When the Indigo Girls first formed in 1985, singer-guitarists Amy Ray and Emily Saliers were students at Emory University in Georgia. At that time, they didn't think they'd continue to perform as a folk-rock duo for over 25 years. After all, they were essentially just a cover band, playing obscure Elton John and Dire Straits, along with a handful of original tunes at bars where, as Ray puts it, "they wanted to hear 'Margaritaville.'"
"To some degree, we both liked the same music," says singer-guitarist Ray via phone from a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania tour stop. "We both loved Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne and good songwriters. I veered off and listened to more Southern rock, and she listened to more R&B. I got into punk and she got into hip-hop. I would learn hip-hop and she would learn punk stuff. We both broadened our musical horizons. We were different from each other, but when we sang together, it was really fun, and the harmonies were there."
But for the most part, their ambitions didn't extend beyond playing the neighborhood bar or local indie rock club.
"We were just having a good time and taking it one thing at a time," says Ray. "We didn't have these huge goals or expectations. I think that was a good thing. It was more like what do we want to accomplish next week instead of what can we do to make it big. Back then, the music industry was more one step at a time kind of thing and goals were simple. We thought, 'If we could open for Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, that would be amazing.' That's good. You had those small goals, which seemed huge back then. It keeps you going when you achieve something like that."
The band did end up opening for Brit singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole when he played Atlanta in the '80s, and Ray describes him as "one of her favorites." It didn't take long, however, for the Indigo Girls to graduate from opening act to headliner — the band signed to Epic in 1988 and subsequently had radio hits with "Closer to Fine" and "Galileo." They continued to record for Epic until they signed a deal with Hollywood Records in 2006. After only one album, they parted ways with the company and have been independent ever since.
The Indigo Girls haven't had something resembling a hit in years, and it's a testament to the band's stability and longevity that it's been able to sustain its headliner status at a time when the music industry is more fickle than ever. In fact, the group's latest album, Beauty Queen Sister, is as strong as anything in its catalogue and pairs the duo with a huge ensemble of session musicians who make songs like the title track into grandiose rock tunes. For the current tour, they're even traveling with the Shadowboxers, an Atlanta five-piece that plays on the album; it marks the first time they've been on an entire tour with a full band. But then the intricate melodies and instrumentation on Beauty Queen Sister almost demand something bigger than just the two of them.
"We always want to do something different," says Ray when asked what distinguishes Beauty Queen Sister. "Not different for difference's sake, but to show some kind of evolution. On Beauty Queen, the difference would be that the players influenced the arrangements. Those guys were a great team of players, and we did the rec-ord in two weeks. It was a quick record. In that way, it's a little more dependent on the musicianship. We worked with great drummers and players in the past, but I feel like in the past we directed them more than we should have. What we learned is to let them do their own thing."
And without a record label to tell Ray and Saliers what to do, they're left to their own devices. So for the past five years, they've released all their music through their own imprint, Indigo Recordings, and Vanguard Records provides distribution.
"We have a great situation because we can use Vanguard's infrastructure," says Ray. "We can use their marketing and their radio decision if we want. We've done five records this way, and it's a really great arrangement."
Part of what has helped the duo endure for so long is the fact that Ray and Saliers both have time to pursue other interests. Ray has issued several solo albums with backing from the lesbian punk band the Butchies, and Solier has published a book about spiritual music and co-owns a restaurant. Though Ray is proud of her punk rock records, she says she's hoping to record an "old-style country record" for her next solo effort.
And if sustaining the Indigo Girls and their various side projects weren't enough to keep them busy, the two also contribute to several activist organizations and head one of their own, the environmental organization Honor the Earth.
"Well, it all connects in a way," Ray says of the duo's activist interests. "Our main thing is Honor the Earth. We've had it since the early '90s. We have a couple of board meetings each year and an ongoing conversation about what's going on. We talk about things like whether we should do a mini-tour about a coal-fired power plant or something like that. It's part of our lives, so it doesn't feel like it takes extra time. When Hurricane Katrina happened, we put our resources in that. We also have a person who helps us. It's such a big part of what we do, and we just talk about what's happening and what we can do to fulfill that part of our lives. It's always been something to include in our day-to-day life."