The singer-songwriter will perform tracks from her eclectic debut solo album April 1
by Brittany Nader
Known around the world as one-half of the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls, Emily Saliers has been hard at work the last few months writing and recording her debut solo album. The release has been made possible by the support of longtime fans via the music-centered crowdfunding site PledgeMusic and is slated to be available for purchase this summer. Saliers will return to Akron, a city she has frequented many times on tour with fellow Indigo Girl Amy Ray, on April 1 to perform songs from her new record with the company of longtime collaborator Lyris Hung, who has played violin with Indigo Girls for several years.
In addition to Hung’s musical accompaniment, the album also features instrumentation from drummers Will Calhoun (Living Colour) and Robert “Sput” Searight (Snarky Puppy, Snoop Dog, Timbaland); bassist Tim Lefevre (Tedeschi Trucks Band); piano and keyboard player Rachel Eckroth (KT Tunstall) and mandolinist Sierra Hull. The upcoming release and subsequent solo performances are a new venture for Saliers, who says she is anxious but excited to further explore and express the groove/beat/eclectic side of her musical sensibilities.
Brittany Nader: Congratulations on your first solo album! You mentioned that you wanted to let go of reservations and really tap into your unexplored musical corners with this album. Can you tell me a little more about your inspiration and motivation behind doing this and creating your first solo debut?
Emily Saliers: Musically, I’ve forever and ever been influenced by R&B music and Stevie Wonder, pop and funk, and black gospel music and things like that. So I wanted to explore some of that. With Indigo Girls, we don’t really do that together — we’ve just touched on it a bit here and there. I really love rock music, I love beats, I love music that viscerally grabs me. I don’t go for misogynist lyrics, obviously, so I like political [music] like Public Enemy and Chance the Rapper and so on, but I knew I couldn’t put out a rap record because it wouldn’t be authentic for me. I didn’t want to co-op anything.
But my friend Lyris Hung, who plays violin with Indigo Girls and is a producer in her own right, started arranging snippets of songs I was doing and put those those beats in there. Then it immediately became that hybrid I was looking for, which was organic instruments and intense lyrics, lyrics that had some meaning behind them. So then once I found Lyris as that person to help me find that, then we were off and running.
BN: The album has been funded through PledgeMusic. What prompted you to use this avenue to connect with your fans and get this release off the ground?
ES: I knew that if I wanted to do certain things with the record, I needed to have a certain budget, which I couldn’t do myself. I also knew that I wanted to engage fans in the process. I did a lot of soul searching about it because it’s a bit of an odd feeling for me to ask people to pay money to get certain things that related to me. But then I sort of changed the way I felt about it, especially as I began interacting with people who supported the music. It made me very connected to them and very grateful to them in way I thought I was before, but now I’m super, uber grateful and connected. It’s a really cool thing.
I’ve pledged for other artists, some I didn’t even know, and I enjoyed being part of that process. I did a lot of talking with my artist friends, some of which had done these campaigns, and in the end I was like, “Let’s do this!” Lyris was all for it, so it’s been fantastic. It funded the record, and it’s going to continue to fund the artwork for the record and promo for the record and the cost of the band and all kinds of things. I couldn’t have done this record without the pledge people. As a fan of other musicians, since I buy their T-shirts and go to their shows, since I like being part of it, I was glad that I was able to do it too.
BN: You’ve had so much success and so many amazing experiences playing with Indigo Girls. What new doors do you think will be opened now that you’ve released your debut solo record?
ES: You know, I really don’t know yet, but I do know that it’s helped me grow and sharpen some of my decision-making tools. Amy and I were always in partnership — Indigo Girls is not going away, that’s just at the core of who I am musically. I love Amy and what we do, and our fans, and the whole thing is just beautiful to me and so sacred. But with this, it’s like, I don’t play guitar through all these songs on the record, which is kind of different from Indigo Girls where we always play our instruments on our records. While I do play guitar and ukulele on the [solo] record, it’s going to be a little more freeing on stage just being in my body without having to worry about what I have to play next.
I think in terms of the new experience on stage, it’s going to be a little more freeing. Then, I think it’s going to be really fun to play brand-new material, but beyond that I really don’t know. I’d like to get the record out there as much as possible. I’d like to cast a really wide net with it. I would love to get some of the songs on TV shows — I’ve always been thrilled when I hear other people’s music on TV — and we’ll just see. Right now, I’m anticipating the release will probably be this summer, and I’m looking forward to building the campaign up to the release and touring it in the fall.
BN: Can you talk a little bit about what you envision those stage shows will be like? You’ve assembled a pretty diverse lineup of musicians to contribute to this album, so I’m curious how they’ve influenced the sound of the record and how you envision the performances.
ES: I have two different “envisionings” — one is with a full band that will hopefully include Robert “Sput” Searight, who is an incredible drummer, oh my gosh, and then Tim Lefevre, who’s touring with the Tedeschi Trucks, and Rachel Eckroth, then Lyris and me. So I’m picturing a band of five or six people, and I’m really into different artistic media like some interesting lighting, stage settings, even visual images creating sort of a theatrical reality on the stage, which is something Amy and I don’t do, but it’s something I enjoy. I envision that and a full, big sound — jam sessions happening on stage, pretty high energy. Those guys tour with other bands, everybody’s busy, they live in different cities, so trying to pull all of that together will probably be fairly limited in terms of the number of times we can do it.
Then the other envisioning I have is me and Lyris on stage together having worked out special arrangements for these songs that obviously won’t include the full sound of the band but will get to the heart and soul of the songs and present them in a completely different way.
BN: You’ve written some of the Indigo Girls most popular and most beloved songs. Can you talk a little about your songwriting process for your solo album? How was it different than writing for the group that you’ve played with so long and that you’re most associated with?
ES: It was very different experience on some of the songs on the solo record. Typically, I’ll write a song on guitar, a couple on piano [and] some on banjo, and I’ll just write a song and play it all the way all the way through until, eventually, it’s done. Then those parts all go on the record. Amy and I get together and brainstorm — we arrange but we don’t write together ever — she writes hers, and I write mine. So I will play that guitar, piano or ukulele part all the way through the song, and it’s much more of a folk approach.
But with this record, there are some songs I play all the way through like I would typically. But there are many other songs where I just have parts — I wrote the song through on guitar, but in the end arrangements, a lot of those guitar parts are removed so there’s space. In that sense, it’s much more arranged, rather than my guitar part playing through the body of the song. That’s been a challenge for me, to envision playing those songs live and coming up with arrangements that work. In the end, if the songs come across and we can all get the meaning and the experience of the music, then it’s all good. I had to get out of my own head in terms of “this is the way it’s done, and this is the way you play a song.” I just had to open my mind, which has been a really great experience for me.
For instance, there’s a song on the new record called “OK Corral.” It’s about the way American reality has been seeped in guns, ever since the Wild Wild West. I wrote that song on an electric guitar with a delay on the guitar with its own chords. I wrote it and sent it to Lyris, and in the end, she was like, “I don’t think you should have this be the intro. I think the intro should be the keyboard, it should be very sparse.” She even mentioned the artist The Weeknd, some of his songs and they way they’re produced. Ultimately, that’s what we ended up doing with the song. Very, very different process between writing the song and ending up with the arrangement on the record. Big leaps of faith for me.
BN: Are all the songs recorded right now, or are you still working on any of them?
ES: They are done! They’re recorded, they’re mixed and they’re mastered. Right now, we’re working on the artwork and getting all the lyrics together and putting the packaging together. I’m looking to get distribution, then we’ll identify when the best release date is, which will probably be in July because Indigo Girls are touring, and there has to be sort of a space for it to slot into with its own breathing space. Then I’ll be touring [with the solo album] in the fall.
But this show in Akron I’m excited about because I’ll be playing a bunch of the new stuff. Lyris will be there, and Lucy Wainwright will be there — she sang on a couple songs on the record — and we’re looking forward to doing that live before the record comes out.
BN: You’ve played in Akron before at the Gay Games at Lock 3 and also at the Akron Civic Theatre. I also read that your parents are from Ohio. What is it about this area that keeps you coming back to perform?
ES: Ohio’s got so many great little cities in one state. If you think about Cincinnati, Columbus, Akron, Cleveland and Dayton, all the great cities of Ohio… it’s a lot. Also, I’ve got a very strong affinity because my parents are from there, one sister went to the College of Wooster, one went to Oberlin. We spent summers in Ohio, and there’s just such a strong familial connection for me. I think the fact that there’s tons and tons of music lovers within lots of cities in one state just keeps me coming back.
BN: The upcoming show at the Civic Theatre will be one of your first performing your solo material. I imagine since you’re a pro at this now you’d be pretty excited to debut this new material. Are you nervous at all, or are you just ready to get out there and introduce these new songs to the world?
ES: Not nervous nervous, like wobbly knees nervous, but I am excited and have anticipation about it because this is all new for me. I’m not typically a solo artist. Amy’s been doing solo stuff for years now, but for me, I started out solo when I was a kid, and in between all that I haven’t been a solo artist. So it’s kind of like finding my sea legs, and I want people to like it, obviously. Playing new songs is exciting in the way that I feel like a newbie. I feel like this is new and like I’m just starting out.
BN: Playing with the Indigo Girls, you have amassed a huge, very loyal and dedicated following of fans. Is there anything you want to say to these fans in particular about your new album and new material?
ES: I think for some people it won’t be what they expect. It’s got some pretty intense musical moments in there. Other songs will be right up the typical Emily alley of songwriting. I’d hope that they would listen to it two or three times. There’s so much going on musically, and I just want them to take their time with it. Bottom line, I want them to like it, of course. I really, really love this album. If that’s as far as it goes, just me loving it, I will have done what I set out to do, which is make a solo record that feels really good to me, that means something to me.