Emily Saliers is psyched about PrideFest

Gregg Shapiro, Contributing writer

Since bursting onto the music scene more than 20 years ago, the Indigo Girls have inspired many imitators. But few of them have achieved the songwriting success or harmonic perfection of lesbian duo Emily Saliers and Amy Ray. Individually and collectively, the two lifelong friends have created some of American folk rock’s most unforgettable tunes. Their signature classics, including “Closer to Fine,” “Galileo,” “Power of Two” and “Get Out the Map,” still have devoted followers singing along, swaying in their seats and dancing in the grass.

Saliers and Ray have continued to evolve as songwriters and performers, as demonstrated on the double-disc set “Poseidon and the Bitter Bug” and 2011’s dazzling “Beauty Queen Sister.” I spoke recently with Saliers about the newer album and about the Indigo Girls’ return to Milwaukee PrideFest on June 8. Their previous appearance a few years ago was cut short due to rain, so let’s hope Mother Nature gives them something closer to fine this time around.

The “Beauty Queen Sister” CD artwork, by Joseph Peery, has a tattoo style. Tattoos also appear in the title cut and in “War Rugs.” Do you have any tattoos to speak of?

I do have two small tattoos – one on my left inner wrist and one on my right inner wrist.

Do they say something special?

One is an image of infinity and the other is an initial. They’re small. Amy is quite tatted. You’re probably less likely to find me writing about tattoos than Amy. I like the thought that goes into wanting to put a piece of art or a remembrance permanently (on your skin) that is with you wherever you go. 

You have a reputation for writing beautiful and distinctive love songs and “We Get to Feel It All” is no exception. Are they harder to write?

They’re so easy! If all I had to do was write pretty love songs, it wouldn’t take that much effort for me. I definitely am drawn to a pretty melody first, and then an emotional lyric about love and personal relationships. That’s my oeuvre, my natural thing to go to.

“Able to Sing” is a song about a wedding. Have you written – or been asked to write – for same-sex weddings?

Yes, I have! Two of my very best friends got married a couple of years ago. I wrote a song for their wedding. It was a beautiful experience. I’m going to record it and give them a special copy. I’ve written songs for straight weddings as well, but that was really special, because they were my friends and it was very easy to access imagery knowing their history. “Able to Sing” has a lot going on in it. It’s about the wedding, but it was really inspired by the death of all the red-winged blackbirds on the Fourth of July, and the ensuing dialogue between scientists and people of faith – and how people want to explain bizarre things that happen. That got me thinking about the Fourth of July and patriotism and blood and faith and all kinds of stuff. I was really on a roll with that one. It’s one of my favorites on the record, if not my very favorite.

A lot of artists have re-recorded their songs with a symphony, as Joni Mitchell did with her “Travelogue” and “Both Sides Now” discs.

I was just reading about Joni Mitchell last night and that very thing, about the ballet she was doing in Alberta (Canada). The answer is yes. We are recording a symphonic album with the Birmingham Symphony. We are doing that the first week of June, this summer. That will be out by the end of the year (or) the beginning of next year.

What does it mean to you to be performing at Milwaukee PrideFest on June 8?

We’ve done it before (and) we had an absolute blast. But there was a huge thunderstorm and we had to quit early, which was a bummer. We often go to the city of Milwaukee, and we’re really good friends with (queer Wisconsin duo) Mrs. Fun. They’re good friends of ours and we always try to rope them in somehow. The other thing is that the movement for rights for our communities, it’s quite dynamic what’s going on right now. There’s a lot of positive change and there’s a lot of chance for change that hasn’t happened yet. I think playing a queer fest is especially meaningful with the Supreme Court considering its cases and immigration law, which affects my life personally because my partner is Canadian. Pride fests are always a celebration, but particularly poignant and galvanizing this year in the context of what’s happening politically and socially.

Indigo Girls have made a name for themselves as outspoken activists. Were you and Amy able to take part in any of the rallies or protests in Madison last year?

We weren’t involved in those specifically. We were hoping that Mr. Walker (was recalled), but it didn’t turn out that way. What we deal with, specifically in Wisconsin, (is) through our group Honor Earth. We do a lot of environmental justice work. We work with indigenous peoples, particularly across the Americas, and there are a lot of mining issues in Wisconsin, historically and currently. When Pridefest is over, we’re planning on coming back to the area and focusing on some of those issues.