Marriage equality was a mere pipe dream when Indigo Girls duo Emily Saliers and Amy Ray came out in 1988, coinciding with the release of their eponymous Epic Records debut. There was no groundbreaking “Ellen” sitcom. Melissa Etheridge wasn’t formally out, and wouldn’t be until 1993, when she released “Yes I Am.” With regard to popular entertainment, particularly within the music business, Saliers and Ray were at the forefront of the queer rights movement. They won a Grammy and released chart-toppers like “Closer to Fine.” And they refused to let their sexuality get in the way of their success, brazenly being themselves at a time when being a gay public figure was uncommon and even downright scary.
I caught up with Saliers, 53, and Ray, 52, at the beginning of 2017, just days before Donald Trump would become our 45th president. The trailblazers talked about how music will unify despite the divisiveness of his administration, why “this is a really good time for artists to come to the forefront and stand up and be brave,” and their initial grade-school encounter that led to a devoted musical career and dear friendship spanning three decades.
What part do you think the arts, including music, will play in the political climate of Trump’s America?
Ray: This is a really good time for artists to come to the forefront and stand up and be brave and make themselves known, and not be worried about alienating people with their art. Sometimes in the music community – still – there are people who go, “Oh, we don’t want to rock the boat and alienate our audience.” But I feel like people are feeling less of that and more like, “Screw it.” I can see it happening around me with my friends even, who didn’t want to rock the boat, who might’ve been scared to alienate somebody in their audience. But now I think it’s like, “Well, what do we have to lose?”
Saliers: I think (art is) going to play a huge part. For me, personally, the second the election was over I wrote a song about it, and it’s gonna be on my new record, because for my own personal reasons, I had to have a catharsis. I know people need music to help speak their challenges and their struggles, and I think music is going to do two things, maybe more. First of all, for people who are just horrified that he’s our president, and the cabinet that he’s bringing in – possibly the Supreme Court justices – it’s gonna let them know they’re not alone. They’re gonna be able to tap into music that makes them realize that they’re part of a vast community of people who are opposed to all that stuff, and that’s really important. It’s going to remind Trump that the musical culture is not with him. That can be a very real pressure – that there is a movement against hate. Also, it’s a way for us to soothe our souls in troubled times. Go out and hear live music and listen to music and keep the conversation going, and don’t forget that we have elected someone who is frightening and incapable. Americans get lethargic, and we forget bad things happen. But this is an ongoing reality. We can’t forget, and I really believe music is going to keep reminding all of us what we’re up against.
Does being an out artist mean anything different to you now than it did when you first came out?
Ray: Back then, I did think about visibility, and that’s probably what spurred us to (come out). We were feeling guilty because we were hiding something. We were out in our communities and we were community activists, so our lens, even in the late ’80s, early ’90s, was a political lens, although it definitely got more and more political through the ’90s. But we did think about (visibility) because where we lived in Atlanta, post high school, when we were in college at Emory, HIV/AIDS activism was really big, and they were trying to get artists, actors and people in the arts to come out in support of HIV/AIDS activism. So, it was something we were thinking about. It wasn’t like we were scared we were going to get caught and then crucified. It was more like, “This is a compelling reason. If we’re sitting in front of our audience and talking about the importance of self-esteem and individualism, and we’re activists and we’re not willing to be visible when all these other people are willing to be visible, there’s something wrong with that.” That was our conversation with each other.
Saliers: We were always out in our lives, and with our families, friends and locally, and then we got signed to a major label and the national press wanted to talk about it. I had a lot of fear at that time about talking about it in the national press. When I got the courage to be out, it was a feeling of relief and pride. I had fears that we’d be stigmatized and judged and the same old crap. We ended up being all those things, but it didn’t matter. The way I felt about being an out musician then was like (whispers), “OK, we’ve announced it. We’re in it.” Now, it’s like, this is really who we are and we are part of a community and things are too important not to take a stand.
Are you working on any solo material, Amy?
Ray: I’m writing right now for it, and I’d say I’m about a third of the way through. It’ll be a country-tinged record with punk influences. Emily’s got her record coming out; we just gotta figure out timing. And how to make another Indigo record, ’cause we’re both like, “We’re ready for the next record,” but then we’re like, “When are we gonna write for the next record?” I think her solo record is gonna be bigger than she thinks it will be, so I’m standing back a little bit. She wrote me a text and was like, “I’m really excited to write for the next Indigo record.” She’s such a team player. It’s good for us. We’re both in it for each other.
When can we expect your debut solo album, Emily?
Saliers: In the spring. I hope for April, maybe May. In the spring, we’re gonna go record with University of Colorado’s symphony orchestra, and (Amy and I are) gonna make a record of symphonically performed songs. We’re also working toward making another Indigo Girls studio record. It’s just onto the next thing. There’s no stopping us.