The Indigo Girls — a.k.a. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — have a little number they like to dedicate in concert to George W. Bush. It’s an Appalachian-tinged ode to Karla Faye Tucker, the convicted killer and born-again Christian who — denied clemency by the compassionate conservative governor — became the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War.
The other tracks on the Grammy award-winning duo’s new album, Come On Now Social, speak out plainly on issues ranging from gay rights to U.S. policy in Central America. But don’t think the Girls have traded in their guitars for a soapbox — Social is also their most musically sophisticated, and challenging, album to date.
Ray and Saliers are coming off an adventuresome year, including a successful Lilith Fair tour; campaigning with Native American activist Winona LaDuke against nuclear waste dumping on Indian reservations; and a visit to Cuba, where they met with Fidel Castro and broke bread with members of the underground. Mother Jones spoke with the Girls while they were on tour in Wyoming.
In the past few years, as your music has evolved, you’ve gotten more electronic. You catch some heat from critics who say you’ve abandoned your roots. Do you chafe at the “folk” label?
AR: I feel like we established ourselves with “Closer to Fine” and weren’t allowed to ever expand upon that. “Folk” means music of the community. I believe that we’re rooted in folk, but we’re also expanding. We’re songwriters first and foremost, and we do our songs in whatever medium necessary.
There’s a real Appalachian influence on this album. Is that a departure or something that was always there and is just surfacing now?
AR: I’ve always been influenced by Appalachian music, but I don’t think we’ve worked with a producer who also understood that. John Reynolds [of Sinéad O’Connor’s band Ghostland] was able to tap into it — maybe because he’s Irish. There’s an exchange of culture there that works, a melding of Irish culture and Southern culture. It’s a natural marriage.
In the song “Go” you sing about your experience in South Carolina two summers ago — you were scheduled to perform at local high schools, but the schools barred you after a few parents complained about your being lesbians.
ES: When I heard the shows were being canceled — first your feelings get hurt, and then you get pissed.
AR: A lot of kids protested at school, got suspended, and their graduations were threatened. They were sacrificing, and that was a poignant and powerful thing for those kids — standing up for something they believed in. I read some letters kids sent us saying the parents were afraid kids would ask questions about being gay. I mean, if you’re afraid of your kids asking questions, something’s really wrong.
That’s the most press you’ve gotten as a lesbian band. How was that? I can imagine it could have been liberating, but there are long-standing fears of being labeled that way —
ES: Those fears are long gone. I’m so, so happy that we’re active and that we’re part of the evolution of gay rights, and I’m proud.
How much do your politics influence your music? I see the effect in your lyrics, but does it affect the melodies, the rhythms?
ES: There’s no doubt that it affects the music. Amy’s always been able to rock more easily. I love rock music, and I love playing electric guitar. It makes me crazy with angry joy, but it hasn’t been as accessible a medium for me. But there comes a certain point when you just want to yell about something that pisses you off.
I know as songwriters you pen your songs separately — and then perform them together.
ES: It’s great to have two musical lives. It’s no doubt why we’ve stayed together for so long. It’s been a blessing.
But you hate that yin-yang metaphor the press always saddles you with.
ES: It’s not so much the yin-yang as the dark-and-light.
It worked for Lennon and McCartney —
ES: I don’t want to be McCartney, though!
You could be George Harrison.
AR: And I’m more like Ringo Starr, not as talented as everyone else! I’m just happy to be in the band.
ES: Don’t go solo — [laughter]
What was the trip to Havana like?
AR: We’re both against the economic sanctions, the embargo. And I think there’re so many great parts of that system — women and men doing the same jobs for the same pay. I’m very pro-socialism. But there’s a lot of repression there.
ES: We met some of the Cuban people that live in underground tunnels; they have to find remote places to practice their faith because it’s against the law. They have this powerful, rich culture of faith and music where they gather and sing in the street.
How much was the visit to Cuba a cultural exchange, musically speaking? Will we be hearing Latin beats on future albums?
AR: The music is so complex; you’d have to live it to pick it up. When we went into this Afro-Cuban community — their drumming and their singing, we couldn’t pick it up.
ES: We couldn’t even jam with them. They were like, “Sing this! Sing this!” and we couldn’t do it.
AR: We did end up jamming with this street, badass rock band. They were amazing. When the barriers come down and all these Cuban musicians are allowed to come in and play openly, it’s going to be very humbling for the musicians here. They can do things that are inhuman to me, and they have soul when they do it.
In your political lives, you advocate gun control, gay rights, women’s rights, even issues that just affect one small community where you happen to be playing. Is it possible to spread yourselves too thin?
ES: We’re really careful about who we work with, and as long as we feel we’re working with groups that are effecting positive change and we are doing our part, that’s what matters.
AR: I think people know that the issues are connected. Our only rule is that it has got to be community based. It’s got to have a bottom-up organization, and we go from there.
How did you get so close to the Native American activist community?
AR: When I met Winona [LaDuke] something clicked. Emily and I wanted to do environmental work and asked ourselves where we’d be the most effective. Who’s working the way we think is most effective? Well, grassroots activism, community activism — it’s usually communities of color — and indigenous activism.
ES: And the focus of traditional Indian peoples has always been respect, everything in balance, and considering future generations. It’s a paradigm of life that will be the only thing to save us in the end.
Do you take any flak for your socialism? It’s not exactly politically correct in this age.
AR: Yeah, but I’m not blacklisted.