Who says you can't make a big noise with acoustic guitars? Definitely not The Indigo Girls. The folk-rock duo has delivered socially conscious, spiritually minded tunes since taking the singer-songwriter scene by storm back in '89. Featuring the very different yet highly compatible songwriting styles of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, the Grammy-winning group has sold more than two million records. But it isn't fame or money that motivates them; at heart, they're still humble folkies. On June 14 -- which is also the release date of their latest CD, Rarities -- The Indigo Girls perform on the Flynn MainStage in Burlington.
While The Indigo Girls' music boasts beautiful harmonies and subtle nuances, they still know how to rock. And so do their die-hard fans: The band's concerts often become sing-alongs, with audiences vibing off the duo's catchy hooks as well as their message. And they definitely have plenty to say -- lyrics from one of their most popular songs relates to the Abenaki tribe's struggles to gain government recognition. "I left my anger in a river, running Highway 5 / New Hampshire, Vermont borderline ... I used to search for reservations and native lands / before I realized everywhere I stand there have been tribal feet running wild as fire," they passionately sing.
Over the years, Saliers and Ray have experimented with their sound, occasionally employing a drummer and bass player. But they're capable of putting on a riveting performance with or without a backing band. On this tour, they get back to their acoustic roots.
Saliers and Ray both make their homes in Georgia. But during a recent conversation with Saliers, Seven Days discovered that she spends most Christmases at her family's home near White River Junction.
SEVEN DAYS: Nuclear power and Vermont Yankee have been in the news a lot lately. I know you have worked with Native American activist Wynona LaDuke on nuclear waste issues.
EMILY SALIERS: The nuclear power industry needs to be shut down. All the proposals for nuclear waste dumps are on native lands. Amy and I have been intimately involved with that issue for a long time. Proponents of nuclear power like to promote it as clean energy. It's beyond my comprehension how anyone can buy that. Nuclear waste can't be contained; it's deadly and it lives for 250,000 years. The government needs to spend much more money on solar and wind power.
SD: According to the National Priorities Project, the U.S. now spends almost a trillion dollars a year, or half the entire federal budget, on the military. If you were president, how much would you spend on the military?
ES: I can't break it down in terms of numbers for you. But I certainly would not be going to war in Iraq. Our government spends a ridiculous amount of money on the military to protect our access to fossil fuels. When a country tries to dominate the world, it can't last. That's history.
SD: Why do you think there's never been a female president?
ES: Because we live in a sexist society, and a largely sexist world, that doubts the power and effectiveness of women in leadership roles. There are many men who want to keep the power structure the way it is. I don't think there will be [a female president] in 2008. Maybe in 2012.
SD: Speaking of effective ... Do you write your lyrics sitting down at a table with pen and paper, or do they just pop into your head at random moments?
ES: Sometimes a thought will come to my mind and I go and write down just a sentence or an image that strikes me. That's sort of new for me. I used to just be inspired all the time and write a gazillion songs. Now, for whatever reason, it's more difficult. It's become more of a discipline. I spend time practically every day in a little studio room at home, working on songs. Typically, I pick up an acoustic guitar and work out a chord progression. Then I spit out some words, a lot of it gibberish. I try to get a feel for it as the music and lyrics marry. Then I edit the lyrics. The lyrics are the hardest part for me.
SD: Have you ever had a song's lyrics appear as "whole cloth," and end up that way on the record?
ES: "Power of Two" was kind of written like that.
SD: Your new album, Rarities, is your last for Sony, your record company since 1988. What's next?
ES: It was a long relationship. It's time for something different. It seemed like there wasn't the same interest in promoting our music as there was before. Now it's corporate controlled -- nasty. We're planning on making a new record early next year. It's just a matter of deciding, do we want to do it completely on our own? Or do we want to sign with a small label?
SD: What advice would you give to a young band that has an offer from a major label?
ES: It depends on the contract. There's a lot of major-label deals that don't do anything for artists. There are others that do. The band has to be savvy. But for the most part, major-label deals do not benefit a band.
SD: Tell me what a typical day on tour is like for you.
ES: Every day is pretty similar. After we play the show, we get on the bus and we drive through the night to the next town. We get to the hotel in the morning. Everybody stumbles into their room and goes to sleep. When we wake up, it's time to work out in the gym. That's important for me and Amy. We dedicate two hours every day for exercise. Then we do interviews, or catch up with our email. Then we do a sound check for that night's show. We practice some songs. Then we eat dinner together and write a set list [of the songs we will play] every night. Then we have some quiet time apart from each other, just to chill. Then the opening act -- who we handpick -- plays. Typically, we'll play a song with them. Then we play the show. We do that three, four or five nights a week.
SD: Are you going to keep doing that indefinitely?
ES: I don't know about indefinitely. But there's no end in sight. Amy would like to have kids. She'll have to set aside some time for that. But as long as we're still welcome out there, we'll be touring. We don't want to overstay our welcome.