BWW Interview: Indigo Girls' Emily Saliers Talks Houston Symphony, Musicals, and Young Thug

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BWW Interview:  Indigo Girls' Emily Saliers Talks Houston Symphony, Musicals, and Young Thug
Photo by Jeremy Cowart

Music is magical. It can transport you back in time. It can awaken a memory and evoke a long-dormant emotion. Music can be medicine. It can alter your mood and mind frame. It can awaken your curiosity, influence your choices, and teach you about something new. And sometimes, a specific artist or group writes a song or releases an album that resonates so deeply with so many people, that the work grows a life of its own. It transcends a genre and a specific audience, and enters the cultural fabric of our lives.

That's part of the history of the award-winning Indigo Girls. The work of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray has been played at weddings, blasted on road trips, butchered at karaoke, and universally adored by fans of all ages since the duo started releasing songs in the 1980's. Their music has been featured in movies including Philadelphia and Boys on the Side, mentioned on TV shows such as South Park, The Office, and The Big Bang Theory, and even referenced by Stephen King in Rose Madder. They have collaborated with P!nk, Michael Stipe, and Joan Baez, have sold over two-million records to date, and were awarded the 1990 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. And in quite possibly the poppiest (and oddest) moment in music award history, the duo lost the Best New Artist Grammy award to Milli Vanilli.

But it's not just their infiltration of popular culture, or their insanely catchy and accessible tunes that make this group so significant; it's who the artists are, and what they stand for that set Indigo Girls apart.

BWW Interview:  Indigo Girls' Emily Saliers Talks Houston Symphony, Musicals, and Young Thug
Photo by Jeremy Cowart

Saliers and Ray are activists for a list of causes nearly as long as their career. They have long-championed women's equality, gay rights, the rights of Native Americans, voting rights, and environmental sustainability, to name a few. These are artists unafraid to take a stand, who refuse to compromise themselves - or their voice - in order to sell records.

Settling and stagnation has never been on the table for Indigo Girls, and the idea of resting on their laurels and relaxing on a rocking chair in the Atlanta burbs with their monstrous catalog is simply absurd. Individually as artists, and together as a powerful two, they have continued to release new music, while working on fascinating (side) careers, including that of a restaurateur and book author (Saliers), and independent record label proprietor (Ray).

So when asked if they'd consider reinventing their powerful two-part harmonies into symphonic orchestrations, they jumped at the opportunity and embraced the challenge. Last year, Indigo Girls Live With The University Of Colorado Symphony Orchestra was released, and to date, they have performed with over 50 symphonies around the country.

I had the opportunity to speak with Saliers about Indigo Girls' one-night-only performance with conductor Sean O'Loughlin and the Houston Symphony.

BroadwayWorld: Way back when, when you and Amy (Ray) both fortuitously transferred back to Emory University, started gigging, and named yourselves Indigo Girls, could you have ever imagined that you'd one day release an album with a symphony, and perform more than 50 times with symphonies across the country? What would the pair performing at The Dugout (bar in Atlanta, Georgia) think of what you're doing today?

Emily Saliers: Well, it's a good thing that you don't know what's going to happen in the future because it would just be too much to take in. I think that everything for me and Amy has happened in such an organic and gradual way. We met each other in elementary school, we were in the choir in high school together, became buddies, and we both played guitar, and so we got together for fun. And then the next goals were just very small, we just wanted to put a set list together. Then we got fake ID's because we wanted to play at a bar, and then we wanted to have the next coolest show. And so that was step-by-step, and we met all these wonderful people, and got hooked into the Athens [Georgia] music scene, and that's when we got hooked into REM. And so, everything just kind of happened. We were signed and we've had this marvelous career, and it's so satisfying, because we've just been able to be who we are with no outside pressures or influences. Having our career grow organically, fills me with gratitude every step of the way.

And then the symphony opportunity came as a gift, at a time when we were ready to take on a new project that was engaging and challenging. The Houston show is particularly exciting for us because the conductor, Sean O'Loughlin, arranged most of these pieces with us. He's one of our favorite orchestral arrangers, so we're very excited. And so, you know, if we'd been in The Dugout and had to fast forward to all these years, our heads would've popped off!

It feels like symphonies get a bad rap. Performances can be inaccurately perceived as a highly exclusive "fancy" event, created for an older, affluent, conservative audience. Indigo Girls make deeply progressive music, you've always been open about your liberal views, and your lyrics often specifically reject some of the inaccurate stereotypes tied up with the "symphony" experience. When you and Amy started putting together symphonic orchestrations, did those stereotypes inform your choices?

Not one bit. We didn't give [those stereotypes] a second thought. The agency that teams artists with symphonies approached us - it was a gift to be chosen. We recognize the magnitude of that gift, experience, and opportunity. I grew up with classical music in my house, it was playing all the time. My Dad, if he weren't a theologian, would have been a classical pianist. My Mom played piano. For me, classical music to me is part of my fabric of being. But I'm a singer/songwriter type, too. Orchestras are building these pops programs as part of a strategy, to engage [new] audiences. There are some members of orchestras who don't love playing pops. We experience a little bit of that, but when we get there, our arrangements are so well-written, that the players actually enjoy the pieces because they're more complex than some of the typical 'hold four long notes.' All of the actors come together, and there's a real gestalt about it. I find it quite interesting to look out and see some what you could consider 'genteel orchestra supporters' who would never go to an Indigo Girls concert. [Also present is] our crowd, who are always there shaking it up in these orchestra halls, because they sing, so it's a really cool hybrid experience. There are a mixture of stalwart symphony supporters and listeners, which makes it a great experience.

The Houston Symphony is billing the program an evening comprised of Indigo Girls' "greatest hits," but Indigo Girls continue to release new music. How do you determine which songs are "hits"?

"Greatest hits," that's hilarious!

I'm quoting the press release!

Well, I think of hits as songs that have success on the radio, like pop songs or whatever. We don't really have any 'hits.' We do have several 'classic' songs, that we perform, like Kid Fears, Closer to Fine and Galileo. [When performing with a symphony], we made some very, very interesting artistic choices. One of which is Amy's song Yolk, which has an incredible arrangement and is a beautiful song, and would likely be classified as one of our more obscure songs. So there's a real mix of songs, like Virginia Woolf, and Ghost, and then songs that are more obscure.

How will your long-time fans respond to your performance with the Houston Symphony?

I think they'll be surprised about how the songs are brought to life in a new way. People who have heard these songs before, and have been listening to us for a long time, [will be surprised by] the orchestral arrangements. They are just sweeping, and swooping, and Amy and I are moved every single time we play with an orchestra.

Is it possible for you to articulate the feeling that Indigo Girls' music has resonated with so many people, that it has stood this great test of time, and has become part of their indelible memories?

I feel gratitude when people tell me that, but I don't personally feel the impact of that. It's not something I sit around and think about, but when people tell me that the music has meant something to them, I'm really glad. We really feel more like channellers and conduits. This might sound a little weird, but I don't feel like I own my music; I know I wrote the song, but you know, nothing comes from nothing. I just feel like it's a reciprocal journey, and it never stops traveling and nobody owns it, so that's what I think about it. But when people tell me that, I'm really grateful.

A lot of the BroadwayWorld audience feel that special spark when they're sitting in a theatre and the lights start to dim, or when they hear the opening notes of a specific song. When do you feel most alive?

I have a great life, I'm fortunate. There are so many moments in life when I feel so alive, I'm not sure I can compare them, but I'll say when I'm with my family, and I have nothing to do, but to just be with them. When I read a good book. When I'm near the ocean or with my dog. Of course, music. When I am listening to something that is blowing me away - when I have to just scream out loud, because it's so affecting. When the audience sings along, I'm really, really alive.

Do you have a surprising musical influence?

R&B! The first album I bought was Jackson Five. That's my favorite music, besides Joni Mitchell, who is my number one inspiration. I love music from all over the world. I like Brazilian artists, artists from different parts of Africa, and the Middle East. Young Thug. I'm a huge Young Thug fan. He's a rapper from Atlanta. I don't think people know the extent to which I've been inspired by R&B and hip-hop.

Indigo Girls' songs are deeply narrative. Each song tells a little story. I wonder, is Joanie still in South Africa (Get Out the Map)? You bought a ring for someone, and every time I hear that lyric, I'm curious to know if they're still in your life (Least Complicated). And you also use your music to teach. The first time I heard about Virginia Woof was through your song. One day, Steve Martin realized that his songs with Edie Brickell had a through- line, and that there was a bigger story than just a single song. The two went on to create the Tony award-winning musical Bright Star. Have you ever considered writing a musical?

Hell yeah! {Laughter} I've always wanted to write a musical. I haven't really talked in depth with Amy about it. We currently have a project in the works in Atlanta that involves our music, but it's a play with music, not really a musical. My favorite is Hamilton, I was stunned by the genius of it, and I just get swept in the production. I love the music, it blows my mind. I have developed a later-in-life appreciation of musicals, and I'd love nothing more than to be able to write one, co-write one, so we'll see what the future holds.

The Grammy Award-winning duo Indigo Girls will join the Houston Symphony for a very special one-night-only performance. Join the American folk-rock duo, conductor Sean O'Loughlin, and the full complement of the Houston Symphony at 7:30pm on April 10, 2019 at Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana Street, in Houston's Theater District. For additional information and tickets, please call 713-224-7575 or visit

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