Singers, songwriters and guitarists Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have a legacy of recordings and international tours to their credit — and show no signs of slowing down.
The Grammy Award-winning folk-rock duo met in elementary school and began performing together while attending high school in Decatur, Georgia, part of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Ray and Saliers began calling themselves Indigo Girls while at Emory University, performing at The Dugout, a bar in Emory Village.
They independently released a full-length record in 1987, and landed a contract with Epic the following year. After working with large recording companies until 2007, the girls resumed self-producing albums on their own IG Recordings.
With 15 studio albums and five live records to its credit, the duo continues to challenge itself, adding to a body of work that includes such contemporary classics as “Galileo,” “Shame on You,” “Closer To Fine,” “Kid Fears,” “Love of Our Lives,” “Making Promises,” “Get Out the Map,” “Moment of Forgiveness,” “Least Complicated” and “Go.”
After many Grammy nominations, awards, gold and platinum certifications and decades of touring clubs and arenas, Indigo Girls remain active and relevant, always viewing their music as a fresh opportunity for exploration and discovery.
“We really work hard to not lean on any tried-and-true path in making our albums,” Ray says. “So when it comes to writing new songs and working and performing with different musicians, every record and every tour feels like a completely different adventure for us.”
Indigo Girls will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 26, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. Singer and songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche will open the show. Tickets are $46, $52 or $58 and can be purchased online at craterian.org, at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., or by calling 541-779-3000.
In 2012, Ray and Saliers began 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. A challenging endeavor, the duo found that elusive, sonic, sweet spot with the project, creating a blend of folk, rock, pop and classical that elevated its songs to new emotional heights without sacrificing the intimacy and honesty that has defined its music for decades.
After more than 50 performances with symphonies across America, the experience was captured in 2017 on a new album, “Indigo Girls Live With The University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra.”
“When I hear the symphony come in, it’s a convergence of feelings,” Saliers says. “First, you can’t believe your good fortune that it’s really happening, and then you’re hit with the power of this enormous, full orchestra coming from behind you. Even when we play by ourselves now, I can’t perform these songs without hearing the orchestra in my head.”
Recorded in front of a sold-out audience in Boulder, Colorado, and mixed by Grammy winner Trina Shoemaker, the record showcases Indigo Girls at their finest: raw, real and revelatory. Ray and Saliers’ voices are powerful and delicate, and their harmonies ride on arrangements created by Sean O’Loughlin and Stephen Barber.
The orchestrations are cinematic (think John Williams rather than J.S. Bach), and the 64-piece symphony wrings every ounce of passion from them.
“We didn’t want to just slap some classical music on an Indigo Girls track and call it a day,” Ray says. “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 from Indigo Girls’ career, the 22-song set features a mix of reimagined classics, unexpected deep cuts, and tracks from their 2015 studio album, “One Lost Day.” “Compromise” wraps its punk roots around spaghetti-western strings, while the brass on “Go” flexes marching band muscle, and “The Power Of Two” nods to the arrangements of songwriters such as Tom Waits and Harry Nilsson.
There’s a sense of community and inclusion on the album, in part because it’s a hallmark of Indigo Girls’ shows, and also 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,” Ray says. “I didn’t want the audience to feel like they were just seeing Emily and me backed by a symphony. Every single musician was integral, and the whole performance transcended what anyone could do by themselves.”
“Indigo Girls Live With The University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra” is set to be released June 29 on Rounder Records.
Unity, both in music and in life, is an Indigo Girls calling card. NPR’s Mountain Stage called them “one of the finest folk duos of all time,” while Rolling Stone wrote that they “personify what happens when two distinct sensibilities, voices, and worldviews come together to create something transcendently its own,” and The New York Times raved that “gleeful profanities, righteous protest anthems and impeccable folk songwriting have carried this duo for 30 years.”
Saliers and Ray are not ones to rest on their laurels, though. Each has released acclaimed solo music in their downtime and engaged in outspoken political and social activism, and they remain on the hunt for the next great challenge. When they were approached about performing with symphonies, it was a daunting prospect, but 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,” Saliers says. “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,” Ray adds. “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.”
Recording the album, Ray and Saliers had University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra conductor Gary Lewis by their side. 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,” Ray says. “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 on the album, reflecting a singleness of mind and spirit. Chalk it up to the power of the songs, the strength of the duo’s connection, or the versatility of the symphony, but one thing’s clear: Indigo Girls love a good challenge.
— Propeller Publicity