I'm weak and I'm breaking I'll stand weeping at the train station because I can see your faces.

SHAPIRO: Well, we are going to go to Kate Tempest next, so what would you like to say to her?

RAY: (Laughter).

SALIERS: Thank you.

RAY: Yeah. Thank you, Kate Tempest. And, gosh, carry on. Please carry on.

SHAPIRO: Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls, thank you so much for talking with us about your music and someone who you're grateful for.

SALIERS: It was great talking to you - really appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: Their new album is called "Look Long."

(SOUNDBITE OF KAE TEMPEST SONG, "PEOPLE'S FACES")

SHAPIRO: We recorded that conversation with the Indigo Girls a while ago. And since then, Kate Tempest put out a statement saying they are going by the name Kae rather than Kate and using them/they pronouns. Their publicist said we were fine to air this interview as recorded, and we will talk with Kae Tempest in the next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE'S FACES")

TEMPEST: (Rapping) ...That the old ways need to end. But it's hard to accept that we're one and the same flesh given the rampant divisions between oppressor and oppressed. But... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.