In 2012, Emily Saliers and her Indigo Girls partner Amy Ray embarked on a bold new chapter, collaborating with a pair of orchestrators to prepare larger-than-life arrangements of their songs to perform with symphonies around the country. It was a challenging endeavor, to say the least, but the GRAMMY-winning duo managed to find that elusive, sonic sweet spot with the project, creating a seamless blend of folk, rock, pop and classical that elevated their songs to new emotional heights without sacrificing any of the emotional intimacy and honesty that has defined their music for decades. Now, after more than 50 performances with symphonies across America, the experience has finally been captured in all its grandeur on the band’s stunning new album, ‘Indigo Girls Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra.’
Recorded in front of a sold-out audience in Boulder, CO, and deftly mixed by GRAMMY-winner Trina Shoemaker (who has also mixed for Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris and other acclaimed artists), the record showcases Indigo Girls at their finest: raw, real and revelatory. Ray and Saliers’ voices are both powerful and delicate here, their intertwined harmonies riding on the crest of an emotional tidal wave created by Sean O’Loughlin and Stephen Barber’s dazzling arrangements. The orchestrations are as richly cinematic as a film score (think John Williams rather than J.S. Bach), and the 64-piece symphony wrings every ounce of passion from them, helping to bring the band’s evocative storytelling to more vivid life than ever before.
“We didn’t want to just slap some classical music on an Indigo Girls track and call it a day,” says Ray. “We wanted these songs to be as dramatic and as big as they could be. We wanted active arrangements that would make full use of the symphony and give them total reign. There was no way we were going to get onstage with all those amazing musicians and waste their talent.”
Spanning material throughout the band’s career, the 22-song set features a mix of reimagined classics, unexpected deep cuts and tracks from Indigo Girls’ latest studio album, ‘One Lost Day.’ “Compromise” wraps its punk roots around spaghetti western strings while the brass on “Go” flexes explosive marching band muscle. “The Power of Two” nods to the lush arrangements of legendary songwriters like Tom Waits and Harry Nilsson. The energy in the room that night was infectious with both the musicians and fans feeding off the same visceral electricity, and the crowd couldn’t help but join in for a massive sing-along to “Closer to Fine.”
There’s an unmistakable sense of community and inclusion on the album, in part because that’s a hallmark of every Indigo Girls show but also in part because Ray and Saliers considered themselves pieces of the orchestra for the performance, no more and no less important than any other artist on the stage. “It was essential to me that everyone was on an even playing field,” explains Ray. “I didn’t want the audience to feel like they were just seeing Emily and I backed by a symphony. Every single musician was integral, and the whole performance transcended what anyone could do by themselves.”
The power of unity, both in music and in life, has been an Indigo Girls calling card ever since they burst into the spotlight with their 1989 self-titled breakout album. Since then, the band has racked up a slew of Gold and Platinum records, taking home a coveted GRAMMY Award, and earned the respect of high-profile peers-turned-collaborators from Michael Stipe to Joan Baez. NPR’s Mountain Stage called the group “one of the finest folk duos of all time” while Rolling Stone said they “personify what happens when two distinct sensibilities, voices and worldviews come together to create something transcendently its own.” The New York Times raved that “gleeful profanities, righteous protest anthems and impeccable folk songwriting have carried this duo for thirty years.”
Saliers and Ray have never been ones to rest on their laurels though. Each has released critically acclaimed solo music in their downtime and engaged in outspoken political and social activism, and they remain perpetually on the hunt for the next great challenge. When they were first approached about performing with symphonies, it was a daunting prospect but one that only made it all the more irresistible.
“Amy and I have always tried to grow in our songwriting and work with different instruments and producers and players along the way,” reflects Saliers. “The symphony shows were an opportunity to present ourselves in a completely different incarnation, to do something totally new and big and different.”
“I’ve come away from these shows with a deeper understanding of how music works,” adds Ray. “I’ve learned so much about the mechanisms of different time signatures and how it affects the pace of songs to switch them up. All these things I picked up from watching the conductors are starting to come out in my own writing now.”
When it came to recording the album, Ray and Saliers had an exceptional conductor by their side: Gary Lewis. Under Lewis’ able direction, the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra is one of the most diverse and adaptable groups around, boasting performances with everyone from Academy Award winning composer Dave Grusin to multi-platinum singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant. After a sold-out show with the orchestra in the spring of 2016, it was clear to Ray and Saliers that Lewis and the ensemble would be perfect for a live album.
“We had an emotional connection with that symphony right away,” says Ray. “They had a fluidity and a swagger and the kind of dynamics that we wanted to capture. When we really connect with a group, it’s because everybody’s playing as one force.”
That cohesion shines throughout the album, reflecting a singleness of mind and spirit that often takes years for musicians to develop. Chalk it up to the power of the songs or the strength of the duo’s connection or the versatility of the symphony, but one thing’s clear: Indigo Girls love a good challenge.
Photo by Jeremy Cowart