Grammy-winning duo Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been playing music together as the Indigo Girls for the last two decades. Their newest album, Staring Down the Brilliant Dream, is an impressive two-disc CD featuring 31 hand-picked songs ranging from classics like “Closer to Fine” to new songs recorded during a three year period of hardcore touring. Produced by the Indigo Girls with the help of soundman Brian Speiser, the album includes a comprehensive booklet with photos and Amy and Emily’s personal reflections on the selected songs.
We recently spoke with Amy about Staring Down the Brilliant Dream, Lilith Fair and why Johnny Depp in drag would play her if they ever made a film about the Indigo Girls.
AfterEllen.com: The new album is titled Staring Down the Brilliant Dream and features new songs and songs that span the last two decades that you and Emily Saliers have been playing together. When you first started out, what did you dream would come of the Indigo Girls?
Amy Ray: It’s funny because we didn’t really think long term when we first started. We were so young. We looked at it as one day at a time. You know, maybe next week we can go play at that place or record some stuff. [We had] very small goals. We were caught up in the fun of it. When you’re kids, everything seems immortal. My feeling was that I couldn’t live without [playing music], but I didn’t have a vision of how I could make that happen. I think both of us just felt that it was really fun and we were excited. It felt magical. We felt lucky to be singing, going to bars, getting out and just playing.
AE: The recordings on the new album come from three years of touring. How did you decide which songs to pick?
AR: We had three levels of criteria. The first thing we did was just comb through everything. It didn’t matter the song, the album or the configuration. We just found things that we thought were good and that narrowed it down to probably a couple of hundred songs. Once we had the song that we liked, we narrowed it down to the best version. We just kept whittling down. Finally we looked at spreading it out among records that we’ve put out since the last live record, among who wrote the songs, and then band versions versus acoustic versions.
A lot times we would have two to three of the same songs and it would come down to an emotional response rather than a technical response. Maybe one was a little bit better but there was nothing emotional about the audience that night or the energy we had. We spent about four months on that process. Our soundman, Brian [Speiser] mixed the record. He had multi-tracked for three years all of our shows and he had all of our drives. It was laborious and humbling. There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s just not good. I mean, live maybe it was fun and everything, but when we listen to it on recording, it’s like, “Wow, that was really off tune.” [Laughs] So we had to get through that part of it, which was hard.
AE: You’ve said, “When I listen to a live CD, I want to be able to hear some shining moment that’s unique and has a different feel to it than the studio version, something that brings you closer.” Is there a particular “shinning moment” on this album for you?
AR: There’s a lot. I feel like we went through so many things to find as many shinning moments as we could. There are a lot things personally that just moved me. The moments where you could get through on passion and excitement because the audience is so supportive. There’s a song called “I Believe in Love” that we had a really hard time getting right. It’s a delicate song. It’s difficult. [There was] a moment for me and Emily when we first heard the version we used where we were like, “Wow, we really got it. I can’t believe we got it.” We just thought we’d screwed up every single night.
We did a version of the song “Cordova.” We never do that song because it’s so delicate and soft, but a couple of times I asked Emily to do a mandolin on it, too. We did it and it worked out so that was fun. We probably did that song in that way maybe three times. I just love the way [Emily] plays. Those were the kinds of moments that we tried to capture, where we knew it was something that a million people wouldn’t have [on a] bootleg. Our fans record and we wanted to give them something that they might not have all captured.
AE: One thing I love about the album is the enclosed booklet that’s filled with photos and personal notes from you and Emily about what you remember of that particular show and why you chose the song. In your notes for “Go,” you write, “I am consistently caught off guard by what Emily will summon out of her electric guitar and this night was no different.” It’s amazing that after twenty years you are still able to surprise and inspire each other so much.
AR: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s because we don’t spend a lot of time together. We live pretty separate lives. We don’t even live in the same town. So when we play together there are still moments like that. [Emily’s] kind of a wild card. She has a lot of different skills and the electric guitar is definitely one of them. People associate her and us so much with acoustic music and for me, even, to see her pick up an electric guitar is just mind-boggling because it’s not something that she does all of the time. But then she picks it up and just starts playing and it’s great.