It was a little more than 20 years ago that the Indigo Girls independently released their debut album, Strange Fire. With 10 subsequent major label releases, the Georgia-based duo of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers forged an enviable musical presence through a combination of empathy and devotion to both their craft and their audience. When the Indigo Girls return to Santa Barbara this week to play the Granada Theatre, they’ll do so with a whole new collection of material, this year’s Poseidon and the Bitter Bug. The disk heralds the duo’s return to the independent ranks of music-making, and, according to Amy Ray, it’s a move that feels more right than ever before.
Each of your albums has its own voice. Do the tours and performances reflect that, or are your shows more an entity unto themselves? That’s an interesting question because the last few records we’ve made, when we went on tour with them, we didn’t play every song from the record. We still mixed in a lot of old material, and for a few years the shows felt pretty consistent. I feel like this album has made a little more of a mark on our shows because we’re playing almost every song from the record every night and it’s because the songs really work.
What has the reaction been from those in the crowd? The audience actually seems to want that. With some records, we could feel that we were playing a little too much new material, but on this record it doesn’t feel that way. People are singing along and seem to know all the new songs and request them as much as the old ones, so it’s making more of mark.
Why do you think that is? I think there are a lot of reasons. This is the first record we have done independently since the beginning of our career and I think that always makes people feel a little more community-orientated. And for some reason we have both really hit our stride at the same time as far as songwriting goes. We also worked with the same producer, Mitchell Froom, who did our last record, and that working relationship evolved into this record. We really listened to his ideas and took them to heart and that really improved the songs a lot.
After spending most of your career working with major labels, are you enjoying the freedom of going independent? It feels good because it feels like we’re working for our own little family and the audiences are included in that. It’s a relief that the writing is where it is and we can feel so good about it and feel good about moving forward and making another record.
Across the band’s lifetime, you have seen countless musical trends come and go. What do you think was the secret to sustaining such a strong following through all of that? I think it’s consistency. It’s touring and having a consistent relationship with your audience that’s honest. The idea is to stay passionate about what you do and to keep evolving. The songs have to be there, but it doesn’t mean that every single song has to be great. I think it just comes down to consistency, and there are so many pieces to that puzzle. We’ve had the same agent and manager for 20 years. We take our friend on the road to open for us. So it has become this familiar experience. That then allows us to bring in different, fresh things to keep us excited and to introduce the audience to new music as well.
You mentioned that every single song doesn’t have to be great. How analytical do you find yourself in hindsight? I am analytical for about 15 seconds. I don’t let it bother me. I am very much an in-the-moment kind of person. I feel that when I really started dedicating myself and working hard that I got better at what I did, so if I look at some of the older material [from] when I wasn’t doing that, I understand why it’s not as good as it should be. : And that’s just because I don’t spend enough time on it!
Given that both you and Emily write for the band, do you find you can still surprise each other? Yes, actually! On this record, Emily wrote a song called “Digging for Your Dreams” that’s got a kind of R&B feel to it and a very different range for her voice and a different phrasing, and I was like, “Wow!” I loved it! I knew where it came from because I know what her influences are, but I have never heard her actually write from those influences in that way. The hope is that with every record we write, something rises above what we have done or captures something different within us. I think if we don’t do that then we would be less inspired by each other’s material.
The Indigo Girls play the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on Tuesday, July 14, at 7:30 p.m. Call 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org for tickets.