After 30 years and 16 albums, you might think you know the music of Emily Saliers, one half of iconic folk duo the Indigo Girls. You’d be wrong.
Saliers has just released her debut solo album, Murmuration Nation, and it is unlike anything you have heard from the group. The album is different in almost every way imaginable. Based on rhythmic grooves, the album unfolds as one fantastic surprise after another. Saliers is about to begin a national tour to promote the album, and she will make her second stop in Madison on October 5 at the High Noon Saloon. Lucky us.
I spoke with Saliers about the new album, our current political climate, and the future of the LGBTQ community. She also talked about the joys and challenges of making music that is authentic to her, including her collaboration with Lyris Hung, the wickedly awesome violinist who has toured with the Indigo Girls for years.
This new album is a really big deal!
Yeah, I really love the album. Lyris Hung produced it. Everybody who played on it, the success of the crowd funding campaign and what that meant to me personally, and just the whole thing. It really is a new chapter in my creative, professional, and personal life. To me it’s really more than an album; it’s really part of my journey, and it felt kind of crazy to do it at this age in my life. But it’s been absolutely liberating.
The album crosses genres and musical styles. It has so much texture. I thought I had a sense of your style, but this album was like one surprise after another.
It’s really reflective of the way I listen to music. I love so many different types of music. I listen to so many different genres of music all the time, and I go back and forth and all around. The influences are definitely there in this album. In many ways, it’s very different from what Amy and I have done together. We are still going strong, but this was a great opportunity for me to explore parts of myself, particularly my relationship with rhythm and world elements, [which is something] that Amy and I haven’t done as much. A lot of the songs were written with beats. I would pick a loop or a beat that moved me, and then I would start writing a guitar part to it so that I would have something to sing to. So at the very heart of this album, on every song, is the rhythmic center.
What were the mental blocks that you had to get over to make this album?
Initially, it was the insecurity of knowing that this was going to be a different album. I mean, it wasn’t like I was doing a heavy metal album. It wasn’t that different, but it was different enough that I knew that people who thought that they knew what I did, specifically, might be surprised by it and might not even like it as much. That’s fine. I think that’s normal for any creative person to go through when you are trying to stretch yourself a bit and it’s a little bit scary. But I was so excited about the music as it was growing. I sort of lost that fear along the way.
I know you have thought about doing a solo album for decades. What barriers prevented you from doing this sooner? Why now?
For me, what the Indigo Girls covered for a long time was plenty. And then I always had this strong draw to rhythmic [music], particularly African American Hip Hop and R&B. That started to grow in me, and then I met Lyris. She started playing with the Indigo Girls, and we started exploring music together. Lyris and I wrote a song for a film, and I knew I just loved working with her. So I sent her little snippets of ideas without any intention whatsoever, except to have fun. When she responded with things that she had produced, I thought, “Oh my God! This is what I feel. This other person is doing things musically on her computer that I don’t know how to do.” And so I asked her to produce the record. We spent three years shaping the songs, so it was a long process.
There is so much energy in everything you are doing. Does this feel like a rebirth of sorts?
It really is, who would have thought at this age? I just believe that age is nothing. There is wisdom of years but actual number of age and the way that we are ageist and the way we think of what we should be doing and when we should be doing it and what we should achieving by the time that we retire and all these ways that we think about being productive can be so constricting. I am just not tethered by any of that. I feel, more than anything, gratitude that I’m experiencing a renaissance of creative inspiration in the midst of a very dark time politically and socially. But it’s no banner to soak into the depth of darkness, there is just as much validation to enjoy the sunshine on the green leaves and the feeling of rebirth, because we need that as much as we need to be concerned about things that are not going well.
The lyrics on this album vary from love songs and personal struggles to some pretty fierce political topics. You’ve talked about politics in your music before. Was there anything different about writing political lyrics in this “post-fact era?”
You know, I feel like everything is so visceral right now, after Trump got elected. To me, the first line in [the song] “Fly” is, “Yes, we were hit by a sucker punch.” It was very hard to get out of bed the morning after the election, and I had friends that couldn’t get out of bed for two days. It wasn’t just that he had won. It was the reality of what he stood for and that there were people in this country that supported that. And the weight of our division–the weight of the division in this country–the reality of that came home, and it was very, very difficult. So I got back on my feet by writing that song, which was one of the later songs.
But the earlier topics that I wrote about, like our relationship with guns in this country in “OK Corral,” then “Hello Vietnam”– I have been obsessed with [Vietnam] forever, about how you can take part in wrecking a country and then turn around just a few decades later sell them arms and have diplomatic relationships. This has happened through history, but for me it’s still quite mind boggling, and religious zealotry, and violence, and all these things. Really, the feeling is the same except that I didn’t hold back and try to make it any more poetic.
Typically, if I try to write about an issue, as a songwriter, as part of the craft, I’m thinking about what’s the way that I can say this that has more levels or meaning. Because I love words, and I love metaphor, and I love simile, and I love all that stuff. But I had to make conscious decisions to say things straight out, and I had an internal struggle with whether the songs were good enough lyrically when I said something straight out as opposed to finding a more poetic, literary, or clever way of saying it.
You and Amy Ray came out when no one was out. What was that like back in the early days?
It’s surprising how few people were out, but Amy and I were out to our families and friends, and whenever we played locally, it was just like everybody knew. Most of the audience was lesbian, queer, or alternative, on-the-fringes-type community people that we loved. Our lesbian following, those were the ones that were our springboard into future success. But there was more pressure when we got signed to a major label, and there seemed to be more on the line. I had to deal with my own feelings, and there was a lot of self homophobia going on. I had that. Amy didn’t have as much as I did, but we both talk about how each of us had to deal with that as a career person.
There was this moment, like air under the wing of a bird. Like, “Yep, we’re gay.” And then it was like, “we’re off and we’re free,” and it was amazing from that point on. We were able to be a part of the movement and evolution for queer rights, and it was very different then. Ellen hadn’t come out yet, and she did so much for so many people in the general public eye. It was a completely different time, and we did get pigeonholed. We were made fun of. We were stigmatized. But it didn’t matter. To be free, to be open, and to be validated was completely empowering.
You’ve talked about supporting the transgender community as something that is really important. Do you see that as the next big hurdle for the LGBTQ community as a whole?
I think as a whole, yes. There’s no doubt about it. The amount of ignorance that is out there, the way that people talk about trans issues, and what Trump has done with trans service people in the military, which is disgusting to me. There are so many issues in the queer community. The high suicide rates for sexual minority youth, depression, people getting kicked out of their churches, parents refusing to attend their gay children’s weddings. These awful stories of personal pain. It’s not like things haven’t gotten better, but we still have such a long way to go in terms of understanding and validating each other’s humanity and beauty. Given the lack of acceptance, empathy, and understanding of the trans community, it is the frontier we are on right now.
When the LGBTQ community supports the trans community fully and wholeheartedly is when they are also more likely to be supported by the general population.
That’s absolutely right. If one of us suffers, all of us suffer. We are a community of queer people, and transgender people are suffering right now. They are being killed and kidnapped, and they are being oppressed. It’s terrible, and we all have to rise up together and support the trans members of our community. There was a terrible shooting on Georgia Tech’s campus just last week. They [the person killed] were an incredible activist and leader in the queer community, and they were suffering a mental breakdown. I don’t think you can separate their mental breakdown from the difficulty of being trans in this world and in this country.
We are excited you are coming back to Madison for your solo tour. You’ve been coming to Madison for years. What makes it a destination for you?
Well, I can remember in the very early Indigo Girl days when we played down by the lake by campus (Union Terrace). It was one of those early shows that always sticks in my memory. We’ve played in Wisconsin a lot, and we’ve done some political work with Honor the Earth around mining and stuff. So we have a relationship with the political activism there. But Madison is an extremely vibrant city with a lot of character and beauty because of the University. It’s just an exciting place to be. I think the people that go to see me and Amy will like this show, and we’re putting so much into it. Anyone who likes the album will get to hear it in full format, rather than just me playing some of the songs on guitar. I’m so excited to come to Madison, and I keep wondering how I can get the word out. I’d love to have a good crowd there.