Making music with the Indigo Girls

Posted on January 20, 2023

Two women stand side by side with guitars and sing
Two women sit in chairs next to a man smiling.
Emily Saliers (middle) and Amy Ray (right), best known as the Indigo Girls, speak to students in the UNCG Auditorium during a Q&A session moderated by School of Music professor Mark Engebretson (left).

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers sat in front of the UNCG Auditorium stage, both casual and unassuming; their quiet demeanor was a sharp contrast to the powerful music they belted out just minutes before in their sound check with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra.

“As long as we’re going to have a symphony, let’s make it big and bombastic when it needs to be. Let’s not waste it,” says Ray.

The pair, best known as the GRAMMY-winning Indigo Girls, have sold over 14 million records and are the only duo with top 40 titles on the Billboard 200 in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s and ‘10s. Recognized for their folk-rock hits, Ray and Saliers took on a new challenge in 2012: taking acoustic-heavy hits like “Power of Two” and making them with the power of an orchestra.

“Somewhere along our path, we got invited to be artists that get to play with symphonies,” says Saliers. “There’s an agency that puts these things together and we were very excited about that because we’ve never done it before.”

Be dramatic 

The blended sound was a surprise for several students coming to attend the duo’s soundcheck and subsequent Q & A session before their performance with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra on January 13.

“I do not like acoustic guitar but I think this sounds pretty fantastic with the orchestra backing,” says G Cooper-Volkheimer, a first-year Masters student in the School of Music. “They just seem to work really well together and whoever writes scores for them has done a really good job. It really works.”

The event is part of the University Concert and Lecture Series, the longest running series of its kind in North Carolina, that gives students the chance to learn and hear from prolific experts in the performing arts world.  

“Our basic directive was to be really dramatic,” Ray says. “We don’t want anyone to get bored while we’re playing.”

Sophomore Mycah Johnson reflected on the ease of the Indigo Girls collaboration with the orchestra.

“It seemed like maybe they didn’t practice with the symphony before the sound check; so for them to be able to run a soundcheck and sound like that is amazing,” Johnson says.

A woman in a blue shirt plays a guitar and sings in front of an orchestra on a stage.
Two women stand side by side with guitars and sing
Two women play guitars and sing in front of an orchestra on a stage. The male orchestra conductor has his hand up directing.
The Indigo Girls practice with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra before their January 13 performance at UNCG.

Finding the music

While some questions were submitted ahead of time for the moderator to ask during the Q & A session, School of Music junior Q El-Amin was able to ask the Indigo Girls directly how they piece together their music. 

A man speaks with his hands out while a woman looks at him.
School of Music junior Q El-Amin asks the Indigo Girls about their process for creating music, specifically if they focus on lyrics or melody first.

“When I’m writing, I sit down with an instrument and just start playing and when something feels like it has something to it, I look through my lyric journal and see if there’s anything that matches up,” says Ray. “It used to start with lyrics, but recently, it’s been about finding the music first.”

Although they’re a pair, they start the songwriting process separately.

“I find a chord progression that interests me and then I start singing gibberish,” Saliers says. “But now I use voice memos on my iPhone because I’ll forget everything. In writing for a musical, I wrote lyrics based on what’s happening in the scene and then wrote music for the lyrics.

As a Music in Performance – Popular Music and Technology major, El-Amin was pleasantly surprised by the soundcheck, admitting he was not aware of the Indigo Girl’s work before the event. 

“I was just really impressed with how put together it was up there. I just wanted to know how it gets to that point,” says El-Amin.

A nerve wracking process

When asked about starting the process of taking a song idea and creating a full track, Ray says it’s “nerve wracking.” The duo each send an MP3 file with a song idea to one another and then they get together. 

“As long as we’re going to have a symphony, let’s make it big and bombastic when it needs to be. Let’s not waste it.”

Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls
Two women sit in front of an audience

“We really just start ideas, one verse at a time and try a million different harmonies, different approaches,” says Ray. 

Their collaborative work teaches students that music can evolve: whether it’s how they put together one of their folk-rock jams or work with an orchestra to create something entirely new. 

“As soon as you start trying stuff, it opens the doors to other things,” says Ray. “Once you start trying things and keep saying yes, the door keeps opening and other things start coming in that you can try.”

Two women sing into microphones and play acoustic guitars

Want to learn more about songwriting and music studies? Consider a Bachelor of Music in Performance at UNCG. 

Story by Avery Craine Powell, University Communications
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications


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