Amy was raised in a conservative Christian family. Emily is the daughter of a well-known Methodist pastor and church musician. In 2006, she cowrote a book with her father, A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as a Spiritual Practice. These days, Amy and Emily see music and spiritual life intertwined in a way that can’t be pinned down.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Music is, um, it's physical, it's got, you know, your heartbeat, it's got rhythms, it's got space, it's a physiological reality along with a mystical reality. So it's metaphysical. There's not many things to in life you can point to and go that's metaphysical, but music is.
Ms. Amy Ray: It's funny 'cause you can find God in music when you're gathered together singing a song, but also there are moments that I've had seeing people perform where it's just: that's God. It's like they're not God, but God's there. It's like Patti Smith at Red Rocks, Prince's Purple Rain tour… There's just these moments and it's not the personality of the musicians anymore. Something's disappeared and the music and the audience and everything is merged and there's no separation between performer and audience. That is what spirituality is supposed to be.
Ms. Tippett: So after a biblical rain, the faithful are still gathered. (applause) It's kind of amazing. And here we are at a festival named after a Celtic Christian metaphor for the unpredictable spirit of God. We have 45 minutes and we're gonna just dive right in. (laugh) So this festival brings together — it takes place at the convergence of music and spirituality and justice and the arts and it seems to me that that convergence has been there for each of you for a long time.
And I thought — I always ask this question at the beginning of my interviews whoever I'm interviewing quantum physicists or a musician, you know, about the spiritual background of their childhood. But I think — you know what — So I want to ask that question, but also as you reflect on that, I kind of sense for each of you that — that music was always in there and maybe even justice and the arts in that way.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Well, I'll start. Well, my dad is a Methodist minister and a theologian and taught at Emory and Candler School of Theology. So, yeah. Yay, Dad. (laugh)
Ms. Tippett: I know your dad, too.
Ms. Emily Saliers: He's in Germany doing something theological over there.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. You were raised in the bosom of church music.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Yeah, totally were. Me and my sisters, there were four girls growing up and we went to church and we sang in the church choirs. And, um, but we were also — I think both my parents, both my Dad and my Mom, fostered an open environment of discussion and questioning and stuff. So we would go to church and then we'd come home and ask a lot of questions usually to Dad. And so we had a lot of theological discussion as very, very, very young girls.
And then we had music always in the house. We sang in the church choirs, but also Mom and Dad had a big LP collection. So we grew up like on Saturday mornings having jazz and classical music in the house and listening to symphonic stuff and church music and all that stuff. So it really was our whole upbringing was saturated in music and theological discussion.
Ms. Tippett: And you also spent some time at St. John's Abbey. Is that right? When you were a teenager?
Ms. Emily Saliers: Dad had a sabbatical. I was 14 and we spent a year there in Collegeville, Minnesota.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And did you take in some of that chant, some of that singing of the psalms?
Ms. Emily Saliers: It gave me an appreciation for the power of quiet and spiritual practice, which I, you know, I think a lot of young folks — or maybe I'll just speak for myself — didn't really understand. Well, what's the big idea about being a monk and going and being quiet? What does that do for the world? And it gave me a very, very keen understanding of exactly what it does for the world and for spiritual communities. And then it was just exotic.
You know, it was Minnesota, it was cold as hell (laugh) and we were at an Ecumenical community and I've always been — I like Ecumenical environments, you know, 'cause we never had Christianity shoved down our throats. In fact, my Dad had so many Jewish colleagues and we had just a real Judeo-Christian upbringing as much as a purely Christian upbringing. So any time I'm in an ecumenical setting, I feel most at home if I'm gonna be in an organized faith setting of any kind. That's the best one for me.
Ms. Tippett: Okay. So, Amy, what about you?
Ms. Amy Ray: Well, it was a little bit different from Emily, I think, in that it was a more conservative upbringing. My — many of my relatives were Methodist ministers and my aunt married an Episcopalian minister, priest. And, um, so I grew up with religion all around me and we spent Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights in Friday night youth group. So I spent a lot of time at church and went to church camp for about five years when I was becoming a teenager.
And there was music all around. We were — we were supposed to learn piano when we were young and we sang hymns as a family and, you know, campfire songs, "Kumbaya,” and all that stuff, for real. You know, "They'll Know We're Christians by Our Love.” I probably know a lot of them still actually.
And, um, I was really into church actually. I had a great youth minister and I found it to be a place where I could challenge. I mean, my church was very conservative, but my youth group wasn't. So it was a place of a lot of challenging questions all the time and I learned a lot when we went on retreats and you get in trouble and you just feel, you're always kind of pushing your boundaries, you know, and it's a safe place to do it, I guess.
But I went on to be a religion major in college and I thought for one moment that I might actually go to seminary and explore that path. But music — music was a bigger draw and I couldn't pick one, to be honest with you.
Ms. Tippett: You couldn't pick between…
Ms. Amy Ray: Between Christianity and Judaism and Buddhism…
Ms. Tippett: Oh, you couldn't pick a religion. (laugh) I thought you maybe couldn't pick between music and religion.
Ms. Amy Ray: They're all great, you know, and I really felt that way, you know, so I, um, but I was raised, you know, in a strongly Christian environment. So I probably relate the most to that culturally, you know. But music was just more of a tug and I felt like it was just what I was compelled to do.
Ms. Tippett: You know, I was raised Southern Baptist, which I've mentioned a few times this week, in Oklahoma. And it strikes me that, uh, that a lot of our churches didn't really know what to do with our bodies in general and a lot of the language was, you know, bodies were entry points for danger. But our traditions really know about the power of music, right?
And when I think of — you know, there's so many memories that I have and people I talk to, all kinds of people. And, you know, I remember reading in the book that you wrote with your father, music that goes all the way through your body. It's in your cells. It's like you said. You still know those songs today. I'm just throwing that out there. (laugh)
Ms. Amy Ray: What was the question? (laugh) I'm kidding.
Ms. Tippett: Inspiring me to think out…
Ms. Amy Ray: I like thinking out loud.
Ms. Tippett: Thinking in real time, yeah.
Ms. Amy Ray: Thinking out loud is good.
Ms. Emily Saliers: It's interesting about that fear of the body, yeah. I mean, I think it just goes back to control, especially controlling women. That's where I think all that fear of the body comes from and the truth is that men have been controlling women for a long time, especially when they get organized.
Ms. Tippett: Do you feel that there was a controlling aspect of church music too?
Ms. Emily Saliers: Well, I was gonna say like my dad worked on sort of the newer Methodist hymnal and there's a hymn in there with Duke Ellington, "Come Sunday.” You know, we grew up in a very staid, all the hymns were — you could sort of picture white people sitting straight up. I have nothing against white people, but for me always, it was gospel music that like — especially African American gospel music, that really was the direct conduit to me in the spirit that I felt moved my life and my actions. And it involved movement of the body. It was sensual because, I don't know, I sort of feel like generally speaking when people get all in their heads, it blocks the spirit, 'cause spirit is not mental. It's spirit.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Ms. Emily Saliers: And the body takes you out of your head and connects you. So once I heard African-American gospel music and was blown away and the first time I heard it, I was scared. Because a woman had a spiritual ecstatic experience, although she was crying and jumping up and down and I was terrified. But that was the body and real life pain experience connected to spirituality and music brought her to that place. And, um, I'll never forget that day and then I'll never forget my own journey of appreciating getting out of the head and getting into the body, and, um, so those are just some of my musings on that.
Ms. Amy Ray: And, you know, when I think about the music that I was learning in like youth group or spiritual songs, it was interesting because I actually went through a couple of years of being really conservative and going to see Christian rock bands that were not radical left Christian rock bands. They were talking about pro life and then I would hear a song that was a pro life song and I would be like, oh, I'm pro life, you know, 'cause I was a folk singer and, you know, and it seemed so right and hippie like to be all about love like that.
It was so powerful and I think that just taught me that music is powerful either way, you know, and that you still have to hang onto yourself in that moment, you know, and know where your spirit is because it can really influence you, you know, because it takes you — it does take you out of your context to a certain degree. But I think I needed to go through it and I needed to find my own self, you know, within — within all the different things being thrown at me.
Ms. Tippett: How do you think about the line now for you between sacred and secular music? You know, is there a line, you know, in music or in life?
Ms. Amy Ray: There is a bit of a line for me 'cause I — I'll write songs that are — I'll write gospel songs, you know, that are more like Appalachian mountain gospel songs and it's — and that's a sacred song to me and spiritual in a different way than maybe an unrequited love song might be or a story song about my family or something. It's coming through me and I don't try to edit it too much. I don't try to make it more complicated than it needs to be and it's just reserved for singing, you know, and not commercial anything. You know what I mean? I mean, I can put them on records, but it doesn't feel the same to me somehow. I mean, not to say that all the music's not spiritual, but there is definitely for me a place that I go into if I write a little gospel song.
Ms. Saliers: I think that music is a spiritual gift and then you — artists or writers use it how they see fit. So for me, like, I used to draw more of a line between what's sacred and what's secular. Amy actually helped me with this coming an evolution of recognizing how sacred, what is deemed secular is, and, um, but, you know, I love a lot of rap music and it's not just rap music. It could be hair bands from the 70s or 80s or whatever.
Um, I have a deep objection to misogyny in lyrics and in musical posturing. So I can love a genre, but if I hear a song that has that content, I can't separate it from the music. And I don't think that any kind of music that is used to objectify or hurt any person or group of people, type of person, or, um, is a sacred practice. So I guess I draw the line there. (applause) I forgot you all were there. (laugh)
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. I — I've also read you saying — talking about finding more of what you wanted in church sometimes in a smoky bar than you found in churches, which is a little bit different way to talk about sacred-secular.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Well, that's why we spend so much time in smoky bars, I think. (laugh) I mean, I think like with the book that I wrote with my Dad, we talk a lot about that because like he cut his teeth on jazz, which is deemed secular, you know, but it really informed his musicality, which then he got the calling to faith. Then he focused on, you know, church music and hymnals and things like that.
But, you know, when we played in like Little Five Points Pub in Atlanta, it was a motley crew of people from all walks of life and we used to join each other onstage and we'd just have this sort of — you know, most of us were dysfunctional in some way or another, but it was very honest and we…
Ms. Tippett: Aren't we all dysfunctional in some way or another?
Ms. Emily Saliers: Yeah, for real. But in church sometimes, people pretend that they're not or the message is like we're not or they're too afraid. Like it's real hard to get real sometimes in church, the real pain, the real stuff, you know. And a lot of times it's focused on the life to come rather than the life that's right here and what we can do. So — but in those days when we were playing in bars, I mean, my dad and I talked about this a lot, was like that is a spiritual experience. And I know the word spiritual gets used a lot and maybe we don't even know exactly what it means anymore, or I don't. But, um, it was a feeling that people who were very different from each other were all welcome together, very little judgment going on, as I recall, just a hootenanny of peoples' bolstering each other's spirits through music. And that's, you know, if that's not spiritual, I don't know what is, so.
Ms. Tippett: When you said a minute ago that Amy helped you see — helped you think differently about that relationship — can you say some more about that?
Ms. Emily Saliers: Well, Amy's always just been like, you know, I think I had just ideas in my head about what was what, this is this and this isn't this. Amy opened my — she was more alternative than I was, you know. Like she liked music that was more alternative, she liked music that was more raw. I think she had an understanding of real pain than I did. You know, she was just more evolved about all that stuff and just kind of was who she was. And I learned a lot from her about that. I honestly did and, um, I still do.
And but specifically about the power of mus — OK, I'll give you an example, like, because we were classically trained and we listened to a lot of classical music and jazz and stuff like that, I had an early snobbery about, um... (laugh)
Ms. Tippett: Amy's nodding in agreement.
Ms. Emily Saliers: What's the best quality music or whatever, and Amy's like ‘three chords is closer to God.’ (laugh) She didn't say that, but — and now I feel that way more than I do the other way, you know. So it was Amy who really helped me with that and I appreciate that. I didn't have an appreciation for simpler things that were profound as much as I do now.
Ms. Tippett: I don't usually ask people this question head on, but I feel like you guys can handle it, which is — (laugh) now you really want to know what I'm gonna say, don't you? Do you think of yourself as religious now?
Ms. Amy Ray: I mean, I'm very spiritual. I guess in some ways I'm religious too. It's so much the fabric of my life. It's so much the way I think, you know, and I think I took what I think are good things from the church about — and the gospel, you know, and applied them to my life in a way that has worked for me. And I like having that. For me, it's a cultural construct that works really well, you know?
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.
Ms. Amy Ray: I know there's so many of them, you know, but, like, I know the one that works for me. And, um, so, yeah, but I'm not like — you know, I don't go to church a lot. I go sometimes. I really actually wish I went more, to be honest with you, because I really enjoy it. But I get so carried away. You know, I love church, any kind, any kind of church.
Ms. Tippett: You do?
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah. I just love — it's interesting to me the spatial relationships between things, what people say, what kind of hymns they sing. You know, it's all interesting. Like I, it's not just intellectual. I mean, it's spiritually interesting, you know. I find it to be all valuable in this really weird way and I actually feel less judgmental when I'm in there even if people are, hate me and are radically different from me.
Ms. Tippett: OK, that's really interesting.
Ms. Amy Ray: I have this feeling of openness that lets the hate just go off and I just feel love in the building. It's weird, because I really like nature more, but I'm just like I think it's from being a religion major or something. I'm just really attracted to it, you know, in this weird way. So I do consider myself religious. I do.
Ms. Tippett: I saw someplace, I think it's a video you did, you called yourself a queer for Jesus. That's what I am. I'm a queer for Jesus.
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah, that's about right.
(applause from crowd)
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah, I want like the queer Easter Bunny as like the mascot, you know, queer fertility. It's awesome. (laugh)
Ms. Tippett: How about you? Do you think about yourself as religious?
Ms. Emily Saliers: When I think about the word religious, it has a negative connotation to me because I think about it as organized and then I don't feel part of that. For me, whatever — and I feel like the language is always limiting like.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and I think that's kind of what I want to get at because I think the language is limiting for everyone. So I'd like to ask people to break it open and say what it means or doesn't mean for them.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Well, for me, I'll go beyond the word of religion, because I do think of that in terms of organized. I think of that in terms of abusive power like a bureaucracy, all that bad stuff, you know, that is happening in the church today, um, you know, so many avenues that really like block you from getting to the source, which is what I want to get to for my own journey.
I think that, um, I have such a deep connection to the music that I grew up with in church, the hymns, the sound of the organ, and also, like, because we weren't raised in really, like, um, any kind of church that made us feel bad. It was kind of thoughtful, like, the sermon was related to the readings and it was all — and there was a season that was based on the Jewish calendar that was recognized as based on the Jewish calendar, um, which I always appreciated.
And so I like — and with my dad and the people that I grew up with, the theologians, they thoughtfully organized liturgy. Like they put thought into constructing it so that people might get the most out of it. So I appreciate that like writing a good paper or something, I guess. If you construct it with care, it's bound to be more effective to the reader or the receiver. So I grew up with that.
I like that part of thought and organization and structure in religion, but for me, you know, I have to say that no matter what it's called and I'll call it God, but to me, it's a great benevolent spirit that's much wiser than any of us, my belief, that is involved in the formation of things, the change of things, the evolution of things.
Is my whole — my life is in that spirit's hands. That's what I believe. So it's not — it ain't me running things, but that's when language and imagery gets in the way. I don't believe in a puppet god or puppet master god or any of that stuff. So I can't even describe it. It's loving, it's powerful, it's wise, it's kind. It's not a mother or a father. It's just this thing that I trust, because this thing has shown me time and time again its wisdom. I have my feeble human perception of what wisdom is, but I'm gonna go with that.
Ms. Amy Ray: And I was thinking about what you said about language and stuff being such an obstacle. It's so funny because I feel like in some ways I wasn't exposed to religion in that way. I was exposed — like my great-uncle was a Methodist minister and part of his sermon was to do magic tricks. You know, it's a very different exposure and I loved that, you know, and it actually was good for me to see that.
But, um, I think, I think as queer people, we also have this like built-in translator sometimes. And I can sit and listen to most sermons, not all of them, but a lot of them, and inside I'm changing the language in my head as I'm going. I don't even notice it. And I'm getting something out of it and I'm not sitting there going, ‘It's a patriarchy, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it,’ you know, because I'm just so used to, from such a small age, having to do that to feel OK about myself, to be honest with you.
And the same goes for music. You know, we grew up with rock and roll being a white guy's thing and sex, drugs and rock and roll and it was really romantic and we had to change all the lyrics in our heads and the imagery and believe that it was OK to be a woman and play music. You know, I never — like, when I — when I'm in a graceful moment, I don't even think about it.
I don't let anything block me, because I — I have this like gift that, you know, you're given, I think, from the time you're young sometimes to like just translate it as it comes in and make it for you, you know. I mean, we don't all have it. We can't always do it, you know. I mean, I think we all have it, but we can't always do it is what I mean to say. And it's not necessarily a great thing.
Maybe it would be better to like be exposed to like this incredible intellectual spiritual sermon that felt so accepting of who I was as a woman and a gay woman at a very early age because I know that when I would go to a different church or have a visiting preacher that would say something, like quote, like, Dostoyevsky or something, I'd be like, oh, my God, this is so amazing, because it would be something different and really I was just totally turned on by that, you know, but what I was really used to was the other thing, you know, which is like take what you can get from it and that's what you get. And I think it's got its own blessing in there, you know, somewhere.
Ms. Tippett: The two of you got to know each other. You started playing music together when you were still in high school. And also, as I read it, still before either of you had come out as lesbian to yourselves, much less to anyone else, and then I think you were two of the first real celebrities to be very open about your sexual orientation. And when I, you know, when I start to prepare to interview you, there are 100,000 articles online about you telling the story of how you came out to your parents, right?
Ms. Amy Ray: That's all people care about. (laugh)
Ms. Tippett: I don't want to ask you that story. I want to ask you how you start to see that trajectory of your lives and how important that was, you know, when you were teenagers in this big picture of how the world is shifting now. You know, where we are now in 2013. Do you think about that?
Ms. Emily Saliers: You start. (laugh)
Ms. Amy Ray: Oh, no. So you mean in the context of queer rights…
Ms. Tippett: Well, I guess, one thing I mean is, I don't know, maybe not five years from now, but 20 years from now, that might not even be a story that would be a big deal.
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah, wouldn't that be great?
Ms. Tippett: You know what I mean?
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah. I mean, I think that's coming at some point. It's like Star Trek. You know, it's like it's the next generation, for sure, (laugh) you know, I mean, there's still so many — I mean, it's hard to envision it honestly, because there's still so many areas and places where young people coming out, it's so hard still. There are so many people against you. There are some areas — I mean, it's better than it was. There's not doubt about it.
But, um, I try not to look too far in the future, because I feel like it's better to look at what's happening right now and there's still a lot of work to be done honestly. But I hope there's a time. I know when we were in high school, it was the suburban South, you know, in Georgia. We really didn't even know what gay meant. Like we knew that it was a joke you made about your coach honestly. That's all we knew. (laugh) That was it.
And then we, you know, I fell in love my senior year with a girl and I didn't even know what to call it. I was open about it because I was like, this is great. So I think we've come a long way and that there's the conversation. It's on TV, it's in popular culture, it's — we're talking about it in our churches one way or the other, whether it's bad or good, we're talking about it, you know, and that's the first step. And just hopefully we'll just take it a day at a time and just try to — it's all about neighbors, you know. It's about neighbors.
Ms. Tippett: About what?
Ms. Amy Ray: Neighbors. It's one-on-one. It's changing lives one-on-one. You know, I live in a rural town in North Georgia. It's pretty conservative. It's very conservative. And the only way things change…
Ms. Tippett: You live there still now?
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah. I've lived there for 20 years. And the only way things change is when you get to know the person sitting next to you at the diner or at the meeting or wherever you are. And you may be really different from each other and you just — you make friends and you help each other out and that's where the walls come down. I just find it to be like something that has to be a very one-on-one thing.
I mean, I think, you know, obviously we're in the movement and we want to change things like that. But it's really changing in tiny little patches across the country and we still need to be focusing on that, I think. You know, little high schools and little meetings, PFLAG, and all that great stuff. That's very important still. And so, um, I think I see my life when I was in high school and not even knowing the language around it and now there's all this language and we can talk about gender even, you know, which is…
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Ms. Amy Ray: And there's the web, you know, the internet, which is — the interweb, which is awesome, you know, 'cause then somebody who can't be exposed to that language gets exposed to it, you know?
Ms. Tippett: There was something you wrote — I think you helped write this. It was, I believe, the cover to one of your albums that maybe you did on your own: "In the mid-1970s, Amy Ray was a Georgia tween plucking out Partridge Family songs on her guitar and dreaming of becoming David Cassidy, the ardent teen idol who got all the girls." (laugh)
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah. Actually, I didn't write that.
Ms. Tippett: You didn't write it?
Ms. Amy Ray: My ex-girlfriend wrote that. (laugh)
Ms. Tippett: That's even better. (laugh)
Ms. Amy Ray: I mean, ex, ex. Yes. She's a writer. She thought it was very clever. I didn't have time to change it, you know. But I did love David Cassidy.
Ms. Tippett: Now it's on public radio, (laugh) forever.
Ms. Amy Ray: I love him, I'll say it.
Ms. Emily Saliers: I was just gonna make a comment about the, um, just the queer rights and where we are now. And, uh, change is hard and I feel like, since the beginning of human history until the end of time, we're probably still all gonna have to be working on accepting those who are different from us, you know. It's like it starts out as an evolutionary protection device. You have to be wary of that which is different just to make sure you're safe in your environment. But we screwed it up, you know, and, um, I was just thinking yesterday, my — I'm getting married next week. Yay.
(cheering from crowd)
Ms. Emily Saliers: But — thanks. We're getting married. My partner's Canadian. We're getting married by a Justice of the Peace because we're afraid they're gonna repeal the laws before we get a chance to like — so we're gonna hurry up and get married and then we're gonna have a ceremony. So like queer people they have to — you can't do it the way you dream about it really, you know. We had the kid first and then it doesn't matter, I mean, how straight people do it. It's fine, but we haven't had the same privileges of, you know, chronology.
So anyway, um, so she's gonna — we're gonna get married and then we're gonna file that paperwork the next day and then she'll get her green card if everything goes as we hope, and there you go. But she was so — yesterday she called Delta, 'cause we were booking some flights and she referred to me as her wife to the agent. My whole body got tense. Here's what I thought: this agent hates her, this agent is not gonna help her, this agent is immediately judging her, this agent, blah, blah, blah. And I was just — that is what is in me, you know, as much as I've been an activist and as much as I've been queer, you know, my whole adult life. I was just like, wow, the change has to come from within. It really does and it takes a long time.
Ms. Tippett: Even from within you.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Yeah. But I've been — I've allowed myself to be damaged by other people’s judgments of me and it's hard not to when you talk about the church, too. Holy cow, you're going to hell and all that. God bless the Pope who at least came out and said, "I can't judge gay people." (applause)
I mean, that's changed. I'm so excited about being a wife really. I like that word wife personally. But, um, my whole body tensed up and I'm like, you know, it was a bad feeling.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. How did the agent react?
Ms. Emily Saliers: Totally fine. “Let me check that for you.” “One moment, please,” you know? (laugh) “Yes, I can seat you two together.” And then little by little, you realize that not everybody hates you. Well, I mean, I'm exaggerating. I know that, but you know what I mean.
Ms. Tippett: So you two definitely are in this lineage of music and social justice, social healing, social activism. I mean, we've been talking about this piece, about this sexuality piece where there's a lot of change that's unfolding right now in real time.
But I want to ask you about how you think about social change in our time, with, you know, I've been talking to some people here about — who've been involved in the civil rights movement and social change doesn't look like that now. It's not clear that you can have the leaders and the critical mass the way it worked 50 years ago. But on the other hand, we have technology. I'm just kind of curious about how you see that, this time we live in and how change happens and how music can be part of that. Huge question.
Ms. Emily Saliers: It's a great — great question.
Ms. Amy Ray: Great question, Krista.
Ms. Emily Saliers: How do you think about it? (laugh)
Ms. Tippett: No, there's — that's against the rules.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Oh, sorry. It was Amy's idea.
Ms. Tippett: We have rules here too. It's like church.
Ms. Amy Ray: Well, you know more than we do about it. (laugh)
Ms. Emily Saliers: I mean, I think it's an excellent, excellent thing to think about and talk about. I can't really wrap my mind around technology. I do know that I trust the media far less than I used to. There's so much information out there and I think it takes a lot of energy to be vigilant. And how do you even know where information is sourced from, um, and all those things?
So you know, back in the days like let's use the 60s and the antiwar movement, for example. I mean, it was easier in a way to consolidate a spirit and a movement. We were less distracted. We had less options, less avenues, less choice.
The world seemed a simpler place, although humans weren't any simpler. But the world seemed a simpler place 'cause we weren't bombarded. But it brings to light. I mean, I think the tools are as powerful, but maybe not more powerful than they ever were.
Ms. Tippett: And you think about, you know, and I think about music, how music — you know, Vincent Harding who was here who's a civil rights leader, talks about how civil rights activists, there was this aspect of singing the way to freedom as much as it was about politics and marching. You know, everything started and ended with singing and singing was there all the way through. You figure like Pete Seeger in the 60s.
So now you don't have that, but you do have technology that's so accessible, right? Your music is out there in ways that you can never have imagined it would be out there when you started singing together in high school.
Ms. Amy Ray: But it's out there. It's not the same, though, as a protest song that is not owned, but part of a movement, and so it's a different property. I don't know how to — it's like there's so much about music that's become, I guess, secular rather than sacred in some ways, because I consider protest music sacred. You know, like when you read about Woody Guthrie, and I was talking to a friend out there about this traveling around for one union-thing-event to another and migrant workers and all the things that were happening and the music just being this thing that fueled all these stops. I think that still goes on to a certain degree sometimes, but I think it's — we don't even write enough protest songs. We're still singing the same ones, you know, and they're great. But like we don't — it's not — I don't know what's wrong.
Ms. Tippett: But you write — you write activist music.
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah, but it's not like — it's like you go to an SOA protest and you're like what song should we sing. You know, "Closer to Fine.” but it's like there needs to be a "We Shall Overcome,” you know, of our — I mean, I've been talking to — it's funny. This whole last year, I've had a lot of these conversations with activist friends of mine from different groups that are working in the undocumented workers' movement and racism movements. We all talk about that too, you know, which is like we need to be writing songs and telling our stories now that are going on now. You know, and I know there are people doing that, but they're not getting heard because there is so much. And so it's like how do we — how do we elevate those people and how do these songs get heard and how do we make them into the songs that are the songs of the movement? And I don't know.
Ms. Tippett: So you're all asking those questions…
Ms. Amy Ray: We're asking. We don't know the answers, so…
Ms. Tippett: I know you know this, but, I mean, peoples' lives have been changed also by your music. You know, somebody was just telling me, somebody here who's from England, about hearing you the first time in Royal Albert Hall 20 years ago.
Ms. Amy Ray: I think music can change people because it gathers us together and it opens you up and, you know, like when we all sing "Closer to Fine" together as a crowd, we're having — that's a — that right there is a revolutionary moment. The barriers are coming down, we're singing this song, and I agree with, like, I think that music is so powerful like that. But I also crave that, you know, writing "This Land is Your Land,” you know, like writing a Pete Seeger song or a Woody Guthrie song. You know what I mean. I mean, I'm not saying that…
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. No, I know.
Ms. Amy Ray: Or, or, you know, any of the great gospel songs that have been taken by the movements in the past, you know, and having those. And I have yet to understand where we're at either, you know, because I think where we're at is as important as the civil rights movement in the 60s. You know, there is a cross-pollination of immigration reform movements and queer movements and poverty movements and hunger movements. They're all coming together and they're helping each other out. It's remarkable and I think that there's something remarkable going on. But how do we sing about it, you know, is the question I have. (laugh) So you all write some lyrics. Let's get some songs going.
Ms. Tippett: It's a great question to put into the world.
Ms. Emily Saliers: I mean, I agree with everything that Amy said. You wrote a song, "Let it Ring." That to me is as anthemic and powerful a protest song and a movement song as anything that's out there. Let justice ring is the gist of the song. So I sort of think of it as a queer anthem as well, but it's not just for queer people. It's for everybody, whoever was judged. So it's very, very powerful. Always gets a very strong reaction. You can't fake that, you know, that visceral connection to what's really going on. That's one that doesn't go through your head first, you know.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Goes straight to that thing…
Ms. Tippett: Your body.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
Ms. Amy Ray: And "Hammer and Nail."
Ms. Emily Saliers: Bleh (makes noise)
Ms. Tippett: Sorry, what?
Ms. Amy Ray: Oh, come on that’s a total — one of Emily's songs "Hammer and Nail." That's…
Ms. Emily Saliers: There's so many lines in that song I would change. (laugh)
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah, but it's — it's a movement song.
Ms. Emily Saliers: But the point of it — yeah, it is a movement song.
Ms. Amy Ray: It's a movement song.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Yeah. I shouldn't have written it when I was that young.
Ms. Tippett: When did you write "Closer to Fine?” How old is that?
Ms. Emily Saliers: Well, it came out in 1989, but I probably wrote it in 1987, 86 or 7.
Ms. Tippett: I'm kind of amazed you could write that so young. You know, when I read this, you know, I was getting ready to interview you and then I heard the song. I couldn't get it out of my head. And then I heard it was on the radio and I heard it again and now I'm singing it constantly. I mean, I printed out just this verse: "We go to the Bible, we go through the workout, we read up on the revival, we stand up for the lookout. There's more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line, the less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to find." I feel like that's...
(cheering from crowd)
Ms. Emily Saliers: You make it sound like poetry.
Ms. Tippett: That's what you learn as you get older. It is poetry.
Ms. Amy Ray: That's awesome. Thank you for that. That's cool.
Ms. Tippett: I just want to ask you if there is a song now or songs that really reflect how you're thinking now about what it means to be in the world?
Ms. Emily Saliers: Well, most of mine are Amy's songs like — I'm not kidding. I mean, there — there's — because — well, I'll just say that they are mostly and there are lines in Amy's songs like in "Shame on You.” I just told her this the other day, but, you know, talking about immigration and the line, “I think we were on the same boat back in 1864.” I love that line. Like, "same as it ever was," you know.
And then Amy's got a song called "Second Time Around.” It's just very much like “Don't compromise, if it hurts inside and have some pride and, if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all.” Just things like that that I want to live by. And um, there's another song I was thinking of, but I don't have the same reverence for my songs as I do for hers.
Ms. Tippett: You don't?
Ms. Emily Saliers: Nope.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, you don't have them for yours, but you have for hers?
Ms. Emily Saliers: Yeah. Sometimes like I feel emotionally close to the song, but usually they're about like personal relationships and I'll think, oh, that was a good image. I got that one. But it's not, ‘this really describes what's going on in the world’ and that sort of thing 'cause, um…
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah, but you're forgetting some of your songs possibly like "Let It Be Me,” like "Pendulum Swinger.” We talked about "Hammer and Nail.”
Ms. Emily Saliers: I know, but I don't — I just don't — I don't hook into those songs the same way. Maybe there's another reason for it.
Ms. Amy Ray: It's easier to hook into the other person's song than to your own. That's just like…
Ms. Tippett: Really?
Ms. Amy Ray: Well, it just works out that way.
Ms. Emily Saliers: Yeah, I guess so.
Ms. Amy Ray: That's why we're still together singing. (laugh)
Ms. Tippett: The secret of a healthy, long relationship.
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah, codependency. (laugh) There's nothing like it.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, there's so much we could talk about. We have to finish and we have to finish before the heavens pour again. Here's a really lofty question, but again, I feel like you're up to it. This is a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in your book with your dad. He talked about religious music. I'd never read all of that Heschel talking about religious music: "Religious music is an attempt to convey that which is within our reach, but beyond our grasp."
I just want to ask you how each of you thinks about how music and music over time has formed your sense of what it means to be human and maybe even who God is, the image of God.
Ms. Emily Saliers: I mean, I'll just say a couple thoughts that come to mind. One is that music is, um, it's physical, it's got, you know, your heartbeat, it's got rhythms, it's got space, it's a physiological reality along with a mystical reality. So it's metaphysical. There's not many things in life you can point to and go that's metaphysical, but music is and it's just like Amy was talking about protest songs and how, you know, there have been protest songs that have bolstered the spirits, galvanized people in the midst of a very painful, but positive movement, social change movement. And so, it's such a powerful, powerful tool. So for me, it's been almost everything in the way I've been shaped.
But people write music and what you get out of music comes from the people and it comes from everything that's happened before it and I love that too. Like, um, I love that there's a continuum always and forever more, and so that's how we can really sponge up the entirety of human existence is through music, 'cause it's come from that and will continue to, so, you know, it's almost everything to me, shaped everything.
Ms. Amy Ray: Yeah, me too. I'll go with everything you said is absolutely true, the physiological thing, all that. It's funny 'cause you can find God in music when you're gathered together singing a song, but also there are moments that I've had seeing people perform where it's just that's God. It's like they're not God, but God's there. It's like Patti Smith at Red Rocks, Prince's Purple Rain tour…
Ms. Emily Saliers: Heart.
Ms. Amy Ray: You know, it's like these certain moments that are Rage Against the Machine at the masquerade in Atlanta, you know, like there's just these moments and it's not the personality of the musicians anymore. Something's disappeared and the music and the audience and everything is merged and there's no separation between performer and audience. That is what spirituality is supposed to be. No separation.
And so, like, for me, it's formed everything, because that's what I've always strived for is that like not to be that performer, but to like have those experiences at shows, you know? Go to a show and have that experience. It's sweaty and it's not beautiful. It's — it's transcendent, though.
Ms. Tippett: OK. Those are great last words. Thank you.
(cheering and applause)
Listen to my live interview with them at the Wild Goose Festival on our website, onbeing.org.
On Being is produced on-air and on-line by Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, and Stefni Bell.
Trent Gilliss is our senior editor.
Special thanks this week to Russ Jennings, Gareth Higgins, Rick Meredith, Brian Ammons and all of the great people at the Wild Goose festival.