Poseidon And The Bitter Bug

It’s been two decades since the Indigo Girls launched their career with their independently released debut album, 1987’s Strange Fire. Now, after entertaining millions of fans with their 10 major-label studio albums (nine on Epic Records and one, 2006’s Despite Our Differences, on Hollywood Records), Emily Saliers and Amy Ray have come full circle with the independent release of their new album, Poseidon And The Bitter Bug on their new label IG Recordings.

“I am overwhelmingly excited to be independent because it really is where the heart of music sits for me,” says Ray. “I don’t have many regrets about the major-label life of the band because we certainly got a lot out of it. We were lucky enough to be on Epic when Pearl Jam and Rage Against The Machine were our label-mates and the company was developing bands with the intent of creating catalog artists. That has all changed, and it’s just not worth being on a major. It hasn’t felt worth it for a long time. Beyond that, it never fed my soul the way an independent career can.”

“At this point in our career, we don’t need the big corporate label,” Saliers says. “We don’t want it. We got tired of the empty promises and just wanted to do our own thing. It fees liberating and centering, even in the midst of change.”

Despite being tethered to a major label, the Indigo Girls have always felt like an independent band — creating a string of elegantly layered, acoustic guitar-driven folk-rock albums on their own terms, and “remaining a little island of consistency in an aggressively unpredictable industry,” as Billboard magazine put it. That hasn’t changed on Poseidon And The Bitter Bug. These ten songs, five by Ray and five by Saliers, retain the indelible melodies and silvery harmonies that have become their trademark, but they also display the growth of two intelligent, empathetic artists devoted to always evolving in their craft.

The songwriting takes center stage on Poseidon, with the duo exploring new approaches to melody, harmonics, and rhythm, especially on Saliers’ “Digging For Your Dream,” which she says is “as close to R&B as I’ve ever gotten,” and Ray’s “Sugar Tongue,” a fevered meditation on colonialism that finds her experimenting with her higher vocal range to capture an innocence not commonly displayed by the fiery rocker. Ray recorded all her lead vocals live and spent time honing her approach before going into the studio. “I also worked on playing with our drummer, Matt Chamberlain, in a more natural way and just getting inside the groove,” she says. You can certainly hear it on her tracks “Ghost of the Gang” (“a tribute to lost friends”), “Driver Education” (given an Indigo Girls arrangement after appearing on Ray’s 2005 solo album Prom), and “Second Time Around” (“a song about not compromising and trying to support each other in our uniqueness,” Ray says).

While Ray says her contributions didn’t center on any particular theme, Saliers, often pegged as the duo’s sensitive balladeer, found herself in a world-weary frame-of-mind during the writing process. “The songs reflect just about everybody I know in my personal life ending long-term relationships,” she says. “So there’s a lot of asking of big questions like, ‘Can love last?’ on tracks like ‘Fleet of Hope’ and ‘Love of Our Lives,’ which are about people breaking up. ‘Digging For Your Dream’ is about the drudgery of life told through one woman’s sad story. None of this is lighthearted at all. I’m a hopeful person by nature, but it’s not really reflected in this group of songs, except ‘What Are You Like?’ That’s a positive song about having great friends who hold you up in tough times.”

While Saliers’ and Ray’s mood may have been reflective, the atmosphere in the studio was urgent and lively. The duo barreled through the recording process in three weeks flat in Atlanta with longtime bassist Clare Kenny, session-pro drummer Matt Chamberlain, engineer David Boucher, and veteran producer, arranger, and keyboardist Mitchell Froom, all of whom worked on Despite Our Differences. “There wasn’t time for lot of belaboring over decision-making so it was very much an in-the-moment recording, which I found exhilarating,” Saliers says. As a result, a certain intimacy and vulnerability crept in, Ray says, “because there was no time to second-guess ourselves and make everything super correct. We had to trust our instincts.”

Both Saliers and Ray were excited to go back into the studio with Froom, who is known for his work with Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Los Lobos, and Crowded House, among others. During the writing process, Saliers and Ray, who write their songs separately, would send Froom rough demos to get his input on the arrangements before recording began. “He has a very keen musical ear,” Saliers says. “He’s a musician’s musician and has a very clear idea of what will work. For us, we found someone who we completely trusted to even tinker with our construction of the songs. I’d say nine times out of ten, we went with his ideas because they were good ones.”

“Mitchell was able to build a bridge between Emily’s songs and my songs more successfully than anyone we’ve worked with,” Ray says. Adds Saliers: “He likes Amy’s music and he likes my music, which is not the easiest thing to find because we are so different and our songs are different.”

Those differences have made for a long-lasting musical partnership informed by balancing the creative tensions between two very distinct personalities. Saliers and Ray have known each other since elementary school in Decatur, GA, and began performing together in high school. They first appeared on the public’s radar in the late ’80s as part of a folk-pop singer/songwriter revival that also included Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. In short order, the duo released a series of transcendent albums beginning with their breakthrough shot across the bow, 1989’s Indigo Girls, which earned them their first hit single, “Closer to Fine,” and a Grammy win for Best Folk Recording in 1990. Six Grammy nominations followed as well as several bona-fide hits, including “Hammer and a Nail” (from 1990’s gold Nomads Indians Saints), “Galileo” (from 1992’s platinum Rites of Passage), “Least Complicated” (from 1994’s platinum Swamp Ophelia), and “Shame On You” (from 1997’s gold Shaming of the Sun).

Constant touring, as well as an unwavering commitment to social, political, and environmental issues cemented the Girls’ bond with their audience, who clearly recognize two artists willing to walk the walk. In 1991, Ray and Saliers co-founded the non-profit organization Honor the Earth to raise awareness and financial support for indigenous environmental justice, and over the years they have supported groups fighting for women’s rights, civil rights for same-sex couples, and the abolition of the death penalty. During the recent Presidential election campaign season, the duo partnered with several organizations to provide voter registration opportunities and election information at their concerts and on their website.

The Indigo Girls continued to make records throughout the ’90s (1995’s platinum live album 1200 Curfews, 1999’s Come On Now Social) and into the new millennium (2002’s Become You, 2004’s All That We Let In, and the 2005 Rarities collection). In 2006, they released the game-changing Despite Our Differences, which critics heralded as their best album in years, one that “brims with a renewed sense of purpose.” Saliers feels that Poseidon builds on the palpable energy of Differences.

“It does feel like an extension to me,” she says. “It’s what Mitchell and David, as a team, have brought to our sound. For a band like us, it might feel inauthentic if we tried to branch out in some crazy way musically. That’s why Amy makes solo records, so she can do her own thing outside of what we do together. As a unit, we do what we do and Mitchell just happens to bring the best out of it. That’s a good thing at this point in our career.”

One thing the Girls have done differently on Poseidon is include a second CD that features acoustic versions of all the songs, plus a bonus track, “Salty South.” “The release of the acoustic record will give folks a taste of how the arrangements change with the addition of the band,” Ray says. “I think our fans will really appreciate it,” Saliers adds. “Amy and I always talk about whether our fans want to see us with the band or whether they want to see us perform acoustically. Many times we settle on doing it acoustically, so this is a way for them to musically experience the more intimate setting. It was just Amy and I sitting around with a bunch of microphones and playing in a very stripped-down and organic way.”

Like we said, the Indigo Girls have come full circle. “I feel a great sense of freedom in finally being rid of the major-label world,” Ray says. “It’s been a burden for a while for me. I felt an honesty and sincerity making Poseidon, because I fully believe in independence.”

(November 2008)