Some things you just can’t ignore

After 30 years together, the Indigo Girls are still recalibrating

Jeremy Cowartthe

More than three decades ago, when Amy Ray began penning emotionally charged songs about social justice as one-half of the folk rock duo the Indigo Girls, fighting for same sex marriage wasn’t high on her list of priorities — despite being a lesbian.

“There were other issues I wanted to work on [at the time] that had to do with homeless queer youth and drug addiction and transgender issues within the community that I felt were more import to me,” Ray said during a phone interview. “But over the last few years I was like, ‘I was wrong about that.’ [The effect of marriage equality] does trickle down, it does seep into other issues, it does change the tone of the times, it does affect financial issues and socioeconomic issues in the queer community.”

When Ray called to chat with Boulder Weekly, the U.S. Supreme Court had yet to rule that same sex couples could marry nationwide — that would happen eight days later. But like most people, Ray could see the future. And it looked bright.

“That house of cards, that… anti-gay, reactionary, kind of fearful house is falling,” Ray said. “All these people scrambling to say the Supreme Court’s not the final word… but it’s happening and everyone is going to have to accept it.”

As the Georgia native got older and formed a family of her own, Ray said she started to see what marriage equality could do for civil rights in the broader queer community.

“Any slight incremental change in how people see any gay issue is good for all these issues,” Ray said. “Now I feel like it’s all linked. … That’s the beautiful thing about activism — you always learn. You always have to be open so that you can be wrong about your priorities. That’s what I love about being immersed in activism … if you can stay in that open space you can learn from it.”

Within that statement is perhaps the perfect summation of what the Indigo Girls have built their career around: self-reflection and social action.

With the release of their 14th studio album, One Lost Day, the Indigo Girls continue to build on that foundation, serving up poignant, soulful journeys that take listeners across North America, through stories of exquisite first love, the other side of sorrow and the ravages of addiction.

Interwoven among the stories are undeniable themes of inequity — derived from race, poverty and gender — that show the Indigo Girls continue to reside in that “open space” of activism Ray speaks of.

“Some things you just can’t ignore,” Ray said.

Take, for example, mass incarceration. Back in 2007, Ray received a letter from Herman Wallace, one of the “Angora Three,” who each spent three decades or more in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary (often called Angola Prison) after the killing of a prison guard in 1972. No physical evidence linking the men to the crime was ever brought forward and the testimony of the primary eyewitness was discredited.

In his letter, Wallace quoted lyrics from Indigo Girls songs and spoke of the new breed of racism in America — what sociologist Loic Wacquant has called the “hyperincarceration” of black men.

Ray said Wallace’s letter left her paralyzed with disbelief, unable to express her thoughts. It took years, but for the new album Ray penned “The Rise of the Black Messiah” as a battle cry against America’s industrial prison complex and the racism it enables.

“My friend I heard you tell of slavery’s end, but have you heard of mass incarceration?” Ray sings. “And that ol’ Jim Crow, he just keeps getting born with a new hanging rope for the black man’s scourge. Hey ol’ Man River, what do you know of that plantation they call Angola? The devil spawned a prison there — the saddest farm that ever lived.”

For Ray, the creation of the song was no small matter, even after years of penning songs that question social mores and status quo.

“Over time you can’t take it lightly and dash off another song about mass incarceration or just another folk song,” Ray said. “You just write out of honesty. Sometimes that’s a song that’s very stridently activist and sometimes it’s gonna be a love song.”

And One Lost Day isn’t without love songs, like the opening track “Elizabeth,” where fellow Indigo Girl Emily Saliers reminisces, without sadness, about the beauty of a young (seemingly unrealized) love against the vibrant, historic backdrop of New Orleans (where Saliers, who is also openly gay, spent two years attending Tulane University). Or on “Southern California is Your Girlfriend,” a song about two people from extremely different backgrounds engaged in what will ultimately be a doomed romance.

The band also explores sorrow’s role in human development, the confines of a small town and the devastation a natural disaster wreaks on a small coal-mining town in Canada.

Despite the album’s varied subject matter, the overall theme comes across as a reflection on the past and the lessons we learn — or perhaps should have learned — as we weather life’s trials and tribulations. In that reflection, the album often champions growth over rumination.

“I don’t want to look you up, I’m pretty sure it’s just enough to remember you fondly,” Saliers sings in “Elizabeth.”

For Ray and Saliers, who have been performing together since they were high schoolers in Decatur, Georgia in 1985, there’s been plenty to focus on without lingering on the “what ifs” and “could have beens” of the past. Saliers married her longtime partner Tristin Chipman in 2013, and both Indigo Girls are new parents — Saliers and Chipman to 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter Cleo, while Ray and her partner, Carrie Schrader, are busy raising their 20-month-old daughter Ozilline Graydon.

And as a consequence of the rapid pace of life, it’s been four years since the Indigo Girls released their last studio album, Beauty Queen Sister.

When they decided it was time to get back in the studio, Ray and Saliers sought the guidance of a new producer, Nashville-based Jordan Hamlin. For Ray, the choice to work with Hamlin came as a result of hearing Hamlin’s work on indie folk songwriter Lucy Wainright Roche’s latest LP, There’s a Last Time For Everything, which Ray said was the “best record Lucy’s made — so creative and so visionary.”

Hamlin, unlike other producers the band has worked with, was a fan of the Indigo Girls prior to working with them. She is also, in Ray’s words, “much younger” than Ray and Saliers.

“She’s of a generation that’s more digital. The way she works is more send stuff over email and do mockups in ProTools and GarageBand and sort of play all the instruments yourself,” Ray said — a method that was new to a band that has always done pre-production work in person.

But, always true to their foundation of self-reflection, the band readjusted and learned new ways of working in order to push their boundaries. And Ray admitted it might have been a little tough for her at times.

“I can be very combative. I can say theoretically, ‘Yes, you can be the visionary. You can do your thing,’ but when I’m in the studio space it’s impossible for me to do that.” Ray said. “It’s not an ego trip, I just get so excited about the music and what we’re doing and the people that are in there playing with us and my mind won’t stop. I get all these ideas and I forget I’ve said to Jordan, ‘You’re in charge.’ [But] it’s good for me to learn to recalibrate. Seems like every hour I had to recalibrate.”