Indigo Girls Emily Saliers and Amy Ray have always worked — and lived — at the intersection of art and activism, supporting myriad great causes and organizations. On May 15, they’ll be in town to play a benefit for Thistle Farms at Thistle Stop Café. Though the show is sold out, it will be streamed live on for anyone in the world to watch. The following week, Indigo Girls return to Music City for a performance with the Nashville Symphony at Schermerhorn Hall. We caught up with Saliers to talk about the shows.
Being both an artist and an activist, talk to me about the importance of supporting causes like Thistle Farms.
It’s so important. It’s at the core of who we are and what we do. And I think it just stems from a very simple philosophy that we are citizens of our communities. And, so, we take pleasure in being responsible and being active. There’s a lot of work to be done in the world, and music is just such a galvanizing force that we’ve been fortunate to have. I think no matter what we did for a living, we’d be activists. But because we’re musicians, it’s just the perfect way to blend a good time and a powerful message to affect change as citizens. It’s really at the heart and soul of who we are and what we want to accomplish.
Engage and entertain all at once.
Yeah. I mean, why not? Music makes people feel good. It’s cathartic. It lifts our spirits. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the world. There’s a lot of dysfunction. And I think it’s just a little less dispiriting when you can combine that kind of activist work with music.
Will you have any special guests at the Thistle Stop Café show?
We will! Alison Brown is playing banjo with us and Hannah Thomas is going to sing. And, then, Angaleena Presley (from Pistol Annies)… she and I have just struck up a new friendship, and she has a new solo record coming out. She and I are going to sing a song together that she wrote.
Fun! Aside from the guests, that’s going to be a duo show in a small space, followed in short order by a performance with the San Diego Women’s Chorus, as well as the Nashville Symphony… with other symphony shows coming after. What goes into prepping for a chorus or symphony show? Amy told me recently that she wanted to puke all day the first time Indigo Girls played with a symphony.
Yeah, I know. It was quite nerve-wracking. We’d never done anything like it. That was a long process of total prep… choosing the songs and hiring arrangers to arrange them and write the scores. And then you send the scores to the symphonies. I think we practiced for that first show more than anything we’ve ever practiced for in our entire career.
As we’ve gone along, of course, we’ve gotten a little more comfortable with the whole process. But it’s a different symphony every night, a different conductor mostly, so you never know what to expect. And then we go in. We meet with the conductor, go in and do a line check. And then we have a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal. We run straight through the program and work any kinks out. But it’s very fast-paced because everyone’s on union time. In two-and-a-half hours, we run the whole show, work the kinks out, take a little break, and showtime’s usually 8 o’clock. It’s a really intensive experience, but it’s wonderful.
Can’t take any requests…
Can’t take any requests, no. Sometimes people request songs that are on the list, which is great. But it’s a whole different animal.
Does continually mixing it up, playing with different configurations like that help keep it all fresh for you guys?
It definitely keeps it fresh for us. No doubt. We’ve been fortunate that, along the way, different opportunities present themselves. We’ve been aware of artists who work with symphonies or orchestras before — even Nanci Griffith way, way back doing the Blue Moon Orchestra. So, the opportunity came up at a time when we needed to do something different. We were looking forward to a change and a new challenge, which is exactly what that was.
Sometimes we go out with a band, sometimes as a duo. Amy does her solo stuff. And then we do the symphonies. Thistle Stop is going to just be us with a couple of instruments. And the Chorus… we’ve never done something with a chorus like that before out in San Diego. So, it does keep it interesting. And, also, you grow from the experience. You learn new things along the way, so it works out really well. We’re just fortunate that we have different opportunities like this that come along.
Is there a set up that you favor?
Right now, I love playing with the band because it’s fun to plug in and get a little loud and have the rhythm section and our friend Lyris Hung (on violin). I’m starting work on my solo record and she’s going to co-produce it. And she’s a great musician. I like the noise of it and the musicianship sharing and stuff like that. But, to be honest, when Amy and I just play as a duo — especially a totally intimate, stripped-down place like Thistle Stop — I love that, as well. Just right now, I guess I’m leaning a little toward being with the band. Honestly, it’s all good. Nothing’s a drag. It’s all good.
You and Amy both have babies now. How is parenthood shifting your career perspective and work ethic?
Well, if anything, we work harder than we ever have, so it’s increased it. I mean, we’ve always had a pretty strong work ethic. But I think now we’re much more mindful of the time that we need to spend at home. We have to tour and we want to tour — both things. We tour to make a living and we enjoy it, but we can’t do long tours. So, right now, we’re just focusing on carving out bits of time. It makes the touring a little more sporadic — like we can’t keep up with where we’re going and who we’re working with and all that. But it works out for more time at home with the family. And, definitely, having kids has changed that focus for me and Amy.
Well, we’re all getting too old to do a whole lot of touring anyway.
Yeah, exactly!
Indigo Girls perform at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 15 at Thistle Stop Café (streaming live on and at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 23 at Schermerhorn Hall with the Nashville Symphony.