Staring down the challenge of a live album together

When the Indigo Girls began compiling Staring Down the Brilliant Dream, their first live album since 1995’s 1200 Curfews, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers were pretty sure they knew what wouldn’t be included: their signature hit, 1989’s “Closer to Fine.” They were looking for lesser-known gems and newer songs. But then they stumbled on a performance of the song featuring guests Michelle Malone, Jill Hennessy, Julie Wolf and A Fragile Tomorrow’s Sean and Dominic Kelly. It deftly summed up the warm, cooperative feel their live shows have always offered. “We grew up playing in a bar, with friends joining us on stage,” Saliers says. “We’ve been doing that since we started, and I think this live album is an extension of our sensibility.”

After two decades of major-label success, last year the Indigo Girls released their 11th studio album, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, on their own IG Recordings, partnering with Vanguard Records for distribution only. “There’s more freedom—we think of things and then decide to do them. It’s not a big process,” says Ray of their return to independence. “It’s not that a label wouldn’t want us to do a live record, it’s just that it’s hard to make things happen when you’re part of a big machine.”

In the midst of their many projects, including an upcoming holiday album and a stint on this summer’s Lilith Fair 2010 tour, the Girls spoke to us about revisiting their last few years on the road.

Why release another live album now?

AMY RAY: It had been 15 years and we were between records. In order to do a live record, you need quite a lot of time to listen to things, and sort out what you want to use, and mix. We saw a gap of time, and it seemed like a good time to go through all these recordings and see if we had a live record in there.

EMILY SALIERS: Our front-of-house sound man, Brian [Speiser], recorded all our live shows from 2006 to 2009 and came up with some really, really good sounding recordings, even before they were mixed and mastered. So given the fact that the fans liked 1200 Curfews so much, we thought this was a good way to present a little slice of our history. Since the recordings were good, we had a lot to choose from.

How did you select the tracks?

SALIERS: Brian put together a huge list of tracks that had come out really well, and we made a list of things we were looking for, more obscure tracks and a few different things. He went through all of his recordings and presented us with the first round. We vetted our own songs first, which was a way of saving time at the outset. Then we spent hours listening and making notes—and then chose the songs together. There are a lot of songs on this record! We had to put the brakes on eventually.

RAY: We would pick three or four versions of a song and compare those, and whittle it down until we had the shape of something that felt right, that covered the territory, songs that we hadn’t put down live. Then we looked at what songs felt good, sounded good and didn’t have mistakes in them.

Aren’t mistakes part of the charm of live performance?

RAY: Mistakes are charming when it’s live in the moment, but it wouldn’t be charming to hear over and over on a record. (laughs) So we try to balance that. If there’s a small mistake that doesn’t distract from the song, we don’t worry about it.

Did any particular tracks leap out immediately?

SALIERS: “I Believe in Love,” which we didn’t play that often with the band, and we don’t play it with just me and Amy, because it’s really a band song. I play the ukulele on it. When we got a good take of that, it was like, “Wow, I can’t believe we got this one.” And that became a no-brainer. Other songs had a lot of very good versions, like “Don’t Think Twice” with Brandi Carlile. We did look for a lot of band tracks.

RAY: A song we do acoustic a lot, but I felt like the band version was always better, is “Three County Highway.” It’s kind of a slow country song, but the drummer has a good feel on it. There was also a recent show that, after we played it, Brian said, “That whole show could be a live record.” So we knew to mark that to listen to.

Which guitars in particular do you usually take on the road with you?

SALIERS: I play Martins on stage. I have a D-45 that only 50 of them were made, and I love that guitar so much. It’s very different than my J-40 Martin, which is kind of like the workhorse. I primarily play that J-40 on Amy’s songs, and I play the D-45 on mine. The J-40 is a little bit more muscular.

RAY: I play a Martin 0-18 from the ’40s that I’ve had since high school, and a Martin J-40, which is kind of the utility. I play a D-35 on Emily’s songs. My favorite guitar right now is a Gibson J-45 from the ’50s. A Martin has more upper mids, but on the Gibson every spectrum is represented very well, so it’s very versatile.

How have you changed as a live act over the years?

SALIERS: I don’t think we’ve changed so much in terms of spirit. Obviously we try to get better. (laughs) We try to hone our craft and become better players, and we’ve picked up more instruments along the way, which keeps it more interesting for us and the fans. Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have the ukulele or bouzouki or harmonica or banjo, so I think adding those instruments has been positive growth.

Do you feel like Indigo Girls is at its most pure live?

RAY: I used to feel that way. But we do things in the studio we probably wouldn’t do live, just because we have other players with us, and we have the time to develop the vocals in a different way or try things that we can’t necessarily repeat live. It’s a different arena. It’s important to capture the energy, but it’s also important to take advantage of the ways that the studio is different.

When you’re playing live, it’s a mutual exchange with the audience. When you’re in the studio, your involvement is with technology and equipment, and the way a microphone sounds.

What’s the secret to your longevity?

SALIERS: There are a lot of reasons. Our families grew up together, and we’ve known each other since we were little girls. Also we have healthy independent lives, so when we come together, we’re not bored. It’s a beautiful thing.

RAY: One big thing is that we write separately. That gives us our own little creative space. But also, we know that what we do together is the thing that we can’t do alone. Musically, it works. We got lucky.

–Katie Dodd

comment closed

Copyright © 2011 M Music & Musicians Magazine ·