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Singing For Humanity Indigo Girls Shift Focus From Personal Love Songs To Social Justice Issues

Gene Stout Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Indigo Girls are writing more about the woes of the world these days - and less about their personal lives.

The gradual shift in focus reflects the many journeys the duo - Emily Saliers and Amy Ray - have made in the past few years.

A 1995 Honor the Earth tour raised more than $300,000 for Native American groups and offered insights into the struggles of North America’s indigenous people.

Last year, during a fact-finding trip to Chiapas, Mexico, Saliers and Ray met with the Zapatistas - the leaders of the Mayan resistance movement who confronted the Mexican government over land reform.

“You see all these things and after a while, it’s harder to write a love song,” Saliers said in a phone interview. “You’re very moved and touched and you feel like, ‘What can I do about this?’ Or, ‘How can I be part of making a change?’

“But there are probably some fans who miss that more personal and introspective writing we do.”

The Atlanta duo’s new album, “Shaming of the Sun,” makes a plea for social justice with the song “Shame on You,” which laments the hardships faced by Mexican immigrant workers. In “Leeds,” the duo wonder aloud what conspiracy may have led to “16 churches burning on the TV all the way from Texas to Tennessee.”

“The hate has always been there, but it seems more solidified in a way,” Saliers said. “I think people are more disenfranchised. There’s more separation between socio-economic classes and much more power in the hands of fewer - and that has more of a trickledown effect on all humankind. I just see it producing very dangerous effects for the rest of us.”

The Indigo Girls co-produced their new album with producers David Leonard and Peter Collins, who has also worked with Seattle rock band Queensryche.

“We’ve always had a major hand in the direction of our records and veto power over creative ideas,” Saliers said. “But this is the first time that we haven’t had someone like Peter Collins or (producer) Scott Litt sitting there and directing things and putting it all together.”

Doing their own production also encouraged them to try new instruments and fiddle with sound equipment.

“Shaming of the Sun” is a much more rocking album than the duo’s previous studio albums, which were rooted in the traditions of ‘60s-style folk music. The new album features vocal samples, drum loops and womping bass lines.

“Some fans of ours are always going to be purists. They like the acoustic guitars,” Saliers said. “But most of our fans are just really good about letting us go where we need to go musically.”

There’s also an undercurrent of gospel and hip-hop influences.

“I don’t know if it comes out in songs or not, but that’s probably what moves me the most, (artists) like Etta James, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Stevie Wonder. Maybe I was a gospel singer in a previous life.”

Besides Indigo Girls’ drummer Jerry Marotta and bassist Sara Lee, the album features guests Steve Earle (vocals and guitar), Lisa Germano (violin), Andy Stochansky (drums), Michelle Malone (vocals) and members of Smoke and RockaTeens, two Atlanta groups that record on Ray’s Daemon Records label.

Ulali, an all-woman vocal trio, provides stirring and often startling background vocals on several songs.

“We met them on the ‘Honor the Earth’ tour,” Saliers said. “Their harmonies are incredible and they mix traditional Native American sounds with gospel and Celtic influences.”

Saliers and Ray have different approaches to song writing and usually write separately. Saliers is methodical, with a penchant for strong melodies; Ray is more spontaneous and takes a stream-of-consciousness approach to lyric writing.

“When it’s time to learn each others’ songs, we get together and arrange them, and that’s where the collaboration comes in,” Saliers said. “I play my parts and she plays hers and we decide where the harmonies should go … and we discuss what instruments we should play.”

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