A few weeks ago I saw the Indigo Girls at the Capitol Theatre in Macon, Ga. The place only sat 300 so it was close and intimate. As always, their harmony, guitar playing, and thoughtfulness proved impressive. I had the occasion to interview Emily and Amy a few years back and due to the shuffling to a new web presence the posting died a virtual death... but I've found it again and I wanted to resurrect it with portions of a review of their "Despite Our Differences" album (which I know dates the interview).
On the horizon they all unfold… places, spaces that we inhabit, keep, abandon, fill or empty of the ruts and rewards of community and commerce. It’s this sense of place that haunts, reprises, and redeems us in the recent offering of the Indigo Girls, “Despite our Differences.”
“Place has always been important to me,” says Amy. “It’s the flora, the fauna, the feel of the earth. I have a strong connection to the South. It’s been that way in my family for generations. I don’t like everything that’s associated with the South, and if my relation was New York City, I suppose it would be a more urban feel. But, I look for connectedness with my neighbors and my community even though we may vote and feel differently about things...
“I haven’t been to that many places, but when I see, on a commercial level, similarities like GAP and Pottery Barn, it all looks the same. People like that convenience, but you don’t really have anything when you take away the landscape. I think people want to feel. Some plow down and rebuild the way it used to be in order to capture a little of that feeling.”
Emily agrees. “Since we are always on the move and always gone, place is particularly important,” she says. “You can feel thinned out on tour; it’s not really reality. It’s good to have a sense of identity inside your community where you are loved. I think human beings are born to live in community. We are hungry for a sense of place and to know who we are and how we fit in. I own a restaurant in Decatur and place plays out even when buying produce. We buy locally and that means you don’t get strawberries until the summer. So place is seasonal like that. And in spiritual life it’s that way too, with liturgy.”
So, the Indigo Girls are nourished by the idea of place, and they are equally fed by their indignant appetite against the thieves that rob communities of identity, lasting relationship, and those hooks on which we hang change - the “subdivision man,” “pavers,” and “associations.”
Open to “Pendulum Swingers” –
I see love and I want to make it happen
What we get from your war walk
The ticker of the nation breaking down like a bad clock
I want the pendulum to swing again
So that all your mighty mandate
was just spitting in the wind
It’s a rebel song about the elite that control society and wage its wars, and about finding out the emptiness of power yet its stronghold on the disenfranchised. It’s a call is to swing the pendulum and invite change like the swinging chariot of Elijah that broke the ancient passageways between the heavens and the earth.
These mandating powers not only trample on the individual who could introduce change, and reduces her/him to “a drop in the bucket,” says the song, but they also harm the ability to believe:
It’s fine about the old scroll sanskrit
Gnostic gospels the da vinci code’s a smash hit
Aren’t we dying just to read it and relate
Too hard just to go by a blind faith
“It’s like teeth in sugar; it tastes sweet,” says Emily. “You turn the page [of The Da Vinci Code] and you start thinking, ‘it might be.’ We all want answers. We are bombarded by pop culture which is looking for answers. The problem is that most of us don’t take the time to sit still and sift through this stuff. People are spiritually dying and need answers. We’re really asking, ‘To whom do we belong?’ and ‘where are the miracles?’ We want to see beyond the mundane and the reality we live in.”
Move to “Little Perennials” –
I look for words to fill the empty spaces,
all the life revealed in these back stages.
I reach for names like little puzzle pieces;
Oh perennial, come to me.
I asked Amy what perennials – those reoccurring things – provide her the assurances to make sense, even cautiously, of life. “Every time I see someone I’m related to, I’m forced back into life,” she says. “It’s a good reminder of reality. Probably for me, another is not being closed into spaces. We’re always hiking or doing something outdoors on tour. And also songs. We’ll go for some time without singing a particular song and then when we do sing it, it brings up something new – different.”
It's true. Amending one’s perspective in order to gain an ability to see the small things that charm life, give a gentle nudge of inspiration, and lean on a hope for relationship “despite our differences” is a simple message that defines the Indigo Girls today.
“I Believe in Love” carries the weight of the album title in a “New Year’s Day”, “Under a Blood Red Sky” smoothness –
I want to say that underneath it all you are my friend
And the way that I fell for you I’ll never fall that way again
I still believe despite our differences
that what we have’s enough
I believe in you and I believe in love
Is it that simple? Listen more. “Three County Highway,” the album’s next offering, demonstrates a wandering that is necessary to frame the touching lines that conclude the song –
So put your head on my heart and lay down
in the crook of my arm.
Everything’s okay, I’ve been found again,
I’ve been found again.
Amy and Emily seem to insist that finding authentic places means living within community and taking risks on people and their love... and your love for them. They seem to treasure honesty and genuineness in others. Maybe that’s the folk artist that’s ever present in their stories. “Dirt and Dead Ends” samples it as Amy tells of a friendship unharnessed and an authenticity tackled by hellish addictions that won't come clean.
“Lay My Head Down” and “Money Made You Mean” are dropped into the center of the album and seem to feed on each other, telling two sides of the same tale - the external and internal temptations to wear the mask of life upon the face of death.
“Lay My Head Down” pauses to catch the simple gesture of security and affection. “Money Made You Mean” drives at the opinions that our needs and righteous anger are always wrestling with the system of dollars and cents changing hands and making us want excessively. “Lay My Head Down” stumbles inside a party and “Money Made you Mean” kicks you in the gut.
“Money can be tied to meanness,” says Amy, “but money is a tool that can also do good. In the song, I’m asking that question about myself in a cynical sort of way. As an activist, you can do good with it, but that still drives you to want more money and that drive can take over the good.”
I asked about her opinions of campaigns like Product Red and the popularity of tying consumption that is fueled by tossing something charity's way.
“People are going to sell things and the opposite is that they don’t give anything back,” she says. “It’s a conundrum. What’s really being given back when you purchase something? How significant is it? And is the need created because of the products themselves – being made in sweatshops or something similar. It provides an easy out. It makes you sad. I’m taking myself to task. I get paid to do a record and that money comes from somewhere. Are we just creating a need and recycling it back? Our work on energy justice, for example. It takes energy to run the campaign. I think we need to do our best and try not to waste.”
As for a starting point, Amy suggests that we first find our identity and be comfortable with who we are individually. It’s at that point that we can reflect on the greed that often captivates us, and recognize the need for a more relational landscape that is stripped of some commerce that acts too often as a blind guide –
You could keep it all or give it away
but where did it come from in the first place?
Robbing Peter to pay me and I’ll just be
giving it back to Peter to feel free.
Cut to: “Lay My Head Down” –
And everyone’s tied to their thing
To their past or their drink or the date that they bring
I just get tired all of a sudden taking it in
And I want to lay my head down on you
Because you’re the only solid thing in this room
A room full of changes, strangers, illusion, confusion
I speak from my heart but I’m not really sure if it’s true
I want to lay my head down on you
“The way in and the way out is through a human being,” Emily says. “We have a human need for each other – to find our respite and refuge and rest. There’s a codependency. The song’s about a party getting loose and getting tired and among the music and temptation, you’re the one thing. It’s metaphorical as well.”
We talked some about Matthew’s House, about Jesus being there - being here - and the world as that house with the so called sinners of the day. We both agreed that Jesus is the way in and out.
And it’s that space that recognizes community, which Amy also speaks about when I ask her to define “hope.”
“Hope is symbolized by people in my community who have seen the worst but persevere and remain active participants,” she says. “When I visit the Zapatistas in the jungle and they’ve built schools and communities- people who have suffered but rise above it and still love each other and love people. When I’m down, I call someone I know that will help. It renews me. So, hope is very communal.”
And hope is essential in these songs. It’s hope that closes “All the Way”, “They Won’t Have Me,” and “Last Tears,” the final three tunes on the record. Here's the last line of each respectively –
At least we laugh about it now how we escaped alive
It’s remarkable the mess we make and what we can survive
All this love to offer, all this love to waste.
All this love to offer, all this love to waste.
And when I’m drunk on the last drop of sadness
about how we went wrong
I’m going to play this song
make some coffee black and strong
Give thanks for healing time, and finally make up my mind
These are the last tears I’m gonna cry for you
My cryin’s through I’m moving on
“Hope is the light at the end of the tunnel, to use a cliché,” says Emily, “and at the end is a place of rest, where you’re at peace again. I guess I’m an eternal optimist, even in those moments where hope is excruciating to hold onto because of pain.”
Music itself can carry hope, truth, and salve for cutting differences. “Music gives you the ability to find a way – pitch, space between notes, beats,” says Emily. “It’s reflective of the our physiology – the heartbeat and pulse. My dad and I wrote a book together about music. He’s a professor of sacred music. And we’ve had conversations about some Eminim song that sells a million copies, if that make it more or less valid than other music. I don’t think so, because it’s saying something that registers to those listeners.”
“Opening up the thought process is what’s important,” says Amy. “It’s about dialogue.”
The Indigo Girls offer this piece of dialogue 20 years and 10 albums after pointing to that crooked line that brought them a level of stardom. With a new deal on Hollywood Records (a “compromise” of its own, says Amy) it looks like they have more paths to journey, or, should I say “plenty revolutions left.”
After the mixed commercial success of their Hollywood Records album, they were dropped from the label and have since release "Poisiden and the Bitter Bug" as an independent release. It's worth getting a copy.