After an open audition in Nashville in 2009, the Secret Sisters, real-life sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers, quickly picked up momentum and recorded a well-received debut album with T-Bone Burnett and Dave Cobb, producers who understood the unique qualities of their voices. They’d tour with the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Paul Simon.
But after the release of their sophomore effort, 2014’s Put Your Needle Down, the buzz subsided, and the sisters found themselves without a record label. They returned to their Northern Alabama home and contemplated leaving behind their musical aspirations.
Enter Brandi Carlile. When the singer-songwriter found out the Secret Sisters had become destitute, she came to their rescue and offered to produce their new album. The resulting album, You Don't Own Me Anymore, opens with the tender, bluegrass-y “Tennessee River Runs Low." It features a set of songs that sound so organic, you'd swear they were traditional ballads.
The duo even used a PledgeMusic campaign to generate the funds for the album, reaching 50 percent of their goal in just 48 hours (and exceeding it in just over a month) with donations coming from nearly 1,500 fans. We recently spoke to Laura and Lydia in a conference call from their Alabama homes. They'll bring their tour in support of the release to the Music Box Supper Club on May 25.
How did the band first get its start? Laura: Our early days were very wonderful. We grew up in a musical family, and we always just kind of played music as a hobby. And then in 2009, we were kind of discovered accidentally at an audition. There was an audition in Nashville, and we were not a band. We just sang together at home. And so it resulted in a record deal that created the band. And then we went into the studio and made our first record, and then we went on tour, and ever since then we’ve gone on cycles of touring pretty heavily and then making the records that we made. So the early days were incredible and larger-than-life. We found ourselves hanging out with people like Paul Simon and T-Bone Burnett and Willie Nelson and Levon Helm and just these kind of ridiculous heroes and just fixtures in the music world. And so in the beginning, it was this kind of Cinderella story. We kind of came from obscurity from rural Alabama, and we weren’t trying to be a band or musicians, and we had never played a show together, and we didn’t have demos or a booking agent or anything like that. And then we found ourselves doing all these crazy things that most people only dream of. And that was the first few years that we loved and went through.
Did you grow up listening to lots of gospel and bluegrass?
Lydia: Yes, absolutely, Like Laura, said, we grew up in a musical family. Our dad was and still is in a bluegrass band. Pretty much every Saturday in the summer time, we were at a bluegrass festival, and I think at the time, we hated it because we were forced to be there. But it inevitably was ingrained in us. We both went to a church that used only a cappella singing. We, by default, learned harmony and how to sing in that way. So it was rooted in us from a very early age. We are from the Shoals area, but I don’t think that that legacy had an influence on us at least not in our early days. It was mainly gospel and bluegrass.
Do you remember the first time you sang together?
Laura: I think as far as like one moment where we decided to try to sing together, I don’t really remember anything like that because we did it from the time we were just tiny little kids I remember specifically we would go to eat dinner, and we would ride in the car with our parents, and out dad would sing bass and our mom would sing alto and Lydia would sing tenor and I would sing soprano, so we would do this four part harmony driving to eat dinner and like on road trips like going to the beach we would sing these church songs basically together. It was always what we did. There wasn’t one moment where we were like, "We like to harmonize together." It was just kind of a family affair that we didn’t think was special or unique, but apparently, people like it.
Talk about that open audition in 2009 and what that experience was like?
Lydia: Laura actually had just graduated college. I think she was 22. She was working as a nanny near Nashville. And one of her friends had heard about this audition that was being held at the Indigo Hotel in downtown Nashville. Laura had never performed in front of anyone as far as I knew. And I guess she just got some guts that day and decided to go try out. She went and sang a couple of songs. The judges on the panel ended up just loving her voice and started talking to her about record deals and what the future might look like. She apparently stopped them and told them she had a younger sister that she wanted them to hear, so she called me and told me the story the entire story and asked me to drive up from Alabama, and I came and tried out, and they liked my voice. And we were walking out of the audition, and it was actually Dave Cobb who asked if we ever sang together. About two months after that audition, we had a record deal with Universal Republic and the rest is history.
That was very gracious of you to invite your sister along.
Laura: The thing you have to remember is that when I was growing up I had really bad stage fright. I could sing in front of my immediate family, but I could never sing in front of a crowd or people that I didn’t know. When they started talking to me about all going to make a record, I thought no this is not supposed to happen to me because Lydia had always been the performer growing up. She was the one brave enough to sing in front of people, and I thought if they like my voice then Lydia is going to be a shoe-in for a record deal. And I think that maybe subconsciously I thought they would chose her and not me but they ended up choosing both of us.
Put Your Needle Down didn’t receive great reviews when it came out and the label dropped the band. What was that like?
Laura: It was hard. I think that in a way, we expected it. I think because at the time, we didn’t have a manager we didn’t have anything in place. There was no one leading the campaign to put out the record. It wasn’t a surprise to us and to be completely honest we didn’t have a terrible experience with the record label. They were very kind and generous to us. They’re an enormous label with an incredibly successful act, and we’re a small little Americana duo. We had just filed for bankruptcy, and we were in the middle of just this turmoil in the business world. We got a letter in the mail that they had wanted to end the relationship. And I remember thinking well that’s the cherry on top of the big ice cream sundae. In hindsight, even though it put a damper on things, because we expected it, it actually opened up the opportunity to go to a label that was a better match for us. And now we’re on a new label in Nashville that’s more our speed, and they’re wonderful. I don’t regret our time with Universal Republic; we definitely wouldn’t have gotten the two records that we did if it were not for their involvement. It was hard, but it was also useful in the grand scheme of things.
It sounds like singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile came to the rescue. What did she bring to the album?
Lydia: She is the whole reason we were able to make a record in the first place. We were ready to give it up for a while, music-wise. She actually happened to call us one day and ask how we were doing, and we talked for a long time. She was giving us advice and was really just a big encourager to us. So throughout the year, we would write a song here or there just to kind of boost our confidence a little bit. In December of 2015, she asked us to come to Seattle and open two shows for her. We went and started to do our soundcheck and played one of the songs that we had just written. And it was actually our first single, “Tennessee River Runs Low.” She was in the venue listening to our soundcheck. She heard the song and was like, “Girls, you better not have written that song.” We told her that yes we had we had, and we ended up going backstage and showing her more of the songs we had. She was just really excited about it and wanted to get involved. And she said that we had to make a record together. That’s what we did for all of 2016. We would go back and forth to Seattle, and that’s how we got the record done. It was a really, really cool experience, and we couldn’t have done it without her.
What’s the inspiration for “Tennessee River Runs Low”?
Laura: We were sitting with a friend of ours who owns a house overlooking the Tennessee River that runs through our hometown. He graciously allowed us to have a weekend of songwriting at his house. We were sitting in this big room with this big window overlooking the river. It was the first time we got together with the intention of writing songs for a new record. We had just come out of this tumultuous season in our career. We had bottled up emotion from just the frustration that we felt. I remember we were not on good terms with each other that day. Lydia and I were just kind of angry. I think it was mainly at our situation and not necessarily at each other. But we sat down, and we started trying to to write, and we kept butting heads and disagreeing and finally said, "Let’s just go to different places in the house for 15 minutes and generate ideas and then get back together and just see what we come up with. And that’s just how that song was born. So I think that a lot of it is just using the river to personify and carry the emotions that we were feeling after getting through all of the hard stuff that we had to get through. So that’s where that song came from.
Talk about the making of the music video.
Lydia: It was made in a tiny little town in Alabama called Seale. There’s this folk artist named Butch Anthony who lives down there and literally every part of his property is an art scene. It made for a good background for a video. It couldn’t have been a more fun day, it was just amazing.
The patched-together boat in the video is really cool. Laura: We didn’t have to put that boat together. He just had it. He just built it himself a couple years ago, and it just so happened that we wrote a song about being on the river, so it was the perfect vessel.
“He’s Fine” is a really beautiful ballad. Is that about someone in particular?
Larua: I think one of the things that happened on this record is that we spoke about the darkness we went through. It was all pretty much business-related. But it’s not easy to write a song where you specifically talk about severing ties with your manager or going through bankruptcy or filing a lawsuit. You don’t write about that sort of thing in a poetic way, and we felt that in order to keep the music applicable and relatable, we would just turn all of our frustration into spinning it from a romantic perspective. So it is about a couple of different people but their names are not Davey White by the way. That’s a fictitious name that sang well. The entire record is about specific people and kind of tragic experiences that we went through, that we tried to veil with a more literary, poetic feel. There’s a lot of specifics, and I feel like especially the people that know our story first hand will pick up on what we’re trying to convey and what we had to say in order to heal.
You must be excited about touring behind the album.
Lydia: We definitely are. It’s a little scary to make yourself so vulnerable because this is our most vulnerable record to date, but we wrote these songs with the intention of being able to play them live. So we’re excited to try them out live and see how they go.
The Secret Sisters, Cheyenne Medders, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 25, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $18 ADV, $20 DOS, musicboxcle.com.