wears the trousers magazine


indigo girls: why music still needs lilith fair
November 12, 2009, 3:29 pm
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: , , ,

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words in edgeways with indigo girls

While Sarah McLachlan’s recent announcement that legendary women’s music festival Lilith Fair is to be resurrected in 2010 was greeted with elation in several quarters, certainly within these pages, it also had its critics. “Hop aboard the marginalising train,” sneered St Vincent’s Annie Clark in an interview with online magazine Spinner, claiming it doesn’t serve anyone to view music in gender terms. In its three year lifespan, from 1997 to 1999, Lilith Fair was repeatedly in the firing line; it was too folksy, too white, too mainstream. Yes, the headliners were often women who had achieved massive commercial success, but how else were McLachlan and co. to get enough people through the gates? As for being too white, if it wasn’t for Lilith Fair, we might not have heard about acts like Bic Runga, Lhasa de Sela or Yungchen Lhamo until much later, while established artists like Queen Latifah, Angélique Kidjo and Meshell Ndegeocello were no more ‘token’ than the few women you would typically find on any other festival’s playbill.

With the debate no doubt preparing to rage once more as the 2010 event gets underway, who better to add their voice to the clamour than feminist royalty and Lilith Fair veterans, Indigo Girls. Touring the UK after a two and a half year absence to promote their latest, independently released, album Poseidon & The Bitter Bug, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray sat down for a chat with Wears The Trousers in an airless, strip-lit dressing room in London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, and I waste no time in cutting to the chase. Is there still a place for a women’s music festival in 2010? “Yes!” comes Emily’s emphatic response. “It’s still a male dominated industry; it’s still a male dominated world in terms of who’s got the power in politics, power in money. Not that those are the most important things, but that’s the reality.

“I think it’s still important for young women to have role models, to see that their peers are playing music and that what they’re doing is valid and important; that it resonates within the spirit of what it means to be a woman – young, middle-aged, old – whatever! So I do think it’s important for women to come together and celebrate that which makes them special, and also to empower those who haven’t been empowered yet.” Sitting beside her, Amy is equally enthusiastic. “It was so much fun when we did it before; I think it’s great they’re bringing it back. We’ll play it if they ask us!” she laughs.

Clearly, Emily and Amy side with the Wears The Trousers school of thought that until the playing field is level, female musicians still need a confidence boost, a role model, a tangible illustration of what women can achieve. As consumers, too, there are plenty of women who enjoy an environment like that of Lilith Fair because it’s just so refreshing. “If you look at festivals in the States, the majority of festivals are dominated by male acts. They’ll usually have one or two female acts, but it’s almost like a token gesture. Just to get that demographic in,” she laughs wryly. Crucially for Indigo Girls, who are well known for their activism, Lilith Fair also raised a tonne of money for women’s charities. “It’s probably the only tour in history that ever gave, like, a dollar of every ticket sale to a woman’s shelter [or to have] specifically identified a woman’s cause,” Emily states. “That was really important. Important for people to know that some of their money was going to that; for us to be involved in that, the spirit of camaraderie, of looking out for each other.”

Emily and Amy released their first album Strange Fire independently some 22 years ago. Riding in on the same mini revolution that brought us female singer-songwriters such as Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega, they were quickly signed by major label Epic Records in 1988. Their first album for the label, Indigo Girls, won them a Grammy in 1989 and set them up for a further nine studio albums with the SonyBMG imprint. Following an amicable parting of ways with Epic after 2004’s All That We Let In, they signed a five-year deal with Hollywood Records but were dramatically dropped after only one album. In 2009 then, the duo have come full circle, releasing Poseidon & The Bitter Bug on their own independent label, IG Recordings. A triumphant return to form, the album is right up there with their best work and flies firmly in the face of Hollywood’s puzzling decision.

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“Back when we got signed the labels were nurturing the life of bands. That’s all changed!” explains Emily. “I know Amy would have gone independent at that point but I thought maybe if we find an independent label or a small label to take us, they might just be able to give us a boost. And with Hollywood we thought we had a chance to do some soundtrack work, get songs in films, which was something we’d had limited exposure to.” When it became clear that things weren’t working out, Emily and Amy, who founded her own label Daemon Records way back in 1990, were less than daunted by the prospect of starting their own venture from scratch. “We’ve been around so long that we’ve established all the relationships we need to do what we have to do,” says Emily. “We have an agent who’s been with us since the beginning, the same management. We know people in radio, we know promoters, all the various outlets that help one promote his or her release are all intact with us after all these years. It was really a no-brainer. And it feels great not to have to get permission to do whatever we want to do, if we wanna do a double album or do a DVD or release a Christmas album – we can do anything we want!”

I wonder whether the lack of record company pressure contributed to the overwhelming vitality of Poseidon & The Bitter Bug. “I think it’s more about Mitchell Froom, the producer that we worked with,” states Amy generously, just as she did when we interviewed the duo about 2006’s Despite Our Differences, which he also helmed. “He kind of took us to a different level, which you need at a certain point. You just have to keep growing,” she adds. “But I definitely have to say that being independent while we recorded gave me a boost.” Emily nods in agreement. “It was a real shot in the arm. Plus we had a limited budget, so we only had a certain amount of time to make the record. So that forced us to be expedient about it. Rather than belabour creative decisions, there was an immediacy about the process that I think also lends an excitement to the listening process. All that stuff worked together; you couldn’t have anticipated that really.”

Utilising their newfound freedom, Poseidon & The Bitter Bug was indeed released as a double album; a full studio album backed by a disc of the same songs recorded acoustically, plus one extra track. Emily and Amy acknowledge that this decision was a direct response to feedback from fans wanting to hear tracks at their rawest, and demonstrate no fear of the free-flowing exchange of music that the modern world allows. Of course, they acknowledge that there are downsides for artists. “It’s harder to sell the same number of records,” admits Emily. “But there’s so many more opportunities with social networking, while ProTools and other technologies have revolutionised the way you can make a record. It’s sort of an organic form of sharing that didn’t exist when we got signed. But it’s not easy! We have friends who have been doing it for a long time and it’s not easy to keep it going. You just have to keep trying to be creative and keep it interesting for people. It’s a lot of work.”

“You know there’s gotta be a place where the art is still helped to be paid for, where we’re still patrons of the arts as a consumer,” Amy muses, opting for a healthy middle ground. “You don’t wanna be corporate and be profit driven, but you also don’t want to work on this big project, spend all your money, ‘cos you had a day job to pay for it, and then you can’t make it break even. Because then at some point you can’t do your music except for as a side project.”

Broadening back out, I ask if they feel as if the music industry has become a better place for women, if it’s kinder to them now than it was a decade ago, when Lilith Fair really was a revolutionary idea? Amy pauses. “Yeah, I think so, in a lot of ways…There’s more women in the technical side of things, which is great. That’s always a really good thing when that starts happening. I think there’s a younger generation coming up that doesn’t look at gender in the same way as our generation and doesn’t look at sexuality in the same way. So it’s opening up.” Nevertheless, she’s adamant that there are particular areas where things are as difficult as ever. “I think the world of rock, the mainstream world of rock, has a glass ceiling. It’s very hard to be a woman in rock, like Blink 182 rock, punky rock. It’s hard to be a powerful woman rocker right now and make it.

“It’s weird, it’s like it goes in cycles, either it’s trendy for women to get signed or there’s a backlash against it and they don’t get signed. As long as that’s what’s happening it’s never just going to be a gender-free experience where rock and roll’s not seen as a male thing”. She’s passionate about it, head down as she speaks, thoughtful, unaccepting. “Well who needs it actually,” she states defiantly, “because we have kind of our own structures now. All musicians do. We have the internet, we have our own distribution. We can be what we wanna be.”

Sacha Whitmarsh

Poseidon & The Bitter Bug is out now on IG Recordings. A DVD, Live At The Roxy, is released in North America on November 17. Keep an eye on LilithFair.com for announcements about the upcoming 2010 tour, already confirmed to be coming to London.

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5 Comments so far
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Great article, great interview. I have been a long-time fan of the Indigo Girls. (‘Closer to Fine’ was one of the first songs I learned how to play on guitar). I respect their insight, especially in regard to the whole Lilith Fair debate. After all, they have persevered through a lot of turbulence in the music industry, and have consistently been releasing amazing music (for probably about as long as St. Vincent has been alive). I think that it is important and necessary to try and see these issues that pertain to equality in music for women in the BIG picture from different perspectives, even if you may not necessarily agree with everything that is being presented. The very fact that the Lilith Fair still causes as much controversy/scoffing/ridicule/strong difference of opinion after all these years, is only testament to the fact that more reasonable discussions relating to the topic of equality for women in the music industry still need to take place! I honestly used to be more in St. Vincent’s camp about the Lilith Fair (well, in certain aspects), but in recent years and from personal experience as an indie folk-singer, I am coming to realize that it is not as simple of an issue as we may want it to be, or at least, try and make it out to be. Definitely not one that you should write off in a blanket statement. After all, history proves time and time again, that potentially pretty bad things can happen when we try to over-generalize things, or sensitive issues such as equality among race/sex/religion/gender/sexual preference, etc.
Definitely spurs up some thoughts, anyway. Good stuff…thanks!

Comment by Linda Draper

I agree with the Indigo Girls and Linda Draper’s comment above. I think Lilith Fair is even more necessary now than it was originally, and I really hope they recreate what they did the first time around. At least in the ’90s female singer-songwriters like The Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Tracy Chapman, Fiona Apple, and Shawn Colvin were played on some radio stations and TV shows. Now all those outlets (at least in my area) are devoted exclusively to young, blonde pop & country stars whose packaged images are emphasized over their music. Acts like St. Vincent may get a lot of love on music blogs, but most people in rural America have never even heard of them.

Comment by muruch

[…] And a small Lilith update: Here’s an article about the Indigo Girls talking about Lilith Fair. Read more about it here. […]

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