Emily Saliers is visibly excited. After more than three decades as one half of the iconic folk duo Indigo Girls, she’s finally striking out on her own with her first solo album, Murmuration Nation, which came out Friday. For a self-professed introvert, that’s a scary step, but also an invigorating one.
While there are songs on the record that wouldn’t be out of place on an Indigo Girls release, others venture into completely new territory, anchored by R&B, funk and jazz rhythms. Longtime fans will notice the lack of acoustic guitar as much as the lack of Amy Ray’s voice. But they’ll also find familiar subject matter that marks all of Saliers’s songwriting: a righteous fury about the injustice she sees around her, and an optimism that love will sustain us through the worst the world can throw at us.
We met up with Saliers at Watershed, the restaurant she founded in the Atlanta neighborhood of Decatur before moving it to swankier digs in Buckhead. Fortunately it was Wednesday, when Watershed offers the fried chicken for which it’s famous. Over a long lunch, Saliers seemed anything but shy, opening up about the three-year journey to get Murmuration Nation made and her ambitions going forward.
Paste: The big, obvious question is why now? You and Amy started playing together as teenagers, and now all these years later you’re finally going out on your own.
Emily Saliers: A confluence of things, really, because for the longest time what I did with Amy completely occupied me and felt like enough of what I wanted to do creatively in addition to things I did outside of Indigo Girls, like write a book with my dad and do some co-writing and singing on other people’s records. But then I just started to get an itch to do a record that was rhythmic at its center, because Amy and I, I don’t think, were really thought of as a groove band. But groove music—particularly African-American R&B, hip-hop and gospel—is the stuff that really moves my soul the most. And so I can’t be black, but I can just bring those influences in.
“I just started to get an itch to do a record that was rhythmic at its center, because Amy and I, I don’t think, were really thought of as a groove band. But groove music—particularly African-American R&B, hip-hop and gospel—is the stuff that really moves my soul the most.”
So when I found Lyris Hung, who’s the producer, I sent her a couple of snippets of ideas, and she produced them in her studio and they were what I wanted—that feeling that I only had in my mind that I didn’t know how to create. She knew how to make beats. She’s an incredible violinist but also has just she had a metal band and she scored for people and played on stage with Jay Z and blah blah blah. She had this wild thing where she put her vision to the snippets. And then once I found her, I was like, “This is the right person to bring that to life.”
Paste: Right from the opening sounds on “Spiders,” you kind of signal this is not your typical Indigo Girls record, or what people might have expected from a solo record from you.
Saliers: And it wasn’t intentional. In the recent past, I’ve been wanting to be like really, really rhythmic, because for me when a beat kicks in, that’s what really propels me.
Paste: One thing that struck me, almost more than anything else on the record, were the bass lines going on. Who’s playing that bass?
Saliers: “Spider” is Clare Kenny. Amy and I sort of poached her from Sinead O’Connor back in the days of Lilith Fair. She’s well-steeped in reggae. She’s a Londoner, but she’s toured with Indigo Girls, and she’s particularly known for her melodic bass lines. And then Tim LaFave, who Lyris knew. And I knew him from his work with Tedeschi-Trucks and on the last David Bowie album. There’s just some badass bass on the album.
Paste: What was the recording process like? Some of these songs sound like songs you might typically sing with the Indigo Girls, and some are layered and more experimental and run the gamut from R&B to funk to jazz to Spanish guitar. How did that play out in the studio?
Saliers: With Indigo Girls, Amy writes her songs and I write my songs and then we get together and we arrange them before we go into the studio. The collaboration with Lyris was different. She created demos, and we worked on those demos together for a period of three years. These are mostly my songs except for a couple that Lyris wrote music for. But she was like the musical director. So it was different in that we had a musical scope that we were going for, and she was very clear about what elements needed to go in to make that.
So in the studio, basically we cut the tracks live. But then everything that we put in there—all the parts were drawn from the demo. So it was different in that way. A lot of times in Indigo Girls, we would bring a player in or just create something based on our acoustic arrangements. And it’s very much acoustic-oriented. And on Indigo Girls, Amy and I virtually play guitar through the whole songs—or mandolin or whatever the instrument is. This was not the case on this record; there’s less guitar on this record than on any of my Indigo Girls records, as far as starting at the beginning and playing through a song.
Paste: Did you write all the songs on guitar and then build over them or start with beats that you played around with?
Saliers: I work on Logic on my Apple Computer, and I would create beats and then they propelled the songs. For instance “OK Corral.” In my house, I picked a beat that I liked, and then I put a delay on an electric guitar, and I then wrote a chordal pattern which no longer exists because Lyris didn’t want to do it that way. She was like, “Let’s take the guitar out. Let’s have the keyboard play something kind of creepy and unusual. And then the beats will kick in.” And then there were things that I wanted to hold on that I created in the studio like a synth patch. So I wrote them on guitar with beats at home. But a lot of the guitar disappeared as the arrangements came around. It’s hard to let go. It wouldn’t be the record it is if I hadn’t let go of that, because there’s something that locks you into a certain thing if you play guitar from beginning to end of the song, as opposed to just having this palette of other musical arrangement. And now the trick is to sit in my room and write an arrangement on guitar that feels gratifying when I have to play a solo show or I don’t have a band. That’s the next challenge.
Paste: Can you talk a little bit about the fear that was preventing you from making this record, and the process of overcoming it?
Saliers, right, performs with Amy Ray in the Indigo Girls in 2007.
Saliers: Well, a lot of the original fears are like: Why do I need to do a solo record? What if no one likes it? What if people miss Amy too much? What if they really only like what Indigo Girls do, and they don’t like this direction? I think, like, basic artistic insecurities, and I have them all. But not enough so that it kept me from pursuing it. I had a lot of heart-to-hearts with Lyris, and she’s like, “Look, you just do this different thing in the end.” You know, even though it’s my record, I had to get out of myself to be more relaxed about the differences in the processes. And another fear that I had was, like, these songs aren’t going to translate with an acoustic guitar or a ukulele or a banjo or whatever on their own. They’re only going to be good with a band.
And then we had a lot of conversations about how you have to trust that an audience wants to hear different arrangements, and then it can be interesting to them. And so I took a lot of convincing from people that I respected, like Lyris. She basically had to pound me over the head that it was okay to do something different on the record than what you might end up doing live. Because I was like, “No, it’s got to sound like the record.” But in the end she convinced me that it’s okay to have different experiences, and then I just got over my fears, and now it’s like, okay this is cool.
Paste: And now you’re going to go tour these songs this summer. Will you be recreating any of those layered elements or is it really going to be a solo summer tour?
Saliers: Well, different things. Like yesterday, I did this crazy show for Adult Swim. Oh yeah, insane. And I just played a couple of the songs on the record acoustically. So I guess bare bones, and they translate really well. And then tonight I’m playing at Eddie’s Attic, and playing at the Bluebird in Nashville. And those will all just be with Lyris, and so she plays some of the elements but it’s still very bare bones. And we’re going to play at least seven or eight songs from the record like that, and then we’ll take a full tour out in October and that’s going to be the full thing—like the bass parts, the keyboard player parts, the violin parts and the guitar parts. So that’s the full monty. But it’s not easy to take a band out here.
Paste: And it’s not like the Indigo Girls have gone away. You guys still plans. Can you talk about the live album, the symphony album?
Saliers: Yeah, we recorded it with University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra. We played a show with them and we loved them. So we went and recorded just a one-night one show back in April. We have like 21 songs. I suppose we’ll have to pare down. It’ll be a double-album right now. And then we had Trina Shoemaker mixing, and she’s fabulous. But we had to use D.I. guitars, because you can’t mic them in a symphony because of all the noise around the mic. So now we’re having to go back and rerecord the guitar parts. It’ll come out next year, and then we’ll be doing more symphony shows in different cities across the country. It’s been a wonderful thing. Every show you’re really on your toes with the symphony. There’s no drummer, just an amorphous thing. But we love that symphony because they’re students—grad students and undergrads—and they’re excited about music.
Paste: Are there any songs in particular that you’re excited about how they translated to a symphony experience?
Saliers: Well, “Chicken Man” is pretty cool. And now honestly when I play the songs I hear the orchestral arrangements in my head. “Virginia Woolfe” is beautiful. I mean, it starts out kind of emulating the part that’s on the record that we did a long time ago, but it’s sort of a sparse arrangement, and it’s just beautiful. It sort of envelops the song, allows it to breathe, but augments it in this really nice way. So that came out really well. Honestly, they all did. “The Power of Two” is a very sparse arrangement. Others are much more involved. Like “Go” was kind of swarthy and rollicking. They all came out really well.
Paste: That’s great. Any idea when that will be released?