Interview: Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls on sold-out concert for El Refugio (Variety, April 30)

The Indigo Girls perform at Variety Playhouse in a fundraiser for El Refugio April 30, 2019.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

The Indigo Girls perform at Variety Playhouse in a fundraiser for El Refugio April 30, 2019.

Originally posted Monday, April 22, 2019 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

The Indigo Girls support a wide range of charitable causes such as  women's rights, LGBTQ issues, environmental issues and voter education.

Immigration, President Donald Trump's favorite go-to subject, is another hot topic for the duo and they are holding a sold-out charity concert April 30 at Variety Playhouse. All proceeds go to El Refugio, a non-profit Decatur-based ministry of hospitality and visitation serving immigrants at Lumpkin's Stewart Detention Center and their families and friends.

In 2010, El Refugio rented a home in Lumpkin 140 miles south of Atlanta where friends and family members of detainees can stay for free while they visit loved ones. Volunteers host each weekend. The area is so isolated, there are few nearby hotels.

Recently, Samantha Bee's TBS talk show was so inspired by the group, it purchased a much nicer five-bedroom home for El Refugio in downtown Lumpkin so they could provide services to even more people.

<< RELATED: Samantha Bee donates five-bedroom home to El Refugio

Emily Saliers, one half of the legendary Atlanta singer-songwriter duo, said her wife Tristin Chipman heard about El Refugio and they spent a weekend in late 2017 at El Refugio's formerly cramped yellow house helping out detainee families and meeting with detainees at Stewart Detention Center.

“We met people who were coming through to see loved ones at Stewart and had dinner with them,” Saliers said in an interview Monday. “My wife and I went over to the detention center and met with a couple of men and listened to their stories. We wrote letters to them. It became very personal for me.”

That experience, she said, inspired her and her colleague Amy Ray to hold the concert benefit, which sold out quickly at $40 apiece. (Saliers said they wanted to make the tickets affordable, with $100 meet-and-greet VIP tickets to help boost the overall take.)

“El Refugio practices this radical hospitality,” Saliers said. “This is for anybody who claims to be a Christian or a humanist in terms of helping people out in real need and alleviating their suffering. The families are suffering. The detainees are suffering. The system is broken. This is happening in our state, in Georgia.”

She said the concert may be a one off but she is posting numerous times about it on social media and is speaking to press in hopes of spreading the word about El Refugio. “We want people to contribute and participate personally,” she said. “It becomes a groundswell, not just one little nugget of cash.”

El Refugio, which brought in $200,000 in 2018, hopes to raise $250,000 this year.

"We're hopeful that will be significant with the new house in terms of renovation and expanding our program," said JoAnn Weiss, El Refugio board chair ." It will be a big help. I can't wait to meet them. I'll be star struck!"

The Indigo Girls hold other benefit concerts throughout the year, including an annual one at Terminal West in January. This year's was to benefit the Homeless Period Project.

Saliers said besides giving the charity time on stage to talk about their group, they don’t tend to change up the set list too much unless a song addresses that topic directly.

In this case, given the immigration topic, the Indigo Girls will certainly play its hit 1997 song "Shame On You," which includes lines like "They say we be looking for illegal immigrants/can we check your car/I say you know it's funny I think we were on the same boat/back in 1694." (The song is typically on their setlist anyway.)

Their musician friends Matt Nathanson and Chastity Brown are joining them for the concert. "We just want to spread the joy of the music and knowledge of the issues," Saliers said. "I love benefit concerts. Everybody is in it together to remind that we're all human beings. We need each other. It's something that lifts us all up."

On other random topics:

Local venues: "We love Eddie's Attic. We have done solo shows there. We went to Red Clay Theatre in Duluth which Eddie Owen runs. That was super fun. The Fox is a pretty thrilling place. We haven't played there in awhile. Any Terminal West show is good. We like small hometown venues."

On living in Georgia: "I love Georgia. We've got Stacey Abrams, John Lewis. It could be very difficult politically outside of certain areas. It's a wonderful place to live, a challenging place and an exciting place historically."

On the "heartbeat" abortion bill passing: "It's devastating. It's horrific. I always say if men could get pregnant, the world would be different. I think there's a lot of propaganda going on with regards to abortion. It's a conservative onslaught. I can understand why people have religious views. But for so any people, there is a knee-jerk reaction to the issue. I think it's mostly men controlling women. It's a terrible, terrible law. We just have to keep fighting to work against legislation like that."

On Trump's immigration policies: "As a human being, I find him intolerable. Immigration is a huge issue. I'm not a believer in porous open borders. There are steps we can take to ensure this is not a completely out of control, mass incarceration, for-profit system which is happening now. The man I visited at Stewart, he left his country. His family members were killed He spent seven, eight days and nights over mountains. People died along the way. At the border, he claimed asylum and was thrown into detention. There's a better way to deal with that. I can get into the thing that felonious criminals should not be allowed to stay. The main issue is the for-profit prisons taking control of the detention system. It's a terrible thing."

The current world: "The split in this country is pretty disheartening. I'm reading a book about Eleanor Roosevelt. It was a simpler time when the country was able to galvanize. There were still horrific racial issues. But we're not that country anymore with rampant capitalism and global economy. It's hard to imagine something that would bring us all together as one. We have so much conflict and differences of opinion. It's just pretty bleak."

How that impacts her songwriting: "I've taken a little more of a stepping back and seeing things from a distant perspective. I feel like our time on this Earth is very small compared to the universe. I know during the course of human history, there are periods of conflict in certain parts of the world. Other parts of the world, there are people who always work for the good, who are humanitarian. And so it's just a balance. It's a constant push and pull. We just recorded a new album in the U.K. I have songs about physics as it relates to spirituality... At this point, we try to stick to grassroots, do things that are positive. We recently got involved with Dolly Parton'Imagination Library, giving books to kids who need them. We did it at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. We gave books to kids who wouldn't otherwise get them. It's a beautiful thing." [She has yet to meet Dolly Parton. "We've been invited to Dollywood to meet her. Oh my god! We'd die! I would freak out to meet her."]

How to stay hopeful: "I can vote. I can protest. I can work with groups like El Refugio. We have to keep sticking with that and don't despair so much on the dark side. It's too disheartening."

Working with symphonies: "I think it remakes our songs in a new way. The orchestrations are beautiful. They're complex. It's not just string sections holding long notes. They are well arranged. It's fortunate for us after all these years of a career to get this new opportunity to present our songs in a new way. It's so beautiful hearing the orchestra behind us. It's almost distracting for us to sing. We sometimes want to just turn around and listen! People who have come to the shows have really enjoyed the combination. We're proud we put an album out."

How about EDM versions of Indigo Girls songs?

“I would  love that! We did a couple of remixed. Tom Morello [of Rage Against the Machine] did one of “Shed Your Skin.” And We did a remix of “Free in You.” I love remixes. I’d love for people to freak out on a dance floor to our songs!”

On always closing their concerts with "Closer to Fine":  "We've put it earlier in the set. It doesn't work as well. It's one of our most recognizable songs. Most people know the lyrics so it becomes a huge sing fest. Whoever opens the show sings a verse. It's different every night. Some of our fans probably wish we'd close with something else but many more enjoy the finale. I should get tired of it but I don't."


Indigo Girls charity concert for El Refugio

8 p.m., Tuesday, April 30

$40-$100 (sold out)

Variety Playhouse

1099 Euclid Ave. NE, Atlanta GA


Indigo Girls with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m., Friday, September 13


Atlanta Symphony Hall