On September 28th, 1999, the Indigo Girls marked the first decade of their unique major-label career with the release of their seventh full-length Epic album, Come On Now Social. In songs that stir and soothe, the new album is an energetic synthesis of serious contemplation and im-passioned action. Come On Now Social is as bold, reflective, original, brave, funny, angry, heartbreaking and groundbreaking as the work that made the Indigo Girls famous in the first place, when the fresh-out-of-college duo playing the indie circuit wound up selling two million copies of their debut album simply by singing it the way they felt it. In that respect, the Atlanta-based duo of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers has not changed.
Over a period of ten years of inspiring recordings and an unabashedly honest point of view, the Indigos have created an instantly recognizable sound and earned a singular place in American music. Their music cradles you in the palm of its hand and then shakes you to your senses, again and again. They’ve built a large and loyal following of all ages with live performances that are as up-close and personal in a stadium as they are in a small club.
Amy and Emily have bravely and faithfully committed their voices, time, and money to the issues that concern them most–among them women’s rights, protection of the environment, the rights of Indigenous peoples, gay and lesbian rights, and gun control–creating a presence and impact outside con-ventional boundaries of the music world. “The most natural thing in the world for us is to marry social activism with our music because our music is so deeply rooted in life issues,” says Emily.
The title of Come On Now Social is taken from a line in an Amy Ray song that doesn’t appear on the collection, but it seemed to capture the spirit of the album. It’s an invitation, an exhortation, “a call,” and just a little mysterious. “The title is me, speaking to myself, wanting to be more of the world, more activist and more with others,” says Amy. It encourages “the idea that we’re all still trying to evolve–to decide what, who and how we want to be,” and it challenges “the idea that, when we’re young, the world wants certain things from us–it prescribes our social acceptability.”
Amy and Emily recorded most of the album with a new set of musicians, deliberately disrupting their established working patterns to create this adventurous new album. They recorded with a rich and diverse group including cellist Caroline Dale and drummer John Reynolds of Ghostland, the versatile Irish and English players who backed Sinead O’Connor on tour in 1997 and 1998. Reynolds, a long-time studio mate of O’Connor, also co-produced the new album.
Come On Now Social also features several well-known guests, including Joan Osborne, Sheryl Crow, Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Natacha Atlas, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko of the Band, and even the evocative voice of Amy’s grandma, Ozilline Walker. This diverse cast of marquee-name characters from around the world became a communal gathering, often working separately yet bringing together their individual sounds to create a seamless whole.
As a producer who also happens to be a drummer, Reynolds pays particular attention to the rhythm section. “It was inspiring to me,” says Emily, ” because I like someone to bring a groove to my songs.” He employed drum loops sampled from their live sessions and beat-box rhythms that lent a subtle but serious swing to these tunes. Reynolds also brought his own musical eclecticism as a contemporary Londoner, incorporating influence from “Sexual Healing”-style Marvin Gaye to Middle Eastern trance music.
Amy especially related to the Celtic background of Reynolds and his fellow musicians, which is directly related to the Appalachian music she loves: ” It’s just like tapping into a source that’s endless.” The diverse experiences of the other players–bassist Clare Kenny and accordion player Carol Isaacs–similarly influenced the Indigos’ sound, culminating in an album that feels redemptive, simultaneously calm and explosive. “The lyrics and the music react to one another,” says Amy.
Come On Now Social had its beginning in the musical bonhomie of the 1998 Lilith Fair, when the Indigo Girls jammed with Sinead O’Connor and her bandmates. After the tour, John Reynolds invited Amy and Emily to his studio in London, The Ghost Rooms. The three of them began to experiment together and their no-ideas-barred approach to the album took shape. Amy and Emily reciprocated by inviting Reynolds and company to Southern Tracks Recording in Atlanta, where the bulk of the songs were recorded and all of them mixed. Jerry Marotta, with whom the Indigo Girls had worked on their 1997 album, Shaming of the Sun, co-produced one track, the very live-in-the-studio “Gone Again,” in Woodstock, New York.
The standouts and surprises of Come On Now Social are many and diverse. Amy’s gripping album opener, “Go,” is a wake-up call that rocks hard, with stunning lead guitar, rousing vocals, and a stirring message for iconoclasts of all ages: “Rock is cool but the struggle is better/Go go go.” Emily’s “Peace Tonight,” on the other hand, is irresistible southern swing that features a funky horn section imported from New Orleans. It’s ” just a feel-good song about creating peace in your life through gathering with your friends and loved ones,” as Emily puts it, that Reynolds took ” in an Al Green direction.” “Compromise” is punk rock, pure and simple, featuring bassist Me’Shell Ndegeocello and drummer Kate Schellenbach. ” Andy” is a gentle and sad slice of country life–a vivid story song about, says Emily, “a woman in love with a farm boy who doesn’t love her. It’s a tale of unrequited love, of sadness, reflected in nature and seasonal changes.”
“Faye Tucker” is a story song of a different sort: a dark rumination on the meaning of the life and death of Karla Faye Tucker, who made national headlines in 1998 when she became the first woman executed by the state of Texas since the Civil War. It’s a song about the inhumanity of the death penalty and “about losing control over our destinies, all of us,” says Amy. “Faye Tucker” carries the album to a stunning climax, with the wordless chanting vocals of Natacha Atlas serving as both mournful lament and hopeful prayer.
The Indigo Girls were signed to Epic Records in 1988 and their major label debut, Indigo Girls, was released in February 1989. That album went double platinum and earned Amy and Emily the 1989 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Group. The two had been singing to-gether since high school and had been friends for many years before that. They never courted the major labels, but simply struck out on their own, self-releasing their first single in 1985 while they were still students at Emory University in Atlanta and putting out their first album, Strange Fire, two years later. (Epic reissued that certified gold disc in 1989 with an additional track, the Indigos’ cover of the Youngbloods’ “Get Together.”)
When Indigo Girls was released, Amy told an interviewer: “We never expected to be on a major label and we’re a little nervous about it. We’ll more or less function the way we always have. No matter how many people we play for, it’s always been important to reach each one of them. That isn’t going to change.”
The Indigo Girls have kept that promise, touring regularly and often finding novel ways to reach out to their fans. In 1993, they undertook a ” Ten-Dollar Tour” of small clubs, with all tickets and t-shirts priced at ten bucks. In 1995 and again in 1997, Amy and Emily embarked on a series of benefit concerts called the Honor the Earth Tour. Organized on behalf of Indigenous environmental activists, the tour included visits and performances on tribal reservations from Arizona to Alaska.
In 1998, Amy and Emily initiated the Suffragette Sessions Tour: a loose, left-field amalgamation of female artists that Amy described as “a socialist experiment in rock and roll–no hierarchy, no boundaries.” The participants included Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Germano, Lourdes Perez, Kate Schellenbach, Jane Siberry, Jean Smith, Josephine Wiggs, and Thalia Zedek. For the third year in a row, the duo appeared this summer on a series of Lilith Fair dates around the US and in Canada. Their participation in this festival of women’s music has been particularly meaningful, as Emily says, “because we are a part of an event that reflects women’s growing role and visi-bility in the music business.”
The long list of artists with whom Indigo Girls have shared stages and studios includes Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, Budgie (Siouxsie & the Banshees), Shawn Colvin, David Crosby, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Lisa Germano, the Grateful Dead, Hothouse Flowers, Luscious Jackson, Sarah McLachlan, Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), Me’Shell Ndegeocello, the Neville Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M., the Roches, Pete Seeger, Jane Siberry, Matthew Sweet, Violent Femmes, and Neil Young.
The Indigo Girls’ achievements are impressive. Over the course of the last ten years, they have sold over seven million albums worldwide – including one double platinum disc, three platinum, and four gold – and earned six Grammy Award nominations. But more impressive than the in-dustry accolades and hefty sales figures has been the way these two voices can consistently reach out in the darkness and make a bunch of strangers feel at home, understood, inspired.
Come On Now Social reveals the inner and outer dimensions of a journey that has ushered Amy and Emily into a “bolder than normal,” highly provocative album. Love songs and battle cries intertwine with grave social commentary, narrative and “good fun” – bearing witness to tenacious soul-searching and bringing forward an energetic, experiential sound. Come On Now Social beckons us all towards something new, and rocks us along the way.