No Separation: On Music and Transcendence
Amy Ray is a singer-songwriter who is one half of the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls. Her latest solo album, Holler, was released in September 2018.
Emily Saliers is a singer-songwriter who is one half of the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls. She is also the co-author of A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as a Spiritual Practice. Her debut album, Murmuration Nation, was released in 2017.
Krista Tippett, host: Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been making music as the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls for over 25 years.
[music: “Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls]
Three of their 16 albums have gone gold, four have gone platinum, and they’ve been nominated for seven Grammys. They’re known for their social activism onstage and off, but long before they became the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers were singing in church choirs.
Amy was raised in a conservative Christian family. Emily is the daughter of a well-known Methodist pastor and church musician. In 2006, she co-wrote 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.
[music: “Share the Moon” by Indigo Girls]
Emily Saliers: Music is physical. It’s got 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.
[music: “Share the Moon” by Indigo Girls]
Amy Ray: It’s funny, because 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 has merged, and there’s no separation between performer and audience. That is what spirituality is supposed to be.
[music: “Love of Our Lives” by the Indigo Girls]
Ms. Tippett: The Indigo Girls on God and music, in church and in smoky bars. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
I spoke with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers on an outdoor stage at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Just as we were about to start, a torrential rain began, but the hundreds of people gathered stayed put, got soaked, and waited for the clouds to pass.
Ms. Tippett: So after a biblical rain, the faithful are still gathered.
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 going to just dive right in.
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 always ask this question at the beginning of my interviews, whoever I’m interviewing, quantum physicists or a musician, about the spiritual background of their childhood. So I want to ask that question, but also as you reflect on that, I kind of sense for each of you that music was always in there and maybe even justice and the arts in that way.
Ms. Saliers: I’ll start. My dad is a Methodist minister and a theologian, and he taught at Emory and Candler School of Theology.
So, yeah. Yay, Dad. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: I know your dad, too.
Ms. Saliers: He’s in Germany doing something theological over there.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. You were raised in the bosom of church music.
Ms. 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. 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. So we had a lot of theological discussion as 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, on Saturday mornings, having jazz and classical music in the house and listening to symphonic stuff and church music and all that stuff. Our whole upbringing was saturated in music and theological discussion.
Ms. Tippett: And you also spent some time at Saint John’s Abbey. Is that right? When you were a teenager?
Ms. 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. Saliers: It gave me an appreciation for the power of quiet in spiritual practice, which 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 keen understanding of exactly what it does for the world and for spiritual communities. And then it was just exotic. It was Minnesota. It was cold as hell. And we were at an ecumenical community. And I like ecumenical environments because 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 going to be in an organized faith setting of any kind, that’s the best one for me.
Ms. Tippett: Amy, what about you?
Ms. Ray: It was a little bit different from Emily, I think, in that it was a more conservative upbringing. Many of my relatives were Methodist ministers, and my aunt married an Episcopalian minister, priest. So I grew up with religion all around me, and we spent Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, and 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 supposed to learn piano when we were young. And we sang hymns as a family and campfire songs, “Kumbaya,” and all that stuff, for real. “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” I probably know a lot of them still, actually. And 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. And 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, 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 was a bigger draw, and I couldn’t pick one, to be honest with you.
Ms. Tippett: You couldn’t pick between …
Ms. Ray: Between Christianity and Judaism and Buddhism.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, you couldn’t pick a religion. [laughs] I thought you maybe couldn’t pick between music and religion.
Ms. Ray: They’re all great, and I really felt that way. But I was raised in a strongly Christian environment. So I probably relate the most to that culturally. But music was just more of a tug, and I felt like it was what I was compelled to do.
Ms. Tippett: I was raised Southern Baptist, which I’ve mentioned a few times this week, in Oklahoma. And it strikes me 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 — bodies were entry points for danger. But our traditions really know about the power of music, right? And when I think of — there’s so many memories that I have — and people I talk to, all kinds of people. And 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. [laughs]
Ms. Ray: What was the question? [laughs] I’m kidding.
Ms. Tippett: You’re inspiring me to think in real time.
Ms. Ray: I like thinking out loud. Thinking out loud is good.
Ms. 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 to church music, too?
Ms. Saliers: Well, I was going to say, my dad worked on sort of the newer Methodist hymnal, and there’s a hymn in there with Duke Ellington, “Come Sunday.” And we grew up in a very staid — all the hymns were — you could sort of picture white people sitting straight up.
And I have nothing against white people, but for me, always, it was gospel music — 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 feel like, generally speaking, when people get all in their heads, it blocks the spirit, because spirit is not mental. It’s spirit. 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. 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. So those are just some of my musings on that.
Ms. Ray: When I think about the music that I was learning in 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 it was so powerful. And I think that just taught me that music is powerful either way and that you still have to hang onto yourself in that moment and know where your spirit is, because it can really influence you. Because 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 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? Is there a line in music or in life?
Ms. Ray: There is a bit of a line for me, because I’ll write gospel songs that are more like Appalachian mountain gospel songs, 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. I don’t try to edit it too much. I don’t try to make it more complicated than it needs to be. It’s just reserved for singing and not commercial anything. You know what I mean? I can put them on records, but it doesn’t feel the same to me somehow. 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.
[music: “Let It Ring” by the Indigo Girls]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a conversation with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, better known as the Indigo Girls. I spoke with them at the Wild Goose Festival. This is a gathering of a loose movement sometimes called the “emerging church” — reimagining the face and voice of Christianity in an evolving world.
Ms. Saliers: I think that music is a spiritual gift, and then artists or writers use it how they see fit. So for me, 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. But 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. 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, is a sacred practice. So I guess I draw the line there.
I forgot you all were there.
Ms. Tippett: I’ve also read you 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. Saliers: Well, that’s why we spend so much time in smoky bars, I think.
I think with the book that I wrote with my dad, we talk a lot about that, because he cut his teeth on jazz, which is deemed secular, but it really informed his musicality, which — then he got the calling to faith; then he focused on church music and hymnals and things like that. But when we played in Little Five Points Pub in Atlanta, it was a motley crew of people from all walks of life. We used to join each other on stage, and we’d just have this — most of us were dysfunctional in some way or another, but it was very honest.
Ms. Tippett: Aren’t we all dysfunctional in some way or another?
Ms. Saliers: Yeah, for real. But in church sometimes, people pretend that they’re not. Or the message is we’re not, or they’re too afraid. 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. But in those days, when we were playing in bars, I mean — and my dad and I talked about this a lot — 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 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 people’s bolstering each other’s spirits through music. And if that’s not spiritual, I don’t know what is.
Ms. Tippett: When you said a minute ago that Amy helped you think differently about that relationship — can you say some more about that?
Ms. Saliers: Amy’s always just been like — I think I had 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? 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. 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 I still do. But specifically about the power of — OK, I’ll give you an example. 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 …
Ms. Tippett: Amy’s nodding in agreement.
Ms. Saliers: … what’s the best-quality music or whatever, and Amy’s like, “Three chords is closer to God.”
She didn’t say that, but — and now I feel that way more than I do the other way. 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 …
Now you really want to know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Do you think of yourself as religious now?
Ms. 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. And I think I took what I think are good things from the church and the gospel and applied them to my life in a way that has worked for me. I like having that. For me, it’s a cultural construct that works really well, you know? I know there’s so many of them, but I know the one that works for me.
But 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. I love church. Any kind of church.
Ms. Tippett: You do?
Ms. Ray: Yeah. It’s interesting to me: the spatial relationships between things, what people say, what kind of hymns they sing. It’s all interesting. It’s not just intellectual; it’s spiritually interesting. 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 hate me and are radically different from me.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK, that’s really interesting.
Ms. 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 think it’s from being a religion major or something. I’m just really attracted to it 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. Ray: Yeah, that’s about right.
Yeah, I want, like, the queer Easter Bunny as the mascot for that, I think. Queer fertility. It’s awesome.
Ms. Tippett: How about you? Do you think about yourself as religious?
Ms. 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. And I feel like the language is always limiting.
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 like to ask people to break it open and say what it means or doesn’t mean for them.
Ms. 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, bureaucracy, all that bad stuff that is happening in the church today — so many avenues that really block you from getting to the source, which is what I want to get to for my own journey.
I think that 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 because we weren’t raised in really any kind of church that made us feel bad. It was kind of thoughtful. The sermon was related to the readings, and there was a season that was based on the Jewish calendar that was recognized as based on the Jewish calendar, which I always appreciated.
And with my Dad and the people that I grew up with, the theologians — they thoughtfully organized liturgy. 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, 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 ain’t me running things. But that’s when language and imagery gets in the way. I don’t believe in a 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 going to go with that.
Ms. Ray: I was thinking about what you said about language and stuff being such an obstacle, and what Emily said. 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. It was a very different exposure, and I loved that and it actually was good for me to see that.
And I think as queer people we also have this built-in translator sometimes. 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” — 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. 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. When I’m in a graceful moment, I don’t even think about it. I don’t let anything block me, because I have this gift that you’re given, I think, from the time you’re young, sometimes, to just translate it as it comes in and make it for you.
I mean, we don’t all have it. We can’t always do it. 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 be exposed to 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 Dostoevsky 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. But what I was really used to was the other thing, 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 somewhere.
[music: “Become You” by the Indigo Girls]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. You can find this show again in four of the libraries at onbeing.org: “Music & Musicians, “Christianity,” and “Public Theology Reimagined.” We created libraries from our 15-year archive for browsing or deep diving by theme — for teaching and reflection and conversation. Find this and an abundance of more at onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, a conversation about music and God with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — the musical duo the Indigo Girls. I spoke with them outdoors at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina.
Ms. Tippett: The two of you started — 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.
When I started 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. Ray: That’s all people care about. [laughs]
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 when you were teenagers in this big picture of how the world is shifting now, where we are now. Do you think about that?
Ms. Saliers: You start.
Ms. 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. Ray: Yeah, wouldn’t that be great?
Ms. Tippett: You know what I mean?
Ms. Ray: Yeah. I think that’s coming at some point. It’s like Star Trek, you know? It’s the next generation, for sure.
Ms. Tippett: Or Voyager.
Ms. Ray: 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 no doubt about it. But 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 in Georgia. We really didn’t even know what “gay” meant. We knew that it was a joke you made about your coach, honestly. That’s all we knew.
That was it. And then 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 there’s the conversation. It’s on TV; it’s in popular culture; 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 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. Ray: Neighbors. It’s one-on-one. It’s changing lives one-on-one. 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. 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 make friends, and you help each other out, and that’s where the walls come down. I just find it to be something that has to be a very one-on-one thing.
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. Little high schools and little meetings, PFLAG, and all that great stuff. That’s very important, still.
And so 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, which is — and there’s the web, the internet, which is — the interweb, which is awesome, you know? Because then somebody who can’t be exposed to that language gets exposed to it.
Ms. Tippett: There was something you wrote — I think you helped write this. It was 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.”
Ms. Ray: Yeah. Actually, I didn’t write that.
Ms. Tippett: You didn’t write it?
Ms. Ray: My ex-girlfriend wrote that. I mean, ex, ex.
Ms. Tippett: That’s even better. [laughs]
Ms. Ray: Yeah. She’s a writer. She thought it was very clever. I didn’t have time to change it. But I did love David Cassidy.
Ms. Tippett: Now it’s on public radio. [laughs] Forever.
Ms. Ray: I love him, I’ll say it.
Ms. Saliers: I was just going to make a comment about the queer rights and where we are now. Change is hard, and I feel like, since the beginning of human history until the end of time, we’re probably still all going to have to be working on accepting those who are different from us. 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 I was just thinking yesterday — I’m getting married next week. Yay.
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 going to repeal the laws before we get a chance to — so we’re going to hurry up and get married, and then we’re going to have a ceremony. So 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 how straight people do it. It’s fine. But we haven’t had the same privileges of chronology.
So anyway, we’re going to get married, and then we’re going to 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 yesterday she called Delta because 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 going to help her; this agent is immediately judging her; this agent — blah, blah, blah.
And that is what is in me, you know? As much as I’ve been an activist and as much as I’ve been queer 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. Saliers: Yeah. But 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.’
I mean, that’s changed. I’m so excited about being a wife, really. I like that word, “wife,” personally. But my whole body tensed up, and I’m like — it was a bad feeling.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. How did the agent react?
Ms. Saliers: Totally fine. “Let me check that for you. One moment, please.” You know? “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.
[music: “Love of Our Lives” by Indigo Girls]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today, on an outdoor stage with the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers.
Ms. Tippett: You two definitely are in this lineage of music and social justice, social healing, social activism. 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 — I’ve been talking to some people here 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. Saliers: It’s a great question.
Ms. Ray: Great question, Krista. We should ask her how she thinks about it.
Ms. Saliers: How do you think about it?
Ms. Tippett: No. That’s against the rules.
Ms. Saliers: Oh, sorry. It was Amy’s idea.
Ms. Tippett: We have rules here too. It’s like church.
Ms. Ray: Well, you know more than we do about it. [laughs]
Ms. Saliers: 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 it takes a lot of energy to be vigilant. And how do you even know where information is sourced from and all those things? So back in the days — let’s use the ’60s and the anti-war movement, for example. 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 because 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 I think about how music — 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. 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 could never have imagined it would be out there when you started singing together in high school.
Ms. Ray: But it’s out there. It’s not the same, though, as a protest song that’s not owned but part of a movement. So it’s a different property. There’s so much about music that’s become, I guess, secular, rather than sacred, in some ways, because I consider protest music sacred.
Like, when you read about Woody Guthrie — 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 we don’t even write enough protest songs. We’re still singing the same ones and they’re great. But it’s not — I don’t know what’s wrong.
Ms. Tippett: But you write activist music.
Ms. Ray: Yeah, but it’s not — it’s like, you go to an SOA protest, and you’re like, what song should we sing? “Closer to Fine.” But there needs to be a “We Shall Overcome” 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. We need to be writing songs and telling our stories that are going on now. And I know there are people doing that, but they’re not getting heard because there is so much. So how do we elevate those people? And how do these songs get heard? And how do we make them into the songs of the movement? I don’t know.
Ms. Tippett: So you’re all asking those questions.
Ms. Ray: We’re asking. We don’t know the answers.
Ms. Tippett: I know you know this, but, I mean, people’s lives have been changed also by your music. 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. Ray: I think music can change people because it gathers us together, and it opens you up. When we all sing “Closer To Fine” together as a crowd, that right there is a revolutionary moment. The barriers are coming down; we’re singing this song. And I agree with — I think that music is so powerful like that. But I also crave that — writing “This Land is Your Land,” writing a Pete Seeger song, or a Woody Guthrie song. You know what I mean?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. No, I know.
Ms. Ray: Or any of the great gospel songs that have been taken by the movements in the past and having those. I have yet to understand where we’re at, either, because I think where we’re at is as important as the civil rights movement in the ’60s. 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, is the question I have. [laughs] 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. Saliers: 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. But I think of it as a queer anthem as well. But it’s not just for queer people. It’s for everybody, whoever was judged. It’s very, very powerful, always gets a very strong reaction. You can’t fake that, that visceral connection to what’s really going on. That’s when it doesn’t go through your head first. Goes straight to that thing …
Ms. Tippett: Your body.
Ms. Saliers: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
Ms. Ray: And “Hammer and Nail.”
Ms. Saliers: Oh. Bleh.
Ms. Tippett: Sorry, what?
Ms. Ray: One of Emily’s songs “Hammer and Nail.”
Ms. Saliers: There’s so many lines in that song I would change.
Ms. Ray: Yeah, but it’s a movement song.
Ms. Saliers: But the point of it — yeah, it is a movement song.
Ms. Ray: It’s a movement song.
Ms. 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. Saliers: Well, it came out in ’89, but I probably wrote it in ’87, ’86 or ’7.
Ms. Tippett: I’m kind of amazed you could write that so young. When I read this — I was getting ready to interview you, and then I heard this 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 printed out just this verse: “We go to the Bible, we go through the work out / We read up on revival, we stand up for the lookout. / There’s more than one answer to these questions / Pointing me in a crooked line / [And] the less I seek my source for some definitive / The closer I am to fine.”
I feel like that’s what you learn as you get older.
Ms. Saliers: You make it sound like poetry.
Ms. Tippett: It is poetry.
Ms. Ray: That’s awesome. Thank you for that. That’s cool.
[music: “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls]
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. Saliers: Well, most of mine are Amy’s songs, like …
Ms. Ray: Oh!
Ms. Saliers: I’m not kidding. I’ll just say that they are, mostly. There are lines in Amy’s songs, like in “Shame on You,” talking about immigration, and the line, “I think we were on the same boat back in .”
[Editor’s Note: Ms. Saliers misquotes the year in the song lyric as “… back in 1864.” The correct song lyric is “… back in 1694.” This is corrected in the transcript for accuracy.]
I love that line. Same as it ever was.
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 there’s another song I was just thinking of …
Ms. Ray: “Pendulum Swinger.” Yours.
Ms. Saliers: Yeah, I guess. I don’t have the same reverence for my songs as I do for hers.
Ms. Tippett: You don’t?
Ms. Saliers: Nope.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, you don’t have them for yours, that you have for hers?
Ms. Saliers: Yeah. Sometimes I feel emotionally close to the song, but usually they’re about 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, because …
Ms. 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. Saliers: I know, but I don’t hook into those songs the same way. Maybe there’s another reason for it.
Ms. Ray: It’s easier to hook into the other person’s song than to your own. That’s just, like, the way it is.
Ms. Tippett: Really?
Ms. Ray: Well, it just works out that way.
Ms. Saliers: Yeah, I guess so.
Ms. Ray: That’s why we’re still together singing.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] The secret of a healthy, long relationship.
Ms. Ray: Yeah, codependency.
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 think 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. Saliers: I’ll just say a couple thoughts that come to mind. One is that music is physical. It’s got 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. Amy was talking about protest songs, and how 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. I love that there’s a continuum always and forevermore, and so that’s how we can really sponge up the entirety of human existence, is through music, because it’s come from that and will continue to. So it’s almost everything to me — shaped everything.
Ms. Ray: Yeah, me too. I’ll go with everything you said is absolutely true, the physiological thing, all that. It’s funny, because 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. They’re not God, but God’s there. It’s like Patti Smith at Red Rocks, Prince’s Purple Rain tour …
Ms. Saliers: Heart.
Ms. Ray: It’s like these certain moments that are — Rage Against the Machine at the masquerade in Atlanta. 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 has merged, and there’s no separation between performer and audience. That is what spirituality is supposed to be. No separation. So for me, it’s formed everything, because that’s what I’ve always strived for, is that — not to be that performer, but to 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 transcendent, though.
Ms. Tippett: Those are great last words. Thank you.
[music: “Second Time Around” by Indigo Girls]
Ms. Tippett: Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are the beloved folk-rock music duo Indigo Girls. Their most recent release is a live album together with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, and Serri Graslie.
Ms. Tippett: The On Being Project is located on Dakota Land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.