Music advice from the Indigo Girls — and why they love Utah so much
‘We’ve always had these great audiences here that are just really nice but also super enthusiastic and super active and super engaged’ — Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls
Editor’s note: This article originally published on Jan. 24. It has been updated to reflect an upcoming event.
Brandi Carlile made a bold declaration at her most recent show in Salt Lake City.
“I am the biggest Indigo Girls fan on the face of the planet,” she told her large crowd at Vivint Arena last summer, wrapping her arms tightly around Indigo Girls singers Amy Ray and Emily Saliers.
Carlile said she owes everything to the Indigo Girls. She listened to them as a teenager, learned how to play guitar while listening to their songs, traveled far distances to see them perform and waited hours in line to meet them. Eventually, she spent a time opening for them.
Carlile was the headliner at this 2022 Salt Lake show, but the way the crowd roared for her devotion to Ray and Saliers, and the enthusiastic way fans sang along as the Indigo Girls had their own set and performed hits like “Least Complicated” and “Galileo,” you almost forgot this was Carlile’s show.
And according to Ray and Saliers, whose documentary “It’s Only Life After All” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year, it’s been that way for a long time.
The Indigo Girls’ long history with Utah
Earlier this year, just minutes before the world premiere of the Indigo Girls documentary, Saliers recalled a 1999 show at Utah State University that still makes her smile more than 20 years later.
“These were all college kids, and their exuberant joy for just being at the concert with the music, for me, I’ll never forget it,” she told the Deseret News at the opening night of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. “I’m kind of exaggerating, but it felt like we were the Beatles or something. It was like, ‘Wow, we’re at a music concert and this is the greatest thing ever!’”
“We’ve always had these great audiences here that are just really nice but also super enthusiastic and super active and super engaged,” Ray added, noting that the folk-rock duo used to perform in Park City when “it was a sleepy little ski town.”
“Salt Lake’s always been this really special place that we come to and play,” she said.
Thanks to their friend Troy Williams, who is the executive director of Equality Utah, Saliers and Ray are also in the loop regarding Utah’s LGBTQ community. Their documentary premiered on Jan. 19 — the same day the Utah Senate was debating SB16, “a bill to ban gender-confirming surgeries and enact a moratorium on prescribing puberty blockers for minors,” the Deseret News previously reported. The bill received legislative approval and was signed by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.
“We keep a close eye on all the incredible work that he (Williams) does with the Utah legislature — particularly laws that are either supportive of trans people or hard for them,” Saliers said.
“I think Salt Lake is like a microcosm in some ways of the U.S.,” Ray added. “The mix of people, the issues that you tackle and the way faith and secular things come together in a bad way and a good way, too. I love it here.”
The Indigo Girls’ long history and familiarity with Utah made it all the more fitting for their documentary — a two-hour film that dives into their friendship, careers and activism — to have its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
The Indigo Girls go to Sundance
Ray is something of a hoarder. Thanks to her collection of tapes and videos over the years — including pre-Indigo Girls jam sessions of Ray and Saliers when they were in high school — “It’s Only Life After All” had an abundance of footage to work with. Ray said she initially kept this footage for posterity and that it wasn’t her plan to have it transformed into a film.
But when someone like Alexandria Bombach — who previously won best directing in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival with 2018’s “On Her Shoulders” — is interested in telling the Indigo Girls’ story, it’s not an opportunity you want to pass up.
As a longtime fan of the Indigo Girls, Bombach told the Deseret News she was drawn in by the musicians’ many layers — including their music and commitment to social and environmental justice. In telling their story, the director had thousands of hours of footage to work with. Bombach started filming in January 2019, and leaned more heavily into that archival footage when the pandemic hit.
Although they had certain requirements — Ray and Saliers told Bombach they didn’t want to be put on a pedestal — the musicians had no idea what to expect from the final product. When she watched it for the first time (a rough draft version), Ray said she was “blown away” by Bombach’s approach — particularly the director’s ability to highlight personal heroes of theirs who are more under the radar and don’t typically receive much attention.
“She knew exactly who to gravitate to — she could see that,” Ray said. “No one’s ever done that. ... I was just blown away, honestly. It’s hard to watch myself, but if I stand outside of this objectively, this is incredible, like, she is incredible as an editor and a director, and all the people that worked with her.
“I was gobsmacked, actually.”
Music advice from the Indigo Girls
“It’s Only Life After All” chronicles the Indigo Girls’ rise to fame — from bonding over their love of music in high school to playing local clubs to catching their big break and winning a Grammy.
Ray reflected on the ever-changing music industry and the unique moment in time that helped the Indigo Girls’ work reach a wider audience.
“There’s so many times when the gatekeepers are really hard to deal with and it’s a very white male, hetero dynamic, sort of mainstream thing,” she said. “And then there’s this break like when we started, we had a small portal where college radio and alternative radio were really big and they were exploring a lot, and so bands like REM or Rage Against The Machine or Joan Jett would be played at the same time as Indigo Girls or Tracy Chapman, and it was very great and creative and full. ... So it’s like you go through these revolutions all the time, and you just get lucky to catch the right portal.”
Now, with myriad social media platforms, more musicians are able to disseminate their work — but it’s a double-edged sword, Ray and Saliers said.
“In some ways it’s easier and in some ways it’s much more competitive because there’s a lot of material out there,” Saliers said, adding that she believes rising artists have a better shot at breaking through when they are confident in their own style. “To me personally, it’s all about really trying to find your voice. When I was a young writer, I tried to emulate Joni Mitchell. I don’t know at what point I found my own voice — but it’s very liberating to find your own voice.
“So I would say do that and surround yourself with a supportive and loving community,” she continued. “There’s plenty of love and opportunity for all musicians and creatives, so don’t sweat it. But you gotta do it for love.”