Amy Ray of The Indigo Girls Chats About Their Upcoming Philly Concert and Her Advocacy Work

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Emily Saliers and Amy Ray (right) of the Indigo Girls.


“It’s riveting to physically hear that much sound, and there’s so much going on,” said Amy Ray when I asked her what it was like to play her Indigo Girls music with an orchestra backing her up. “When we first started to do it, it was so hard because I’d be distracted by the power of it.”

Ray, and her long-time musical companion Emily Saliers have been playing with a whole host of regional orchestras for several years, but their upcoming stop in Philadelphia at the Kimmel Center will be the first time the singing and songwriting duo will be accompanied by a youth symphony, The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. The entire prospect of playing with symphonies has been an interest of both Ray and Saliers for a while, but the project came to fruition several years ago when they were teamed up with several orchestral arrangers who “pretty much hit the nail on the head.”

“It gives our songs a different dimension, but it doesn’t change things dramatically,” she said. “If we have other vocal parts and counter melodies, you’ll hear them in the cellos or picked up by another instrument, but we’ve stayed true to the music.”

But it is that openness to new forms and the ability to stay fresh that has kept Ray and Saliers together as not only musical collaborators but also great friends. The two, who met while in grade school, have produced 15 albums, with another on the way, and have remained not only relevant to their hardcore fans, but have gained many more throughout the years. The new album, which is due out later this year, is an accumulation of “big life events,” according to Ray: Both Saliers and Ray had children with their partners, and Ray’s father died, but those experiences gave the artists “perspective to write and make a record.”

“We’ve stayed really open to other opportunities and the creative process,” said Ray. “We do our own projects and we live in separate cities, so there’s a lot of space and that has helped us maintain our love and creative energy. When we get together, we love it: We’re like sisters. We keep trying to have experiences that feed us and make us better.”

No doubt, some of those experiences have to do with advocacy, something that has been the Indigo Girls’ calling card for years. Most recently, they raised an extensive amount of money for the Fugees Academy, a school in Clarkston, Georgia, that helps child refugees from war-torn countries.

“[The children have] literally run through the jungle to escape massacres,” said Ray. “They’re so far behind with their education, that the school catches them up, so by the time they finish, they can perform really well in high school and college.”

Ray and Saliers, who are both lesbian, have always been staunch gay advocates, and although they both strongly supported gay marriage, Ray said there’s something in the queer community that still needs extensive discussion and work, and that’s issues of race and class.

“Gay marriage was thought of as a middle-class white issue, but it affects everyone,” she said. “It affects people of color and it affects class. If you don’t have a lawyer, if you can’t afford that, and you can’t get married, you’re screwed. You don’t get the same legal protections. It really is a class issue.”

No doubt, we’ll continue to hear about not only the Indigo Girls’ activism, but also their music which has transcended generations. When I asked Ray what advice she would give the young musicians of The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, she wasn’t too sure could give any to the hard-working kids who have dedicated so much time to their work. After a few minutes, she offered this advice: “Do it because you love it, and stay open. It’s so easy to get locked into musical styles. The best orchestras that we’ve played with are obviously made up of people who are diverse, and it’s how we’ve stayed inspired as performers.”

You can catch the Indigo Girls with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra at the Kimmel Center on April 12. For more information, click here.