It's hard to figure how Amy Ray and Emily Saliers manage to make such beautiful music together as the Indigo Girls.
Ray is from Georgia and Saliers is from Connecticut. The Southern girl's a little bit Clash and the northern girl's a little bit Kanye West.
Yet the duo has been making richly romantic and socially conscious folk-rock and pop together since the mid-'80s, when the Atlanta-based duo started releasing their recordings independently, and their contrasting influences created a sound that landed them a major label contract in 1988, when similar female acts such as Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega were beginning to stir up the mainstream charts.
Twenty-four years, one Grammy and 14 albums later, the Indigos have built one of the strongest and most devoted followings in the business, without the aid of hit singles. Their latest album, “Beauty Queen Sister,” is their fourth on the independent IG Recordings label — distributed by Vanguard — which they established in 2009 after nine albums on Epic Records and one on the Hollywood imprint.
They no longer have big-label money behind them, but it hasn't slowed down their record output a bit.
“No, no, it's easier to get an album made,” Ray said from her Georgia home last week. “We don't have the same money we had, but that doesn't matter because we just make sure we know the songs really well so we don't waste (studio) time.”
It also helps to have talented musicians who can nail a song in the least amount of takes, and a skilled producer with whom they can feel comfortable. Ray and Saliers reteamed with Peter Collins, who twirled the knobs on 1992's “Rites of Passage” and '94's “Swamp Ophelia.”
Session players included drummer Brady Blade, bassist Frank Sward, standup bassist Viktor Krauss (brother of Alison) and violinist Luke Bull, Nashville hands who lend what Ray described as the album's “organic sound.”
“I mean, we made the record in two weeks and basically every day we went in and we were like, ‘All right, what song are we gonna do today?' And they didn't know the songs, and we would teach them the songs and we would play it. It was very defined by that musical moment, everybody just playing live and you just let everybody do their thing.”
For the duo's current tour, which brings them to Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa on Sunday, the Indigo Girls are bringing along a young Atlanta-based band called the Shadowboxers, who will open the show and then serve as Ray and Saliers' backup band.
It's the first full-band tour they've done in seven years.
“Everybody's been really into it, you know, rockin' and stuff,” Ray said. “And it's been really great to have that other dimension kind of going on.”
As on their latest album — which contains more personal, nonmessage songs than usual — the Indigo Girls have dialed down their activism a bit on the current tour.
“We've been talking a lot about the immigration issue. ... We're just talking about reform and that kind of stuff,” she said. “But I wouldn't say that we're doing a politically messaged show. But we may have some tabling around the voting, about get-out-the-vote.”
But mainly it'll be about the beautiful music the Indigo Girls manage to make, despite their vastly differing tastes.
“In high school we were both listening to like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and Carole King and those singer-songwriters, and then I think I sort of veered and started hearing Patti Smith and the Pretenders and all the Clash and the Replacements and Husker Du, and all the kind of left of the dial alt-rock came out and that influenced me a lot,” Ray said.
“And (Emily) started listening to a lot of hip-hop and then I started digging back into Appalachian music and kind of field recordings and Alan Lomax kind of stuff. And that was real important. For a long period I listened to a lot of that kind of stuff.
“So I think we sort of appreciate each other's tastes but I definitely think we kind of come from different places in some ways. And I know that she really likes a good pop song, you know? And she's very American pop song. You know, like a great Beyonce song or a great crossover country hit by Sugarland or something. She's just a real crafter of the song and the arrangement.
“No, we write separately and then when it's time to kind of start thinkin' about a record, we will get together and start doing arrangements. And the arrangement process is really where it becomes kind of the Indigo Girls, you know? We arrange the harmonies and the guitar parts and whatever instruments we're playing and just the phrasing and this and that, and (it becomes) more a sense of this thing that's about both of us.”
With: The Shadowboxers.
Where: Cain's Ballroom, 423 N Main Street, Tulsa.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday.
Information: (866) 977-6849 or (918) 584-2306.