An Indigo Girl and India.Arie, in perfect harmony

Soul sisters meet in the middle

Something heavenly was bound to happen when India.Arie and Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls struck up a long-distance conversation. With Saliers being a big fan of Arie’s brand of acoustic soul and Arie crushing on Indigo Girls’ acoustic folk-rock, the two Atlanta music icons had plenty to talk about — including their shared affinity for all things Stevie Wonder and their respective struggles to remain true to themselves in an insufferable industry. As Arie confided in Saliers about her recent mid-career crisis, Saliers shared how she and musical partner Amy Ray ultimately reached a place of peace after forgoing the major label song-and-dance. Turns out a little divine intervention, by way of conference call, was just what the universe ordered.

Emily Saliers: Someone was saying how much you love Stevie Wonder.

India Arie: Of course, like the rest of the world.

ES: He blew my mind, even as a kid. But as a little white girl singing folk music, I couldn’t emulate what he did so soulfully. I always wanted his influence to transform my music, but I couldn’t get it out that way. But like Innervisions, I was 10 years old when that record came out. People ask us sometimes who we wanna work with, and I always say Stevie Wonder and Mary J. Blige.

IA: The Mary J. Blige part is more funny.

ES: I even put a credit on one of our records for her. I’m like “Dear Mary J., thanks for blowing my mind” or something like that.

IA: That is funny.

ES: You got to work with Stevie. What that was like?

IA: Well, for me, Stevie Wonder is more like the sound of my family. ‘Cause my mother’s a singer, all my mother’s brothers and sisters sang. My grandparents sing. My mother was the same age as Stevie Wonder. Motown wanted to sign her.

ES: Wow.

IA: She decided not to, because she had a band, and they didn’t want to sign her band. They just wanted to sign her. But when I hear Stevie Wonder, I hear my mom. Not technically, it’s not the same, but it’s the same style of singing.

ES: Do you feel the magnitude of that? Or is it so close to your family and your heart and soul ... .

IA: I never felt the magnitude until I started traveling internationally. I never thought of it that way, I just thought, “Yeah, that sounds like my family.” Or even like Donny Hathaway. It just sounds like my mom. As I traveled the world as a professional musician and looked at it from that place, I understood the musical legacy that’s literally in my blood.

ES: In this day and age, most people don’t know where they come from, and when I hear you say that, I don’t want to sound weird, but I’ve always wanted to be black. I always was drawn to black gospel music and R&B. The first record I ever bought was the Jackson 5, and I had pictures of Michael Jackson up all over my closet. I was actually born in New Haven and I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, and I just had all of these affinities. So when I hear you talk about where you’re from and your family, it’s a little bit like standing outside of a candy store sort of looking in to where people belong. Despite the terrible history of oppression for African-Americans, there’s something about knowing your place and your people that’s very powerful, more powerful than the forces that oppress you.

IA: Well, you know, it’s a bit of a different conversation for an African-American person. Normally, we wonder where in Africa we came from, because we know our roots are not American. I understand better how to respect where I came from. It’s like, this is who I am. I’m not African. I’m not an indigenous American, but most of us aren’t indigenous Americans. I’m a blend of all these things. And being able to translate it into a musical conversation is where it started. I feel like it’s a very visceral connection that I feel to different things I hear in Africa, like the sounds of people’s voices and the colors that they wear. But then I went to Brazil and I was like, “But I feel home here, too.” So then I go to Memphis, and I feel really at home there, too.

ES: Right that’s a deep down feeling. Well I never go, “I wanna go back a century to Austria to find my people.”

IA: And I never said I want to go to Memphis and understand, cause it just seems so painful. My great-grandmother, she just passed in February at 100 years old, and she lived in Memphis in the same house she lived in when my mother was born.

ES: Wow.

IA: She opened my eyes to a lot. Talking with her over the last five years helped me to understand my musical legacy as being connected to the blues. I just took it for granted. ‘Cause I can do that all day, and I know that’s not natural for a lot of other singers. But when I hear my great-grandmother talk about the blues, then I understand that it’s really in me.

ES: For me, like, the closest I get to my people — and it’s not even my people but it’s my community — is my queer people.

IA: That’s so funny that that’s the word you use.

ES: Yeah, it’s kinda like we took the word back. Instead of saying LGBT and any number of letters that express all different kinds of people, the umbrella is now the queer community. There’s queer history, but there’s not queer music.

IA: If there is, the Indigo Girls would be right up there at the top of the list.

ES: Yeah, it’s cool. But what I love about your music is the hybrid-ness of it. I’ve never made a solo record, but I’m starting to get an itch to make one. Amy’s made three and she’s got more of a punk rock sensibility. But if I would want to make one, honestly, I’d want to make one like what you do. You hear that acoustic guitar, but then there’s such soul and really good lyrics.

IA: Thank you. It’s interesting that we started this conversation about where we come from ethnically, because getting into the music industry, I had to make a choice about where I wanted to be based, as far as radio was concerned. And I kinda just got talked into allowing myself to be based in black radio. With all these songs that were just guitar, I’d never heard them produced the way that they are on my record. I heard them more like what your music sounded like, real people playing instruments. But the place I never would allow myself to waiver or change was the lyrics, my vocals, and also having the guitar in there, ‘cause that’s what I love to do. My passion is singing and playing guitar. I’ve always wanted to be Bill Withers and James Taylor and Stevie Wonder rolled into one.

ES: Bill Withers, yeah.

IA: That’s how I tried to make my records sound. But then, I was in my first year at college when I first heard “Now the parking lot is empty ...” from Indigo Girls %22Power of Two%22 and I would have it on repeat all day. It wasn’t just the lyrics that I liked and the voices and the harmonies — which give me chills and is really why I love you guys, for how you sound together — but the mood of it, the emotion that it made me feel, like when you’re in love with someone and that vulnerable place of being in love when it’s new.

ES: I’m so glad.

IA: So you want to make a record more like mine and I want to make one more like yours.

ES: It’s funny, though, because you convey that spirit to me in your music. That’s what I get when I hear it.

IA: I think the spirit is there for someone who understands how to hear, but the music industry categorizes people basically by the color of your skin or your sexual preference.

ES: Exactly.

IA: They just put you in these dumb-ass categories.

ES: Yeah, they didn’t know what to do with us. Amy and I were just a bar band playing in Atlanta, like whoever was in the audience at Little Five Points Pub. It was our friends, and some were drug addicts and some were soul singers and some played acoustic piano and some were in a punk rock band, and everybody was always welcome to jam. We were in ripped-up blue jeans and had no image at all. We just got lucky. Amy and I were just this little acoustic duo, and that was when Sony was CBS Records and had college departments. College departments were cool because you had access to record companies, and college departments were looking for interesting music. Radio back then was really eclectic. Now, we couldn’t get radio play to save our lives, which is fine, but it’s just changed. You played the Yin Yang Café, right?

IA: As part of an artist collective. We called ourselves Earthseed — planting seeds of positive music in the Earth — ‘cause that was the alternative to what was happening in the music scene at the time, which was LaFace. They kinda put black music in a little box that we felt we didn’t fit into. Eventually, we started doing a night at Yin Yang and we called it Flyy Fridays. There was a band called Sirius B, and Sirius B was everybody’s band. I would sing and they would sing and we would switch out and write songs for each other. People join you on stage, and you would let people tape you and put it on their website.

ES: That sounds a lot like the Pub, except that there weren’t any websites back then. Did you play solo acoustic then as well or just with other people?

IA: No, I played by myself and that was part of the thing that ended up making it kind of hard for us to stay together. Because some of the other bands had a lot of people, so they would have to split their money, and it was just me so I would just get my little check. And it turned into a conversation, you know, “How did you get that money?” and all the stuff that happens when there’s a lot of people together, the politics ... .

ES: Yeah, everybody wants a piece of the pie, I’m sure.

IA: We were so young and we didn’t understand really what we were doing, like just what the industry meant and how the hierarchy works. At that time, my car windows didn’t roll down, my air didn’t work, I had to tie my door shut and I had to get in on the passenger side. But I was turning down offers to go with labels because it never made sense. I finally decided I wanted to take a chance at making this my living instead of doing it this way with my friends. We weren’t really making money, and I wanted to make money. It’s been 10 years since I signed that deal. In hindsight, I threw away a lot of the things that I could’ve kept.

ES: Like what?

IA: I wish I had gone back and gotten some of the people I played with in those days sooner. I eventually did, but it took me a couple of years. And I wish that there were just certain friendships that I could’ve held on to, and that I could’ve stayed in contact with certain people. Once I’d signed the deal and I was trying to figure out how to make an album, I was dealing with all this emotional stuff. I didn’t have any room. I was just trying to stay awake — just do my work and make it to the airport and not pass out, for five years.

ES: It’s kinda like breaking up with someone you love, right?

IA: Yeah, I broke up with 13 people that I love. There was a time when I really needed those people. You know that feeling where you’re just free and just jamming and you’re just doing music because you love the music? Overnight it went from that to all of this pressure. All of a sudden I have employees and the clothes and the hair and people talking about you: They don’t think you’re pretty, they don’t think you’re ugly, and they don’t like you, and they like you — and all that stress. If I had my friends with me, I think it would’ve been a lot easier.

ES: Yeah, that’s a good point, because Amy and I always have each other.

IA: I envy that. I never had anyone who was just my partner.

ES: And we have the same values. We met in elementary school here in Atlanta. Our families lived in basically the same neighborhood, so we went through all the milestones, all the joys and sadnesses and funerals and weddings and graduations. Amy and I’ve been playing professionally — we started in high school — so we’ve really been doing it for 30 years now, which is crazy. People can’t even stay married that long. We had each other. It sounds like you had to deal with image quite a bit. We never did because we were out, and everybody knew what we looked like. It was really nice to have a friend and to share our identity, even through we’re completely different people, completely different personalities. I remember the whole Grammy thing. I was always more excited about that than Amy was. Amy never cared about money and she never cared about a Grammy. She was always kind of an old soul. When all the Grammys happened, I was so excited. I remember calling my parents screaming, and it was funny that we lost to Milli Vanilli and all that stuff. But those were really heady days for us and when the record did well, it was just like, “Wow.” Back in that day, we could play Madison Square Garden and we could play the Omni, and it was unbelievable. Now, of course, we’ve reached our plateau. There’s a different kind of success, which is faithful, long-term fans. But at the beginning, that’s the time when we were the least happy. There was pressure to tour and do all the press. That’s the only time when Amy and I have ever gotten in a really big fight. We were on a six-week tour in a van, and we just decided that we wanted a life besides this. In order for us to continue to be creative and relevant, and true to ourselves, we had to have a life separate from all that craziness. From then on, we just told people in the business you’re not going to get anymore from us, and we’re going to do our thing. So we’ve been able to maintain a relationship professionally and a friendship and be happy.

IA: That’s beautiful. What you said right there, it came from God. That’s a message to me because that’s where I am today. That’s a message to me, because I want a life. I haven’t really been enjoying the last 10 years, really. There have been moments, like the thing with Stevie Wonder, that have been really exciting. But overall, it’s not my style of life, and I’ve been doing it because everyone around me is like, “What are you talking about? You should love it.” I had a really hard year last year. In emotional terms, it just felt all wrong. And so October came, and I went on a writing sabbatical, and then I went on another, and then another. And I’m just now back from all of that writing and thinking time.

ES: How does that feel for you?

IA: Fantastic, ‘cause I was able to go over the last 10 years, and I wrote some songs that I love, love, freaking love. Just remembering what kind of music I wanted to do and what, to me, is success. I’ve been saying to everyone around me that I want a life and I’m gonna define for me what my success is and it might not look like success to you, but it’s gonna be for me. I never could fill up Madison Square Garden, but to hear you say that you went from that to making a conscious decision that I want my friends and I want my life, to hear you say it today in particular, — ‘cause this morning in my prayer time I was thinking, “Who could I call who could just tell me how their journey was.” And you just told me.

ES: Oh, that’s so great.

IA: Beyond great, you have no idea. Thank you.

ES: That’s the way life works, isn’t it? It’s really mysterious the way you get what you need when you need it. If you’re open to it, and your heart is open and you seek it, then you’ll get it. I believe, despite the brokenness of the world, that there is a benevolent spirit that is more powerful than anything.

IA: Oh, absolutely. It keeps calling every person forward to more wellness on a personal level. Well, I never talk this way in interviews so I find myself censoring.

ES: Well I don’t have a filter, so this is good. We’ll just meet in the middle. It’s hard to keep sight of the deeper mysteries of life and that benevolent spirit when oil is pouring into the Gulf, and the ocean is dying and people are getting sick. But I believe, and Amy has the same philosophy, that the personal is the political. It sounds cliché, but we’re all citizens of the world and borders are falsely created lines, created through power and greed and militarism and stuff like that. So you do have to be active in the process to change things, but it also comes from your spirit and what you emanate from your daily life. I think that music is such a great opportunity to — if you’re given that gift — to give it back, because the world is hungry for it.

IA: Yeah, you said it all right there. All of my lessons about how society is and the politics of corporate America and all that stuff have come through the music industry. I was 23 when I signed my first deal and I started learning all that stuff through the lens of the music industry. I would put certain parts of my spiritual philosophies and certain basic spiritual truths — like we’re all interconnected and the soul is immortal — in my music, but kind of hold myself back, trying not to go too far or to say God too many times or whatever.

ES: Right, right.

IA: And as the years have gone by, I’ve been able to have the courage to be more and more myself. In the last two years, something just completely broke open, like I just can’t not say what I want to say, especially in my music. For the last tour I went on, I would come out and say, “My name is India.Arie, and the songs you’re going to hear tonight are about the interconnectedness of humanity. I believe that we’re all connected, we are all the same and what we all do affects one another. Listen closely to the words. That’s why I’m here.” Before I used to sneak in words, but now before I sing a note, I say, “here it is.” And so this year, I said I wasn’t going to do anything. I said I was gonna take a break and I wasn’t going to do anything but travel and sleep and drink water and go to yoga or whatever I wanted to do. And I met a composer in Israel in October of 2008. His name is Idan Raichel, and he asked if he could come to Atlanta and visit. He came in March, and we spent now, a total of 20 days or so together, because he’s come back three times. And we’ve written 15 songs in Hebrew and English.

ES: Wow.

IA: And clearly, it’s like where is this ever gonna get played or who’s ever gonna say this is a smash or any of that. But it’s what I want to do, and all the songs are all about spiritual ideas and love and the high spiritual nature of love, and I’m straight singing in Hebrew. It’s never something I thought I’d do. I never spoke Hebrew a day in my life.

ES: That’s incredible.

IA: But it makes me happy. And I just want a life. And I want to enjoy music, and I want to look how I want and sound how I want and sing with who I want. So whenever you’re ready to do your album, if you would have me be a part of it, I would love to do anything with you. I always wanted to work with the Indigo Girls, I would love to do anything with you.

ES: Well I was gonna say, you wanna write together?

IA: Yes!

ES: OK me, too!

IA: Heck yeah.

ES: This is super fun.

IA: Yeah, for me, too. I had no idea what we would be able to talk about, but you said everything I needed to hear.

ES: Well, knowing your music and hearing it, I was just like this is gonna be really great. I was honored and little bit nervous, but now I’m not.

IA: Right, my sentiments exactly.

ES: Thanks for talking, and I’ll stay in touch with you. Let’s get together and write.