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Shades of Indigo: The Indigo Girls Come to The Kravis

Mary Murray

For more than 25 years, singers Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have enchanted fans as folk-rock duo the Indigo Girls. On January 16, they will perform at the Kravis Center, accompanied by a full orchestra. We chatted with Ray about the show and her life as a musician.

PBI.com: During this tour you'll be performing at the Kravis Center with a full symphony orchestra. What brought about that decision and what can fans expect?

Ray: We've always wanted to try it, and a couple years ago we got hooked up with this agency that specializes in pop musicians playing with orchestras. They helped us find arrangers to create scores and helped us get gigs. It's just another dimension, it's another way of playing the songs and it opens up a whole new world of listening. For us, it's a total challenge and really, really, really satisfying. So far, the audiences have seemed to really respond to it.

Amy Ray (left) and Emily Saliers formed the Indigo Girls while still in high school.

How does it feel to perform your songs with a full orchestra?

It's like being in the middle of a storm, but you're not going to be hurt. It's so dramatic, and there's so much information happening. Emotionally, it's pretty overwhelming, and I think it's physically overwhelming because your brain is just being hit with all this musical input. It's quite challenging at first, and then once we learn how to stand our ground and feel stable in the midst of all that, we really are set free by it in some ways.

When did you start writing music?

I started writing songs in elementary school, like in the '70s, but they were bad. I think I started writing pretty seriously around my freshman year of college, like around '83. I really started to [reach] out to songwriters and seek out information about songwriting and really learn about it. I guess about 10 years ago, or maybe 13 years ago, I really discovered the process of how I wanted to work. It took a lot of time, and we did a lot of records before I got to that place. As a writer, I was kind of a late bloomer.

What differentiates the music you write that gets recorded for Indigo Girls versus the songs that end up as solo endeavors?

I don't know, just the feeling I have when I'm starting a song. I can kind of feel that it's going to be an Indigo song because it's got this certain space in it that I know Emily's going to inhabit. Maybe I'm thinking about harmonies more. I'll start writing a song and I'll automatically think in terms of two parts—then I know it's an Indigo Girls song. I'm so used to arranging with Emily now, in a way it inspires the song when I think about what she would do and the guitar parts she could play and all that kind of stuff. She's different, she doesn't think about me when she's writing. Not in a bad way—she just writes. And later on, I learn my way into it. But usually, at this point, I can kind of tell her what I want her to do already, like I already have it mapped out in my head while I'm writing.

You were raised in a conservative Christian family. What role do you think religion and spirituality plays in your life today?

Well, it's very important. It's like the fabric of everything I am. I lean on my spiritualtiy for strength—I don't even know how to describe it, it's fluid. And it helps inspire me for human rights issues. Sometimes, if I'm choosing between having time to watch TV or instead read a book about the Civil Rights Movement, the spirituality part of me is the part that says read the book. You need to learn, you need to have knowledge about this world and the things that you can do to add to it, and knowledge is power and all that jazz. I think it helps energize me and it helps me make choices that I feel good about later. It definitely informs my life still. I'm richer for it, for sure.

You've been touring for some 25 years. How has your stage presence evolved over the years?

(Laughs) I don't know. I have no idea because it's probably not that different, honestly. There have always been certain shows that I get more nervous about and other shows I feel not nervous. I always feel nervous at a symphony show. So, for the first 30 minutes I'm super nervous and then I relax and my stage presence is better. But I don't know, I think maybe—hopefully—I'm more humble than I used to be.

Is performing something you've always enjoyed?

I've always enjoyed it, but it never feels like performing; it feels like communing with song and the audience. Because [Emily and I] grew up playing in our English class and at camp and in more of an environment where you all were together, we didn't really see the stage as a separate entity from the rest of the room. So, that's kind of a blessing in a way, where we've just been able to be part of the experience in a way that brings everyone into it instead of this real division, because we're not pop stars...That's just not who we are.

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