Dallas Emily Saliers and Amy Ray have been friends since they were in elementary school together in Decatur, Georgia, and have been making acclaimed folk-rock music as the Indigo Girls for more than 25 years. Their self-titled breakout album featured one of their biggest hits to date, Closer to Fine (that year they were beat out for a Best New Artist Grammy by Milli Vanilli which shows you how silly the Grammys can be), and they have consistently toured and recorded ever since. Their most recent record was 2011's Beauty Queen Sister, their 14th album of original material.
Now, they're trying something a little different. They're performing with symphony orchestras, having had some of their songs arranged for symphonic treatments by Sean O'Loughlin and Stephen Barber. In between dates on their tour, they're doing these one-off symphony spots, starting with the Chattanooga Symphony on July 28. Next up is with Dallas Symphony, Wednesday, Aug. 29 at the Meyerson Symphony Center.
Considering that Saliers and Ray were raised in arts families and have often spoken of their love for the performing arts, the symphony gig seems like a natural. They've already dabbled in the worlds of dance and theater: In 2001, the Atlanta Ballet did Shed Your Skin: The Indigo Girls Project, in which they played onstage with the dancers; and, in 1994, there was a concert version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, a concept of the Big Fish Ensemble, in which Ray played Jesus and Saliers played Mary Magdalene.
They also recently made an appearance as guest judges in the QuickFire challenge on Top Chef Masters, which aired last week.
TheaterJones talked to Emily Saliers about growing up in the arts, the importance of activism, arranging their songs for symphonic treatments and performing with orchestras.
TheaterJones: You and Amy have been doing folk rock for 25 years. How did the idea for a symphonic concert come about?
Emily Saliers: It's one of those things where we've always had it in the back of our minds. I remember hearing Nanci Griffith, I'm a big fan of her music, when she came out with symphonic treatments. We were thinking how glorious that sounded. We're friends with Brandi Carlisle, and she did it. There was an opening in our schedule, and we were approached by the agency that puts these things together. The timing worked out and we hired [Sean O'Loughlin and Stephen Barber] to do the arrangements.
How did your first concert in Chattanooga go?
To be honest, it was hard work preparing for it. It takes a lot of concentration, because it's not like you're playing for the quick-track. It's very amorphous, and it has a life of its own. The audience response was great, and to hear the arrangements with the symphony, it's fabulous. Now we're going to try and work some kinks out.
Do you have your own musical director, or use the symphony's?
We haven't brought our own, but we're discussing that possibility. What would a musical director bring to the table for us? The first show, the orchestra director was the [Chattanooga conductor].
You have used symphonic instruments in a number of recordings, such as the intro to the song Virginia Woolf. How did you decide which songs to arrange for orchestra?
There were a couple of Amy's songs that she wanted to do that she changed her mind about. There's a song, Compromise, a short rock song, it was really going out on a limb with the arrangement, which was awesome, but didn't work out. For me, there were some songs that would have been obvious choices, and I tried to avoid those for the most part. Except for the song Ghost. In fact, Michael Kamen, who has passed, did arrangements on the record for Ghost, and Stephen did an homage to Michael's work there, which was very powerful.
There's a new song from Beauty Queen Sister, called Able to Sing, that was an odd choice, but it's a beautiful arrangement. The agency wanted Closer to Fine and Galileo in there, a couple of well-known songs. If they hadn't asked for those, I wouldn't have chosen them because it's more fun to do the obscure songs.
In Chattanooga, did you get a mix of fans and symphony-goers?
I know we had a lot of longtime fans, and there was a lot of excitement about it. We heard that fans came from all over the country for this first symphony show. Judging from the first applause after the first song, it was probably mostly fans. They are the greatest fans, and they were excited about something new and dramatic, it was just the spirit of collaboration and how we delivered it.
You and Amy were always around the arts. You collaborated with the Atlanta Ballet and also performed in an interesting revival of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. How important were the performing arts for your career as a folk rock duo?
I just can't even exaggerate it I think. For me, my dad is a classical pianist and organist, and my mom plays piano. So we had music in our lives every day of every year. I sang in a church choir as a kid, and in a children's choir in Atlanta, and learning all of that sacred music and challenging music really informed the way I arrange things vocally. Amy's family is musical as well, her big sister played guitar. We were in high school choirs together. Music and the arts were the fabric of our lives, really.
What was the 'Jesus Christ Superstar' experience like?
A friend of ours, Michael Lorant, who was with a group called Big Fish Ensemble, he had an idea he wanted to resurrect, so to speak. We did it in Atlanta, and recorded it. It was awesome.
Which classical composers have influenced you?
I've always loved baroque music. Bach of course. I love Debussy, I love the emotion of his work, and composers like Erik Satie. It was the span of classical music, not so much the modernist music. But like at the beginning of Virginia Woolf, with all the different string parts, it's very classical. I always like suspensions and resolutions, so that music played a big role through my inner ear.
Your lyrics are filled with literary references, and often have a narrative and sense of character. Story songs, as they say.
Amy and I were both English majors in college, and we had an AP English teacher in high school who really was the first encouraging person for us. We were very inspired by literature. We also had great role models, like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, who were storytellers. It was the influence of those artists and great literature, books that blow your mind.
You and Amy are known for your vocal harmonies. When you're writing and composing, do you think about the dynamic of the voices and how they translate to the emotion of the lyric? It seems like Amy's vocals often convey strength or power, and your voice is sometimes associated with more emotionally vulnerable lyrics.
That's a good observation, and I think that's right. Amy, who has a lower voice and is more of a rocker than I am, her music is in that visceral rock vein. Obviously that's not always the case because she can write a ballad with the best of them. Then I'm more soprano and high alto, and there is more lilting melodies, it's a completely different emotional experience. We just did what came naturally, it wasn't really planned out. Amy did her thing and I did mine, and fortunately, I think our differences is one of the reason we've stayed together so long. She strummed hard and held that rhythm down and sang rock, and I'm more of a classical type guitar picker, and sing the descant lines. There's no doubt that the emotional experience is different in Amy's songs and in mine.
You are both active in political and social causes, and were major players throughout the history of Lilith Fair, which supported women's issues. What causes are close to your heart?
What Amy and I do now is support a lot of these girls' rock camps. When we were coming up, Heart was one of the only women rock bands, and they're still inspirations and one of my favorite bands of all time. Now there are a lot of opportunities for young girls to express themselves in rock music, and that's how we think the next wave of girls, in what was always a predominantly male genre, will get involved.
You and Amy came out around the same period that Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres came out. Musicians and celebrities now seem more comfortable talking about their sexuality, or at least their support of gay rights. Do you feel like pioneers?
We don't think about it like that. I do feel a lot of gratitude when people say that the fact that we were out and that our music had some content about the struggle was very helpful to them in their own personal struggle. Someone paved the path before we got there, I feel like it's a continuum and we're part of the evolution.
Back to the symphony gig. You're getting a world-class symphony in Dallas. Do you spend the day rehearsing with the orchestra?
We did in Chattanooga because it was the first one. From now on it's up to the director to prep the orchestra. This really is such an honor for us. Symphonic music, and music that's metered to tempo, they changed the world. Bringing them together is challenging and exciting and definitely rewarding.
Here's a video for Share the Moon, the first track on Beauty Queen Sister: