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17 Mar 2009

Live with the Indigo Girls

Fridae meets the Indigo Girls, the celebrated lesbian folk rock music duo from the US who just made their Asian performance debut in Singapore on Mar 16.

"It's hard to believe we're in Singapore," Emily Saliers calls out to the cheering crowd at the Esplanade Concert Hall. "How did that happen?"

How did it happen indeed? She and her long-time professional partner Amy Ray form the Indigo Girls, a folk music duo from the United States who've been worshipped as lesbian icons since the '80s. Over the years, they've worked with mainstream greats like Pink and Michael Stipe from R.E.M, all the while being consistently outspoken about their sexuality and their work in activism.

In spite (or because) of this, the two were invited to come over as a headliners for the Esplanade's annual Mosaic Festival of global indie music, running from Mar 16 to 22 this year. Monday night was their first ever gig in Asia - and judging from the audience numbers, it's pretty clear they have quite a following here.

Mingling with the crowds, I noticed that although the nearly full house had a higher proportion of lesbians than usual (both locals and expats), it definitely wasn't exclusive: there were men and women representing every sexual orientation there, keen to hear this lauded group in its full acoustic glory. A lot of them were hardcore fans, too - a big chunk of the crowd was singing along with some of the songs, and Ray noted that the encore was one of the loudest they've had in a while.

As a gay Singaporean man, I've got to confess that I'd barely listened to anything by the duo before - but from their very first number (after a front by the perfectly respectable Singapore duo 53A), they had me instantly grooving to the souful, joyful energy of their crossbreed country'n'rock'n'R&B-iscellaneous music.

I'd heard the Indigo Girls had a big variety of composition styles, and definitely, the ride was a thrill: the concert ran the gamut from lively political pieces like "Shame On You" to heart-stirring ballads like "Power of Two", all the while witnessing unexpected vocal harmonics and the occasional dexterous instrumental jam. Hell, even the instruments were impressive - a lovely assistant strode up after every song (or in the middle of the song) to switch their acoustic guitars for ukuleles, banjos, bouzoukis mandolins or harmonicas.

The crowd went wild for the oldies like "Closer to Fine" and "Chickenman", but I personally found that some of their best songs were their newest ones, like "Sugar Tongue" and "Love of Our Lives" - pieces that'll only be released in their upcoming CD "Poseidon and the Bitter Bug". (It's their eleventh album, but their first they're releasing on their own rather than under another label.)

And the two aren't just talented musicians: they're thoughtful people with a real social conscience, and my journalist friends all agree that they're also some of the nicest music celebrities we've ever had the luck to interview. This is how our talk went when I interviewed them the day before the show.

(Oh, and in case you're wondering, Amy is the brunette, Emily is the blonde, and they've never been romantic partners.)

æ: Age, sex, location?

Emily Saliers (left) and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. Photos courtesy of Indigo Girls.
Amy: Um, 44, female and I'm in the Esplanade, right?

Emily: 45, female and in Singapore.

æ: Have you been in Asia before?

Emily: Not touring at all. I just travelled five weeks in Southeast Asia, but this is our first tour in Asia. We can't afford to tour, we don't have enough of a following. But we were invited to this festival, we're both excited at the thought of it, but we're invited, so we thought, let's make this happen.

Amy: Part of the reason is that earlier in our career, when we talked about going to Japan, or going to China or Thailand, was that we're not a pop band and we do very language-oriented music. In the late '80s and early '90s, all our friends were going to Japan, but they were in hard core rock bands or pop bands, where it was about movements or dancing. It's hard for some of the Japanese promoters to really conceptualise how we would get a following in Japan.

æ: What would each of you say is your proudest work, both musically and in terms of activism?

Emily: For me I would say musically, it's not so much a song or a record - it's just the years of collaboration, sort of the scope of our career and of our relationship and what we've been able to do together.

So I'm grateful for that. I don't feel proud, necessarily. I don't feel a lot of pride in life, but I feel a lot of gratefulness for that, like, big time. And as far as activism, the work that we've done with Out of the Earth, which is work with environmental and indigenous groups across the Americas, learning to see the environmental issues through and indigenous lens and learning about grassroots activism has been the most informative for our lives and our activism work, I'd say.

Amy: I feel the same as Emily, actually. It's funny: usually we have different answers. I really feel the same - I am proud of how hard we've worked and the partnership and how we've been able to keep it intact and evolve and I think grow into a place musically which is better where you've come from, which I think is what you want to do, you want to try and get better.

And I'm very proud of the community work that we've done, because I think it's hard to start with an organisation and keep up the interest and the energy for that in yourself. I'm really proud that we've been able to keep our relationship with Out of the Earth and do that work, mostly to support the work other people are doing, but keep interested in it and keep it relevant, because I think sometimes the thing that makes people lose their attention is you just get scared of where it's going - failure or success, either one.

æ: Ha - I thought you were going to say "scared of your government", which is the case in Singapore.

Amy: No, we don't get scared of our government - because we're so white, and really, we have so much privilege that we feel like partly the reason we do the work that we do is to amplify the voices of people who are scared of the government, like people of colour and people that are doing really radical things that they can't get away with it as easily as we do. So we just take the privilege that we have and try to use it for good, because we really have a lot.

æ: It's interesting that you're saying that without any reference to lesbian oppression.

Emily: As a society we're way oppressed.

Amy: Like, in society we're oppressed. Like you can't get married, or in the music business, there's a lot of derogatory remarks made, or you're not accepted just for being a musician, just for being gay.

Emily: But we can speak out against our government openly, without fear of retribution.

Amy: So in the context of being in Singapore or being anywhere where people feel a little bit less able to speak out, we look at our own lives and we feel we've got it good in some ways, you know.

But our friends of colour don't - our Indian [i.e. Native American] friends or our African American friends. They don't have it good at all. It's just that we recognise our privilege, but at the same time it's important to recognise how far we have to go. We don't dwell on our lesbian oppression, really, but we know it's there. People still get killed for being gay in the States, you know, by whoever hates them in the community. It still happens.

æ: How did you guys meet back in Georgia?

Amy: We met in elementary school and then we went to high school. And then when we were about 15 years old we were singing in the choir together, and even though Emily was a year older we started hanging out more.

And then we started playing together and singing together. It was at first just to do a couple of talent shows and play for our English class, and we played cover songs - James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelberg or folk, and then as we got into college we started writing more and playing more original stuff, and then sort of moved from one situation to the next until we were making records. It was a very slow progression for us.

æ: How did being lesbian play a part in the band's development?

Emily: Well, really early on when we were a bar band, we had tremendous support from the lesbian community. And this was sort of a little bit post of the women's music movement - Olivia Records, that movement - which actually informed us more than we realised at the time. And now looking back, we have great respect for what that movement was able to do.

In our personal lives, we were out from the time we realised we were gay, but for me at first, I wasn't comfortable talking about that to the press. I was comfortable around my family and friends and so on. Amy was patient with that, and then after a while I just got over it. It's much more important to speak about this and be part of the movement than it is to be afraid of the repercussions. And a lot of the repercussions happened, but I didn't care - and after that, I never cared again.

æ: What kind of repercussions?

Emily: Well, being pigeonholed as a lesbian folk artist, not having the broader spectrum of what you're capable of musically being appreciated. If you sing the same sentiment as Bruce Springsteen, he's going to get away with it - you're never going to get away with it. Those sorts of things, you know. And earlier on, Amy knowing how to run a system but getting a lot of flak from men in the clubs who sort of sexism and things like that.

But anyway, we have a large lesbian following and they really catapulted us to the next level. There was a lot of lesbian identity going on from very early on, and I think just a couple of years after we got signed, we started talking about it together in the press. That was '91 I'd say? '90, 91?

æ: How do you feel the culture has changed since those early days?

Amy: I think culturally things are much more tolerant. When we started, being gay was - I think it was hard to get a diverse audience sometimes because people felt self-conscious that they were in an audience that was gay, mostly. But in the beginning our audience was just our college friends, and then the women started coming, and then it got more lesbian, and then it got more diverse because we got more radio play.

But when our political life became more high-profile and our gayness became more high-profile, then our audience - in some places it became obvious that straight people were afraid to associate with it. And in that way our audience has shifted a bit in and out of things. People feel alienated, people don't feel alienated. So that's waxed and waned in a way, because it's almost cyclical in the US: there were more tolerant times and there were less tolerant times.

Slowly, it's become more tolerant. But the media hasn't really changed, and radio stations haven't really changed, and the mainstream media in that they still, there's still a lot of negativity about it, distilling it down to what your sexuality is rather than what your music's about. But it's kind of like what we come to expect in some ways, because if you're going to be s outspoken, you've got to expect that's how you're going to be defined.

We appreciate the queer community, and we appreciate that audience, because if we didn't have it, we wouldn't be anywhere. And so you get - it's a nuance. You don't want to be like, "I don't want to talk about that" or "that's not what we're about," because a lot of what we're about is - it's kind of what we have to be thankful for. So it's kind of a juggling act in some ways.

æ: One last question: who are your inspirations and influences?

Emily: Early on, Joni Mitchell, when I was a fledgling songwriter. She was the most directly influential. And there have been countless other inspirational influences, like Stevie Wonder was huge, and earlier on, the Jackson Five. Heart was a band that really rocked me, another person that inspired me.

And then in terms of activism, my heroes are Jimmy Carter, Winona LaDuke from Out of the Earth, we have a Congressman from Georgia called John Lewis, form the civil rights movement. He's been a huge influence politically and socially.

Amy: Musically, when we started, the very early days I was definitely influenced very heavily by Neil Young. And the Roches were a big influence on both of us. It's a band of three sisters who sing harmony, and it really influenced how we look at harmony. I was very influenced by the Clash, and Joe Strummer, and his approach lyrically. And when I heard that music, when I started hearing the punk music that I hadn't heard when it was coming out, it changed everything about how I look at music and how I write.

And then, I think we're both influenced by a lot of songwriters who come from our area and who are independent and no-one knows who they are. We listen to them and obviously take a lot of inspiration from them.

And as far of mentors, my main mentor has been Winona LaDuke. Personally, she's just a person I constantly call for in any kind of political situation to just kind of bounce things off.

The Indigo Girls' albums are available from record stores and iTunes. Their upcoming album 'Poseidon and the Bitter Bug' will be released on Mar 24, 2009. Also check out their website www.indigogirls.com.


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