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Brilliant Dreams: Conversations with Indigo Girls and Sugarland's Kristian Bush

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A Conversation With Indigo Girls

Mike Ragogna: Your new live album Staring Down The Brilliant Dream is presented like a book. Is it supposed to imply the album's like a journal?

Emily Saliers: Well, it's supposed to be opened and held like a book. It has chapters, 35 songs, and it's fabulous. In this day of ordering online, it's really nice to hold something that's really beautiful in your hands, listen to the music, and appreciate that part of it. They're songs that were recorded from live shows between 2006 to 2009. Brian Speiser recorded them, and Amy and I went through a slew of them and decided we wanted to put an album out. The tracks sounded so good that we decided well, let's put out a double live album.

MR: How did you decide on the tracklist?

Amy Ray: For me, the criteria first was what sounded good because we were listening for what felt good, what sounded good, and then after that, it was kind of a lot of different criteria. If we had four different versions, it was which one felt the best, or if we should put the band on it, or if should we do it as a duo. There were so many choices to be made, and we just had some priorities. The first priority was it had to feel good and be sort of unique and special. Then we just tried to kind of spread things out amongst which record's songs came from because we wanted to represent different records and different parts of our lives, and a career that had happened over those three years of recording. The last live record we made was 15 years ago, so we tried to often get songs that we had been doing since that point live. We kind of whittled it down as we would get to 100, and then get to 50, and then we ended up mixing about 37, picking from that.

ES: It was really a process of listening to the tracks. We did want to find some more obscure songs or ones that were not, well, "Closer To Fine." I was surprised that we even chose that one. But we chose that one because Jill Hennessy and Michelle Malone sang with us on that one. Michelle was an old friend. We have known her forever and she's a great artist. Jill Hennessy we had just met a couple of days before. I knew she was an actress, but didn't know she was a singer. So, that just captured a very special moment. We didn't go in to it having any preconceived thoughts about what tracks would happen. We just knew we had some special moments that probably were going to be go to songs like "Don't Think Twice" that we sang with Brandi Carlile. She is one of our favorite artists, and then "Wild Horses" we sang with Michelle Malone. We've been doing that song for close to two decades with her, so those were just special songs. We wanted to get a good number of band songs on the record. It was a very special band.

MR: I was lucky enough to interview Brandi for Huffington Post a while back. What a great artist.

AR: She's a great artist. She really is. And another favorite for us is Justin Vernon from the band Bon Iver. We are a huge fan, and we just took a shot in the dark and said, "Do you want to come play a few shows?" and it turned out that he was a big fan and he wanted to. So, we did about a week of shows, and they were really fun. We got to watch him play and see how he does his thing. We played for about a week with Justin opening for us, and I got to talk to him about recording and see how he does his thing. For me and Emily, those are the things that kind of energize us and keep us going. Lilith Fair was also another great time for us.

MR: Are there any concerts that you remember to this day as being unusually outstanding?

ES: Many. Maybe too many to mention. The great thing about putting this live record together is that it allowed us to revisit many of those live concerts together. Amy and I poured over countless songs and concerts and picked certain ones that not only were recordings that came out great, but that really captured what happened that night. On all of those songs, we actually listed the places where they were and our memories of that night.

AR: I think both of us measure our experiences by who we were playing with or who we were collaborating with. A long time ago, there was a moment in our career when we said, "We can't believe we're here opening for The Grateful Dead...it's so historical!" Then we opened for R.E.M a lot at the beginning. That was another one of those things where we will never forget what that felt like, and I think, most recently, we did a lot of touring with Brandi Carlile. She started out opening for us and now she's co-headlining. It's been great to watch her career and it's been great. It was really exciting the first time we sang together because we were like, "Wow, this really works and it was really fun." It was a collaboration that we knew could continue for a long time.

MR: Were there any recordings that didn't make the cut because of space?

ES: In terms of ones that really stick out that aren't on the record? We were opening for The Grateful Dead in Eugene, Oregon, we played with Joan Baez early on, The Bottom Line in New York, and the Lilith Fair and Lilith tours--I was just a fan, sitting by the side of a stage watching these incredible women perform. Playing Central Park in the summer is incredible. There are lots of memories from New York. Playing Radio City Music Hall, my pants legs were shaking I was so nervous.

Those are all memorable concerts, really, there are so many because our fans are amazing. We've been doing this for 30 years now, since High School. There are lots of great memories because our fans are incredible and every night is a good night, honestly.

MR: When you go onstage, it seems like you improvise your set list, like anything can happen.

ES: Honestly, we are a bar band. Before we got signed and before we put our first record on a major label, we were a bar band. We played clubs and had our friends in the audience who were musicians and were a totally motley crew. We would invite them up on stage and had that spontaneity, so we were never a band that had a slick set list. Every night, we would change the set list and also allow room for requests from fans. If we could make it work with the set list, then we would put it in so that's the spirit of the Indigo Girls. It's what we captured on this record.

MR: Were you tempted to take this live collection further back, like all the way to the Back On The Bus, Y'all period?

ES: This is meant to be a collection of songs that people haven't heard yet. The only other live thing we put out was 1200 Curfews which our fans really liked. People refer to that record a lot, so all these years later, we haven't really put out all that much live material except stuff which has been recorded by people's phones or whatever. We're all for that. So, we just decided it was time to put out a live disc of songs that have never been heard before except by those people who have been at the concerts.

MR: There was a synergy between Lilith Fair and Indigo Girls that brought a lot of attention to the group. Do you remember what it was like going from having a small, loyal following to having your huge fan base?

ES: Well, we have had an interesting trajectory because when our record from Epic first came out, it sold really well and got some notoriety, and it was very exciting. We went from being a bar band to being signed to a major label and having a pretty successful first record, so that was all cool. We sort of leveled out as careers often do, and then Lilith was a total shot in the arm for us professionally and personally and was a great experience. So, it was an opportunity to mix with people like Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks, Sarah McLachlan, and Chrissy Hynde, who are amazing artists. So, that really introduced us to a larger audience. Plus, it was just so much fun. It was one of the pinnacles of our career.

MR: Indigo Girls is an act that is very associated with the original Lilith Fair, one of the highlights, right?

AR: (Laughs) Oh I don't know. We've knocked down a lot of doors and said, "Come sing with us or let's collaborate on something," and I guess that's just how we are and how we were brought up. Our music scene is all about collaboration, and if you have festivals, part of the point of them is to enjoy playing with each other. It's kind of how we saw Lilith, and a little bit of that started happening. I don't know if it might have happened anyway, if we weren't there with those tours. A lot of the same artists would be together for a few weeks, and at some point, you start really knowing each other and wanting to play together, and we hurried that process along I guess.

MR: And, of course, Lilith Fair really created an awareness of women in music.

ES: Well, at that time, there were naysayers, and, you know, there is no way women can sell this many tickets. There was a lot of sexism in the industry at the time. Lilith had this joyous "yes we can" feeling and it was a great tour.

MR: Do you feel like there's been some evolution since the days Lilith fair began?

AR: Yeah, in some ways. And in some ways it's a mixed bag.

MR: This project ends with the Indigo Girls' version of "Wild Horses" that is almost spiritual.

ES: "Wild Horses" was such a classic song. Probably one of the best songs ever written, and we grew up with Michelle Malone who is from Atlanta. We have played shows with her and have been friends forever and ever, and we just started playing that song together. We don't play a lot of cover songs, but there are a handful that we have just come to call our own over the years like "Midnight Train to Georgia" and "Don't Think Twice its Alright." "Wild Horses" was one of them as well. When we were going over the tracks we came across that version and just loved it. It was a part of our history, and it came out really well. We really love it and the performance. So, we decided it should go on there.

MR: Who are some of your favorite acoustic acts?

AR: There is so much independent music right now that you get exposed to, and for me, as far as acoustic music goes, I like Lindsay Fuller. I like Amelia Curran who I think is in Nova Scotia right now, and she's a great songwriter. And Brandi Carlile, of course. I think she is sort of one of the best voices of our generation, and could be considered the Patsy Cline of our time I think.

MR: It's a Brandi fan club. Nice.

AR: It's very exciting that on every level, there are a lot of great artists. When you get into bands, there are The Gossip and Thea K who I really think is such a visionary and really amazing. The group Men which is another alternative band. There are so many great artists that cross between different genres, if you're just going to talk about woman artists, there is a lot of diversity and a lot of great woman artists. Those who are getting exposure in a main stream way, that's a whole different story; but I don't know how important the main stream is anymore. It's a very complicated question now because things are so broken apart in the major label world. It's hard, I think, for woman to access radio and big print media, and really get the shot at playing Bonnaroo or some of the bigger festivals. You are still not getting those opportunities, especially in rock. That's got to change. When that changes, I will feel like we're really making some headway.

MR: What's your advice for new acts?

AR: The Internet's pretty important. I think the tools are changing constantly. Social networking--whether it be Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube video; some way of having a presence on the Internet and keeping up with that. It's a lot of work, so I think you need to pick. You need to sort of choose your areas and focus on those so you're not killing yourself and killing your creativity while you're spending all your time doing that. It's a pretty important thing. For me, I feel that, in any genre of music, it sort of about songwriting, unless you're like a pure pop image where what's more important is maybe videos and imaging and stuff. If you're an artist that's not about that, live performances are still really important if you want to have a long career. It's got to be more than just Internet. It's got to be something where people feel that they can build a community around you that's visceral, that they can relate to you, and I don't think you can do that unless you can go out and play live. So, that's where my emphasis would be if I were a new artist. I think that it's hard because there are a lot of artists that are trying to get shows, and it's hard to get gigs sometimes. But you have to invent them. You have to do house concerts or play at this or that party and do whatever it takes to get started and start building a community around you.

MR: It seems like live shows always have been where you truly bond, where you become "family" with the band.

AR: I think you're right. I think it's so important. I think even Internet community stuff plays on that because people feel like they've discovered something on YouTube or whatever, and they spread it virally and it creates this kind of relationship that is sort of intimate. But I think it can only go so far. There has to be that other level where you see that person play.

(transcribed by Erika Richards & Theo Shier)

Tracks:

Disc One
1. Heartache For Everyone
2. Closer To Fine
3. Go
4. Come On Home
5. Devotion
6. Cold Beer And Remote Control
7. Moment Of Forgiveness
8. Fill It Up Again
9. Sugar Tongue
10. Fly Away
11. Ozilline
12. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
13. Kid Fears
14. Watershed
15. Shame On You

Disc Two
1. Get Out The Map
2. Salty South
3. The Wood Song
4. Three County Highway
5. Digging For Your Dream
6. Rock And Roll Heaven's Gate
7. Believe In Love
8. Fugitive
9. Cordova
10. What Are You Like
11. Second Time Around
12. Love Of Our Lives
13. Become You
14. Prince Of Darkness
15. Tether
16. Wild Horses

A Conversation With Sugarland's Kristian Bush

Mike Ragogna: So, what are you up to these days?

Kristian Bush: Well, we are in the middle of a tour. We just finished the first leg of the Lilith Tour and the Lilith Fair, and we are about to go and finish out the rest of the year with the headlining tour.

MR: The headlining tour is called the Incredible Machine tour?

KB: Yes it is.

MR: And that's based on your new album coming out in October called The Incredible Machine?

KB: There you go. That's right.

MR: You have a new single called "Stuck Like Glue." What was your inspiration for that?

KB: Interestingly, whenever you are making an album--and I don't know really what the percentages are--the last two or three songs that you write for the record, many times, end up being the singles. It's fascinating to me that that happens. I think "Pour Some Sugar On Me" was that way, and was the last one that they put on the record. It's strange but it feels like you get the sense of the whole piece of art that you are making. Then the last two or three songs are so well-focused because you kind of know where and what part of your talent and your heart you're digging at.

MR: You're a Grammy winning act, and you've had a lot of number one records. By this point, a lot of acts are falling into a routine and writing the same things over and over again, yet Sugarland's music seems to be progressing. Are you conscious of that as you make your records, that this is still an evolving process?

KB: Yes. This will be our fourth record together. There are so many people who haven't heard our music or don't even know what we do. I am in Los Angeles right now, and I was out watching fireworks where people had no idea who I was or what I do. Then you play 20 questions and I say, "Yeah, I am in a band called Sugarland," and they go, "Cool. Is it a good band?" You can't assume that anyone knows your job or what you do. It was really fun to meet them, but in that same moment, well, as an artist, you hope that you're always growing all the time, and we have been really lucky with the career that we've had. Our band has become excited about what we are going to do next.

MR: Speaking of that, you have this YouTube weekend review. Can you describe what that is?

KB: Things are happening at such a rapid pace right now. We are out on tour in support of a record that hasn't even been released yet which is a little bit backwards. Traditionally in the '70s or in the early '80s, people used to go out and do the tour and then release the record and then tour again. We wanted to make sure that because we were not going to be able to get everywhere we wanted to get to before the album came out, we wanted everyone to kind of participate in it. To tune in and see the different kind of things that are going on during a tour. A lot of folks are saying that during the touring season this year, there are not a lot of folks coming out, and I don't know if we are just extremely lucky or if everyone who turns out just happens to be Sugarland fans. But our shows are packed. I am so excited about it.

MR: The music paradigm has changed so much, you absolutely have to go think beyond physical products.

KB: I have to say it does feel a little like it's anyone's game to figure out how to sell records. I have to applaud our manager and record company for embracing this idea. It was our manager's idea. We were talking about the days when we used to go into the music store and look at the dry erase board with the upcoming record release dates in anticipation. There were even days I would stay up until midnight just to get the album. I still remember those days and there was a certain amount of excitement about that. And how did you get excited about that? Our manager was saying, "You know, the record business is not broken. It's actually alive. The thing that is different is that it doesn't feel like there is that excitement anymore before an album comes out."

So, that was the inspiration for playing the songs live and touring the album. We started asking people to pull out their phones, and start taking videos and upload on YouTube and share it with each other, get excited about the album. When you're at a show, it's really obvious that the audience is the show. The audience is a part of our show and is a part of our record, so they should be involved. We are excited because we've heard the music and can't wait for it to be released. I can't wait for fans who have been listening to Incredible Machine for four months, hear the recording of it. It's one of the most beautiful recordings that I have ever done. I am so proud as a producer and a musician, and as an artist and writer.

MR: To what do you attribute the huge success of Sugarland?

KB: It's a combination of every other band's kind of answer to that question. It's one part really great luck, another part is it takes a whole lot of work to be lucky. You have to stay on it every day. You have to practice. It's where opportunity and talent meet. It isn't just being good, it's somebody giving you the shot at being on TV or giving you the shot when they loved that song on the radio and you are asked for another one. There are a lot of great, great songs, and a lot of great bands, singers, and producers in this world. They may make one or two great things. But to do four, five, six or seven...that's when you are into the upper echelons, really trying to hone your craft and work hard every day at doing this. This business is really aggressive, and they only want to know what have you done for them lately.

MR: What is your advice for new bands that are just starting out right now.

KB: Here is a great example. We were just at Lilith Fair, and in the parking lot, there were a bunch of stages as well as the main stage. There was a stage in the parking lot, and there was a band on that stage called Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. A dear friend of mine who I trust said you have to catch Grace Potter. So, I go up and I walk up in the middle of the crowd full of women and watch and these guys light it up. Just killed it on a stage with a generator and a tent with people selling Luna Bars. And I sat and thought about this for days. I didn't miss a single set of theirs, and I invited them to dinner and I now have a new band crush. I sat down and talked to them and their journey through this. It was going to be different than what my journey was for a lot of reasons. The music business they are in is six or seven years down the road from the business I started in. Even with just the fans. Go one person at a time. This is the advice I would give any band. Go up on stage, play your heart out, and work hard. Work hard at making great songs, and then go perform them because people will believe you when they see you play these things, when they see you sweat them.

(transcribed by Erika Richards)