NoiseTrade One-on-One

Interview with The Secret Sisters

SecretSisters.The-YouDontOwn_Cover.inddWith an honest and adventurous Brandi Carlile-produced album on the horizon (You Don’t Own Me Anymore out June 9 on New West) and a head-spinning journey through the music business machine in their rearview mirror, we had the pleasure to discuss it all with Laura and Lydia Rogers of The Secret Sisters for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. The charming sibling duo took us through some of the ups and downs of their last few years, what it was like to record You Don’t Own Me Anymore with Brandi Carlile, the inspiration behind their two new songs “He’s Fine” and “Tennessee River Runs Low,” and more!

NoiseTrade: A lot of life has transpired for you two between your last album (Put Your Needle Down) and this new one (You Don’t Own Me Anymore). What are some of those mile markers – both good and bad – that birthed this new collection of songs?

Laura Rogers: Right after we released our second record was when everything started to go south. We promoted that record as best as we could but at that point our team around us had started to dissolve. Some of those relationships we decided to sever and some of them just kind of went away on their own. That was kind of the start of the unraveling.

One moment in particular that was a real blow to us was when we were opening for Nickel Creek on their reunion tour. We were playing in Los Angeles and after soundcheck a guy came up to us and said he was a huge fan and asked for a picture and an autograph. We took a picture and talked with him for a bit and after he got all of his souvenirs, he handed us an envelope and said, “By the way, you’ve just been served.”

After that moment of getting handed our lawsuit papers on the night of a really big show, everything kind of just got really bad. The only way for us to get out from under the lawsuit was to file bankruptcy. We were in a place where we had depleted every bit of money that we had accrued and stocked away because we had to spend it on legal fees trying to get out from under all of the business mess. Then we also got dropped from our label. That was the summer that we spent examining whether or not we wanted to try again and keep pursuing a music career.

It all turned around several months later when we opened for Brandi Carlile at a show in Seattle. We had been writing a couple new songs and we played one at soundcheck that Brandi happened to hear. That started the conversation about Brandi producing our record, which lead us to the PledgeMusic campaign that crowdfunded the record, and now we’re here on our release tour. Those are some of the big highs and lows.

Lydia Rogers: We also have both gotten married since our second record. So some good things have happened!

NT: When I first interviewed you two back in 2011, you were already talking about your almost prophetically strong connection to Brandi Carlile: singing her song “Same Old You” at the audition to land your record deal, waiting out in the cold to see her after a show, eventually touring with her… All these years later, what does it mean for you both to have now have had the experience of recording your new album with her?

Lydia Rogers: It’s been really neat to watch everything come full circle. When we were going to her shows in our twenties, we would always wait out by her bus and talk to her after shows. She’s just been larger-than-life to us. So to be able to go to her house, meet her family, record songs with her, and be her friend has just been something that we never would’ve imagined for ourselves. Just the fact that she believes in our music and wants to see us succeed is such a huge deal to us.

Laura Rogers: She’s just taught us so much. When I think back on everything that we’ve learned from her by being fans of her music and really admiring her live show and her songwriting, it’s helped us learn a lot about ourselves and also about the music business, especially how to navigate it in a way that is really fan-focused. She’s helped us appreciate it in a way that we never would have without her influence.

NT: Having already worked with so many legendary artists and producers throughout your career, what were some of the unique standout studio moments from recording with Brandi and the Hanseroth twins?

Laura Rogers: I was right at 20 when I first discovered Brandi and the twins. I remember it was before I was able to comfortably perform in front of people but I still loved music and wanted a career in the music business. I used to think how lucky Brandi was to have found Tim and Phil – these identical twins that are so cool and so talented and who sound so good together and so good harmonizing with her. I would honestly dream about finding my own set of twins that were that talented. So I had a moment in the studio when we were tracking a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song” and Tim was gracious enough to play the guitar on it. We all sat really closely together with a microphone between us and he played this beautiful guitar part. I remember thinking how crazy it was that I had always wished for twins like this and now they were playing all over our record.

Lydia Rogers: For me, there was a point in the studio when we were tracking “He’s Fine” and Brandi had just bought her wife a harmonium. They both sat down in the middle of the studio and recorded a harmonium part for the whole song. It was just a beautiful thing to watch both of them putting forth that effort together on our record. It was such a cool, personal moment for me.

NT: You’re offering two of your brand new songs – “Tennessee River Runs Low” and “He’s Fine” on your NoiseTrade sampler. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind both of those songs?

Lydia Rogers: “Tennessee River Runs Low” was the first song that we wrote in preparation for this new album and we were kind of not liking each other the day we wrote it. We were in a really big fight and we couldn’t agree on anything, melody-wise or lyric-wise. Laura made a suggestion to separate for a few minutes and see what we could come up with on our own. When we came back together, Laura had literally come up with the bones of both of those songs. I believe we were able to finish both of them that same day.

As far as inspiration goes, I think they both stem from the same thing. We were both thinking of the awful business relationships we were going through and we tried to personify them. They’re both inspired by the traumatic things we were going through.

Laura Rogers: She acts like it was all me but it was totally a mutual effort. For both of us, everything on this record came from such a deeply personal and bitter place but we felt like we had to work really extra hard to not be so specific. It would have been so easy to just really dig in and get really honest and pointed. We knew we had to write about our emotions, but we knew the average listener wouldn’t identify with the experience of going on tour with Bob Dylan and then being in bankruptcy and getting dropped from a record label. Most people don’t have that specific experience, but they can relate to being in a dark place. I’m really proud of the way we were able to get all of it out of our system in a way that everyone can still find themselves in.

NT: How about the other songs on your new record? Does each of you have a favorite or maybe one that you loathe because of how long it took to feel “complete”?

Lydia Rogers: For me, I think my favorite song on the new record is called “Mississippi.” It’s the sequel to “Iuka,” a song we wrote for our second record. “Iuka” was written about a daughter and her lover. The daughter is too young to get married and the father doesn’t want her to get married. She flees to Iuka to get married and – spoiler alert – her father murders her. So “Mississippi” is from the father’s perspective.

Laura Rogers: When we wrote “Iuka,” it was just so clear who was in the right and who was in the wrong. “Mississippi” tells the other side of the story. Not to justify his actions, but to kind of explain why. We don’t typically write narrative songs, but we love storytelling songs and murder ballads. It’s been fun to try our hand at that.

Lydia Rogers: I feel like we’ve kind of finally come out of the darkness a little bit. So we wanted to try and write from a narrative perspective and we’re going to have to do more of it since we’re not sad anymore.

Laura Rogers: My favorite song on the record is “You Don’t Own Me Anymore” because it’s just a little bit weirder than all of the other ones. It’s a little bit out of The Secret Sisters realm. It was such a powerful, passionate message that we felt strongly. I never thought it’d be the album title or a single, but I knew it came from a sincere place in me. I love singing that one.

NT: You also recorded music videos for both that looked like they were quite enjoyable to shoot. Without a central cultural hub like MTV, what are your thoughts on the role of music videos today?

Lydia Rogers: For the “Tennessee River Runs Low” video, we actually went down to a tiny little town in Alabama called Seale where this folk artist named Butch Anthony has this huge piece of land that he’s transformed into one big art piece. Every part of his property is so picturesque. We loved the idea of going down there to shoot a music video because he’s a little weird and we’re a little weird. It worked out really well. He had just taken an old pontoon boat and covered it with all kinds of art – paintings, flags, skulls – and it made the perfect visual accompaniment for the video.

Laura Rogers: It was super fun and one thing I’m especially proud of is that Lydia’s husband Mark is the one that did it. His film company has handled all of our videos for the last few years. They came up with the concept for that video and they also captured all of the studio footage for the “He’s Fine” video as well. We know it’s the kind of thing that you spend a lot of money on without it finding its way onto television like it once did. However, I think that having another art form to convey the meaning behind a song or to even present the song in a different way is so important. It still seems worthwhile and it’s nice to see the audience response when we put them out. We really enjoy it.

Lydia Rogers: At first, “He’s Fine” wasn’t even supposed to be a single but a lot of the radio stations responded heavily to it when it was sent out, so the label wanted some content for it. Luckily, my husband was able to pull some studio footage together pretty quickly and we’re really happy with how it turned out.

Laura Rogers: That’s one thing that’s been so nice about this record cycle. For our first and second record, everything had to be approved and it felt like we were never able to fully do things like we wanted. So there’s very little studio footage from those first two records and it’s such a tragedy because we had some really special moments with larger-than-life producers and players. But with this record, we’re finally at a point where we can call all the shots. So we thought it was worth having someone in the studio all the time documenting the experience, even if nobody ever saw the footage.

NT: To end on that same note, are there any music videos from any era, old or new, that you would have loved to star in or be a part of?

Lydia Rogers: I’m such a huge fan of Laura Marling and I just love her music videos, especially the ones that she’s made for this most recent record. They’re so simple but so beautifully filmed. I have a lot of respect for her. Those have been my favorite as of late.

Laura Rogers: I’m going to lose all the respect that anyone has for me by saying that if I could go back in time and be in any music video, I would be in the Hanson “MMMBop” video. That music video looks like so much! Also, I’d be in any of the Michael Jackson videos. We loved those VH1 marathons in the summer. We would be glued to the TV watching and loving Michael Jackson. Maybe “Earth Song” with all of the elephants and stuff.

When writer Will Hodge (@will_hodge) isn’t contemplating how “In an MMMbop they’re gone, in an MMMbop they’re not there” you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack