Twenty years — well, give or take a few — into a still-percolating career, the Indigo Girls remain a little island of consistency in an aggressively unpredictable industry. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers can boast 10 studio albums, a fan base as faithful as such things come and a well-honed offensive strategy — wholesome, earthen melodies from Saliers, darker, rawer stuff from Ray, and some sort of freakishly automatic sense of silvery harmony between — that’s been firmly set since their 1987 debut, “Strange Fire.”
Even if they weren’t a subtle lefty folk outfit, this would be no small deal. Bands rise and evaporate faster than the blogs that track them these days; Ray laments the vanishing of several in her rock-out track “Rock N’ Roll Heaven’s Gate,” from the pair’s new outing, “Despite Our Differences.” “It’s hard for bands now,” said Saliers. “Radio is horrible, most of it. We just came along at a good time and were able to ride a wonderful fan base.”
Indeed, the Girls merely persist with a tasteful determination that’s impressive for its productive quietness. Press materials pitch this as the Girls’ 20th year, a figure Ray and Saliers both dispute (“Well, we started playing professionally in high school in 1980, so…” Saliers sid), and as such, neither seems to have put a lot of planning time into the efficient arrangement that is the Indigo Girls. It’s just not something that’s needed a lot of tinkering.
Which is not to say that for their 10th studio album, some changes weren’t in order. “Differences” marks the Girls’ first with Hollywood Records, having ended their longtime association with Epic last year. It’s also their first with producer Mitchell Froom, who added a live-in-studio vibe throughout sessions in his Santa Monica home studios, a looseness amplified by the record’s six-week construction time. “We usually take much longer to make a record,” Ray admitted, almost shyly. Saliers is less diplomatic: “I was freaking out,” she said.
But writing-wise, “Differences” sticks pretty close to the Girls’ playbook. Fully intact are those harmonies, as well as their interest in their core issues: gay rights, gender equality and social justice. “We’re basic lefties,” Saliers said. “I think we ask very simple questions: Who’s being oppressed? Why are they being oppressed and how can we take part in alleviating that?” Added Ray: “We’re political. There are people who don’t want to come see us, and that’s totally cool with me. But we try not to alienate.”
Still, if there’s a surprise in “Differences,” it’s the record’s relative absence of polarized politics. “Differences,” as the title infers, at least partly argues the Girls’ unease with the state of the union. But there’s very little overtness and not much attacking on the record; it’s more concerned with scraping out some senses of unity where feasible. “[The title] can describe the differences between me and Amy, and it has more global indications, obviously. But we feel we’re still in a situation where harmony can happen,” Saliers said.
Given their lively activist history, it’s either happy accident or savvy timing that the Girls’ fall tour — their first with a full band in a few years — gets underway at the same time as the fall election season. “I do sense a real shift in the country,” Saliers said. “And we do have an ultimate hope that people can get along at least better than they are now.” But, she quickly added: “You know what, it takes a change of administration, that’s one thing.”
Though the Girls’ quieter musical half, Saliers quickly gets animated when talk turns to Washington. “Politically, what’s gone on over the two past administration periods has just been so devastating to me, and these [upcoming] elections will be so important,” she said. “The tide has to turn, and I believe it can. But Americans have to take responsibility for our role in the world: How can we be part of the world community? If they take that to heart, we’ll make specific political changes.”
It’d be misguided to expect a totally politics-free Indigo record, and the lead track, Saliers’ “Pendulum Swinger,” does takes swipes at presidential grandstanding (“It doesn’t come by the bullwhip”) and institutional sexism. But the record’s more concerned with ballads like “I Believe in Love,” which reflect Saliers’ longstanding tendency toward breezy balladry. Ray’s showstoppers are first single “Little Perennials” and the ragged barnburner “Rock N’ Roll Heaven’s Gate,” a sonic cousin of the punkish material she stashed away for her well-regarded solo records “Stag” and “Prom.”
Breakups are hardly new territory for the Indigo Girls, but they generally involve families or relationships, not punk or new new wave bands. Ray explained: “There were some friends of mine in a band I’d played with called the Butchies, which sort of fell apart, and it was really hard on me. They were a really important band for me — I felt they were carrying the torch of punk rock for women at that moment. And Le Tigre disbanded recently, and that was hard too. I feel like it’s hard to keep a band together anyway, especially when you have a lot of hurdles. And I think women in rock have more hurdles than most people in music, even those with a little bit of success.”
Ray sees more diversity in the band’s live audiences these days — not in race, she says, so much as the ages and background of people who show up. “There’s young people, and people who’ve grown older with us and bring their kids,” she said. “And I think there was a time when, if you were a gay performer, it was harder to get a diverse audience as far as sexual orientation goes, when the gay movement hadn’t progressed at all. And now in some areas, it’s really mixed, really family oriented. That’s great, because it means people are not afraid of the association. At one time there was a stigma, and I’m sure there still is, in some places. But it’s gotten better.”
But, she added quickly, both she and Saliers are “short-term thinkers” when it comes to their careers. Saliers even professed to being shocked when Hollywood came calling once their Epic deal was up. Ray said she’s mostly just thankful. “But it seems if I stop and pat myself on the back long enough, it’ll just fall apart,” she added, laughing.
Today, those short-term goals are touring, the midterms and, in a couple of years, the next round. “I always feel good when I still feel like writing. Because you’re always scared that you won’t feel like it. I’m not scared of writer’s block, I’m just scared of not having a desire to do it,” said Ray. “But right now I do, and it feels good.”