The past two years have seen a bounty of treats for fans of folk heroines and lesbian icons the Indigo Girls.

Since March 2009, the duo have released an acclaimed studio album, a double-disc live collection, and have also joined the ranks of artists to record a Christmas album (theirs even included a shout-out to their Jewish fans, Happy Joyous Hanukkah).

It seems that after being unceremoniously dropped from label Hollywood Records in 2007, life as independent artists has given the pair a renewed artistic vigour.

“When we started, record companies were nurturing bands, rather than just seeking hits,” Emily Saliers told the Star Observer from her home in Atlanta, where she’d been shut in after a snowstorm the previous night.

“We had a great run with Epic, it ran its course and it ended. At that point, I think Amy [Ray] would’ve happily gone independent, but I wanted to give it one more shot on a label, so we went with Hollywood [for 2006’s Despite Our Differences].

“It was a very disappointing relationship. I remember the night they dropped us, we were sitting in our dressing room backstage and we were both so happy to hear the news.

“We agreed that going independent had been coming a long time. We thought, after all the connections we’ve made after so many years in the business, there’s nothing a record label can do for us any more.”

Indeed, looking at the stats, the decision doesn’t seem to have hurt them — their current studio album, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, marks their highest entry on the US album charts (at a respectable 29) since 1997.

“I’m surprised to hear that, actually! We don’t follow charts any more. There was a time when we used to debut in the top 10 and sell 20,000 records in the first week — those days are long gone.

“I think the most important thing is the integrity of the work. We’re more prolific now we’re independent — we don’t have to ask permission and wait for the middleman any more.”

And that means doing exactly as they please, including that aforementioned Christmas album. Rather than a Mariah Carey-esque attempt to revive a sagging career, Holly Happy Days was more the product of Saliers’ and Ray’s new found freedom to follow their whims.

“It was really just a fluke — there was no heavy-handed marketing reasoning behind it. We could’ve done it at any time, but very simply, we both just were into it at the same time, and both had the same idea to go to Nashville and do it bluegrass-style.

“It was such a joyful experience — probably the best time I’ve ever had making a record.”

And presumably it also sorted out her Christmas shopping?

“Ha, could you imagine? Giving my family Indigo Girls CDs for Christmas!”

The recently released double live album, Staring Down The Brilliant Dream, was another treat for fans, not least because of its meticulous selection process. Ever the perfectionists, the Girls pored through recordings from an entire tour’s worth of shows to select the best tracks for the album.

“We went through hundreds of performances, and even if the vibe’s good, if I hear something that’s really pitchy, I just can’t go with it. We don’t use a lot of trickery, but in the end if we had a great performance with just one or two off moments, our front-of-house guy Brian was able to tweak those for us on the record.”

It’s a slippery slope, though — should fans brace themselves for an autotune-heavy record in the pipeline?

“No, no. We really are singers, I promise,” Saliers laughed.

There’s no doubting that — just look at the long list of respected musicians who’ve clamoured to perform with the pair. The most famous collaboration, and one that introduced their sound to a new generation of music fans, was the 2006 Pink single Dear Mr President — a particularly large hit in Australia, and one of the few protest songs to make a splash on commercial radio in recent years.

“Both Amy and I were huge fans. She invited us and it became clear during the recording session that she was a huge fan too. She had written that song with us in mind, because of our political leanings. She’s just awesome; so fierce, talented and fun to hang out with.”

Asked to pick a favourite from their many collaborations with other artists, Saliers pointed to their time with Lilith Fair, the iconic all-female ’90s music festival masterminded by Sarah McLachlan.

“Lilith Fair was like a cornucopia of favourite live moments. When Chrissie Hynde sang a verse of Closer To Fine, I thought I was going to die. You have an out-of-body experience when someone you’ve admired through your career is up there singing your song.

“It runs the gamut — Brandi Carlisle is a friend, but not only that, it’s exciting to see a young artist you think is a voice of a generation. Ani di Franco is so right on and politically astute. Getting to sing live with Sarah McLachlan, doing a show with Patti Smith — there are just too many to name.”

info: Indigo Girls play Sydney’s State Theatre on April 28 and Melbourne’s Palais Theatre on April 29. Tickets through Ticketmaster.

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