After Dark: Indigo Girls are independent women

10:09 AM, Feb 27, 2013

As adults, the Indigo Girls have led separate lives, and even do their songwriting apart. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)/

Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: The Indigo Girls, with The Shadowboxers.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Hochstein Performance Hall, 50 North Plymouth Ave.
Tickets: Sold out.

This is should come as no surprise to even casual followers of the Indigo Girls, but Emily Saliers and Amy Ray go back a long way.

They knew each other in elementary school. “In high school, we were pals, best buds, we played music together, we hung out,” Saliers says. But over time, “our social lives diverged, we’ve become very different personalities and people.

Amy shops at thrift stores. I like to shop in Manhattan and boutiques or Neiman Marcus. She’s lived in the woods for a long, long time. I’m a little more connected to urban life. She’s a vegetarian. I love a great steak. She’s immediate and fiery in her approach to things. I need to think things through. She has a hotter temper than I do. When she’s exhausted in her mind and spirit for a while, I tend not to be. We can read the same book and both love it, we can see the same film and both love it, but for different reasons.

We are yin and yang. We laugh about it sometimes. How she’s always cold on the bus, and I’m hot. It’s almost weird the way it works.”

This independent arc of their lives may be difficult to detect, because a large part of their identities is tied to social activism, on issues from the environment to gay rights; both women came out years ago. But it is more evident in their musical partnership. Over a career lasting more than two dozen years, Ray has been the challenging, punk-driven side of the Indigo Girls. Saliers is the more spiritual, Joni Mitchell side.

These dichotomies have never been an issue for their fans, who quickly snapped up the tickets for Saturday’s sold-out show at Hochstein Performance Hall. Their expectations are that any hard edges on the Indigo Girls are nicely buffed by beautiful harmonies and acoustic guitars.

No doubt, musically we can be quite different,” Saliers says. “I think Amy has felt more of the tension between what Indigo Girls can do and her own interests, and that’s why she’s made her fourth solo album. To bring out that punk sensibility. But each informs the other’s music. It’s the power of two. I love playing the hardest rock song she brings, because I know I can’t write that.”

She admires musicians whom she calls “Renaissance artists.” Neil Young and David Bowie, who made careers of shifting identities. The Indigo Girls is what it is. Which is not to say the envelop hasn’t been pushed on occasion. Over the past year, the group has been performing its songs backed by regional orchestras. For Saturday’s concert, the Indigo Girls will be backed by a young band of three Atlanta guys, The Shadowboxers. “Indigo Girls’ songs are quiet rock songs, even the experimental songs,” Saliers says. “For me, there’s a very fine line between trying to branch out and feeling inauthentic.”

That the Indigo Girls emerged from their high school in Decatur, Ga., and slowly evolved into two different people, should be no surprise. Change is inevitable and complex, and Saliers herself is evidence. She now goes about her craft differently. If your image of her is one of sitting on the porch with her guitar, writing “Closer to Fine” as the cats dance around her feet, “that was 25 years ago,” Saliers says.

As a songwriter, it’s just natural that I would observe everything around me. I see metaphors in everything I look at. That informs my writing, as I describe emotions and ideas and thoughts. But it’s more like a job than it used to be. It’s more like a discipline now. When I was young, the muse would visit all the time. I wrote five songs a week, now I write maybe a handful of songs a year. I take my guitar and go to my desk, and from 1 o’clock to 3 o’clock I sit at my desk and write.”

Something is always crying for her attention. Watermark: That’s the Atlanta restaurant she co-owns. The band’s business: Once major label, the Indigo Girls are an indie group, having released their last four albums on their own.

And three months ago, Saliers and her partner had a baby.

Yet as her world grows more complex, Saliers is more relaxed. “I have faith that everything is going to be OK,” she says. “I was recently in Florida, having a nice, quiet time. And I thought, ‘God, I could do more of this.’ “

In fact, she feels ever-so-slightly less anxious about the planet in general. Topical subjects pervade the Indigo Girls’ most-recent album, Beauty Queen Sister, but Saliers takes comfort in her abstract spirituality.

If you look at human history, great things happen and horrible things happen,” she says. “That’s the nature of life. I feel much more positive having Obama president than Romney, and I’ve seen some political attitudes shift. There’s a lot of fear in this country with issues like immigration, violence, guns. I find it disturbing that we have such a long way to go. But Jimmy Carter is a personal hero, with the way he’s coming out in support of women, and trying to alleviate suffering across the world.

And on a small level, I see beautiful things happening in the lives of my friends and family. I appreciate solitude more, and the wonder and beauty of nature. I understand the world is a complicated and oftentimes tricky place. I’m feeling pretty philosophical. I’m 49 years old; I feel more of a sense of acceptance. I don’t try to affect change on things that I can’t change.”

Despite the harmonies, the Indigo Girls have maybe not been the cohesive unit that you’d always imagined. For one thing, Saliers and Ray have never written together. Always separately. But what time takes from us, it sometimes returns to us.

In some ways we’re closer than we’ve ever been,” Sailers says. “We still have a good time making music. We were in the studio working on a Jackson Browne tribute album, Amy was coming up with musical ideas, and I was playing guitar. That was as close to co-writing as I’ve ever come. Ten hours into this session and I’m really having fun. I’m thinking: ‘Why don’t we do this more often?’

When I think of all the births and deaths and marriages and divorces in our families that we’ve seen together, I understand. We’re connected in a very deep way.”