Tuesday SXSW Music Sessions: Indigo Girls & Susan Rogers

Two discussions on activism and creativity at South by Southwest

In two Tuesday morning South by Southwest sessions, music industry veterans Indigo Girls and Susan Rogers explored how activism and brain chemistry, respectively, informed their work.

Indigo Girls Discuss Their Rites of Passage to Activism

Amy Ray of Indigo Girls (photo by John Anderson)

If Tuesday morning’s featured session with Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray and Emily Saliers promoted a single overarching theme, it was how much their activism is rooted in listening, learning, and actually ceding their stage to other voices. To emphasize the point, the discussion’s highlights came via Cynthia Perez of the Indigenous Women’s Network and Honor the Earth, who stepped in at the last minute to join the panel, and laced the conversation with a powerful, poetic perspective.

Moderated by Abby Johnston, editor at The 19th and Chronicle music contributor, the session took the new Indigo Girls documentary It’s Only Life After All (making its Texas premiere this week at South by Southwest) as a starting point, noting how the duo’s music and activism has been intertwined from their start in Atlanta in the late Eighties.

“Very early on it was just a way to connect the joy of playing music with what was going on in our communities,” offered Saliers of their social justice work. Yet the songwriter also noted the challenges of being pigeonholed as “activist lesbian women with guitars,” while Ray recognized that among their peers “male activists and singers could get away with a different kind of anger.”

l-r: Cynthia Perez (Indigenous Women’s Network) and Emily Saliers (Indigo Girls) (photo by John Anderson)

When the pair began working with the Indigenous Women’s Network and Honor the Earth nonprofits in the Nineties, their voices became rooted in the environmental justice focus of those organizations. Ray and Saliers continually stressed the importance of approaching such work with humility and a focus on centering voices from inside those communities. Perez appropriately offered perspective on the essential role artist activism can play: “Art is a universal language and this is why the Indigo Girls are so critical,” Perez declared. “It creates a greater platform and allows more people to come together. We are all connected by thread, by art, by music.” – Doug Freeman

Producer Susan Rogers Breaks Down the Music Your Brain Likes

Susan Rogers (photo by John Anderson)

Prince, Tricky, and David Byrne engineer Susan Rogers wanted to know what exactly her conversation host Andy Langer had against “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies. Rogers, who worked on the record, spoke with Langer on Tuesday morning about her 2022-published book, co-written with Ogi Ogas, This Is What It Sounds Like. “One Week,” though undeniably catchy, was a novelty, said Langer. A cognitive neuroscientist and Berklee Music professor, Rogers said the book is about listening.

The brain identifies with music it loves, she explained, and rejects music it hates before any conscious decision is made. The reaction can be changed, but not without effort. In the case of “One Week,” Rogers said she nixed drums, reflecting the vaudeville roots of Canadian music, and suggested an Americanized drum pattern based in the Golden Triangle – a musically historic area between Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans. The band wanted to cross the border from Canada to the U.S. at the time, and Rogers made it possible.

“Every record you hear is shaped through every other record you hear,” she said. Asked of her own current favorite artists, the professor opted for Son Little and Curtis Harding. – Christina Garcia

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SXSW Music 2023, Indigo Girls, Amy Ray, Emily Saliers, Cynthia Perez, Susan Rogers

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