Emily Saliers is perhaps best known as one half of the Indigo Girls. She’s been performing with Indigo Girls’ other half — her musical partner, Amy Ray — for over 30 years. And while that collaboration is still going strong, Saliers is now trying something new: putting out her first solo record.
Murmuration Nation, which comes out today, maintains the earnestness that Indigo Girls fans might expect — but it also borrows from some surprising genres, like R&B and hip-hop. Saliers spoke with NPR’s Rachel Martin about what inspired this record, and how it feels to strike out on her own at this point in her career. You can hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
Rachel Martin: This is a big deal, to decide at this stage of your life and career to stake your own claim in the music world, and to do a solo album.
Emily Saliers: It’s kind of been a long time coming, I’ve been talking about it for at least two decades. Of course, Amy has six solo records out already.
Not that anyone’s counting –
[Laughs.] No, only because I talk about it a lot, I know the number.
So why now?
The truth is, for the longest time, everything that Amy and I did as Indigo Girls — and also my side projects, like co-writing and recording on other people’s songs — seemed to fill whatever creative needs I had. But I really love R&B, rap, hip-hop — and Indigo Girls don’t do a lot of groove stuff. What I really wanted to do was make a record with a combination of thoughtful lyrics and serious groove. And that’s something that we hadn’t done together, and then I found the right person to produce it, so the time was right.
Did it come easily?
You know I have the typical insecurities, like, “Oh, Amy’s not here — is anyone going to like it?” But in the end, this album is really me — It covers so many things that I think about, from world events to very serious social issues in this country.
The track “OK Corral” is a song where you’re playing around with rhythms and beats. It does not sound like an Indigo Girls song!
No. [Laughs.] There is something about the way that a lot of hip-hop [and] R&B is produced that when that beat kicks in, it just messes me up in the best way. It makes me feel. It makes me feel.
In that song, you hear it, and you referenced it before: You are diving into a more political space. And the songs definitely have a social message. Where does that urge come from?
You know, I think that I was reared to believe and take into account that we’re not isolated from other people and we’re not isolated from our communities. And so very early on, when Amy and I started playing, we just started organizing benefits locally because it was so fun to bring musicians together and take part in social issues. Also for me, these songs — they are the way that I make sense of the world.
You know, that line, “I’ve spent all my life thinking we could have a meeting of the minds” — After the election (and we don’t need to say which election, because we all know), I saw the division in this country. It really was a loss of that sort of innocent, naive belief that we can all get along, we can make this work. I realized that we’re not always all going to get along. It’s never going to happen. I’m really not a believer of full peace and heaven on earth, because the human condition is rife with conflict, basically based on fear: what’s mine, and what’s going to be taken from me, and what do I need to protect, and who’s different from me.
I was thinking about the early days of your career in the late 1980s. And just as you were about to make it really big, you and Amy decided to come out. This was a very different time in this country; there were not a lot of openly gay public figures. I actually couldn’t think of one when I was thinking through this. How did the two of you come to that decision? And what was the reaction in the short term?
We were pretty young. I mean, we got signed when we were in our young to mid-20s. And so when we were in high school, there was barely the word “gay.” There was really no language for what we were becoming as adults. And so, for me, I had a lot of fear. It was totally cool and liberating to be out and open to family, friends, to our musical community. But when the national press swept in and became interested, I was afraid.
And when you’re queer and you’re afraid, it’s complicated — but a lot of it is a self-homophobia. I’ve worked on that for many, many years. And then I was like, “Oh, we’re gonna get stigmatized. The stigma will be we’re lesbians with flannel shirts and acoustic guitars.” Well the truth is, we were. [Laughs.] But I always felt we were gonna be pigeonholed, and people weren’t going to see the breadth of our music, what we bring to the table. Which is true, that did happen, but you know what, Rachel? As soon as we came out, none of that mattered. It was so much more important to be free and to be part of the movement, you know? Because we had a job where we could come out.
There are harmonies on your new album that will satisfy lots of Indigo Girls fans, like on the song “Long Haul.” But that is not Amy Ray! That is the voice of Jennifer Nettles. What’s it like standing on stage performing these songs without Amy Ray?
I don’t know yet! [Laughs.]
Oh, you haven’t done this yet!
No, I did one show in Akron, Ohio — but I tell you, I was still finding my sea legs. It’s like — “Oh, Amy!”
It was a lot of years to have that woman next to you, singing those songs!
I know; I love singing with her. I think Indigo Girls will always be the crux. But I saw Amy have a solo show recently in Atlanta. I sat there and I was so proud. I even yelled out, sometimes, like fans do — “I love you, Amy Ray!” That experience felt good to me because I know that I can just go up there and just be me and just do my thing and be OK with it. But it’s a little scary at this point.