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Published: Sunday, 1/23/2005

Mood Indigo: Veteran duo among headliners at Ann Arbor Folk Festival

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Emily Saliers and Amy Ray will go their separate ways when it comes time to write songs, but their solo creations are reshaped, fine-tuned, and refined through collaboration.

In my mind, the songs become so much better when we arrange them together. That s when they become Indigo Girl songs, Saliers said in a telephone interview from her Atlanta-area home.

The Indigo Girls team effort has proved successful for two decades or more, depending on how the duo s founding is defined. While the two musicians made their recording debut in 1985, their first public performance was for a PTA meeting in 1980, when they both were students at Shamrock High School in Decatur, Ga.

Now with eight studio albums and a catalog of favorites that includes Closer to Fine, Galileo, and Become You, the Indigo Girls will be one of the headline acts at the 28th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival next weekend in Ann Arbor.

The renowned folk festival, featuring an eclectic mix of 18 groups and solo artists playing Friday and Saturday, also will feature the Blind Boys of Alabama, Keb Mo , George Bedard and the Kingpins, Richard Shindell, and Richard Thompson.

Most festivals are held during the summer months, so a wintertime gathering of folk artists is a welcome change of scene for the artists, Saliers said, especially if we can have the time to listen to the other people playing and singing.

Saying she was looking forward to catching the Blind Boys in concert, Saliers added that hanging out backstage and talking shop with other musicians is like old-home week for artists who are frequently going on different paths as they crisscross the country on concert tours.

The Indigo Girls roots run deep, as the musicians actually knew each other in elementary school. But since both played guitar, they viewed each other as rivals rather than friends. It wasn t until high school that they began practicing in Ray s basement and performing at amateur nights at local bars.

The musicians split up temporarily after graduating from high school in 1981, with Saliers enrolling at Tulane University in New Orleans and Ray attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

But neither student felt comfortable at her new school, and the next year both transferred to Emory University in Atlanta, where they rekindled their musical partnership.

Ray picked the word indigo from the dictionary because, she said, the definition seemed to fit the duo s musical style: It s a deep blue, a root real earthy.

With their sweet vocal harmonies embellished by the duo s smooth and fluid touch on guitars, the Indigo Girls soon began to draw attention well beyond the local music scene.

Their first release was a six-song vinyl EP in 1985, followed by the 1987 album Strange Fire, which landed the Indigo Girls a major-label contract with Epic Records.

The duo has earned a devoted following across the country, despite a musical style that doesn t fit most radio formats.

Asked to comment on the state of modern radio, Saliers expressed her feelings in a single syllable: Ugh!

We get airplay in the AAA format, but that doesn t really sell records, she said. Radio s been in a terrible state since 1996 with deregulation. Big companies have been snatching up thousands of stations and it s become very corporate. People are too afraid of losing their jobs to do anything different.

But we ve never really been a radio band, Saliers added. We re a grassroots band. It doesn t matter to me, but I care for the other artists and for the listeners. I think people deserve better.

The Indigo Girls latest release for Epic is All That We Let In, a collection of 11 songs that, as always, alternate between Ray and Saliers compositions.

The title track, penned by Saliers, is a lonely, lilting melody about the give and take of life and how everything from small gestures to cosmic events involve a certain amount of risk.

It s kind of a purging, Saliers said of baring her soul in the song.

But the effort and the rewards are worth it, she feels.

At this point in our career, having done it so long, I have faith in the process, Saliers said.

It s hard to write a song, she added. There s the craft of it, and just getting in deep with the emotional stuff, and then getting it all right. When it s finished, it s a great sense of accomplishment.

Proof that collaboration is key to the Indigo Girls, All That We Let In, the title track of their latest album, almost didn t make the disc in the first place.

There was a song I wrote for the last record that, when we got into preproduction rehearsals, I just couldn t make it right. It ended up not making the cut, and we put All That We Let In on the record in its place, she said.

One of the reasons her musical partnership with Ray has been so successful, Saliers said, is that both artists keep busy with side projects when they re not doing Indigo Girls work.

Ray founded her own independent record label, Daemon Records, in 1990, partly out of frustrations with the business side of music.

Saliers recently published a book, A Song To Sing, A Life To Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice, which she cowrote with her father, the Rev. Dan Saliers, a United Methodist minister and a professor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

She also composed the musical score for a short documentary film, One Weekend a Month, about a single mother in the National Guard who is deployed to Baghdad.

The 28th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival starts at 7 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday in Hill Auditorium on the campus of the University of Michigan. Tickets are $30 and $45 for single nights, or $80 for both nights.

The Friday night lineup features emcee Susan Werner; Jeremy Kittel; Steppin on It; Martyn Joseph; Vienna Teng; Glengarry Bhoys; the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Indigo Girls.

The Saturday concert again will feature Susan Werner as emcee, with Whit Hill and the Postcards; George Bedard & the Kingpins; Lynn Miles; King Wilkie; Richard Shindell; David Jones; Kruger Brothers; Richard Thompson, and Keb Mo . Information: 734-761-1800 or online at www.theark.org.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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