The Indigo Girls are “ideal duet partners,” announced Jerry Guterman in Rolling Stone. “Their voices soar and swoop as one. . .and when they sing. . .they radiate a sense of shared purpose.” The duo, made up of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, have enjoyed tremendous success with the release of their first album on a major label, Indigo Girls. “Closer to Fine,” an upbeat single from the disc, has proved especially popular, and its accompanying video has seen much airplay on video stations such as MTV and VH-1. Despite the darker tones of many of the album’s other numbers—tones which led a People reviewer to call listening to Indigo Girls “in one sitting a rather grim experience”—Ray and Saliers have received much critical acclaim for their 1989 effort.
Both women sing, compose, and play acoustic guitar, and both started practicing their arts as youngsters. Saliers, who spent her earlier years in New Haven, Connecticut, before her family relocated to the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Georgia, began composing songs when she was nine. She confessed to a People reporter, however, that her lyrics “made no sense.” Ray performed at parties given by relatives in her youth, and her grandmother tried unsuccessfully to gain her an audition for the country music variety show “Hee Haw.” The future partners met during grade school in Decatur but had little to do with each other. “We had this unspoken competition because we both played the guitar,” Saliers explained in People.
When the two young women reached high school, however, they began performing as a team. Calling themselves simply Saliers and Ray, they played in an Atlanta bar on amateur nights. Their repertoire at this point predominantly consisted of folk standards, but they would occasionally slip in their own compositions. Eventually, when they both found themselves attending Atlanta’s Emory University—Ray studying religion and Saliers English—they decided to change their moniker. “I found [indigo] in the dictionary,” Ray told People. “It’s a deep blue, a root—real earthy.”
As the women prepared to graduate from Emory, Ray was totally committed to a musical career, but Saliers wavered. Moira McCormick reported in Rolling Stone that Ray handed her partner “an ultimatum, and Saliers chose the group.” As the latter told McCormick, “from then on, we were making career decisions.” Saliers further explained that Ray then felt that “we needed to play rock & roll clubs instead of folk clubs,” because the Indigo Girls were being stereotyped as pop-folk artists. Despite their good intentions, however, the perception persisted. A Stereo Review critic included in his assessment of Indigo Girls the compliment, “This is red-blooded folk music with no holds barred.”
Wanting their music to remain completely independent of others’ control, the Indigo Girls began recording on their own Indigo label. They cut “Crazy Game,” a single, in 1985; an extended-play record in 1986; and an album entitled Strange Fire in 1987. This strategy “was working,” Ray claimed to McCormick. “We were making a living. But we had so much to do, we were just falling apart.” So the duo signed a contract with Epic Records in 1988, but only after the company had reassured them on the issue of artistic control. In the meantime, the Indigo Girls had acquired successful musicians among their growing number of fans, including the groups R.E.M. and Hothouse Flowers, both of which contributed their talents to the duo’s first Epic album. Indigo Girls was helped in its accomplishment of selling over five hundred thousand copies by the fact that its artists served as the opening act for several R.E.M. concerts.
With the Indigo Girls’ popularity established, Epic planned to reissue their extended-play effort and to release an altered version of Strange Fire. As for new material, according to McCormick, Saliers answers critics’ charges of over-seriousness thus: “It’s possible
Group originally formed as Saliers and Ray, 1980; name changed to the Indigo Girls, c 1983; recording artists, 1985—. Members are Amy Ray , born c 1964, daughter of a radiologist and a homemaker; and Emily Saliers , born c. 1963, daughter of a theology professor and a librarian. Education: Both Ray and Saliers graduated from Emory University.
Addresses: Record Comparii; — Epic Records, 51 West 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019.
that in the future we’ll write more songs with comic relief. But we’ve just been writing what we felt.”
Strange Fire, Indigo, 1987.
Indigo Girls (includes “Closer to Fine,” “Secure Yourself,” “Kid Fears,” “Prince of Darkness,” and “Blood and Fire”), Epic, 1989.
Also released single, “Crazy Game,” on Indigo, 1985, and an extended-play record on Indigo, 1986.
People, March 27, 1989; July 24, 1989.
Rolling Stone, May 4, 1989; September 21, 1989.
Stereo Review, July 1989.
For more than a decade, the Indigo Girls—Amy Ray and Emily Saliers—have created passionate folk music which is both intensely personal and overtly political. Despite a lack of Top 40 radio play, the pair has built a devout following, sold more than six million albums, earned five Grammy nominations, and regularly delivered concerts with the fervor of tent revivals and the intimacy of campfire sing-alongs. In addition, they have been staunch political advocates for gay rights, animal rights, and environmental and Native American causes. The Indigos’ music has divided critics—some laud their soaring vocal harmonies, emotionally charged lyrics, and musical exploration while others dismiss their songs as pretentious and overwrought. “Despite a career filled with frequent musical experimentation and a growing legion of fans,” Larry Flick wrote in Billboard, “Indigo Girls have endured a widespread industry perception as an interminably earnest folk rock duo with a limited, cult-like following.”
The musical partners became friends in grade school. Ray grew up in Decatur, Georgia, where her father was
Members include Amy Ray (born April 12, 1964 in Decatur, GA) acoustic guitar, vocals; and Emily Saliers (born July 22, 1963 in New Haven, CT), acoustic guitar, vocals.
They began playing acoustic guitar-based folk music together at Shamrock High School in suburban Atlanta in 1980. Ray and Saliers attended Emory University and performed in coffeehouses and on street corners before signing with Epic Records and making their major-label debut with the album Indigo Girls in 1989.
Awards: Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album for Indigo Girls.
a radiologist and her mother was a homemaker. Saliers’s family moved to town from New Haven, Connecticut, in 1974. Her father was a Methodist minister and a professor at Emory University; her mother was a librarian. The pair formed the act Saliers and Ray in high school in 1980, attended Emory University together, and emerged from the Athens, Georgia, coffeehouse scene as the Indigo Girls in the late 1980s. They chose the name after coming across “indigo” in the dictionary and deciding they liked the sound of the word. Their music—they’ve called it “folk music with angst”—was based upon acoustic guitars and beautifully intertwined, occasionally dissonant harmonies. Ray and Saliers released their first album, Strange Fire, on their own label in 1987. Two years later, they made their major-label debut on Epic Records. The album, Indigo Girls, went platinum and earned a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. In the 1990s, they went on to deliver four more solid-selling studio albums and two live records, Back on the Bus, Y’All in 1991 and 1200 Curfews in 1995.
In many ways, Ray and Saliers are opposites who complement each other on record and on stage. Ray has dark hair and an edgy, punkish side. Saliers is a blonde folkie with a crystalline voice. “Ray is tough and outspoken and has a growling, devlish singing voice,” music critic Christopher Farley wrote in Time. “Saliers’s is quiet and reflective, and her vocals are high and angelic. Ray says she’s influenced by punk bands like the Sex Pistols; Saliers prefers Joni Mitchell. The two never write songs together, and for weeks at a time they drift apart to their separate circle of friends.” At home in Georgia they belong to separate pickup bands. Ray drums for a group called Flunky; Saliers’s side project is called Hash.
Saliers talked with Melissa Regear of the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the pair’s chemistry. “Amy and I express ourselves so differently, and through her I’m able to experience a whole other musical life. I can’t do what Amy does, but I get to sing these songs, and she brings her gifts to my songs. It’s got a lot of balance. Amy brings a lot of rawness and edge, an immediate edge, and I’m a little more cerebral.” Off-stage and away from the recording studio, they spend little time together. “We don’t have the kind of friendship where we call each other to take in a movie, which is probably why our relationship is so strong,” Saliers once said. Ray summed up their partnership this way: “Me solo is too much of me. Emily solo is too much of Emily.”
The Indigo Girls have long been dedicated to various liberal causes, and political views have increasingly found voice in their songs. Ray and Saliers have been vocal advocates for gay rights, women and children’s causes, Native American concerns, and environmentalism. They have supported Green peace, Artists for a Hate-Free America, and assorted other organizations. In 1995, their Honor the Earth Tour raised more than $300,000 for grassroots Native American environmental groups and generated a CD featuring songs from Bonnie Raitt, Soul Asylum, Victoria Williams, and Bruce Cockburn along with American Indian artists such as Joy Harjo and Ulali, a trio of female musicians. The Indigos also appeared on a 1993 benefit album for Save the Children and two environmental groups and on Sweet Relief II, a 1996 tribute to paraplegic singer-songwriter Vic Chestnutt. In 1997, the pair participated in Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair, a concert tour featuring female artists.
Over the years, the Indigos’ music has become increasingly electric, eclectic, and political—while continuing to balance the duo’s trademark gentleness and intensity. “You can look at our music and see that we’ve become more assertive,” Ray told Robert Perkinson of The Progressive. “It’s also confidence and better song-writing. Our images are cleaner and more specific. And when your images become more specific they become more graphic. They’re not diluted. So they seem more aggressive.”
On 1994’s Swamp Ophelia, which sold more than 1.5 million copies, the Indigos “dabbled in grunge aggression and tribal percussion,” Flick wrote. On the album they added African drums, accordions, mandolins, trumpet and flugelhorn, electric guitars, violin and cello and more orchestration to their acoustic strumming. “There are more extremes going on,” Ray said at the time. “Electric and acoustic. Loud sounds and soft sounds.” Times’s Farley wrote that the “new, more eleborate songs still have fire, grace and melodies that leap out at the listeners. Once again, they sing beautifully braided harmonies with the occasional hint of dissonance and their lyrics as usual have an eloquent, freewheeling wordiness.” Not everyone has been impressed with the Indigo Girls’ sound, however. Stereo Review accused them of “pathetic whining” and being “stuck in that college-freshman phase where everything is just, like, really deep.”
The 1997 album Shaming of the Sunwas equally varied, incorporating hip-hop, hard rock, world beat, Native American styles, and piano balladry. The Indigos continued expanding their musical repertoire with the addition of bouzouki, tympani, hurdy-gurdy, a stand-up bass, and penny whistles. The album also features guest artists Ulali, Steve Earle, Jackson Browne, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and violinist Lisa Germano—as well as Atlanta area musicians and the longtime Indigo rhythm section of drummer Jerry Marotta and bassist Sara Lee. “We learned and wrote on a lot of different instruments,” Saliers said. “We weren’t afraid to try something more expansive. I feel good about this record in ways I’ve never felt about anything we’ve done in the past.” Ray described the album as “Rage Against the Machine meets old Library of Congress recordings.”
The critics, as usual, were divided. Kyle Munson of the Des Moines Register called Shaming of the Sun the Indigo Girls’ best album ever and Flick wrote that it preserved the pair’s “signature lyrical explorations of love and inner turmoil” while incorporating “an equal dose of biting and emphatically political commentary.” Los Angeles Times’ critic Natalie McNichols, on the other hand, said the album was “drowned in a morass of instrumental bombast and overblown sentimentality.” And Dan DeLuca of The Philadelphia Inquirer nearly apologized for disliking the Indigos. Listening to their music, DeLuca wrote, is “an arduous task. The fervent vocals. The manic guitar strumming. The good intentions gone awry in songs that devolve into a poetic mishmash. There’s only so much earnest you can take…. The Indigos are so open, so down to earth, so ‘nice,’that you start to feel like a curmudgeon for not loving their music.”
In any event, Shaming of the Sun hit the charts at No. 7, the highest debut for any Indigos’ album, and generated the radio hit Shame on You. The record also marked the first time Ray and Saliers produced their own music, a task they shared with their longtime engineer David Leonard. “Our first thought was to use several different producers to broaden the sound,” Ray was quoted in Billboard. “After trying a few different scenarios, we realized no one knew better how we heard the songs in our heads than us. It was a completely liberating, but much slower, process than we’d experienced before.”
Strange Fire, Indigo Records, 1987.
Indigo Girls, Epic, 1989.
Nomads. Indians. Saints., Epic, 1990.
Back on the Bus, Y’ All, Epic, 1991.
Rites of Passage, Epic, 1992.
Swamp Ophelia, Epic, 1994.
1200 Curfews, Epic, 1995.
Shaming of the Sun, Epic, 1997.
Billboard, March 29, 1997, p. 16.
Buffalo News, May 28, 1997, p. D1.
Des Moines Register, May 8, 1997, p. 10.
Detroit Free Press, June 13, 1997, p. C1.
E, September 1995, p. 25.
Entertainment Weekly, October 13, 1995, p. 78.
Guitar Player, September 1994, p. 123.
Knight-Ridder News Service, May 2, 1997.
People, August 19, 1996, p. 23; May 9, 1994, p. 25.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 22, 1997, p. D12.
Rolling Stone, August 25, 1994, p. 89; February 23, 1995, p. 26.
The Progressive, December 1996, p. 34.
Time, May 23, 1994, p. 70.
U.S. News & World Report, May 5, 1997, p. 79.
Additional information was provided by Epic Records publicity material.
Members: Amy Ray, guitar, vocals (born Decatur, Georgia, 12 April 1964); Emily Saliers, guitar, vocals (born New Haven, Connecticut, 22 July 1963).
Best-selling album since 1990: Indigo Girls (1989)
Hit songs since 1990: "Closer to Fine," "Galileo," "Least Complicated"
In 2003 the idea of two guitar-slinging, harmonizing female singer/songwriters making a go at the music business as a duo hardly seems revolutionary, but that is just what the Indigo Girls were when they caught the attention of fans, radio, and Christian conservatives in the early 1990s. After their formation, the Indigo Girls, who are up front about their homosexuality, went on to write scores of folk rock hits. They performed at sell-out arenas, joined Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair tour in the late 1990s, and released a handful of platinum-selling albums. The Indigo Girls melded the personal and the political without sacrificing one for the other, without succumbing to didacticism, and without losing their musicality.
The pair met when Amy was ten and Emily eleven, at school in Decatur, Georgia. They formed a musical partnership early on, and released a cassette of mostly cover songs called Tuesday's Children under the name Saliers and Ray. They went to college together at Emory University and changed their name to the Indigo Girls.
The Seamless Blending of Opposites
Saliers, with fair skin and blonde hair, possesses a wispy, velvety voice, and usually writes the more introspective, contemplative ballads. Ray is often full of fire and has a raspier, more earthy voice. They do not usually write a song together—they will compose separately and play together, working out guitar parts and harmonies when they combine it all to form a song.
Their breakthrough album, the self-titled Indigo Girls (1989), was their second release but their first for Epic Records, which signed them in 1988. With production help from Scott Litt, who worked with fellow Georgians and superstars R.E.M., and guest vocals from Michael Stipe and the Irish group Hothouse Flowers, the work is a collection of folk rock songs about coming to terms with yourself, your world, and your relationships. The spiritual quest "Closer to Fine," written by Saliers, was the album's first single, and it climbed up the charts to peak at number twenty-two on the Billboard 200. Listeners were impressed with "Kid Fears," with vocal help from Michael Stipe. The album's territory, ruminations on faith, love, and religion, whether in passionate ballads such as Ray's "Blood and Fire" or Saliers's heartfelt ballad "History of Us," marked the duo as intelligent musicians with a keen command of melody and harmony. As a result, the Indigo Girls were asked by Neil Young and R.E.M. to tour as an opening act. By September 1989 Indigo Girls reached gold and the pair won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Group of 1989.
Confession, reflection, and instigation are qualities of a good Indigo Girls song. On their earlier albums, they stuck with an acoustic approach and sometimes fleshed out their sound with the addition of bass, drums, and other instruments. In 1990, they issued Nomads Indians Saints, which was not a critical success although it was nominated for a Grammy.
The Rites of Success
By this point, the Indigo Girls began to release an album approximately every two years and were beginning to hit their stride as songwriters. Rites of Passage (1992) fared better, with the rousing "Galileo," which finds the Girls questioning themselves, the solar system, and invoking the spirit of Galileo to sort things out for them. On Rites of Passage they tackle everything from governmental misbehavior to Native American rights to romantic disappointment without loss of hope, energy, or passion, as in Love Will Come to You. Other standout tracks include the rambunctious, mandolin-fueled "Joking," and their cover of the Dire Straits song "Romeo and Juliet," which, as a duet between two women, adds a completely different feel to the impassioned love song. The album also boasts appearances from singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, bassist Edgar Meyer, fiddler Lisa Germano, and Celtic instruments such as bouzouki, bodhrán, and uillean pipes.
Showing their reliability as solid, skilled songwriters and performers, the Indigo Girls followed up with Swamp Ophelia (1994), which peaked at number nine on the Billboard 200. A turning point for them, it reaches beyond the comfort zone of weepy ballads and anthemic rock. It offers a close look at their relationships, particularly in "Least Complicated" and "Power of Two." Swamp Ophelia is not as murky or maudlin as the title might suggest.
The Indigo Girls spent part of their summers in the late 1990s touring with Sarah McLachlan's all-female Lilith Fair, and produced a live album along the way. In 2003 they released the understated Become You, which features the subtle use of horns, piano, and organ. Their ninth album, Become You, shows the wisdom of their years as a musical partnership. With "Yield," written by Ray, they sing "It takes a lot to keep it going / It takes a lot to keep it real / It takes a lot to learn to yield." Become You also finds the pair willing to explore relationship issues more directly, specifically in the Saliers-penned "She's Saving Me" and the lilting strings of ballad "Hope Alone."
As the Indigo Girls, Ray and Saliers proved to radio and record label executives that two women with guitars can indeed make a mark on pop music. Through their years together the Girls have been honest, to themselves and to their music, and their voices have resonated with fans and critics alike.
Strange Fire (Indigo Records, 1987); Indigo Girls (Epic, 1989); Nomads Indians Saints (Epic, 1990); Rites of Passage (Epic, 1992); Swamp Ophelia (Epic, 1994); 1200 Curfews (Epic, 1995); Shaming of the Sun (Epic, 1997); Come on Now Social (Sony, 1999); Become You (Sony, 2001).