Interview: The Secret Sisters
From bankruptcy to a stunning third album, the story of this sibling duo’s resurrection is one that’s well worth hearing
You’d think two critically acclaimed albums produced by T Bone Burnett and a single released by Jack White’s Third Man Records (helmed by the man himself) would be an indication that everything was going well for country act The Secret Sisters. Sadly though, 2014 saw Laura and Lydia Rogers dropped from their label and filing for bankruptcy – with Laura taking a job as a cleaner in order to make ends meet. To all concerned it looked as though the duo’s days as a group were over.
Thankfully, things suddenly took a turn for the better. With an offer from Brandi Carlile to produce their third album and a successful PledgeMusic campaign, the sisters were able to climb out from underneath the legal paperwork and get back to what they do best, making music. The resulting album You Don’t Own Me Anymore is packed with raw emotion and stunning vocals and is the ultimate proof of their triumph.
We recently caught up with Laura and Lydia to learn a little more…
How are things for you at the moment?
Laura: “Things are a lot better than we thought they’d ever be. When we went through the rough part a few years ago we really thought it was the end of the line for us and the end for The Secret Sisters. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we didn’t know how to put it back together again. Then things started happening organically, which was kind of incredible and now we’re in a place where we’ve got our third record out and we’re venturing all over the US and now we finally got to come back over to the UK which is what we wanted for years and years. So we’re happy now and we’re in a good place and things feel good again.”
During those dark times were you able to think about songwriting at all or was it just about getting through the day?
Laura: “It was kind of that. The songwriting halted for a good nine or ten months, we just absolutely could not bring ourselves to sit down and write. It was hard enough to get through the daily tasks of finding money, paying our bills and trying to get out from lawsuits and bankruptcy and all of that glamorous stuff. Songwriting stopped for a little while but then we found our way back to it once all the dust had settled.”
Do you remember how you started writing again?
Lydia: “We didn’t really have the desire to do it but we knew it wouldn’t get done if we didn’t force ourselves, so we set days periodically to get together and force it out. The first song we wrote for the new record was over the summer of 2015 and a few months later we would write another one and a few months later we would writer another one. They didn’t really happen all at once, they came one at a time and gradually. It was a slow process but we got them out eventually.”
Was that a cathartic experience and part of the healing process?
Lydia: “Yeah that was totally part of it and we really couldn’t think of anything else to write about except what we went through, because it was the first thing on our mind at that point. It helped us heal and at the same time we were so angry at everything, even each other. So even getting together to write these songs was tough, but it was healing at the same time because we didn’t want to do it but we knew that in order to get past it we had to.”
You must have had to be very accepting of each other to get past that anger and be able to work together again?
Laura: “That’s very true. The first time we had an actual planned songwriting session we sat down together and I remember us just being so mad and frustrated and we hated each other’s ideas and we were just so emotionally tired. We had to kind of go to separate spaces and write for a little while and then get back together again and discuss our ideas. It became like a counselling session between the two of us and we had to have a lot of grace with each other because we were the only people who could understand all of the emotion and frustration that we had gone through. There was no one else that could really grasp how terrible it was other than the two of us. So we had to have a lot of patience with each other, and I am not a very patient person. So that was miraculous.”
Was that a completely different dynamic to the way you worked on the first two records?
Laura: “A little bit, we’re still sisters at the end of the day so when we write together it’s easy for us to get frustrated and it’s really easy for us to criticise each other’s ideas in a way that is maybe a little harsh for a dynamic between two people, but that season of songwriting was a little more stressful than the previous ones just because things had been rough, but we always disagree no matter what’s happening. Even when we’re happy we tend to disagree with each other.”
In some ways that must make the music even stronger, because you can be completely honest with each other…
Laura: “That’s a good point, we can be really mean to each other but at the end it produces a good product. We just go about songwriting in really different ways and I think that makes us butt heads even more but we eventually get them out one way or another.”
Can you talk us through the creation of a typical Secret Sisters song?
Laura: “Well each one is a little bit different. Lydia has written a few songs on her own and then she’ll come to me with the framework of it and we’ll work on it, but typically what happens is that we get together and we always try to have some sort of idea, or a melody, or a lyrical thought, some sort of jumping-off point, and then we sit down together and we just write from that perspective.
“Lydia tends to be the melodically driven sister, she’s really good at chord progressions and making things interesting in that department and then I’m more driven towards lyric writing, so I care more about framing the words and the story with the music. It’s collaborative and we both have our say on both sides of the excursion into songwriting. That’s typically how it works but it isn’t ever completely smooth. Some songs will be born in an hour and some take several days to work out but Brandi [Carlile], who was our producer on the third record, was really good about helping us put the finishing touches on the songs. We would have most of the songs written and then she would come in and say, ‘You really need to take this chorus up a notch,’ or ‘you need to add a bridge here that’s going to finish off the story,’ and so Brandi was really good at helping us make the songs extra powerful.”
Do you enjoy working in the studio environment?
Lydia: “We don’t typically love that, we like to be really prepared. That’s just kind of our personality but we had several songs where we thought they were finished and they weren’t once we got into the studio. Brandi was really good at telling us if it needed to be taken somewhere else or to a different level and she’s a master bridge writer. She wrote maybe three bridges for us. We like to be a little more prepared than we were this time and hopefully we will be for the next record.”
How did that differ from working with T Bone Burnett?
Laura: “T Bone is different from Brandi, because she is a female for one thing but also because she’s a powerhouse vocalist whose primary focus is being a vocalist. I think what was really great was being able to work with another female singer who understands how our voices work and how our songwriting perspective works. Her real talent was just being able to hone in on the femininity of what we do.
“Working with T Bone was really incredible but when we worked with him we had the songs ready and we went in and we did it. We played the record and the band jumped in when they felt like they should jump in and there wasn’t really a lot of work on vocal delivery and polishing up the songs. Brandi really understood all the places where we had room to grow and she wasn’t afraid to step in and help us grow in those areas. We’ve had three really great studio experiences with our albums and we wouldn’t change any of it but this one was definitely our favourite, just in terms of where we are in our lives and careers and because we’ve really revered Brandi for so long.”
We also wanted to talk about the fact that financial backing for the album came from a PledgeMusic campaign… Did that alter the creative process in any way?
Lydia: “Yeah it definitely does change things, though I don’t know if it really changed our creative process so much because we launched that campaign when all of the songs were written and most of them were recorded. It did challenge us creatively in how we would cater to our fans. We had to think of the different rewards for what people wanted to give, so Laura painted a few pieces of art and we would do handwritten lyrics and played some house shows. We had to think a little bit differently for that part of the process.”
Laura: “We talked about the songwriting being therapeutic and although we didn’t do the Pledge campaign for that reason it ended up also being therapeutic. We had gone through such a traumatic experience and we really had trouble with our self-confidence and belief in our music, we were really struggling with the thought that no one would care who we are or about our music any more. When it became obvious that it was going to be a successful campaign, it was reaffirming in a lot of ways and made us realise that people were looking for us. It really helped re-establish our belief in ourselves and the relationship that we have with our audience. It was a really good choice.”
Was there also a label involved at that point?
Laura: “We were still unsigned when we made the record, which is a lot of the reason why we chose to do the crowd-funding campaign. There was no one with a cheque book waiting to pay for the record to be made and that was really great because it allowed us to not have the pressure of having to please a record label. It allowed us to be completely ourselves and trust the music to go where it needed to go. Then after the record was completed we were able to get a deal with New West Records and that was great because it meant that they loved the music for what it was and not for what they envisioned it to be. It’s been a beautiful relationship so far.”
How is it to perform those songs that come from such a personal place?
Lydia: “It’s different every night and it all depends on how we’re feeling at that particular time. If we had first performed these songs right after we wrote them we might have had a harder time getting through them but it’s been three years now. We do revisit those emotions every time we sing those songs, but the pain has definitely dulled.”
Do you find new meanings in your songs the longer they’re in existence?
Laura: “I think that’s the beauty of music and songwriting; that the meanings evolve even after they’ve been written. One of the most amazing things is that we’ve written pretty specific songs about a very individualistic struggle, I mean not many people could have had similar experiences of being dropped from a label and filing for bankruptcy, but as we’ve written these songs and put them out into the world we have people come up to us and say, ‘I went through a terrible divorce last year and your music really helped me get through it as I felt like you were writing about me.’ People would tell their story and what they’ve been struggling with and it’s just nice to know that although the music is very personal to us it can also be applied to many difficult situations and can be helpful. I think that’s the best part of figuring out the new meanings of the music. It really broadens the reach of the music.”
Have you both had that experience with other artist’s songs?
Laura: “There are so many Brandi Carlile songs of course. We really love this band from Los Angeles called Dawes and they have some really incredible songwriting that we feel has been written just for us.”
Lydia: “Paul Simon, we’re big Paul Simon fans. I’m trying to think of a specific song but they all have a different meaning for us so it’s a hard question.”
Lastly, what’s next for The Secret Sisters?
Laura: “We haven’t started writing just yet, though I think we’re starting to feel the itch again. Right now we will have a little bit of time off and then will go back on the road in America in December and January and then we come back over to Europe and the UK.”
Lydia: “Most of next year we’ll be doing the same thing as we’ve done this year. A lot of touring and then we’ll be getting ready for another record, hopefully.”
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You Don’t Own Me Anymore is out now and The Secret Sisters will be taking part in the Transatlantic Sessions in February before beginning their own UK tour. Details can be found at secretsistersband.com