Monday, July 18, 2011

Interview with The Secret Sisters

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Laura and Lydia Rogers of The Secret Sisters for an incredibly fun and insightful interview. These classic country songbirds are successfully carving out their own musical path with their heavenly harmonies and down to earth charms. I’ve been enthralled with them since they put out their “Big River” 7” vinyl single for Third Man Records and I’ve tried to get everyone I know to give their self-titled debut album at least one good spin. While their musical abilities are extremely impressive, it was nice to find out that they were extremely great people as well. As you’ll be able to find out in the interview below, Laura and Lydia are just as good at sharing stories and laughing as they are at singing together. For every “(laughs)” I typed into the transcript, I probably left out at least two more. Enjoy!

The story of how you two went from singing in church and your living room to releasing an album on a major label and touring the world contains this incredible mixture of talent, purpose and opportunity. How did life in Muscle Shoals, AL prepare you guys for the journey you’re currently on?
Laura: I think it had everything to do with it. I think that our lives and our childhood really fostered within us that love for really great music. The roots country music that we love so much and of course bluegrass music and gospel music. Also, I think just our lifestyle. We’re very family-focused, very church-oriented. We were very devout church goers as children. So we place, and still place, a lot of emphasis on having a system of faith in our lives. It works for us and it’s inspiring. It helps us on our best days and our worst days. It all culminated to just create The Secret Sisters. We’ve been described as pure, honest as simple, authentic and all of those things are great. But I think that if we are those things it’s because of the lifestyle that we’ve lived and the childhood that we had.
Lydia: Not because we’re trying to force that image out of us. It’s who we are.
Laura: We owe a lot to our raising. It’s funny because when you’re growing up you think your life is so boring and so “I wish I were here doing this” but I look back now and think I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood. It’s funny because all of that that we grew up with still inspires us. Just a few weeks ago we wrote a song talking about our childhood because we look back on that with such fond memories. And two, being in the Muscle Shoals area is such a hotbed for music. It’s almost shocking. It’s almost as shocking as Nashville. It’s interesting because a lot of the music in Nashville is music that migrates here, where as in Muscle Shoals a lot of the music is just native. It’s coming from people who’ve lived there since they came out of the hospital.
Lydia: And just as much is coming out of there as there was back in the 60’s and 70’s, it’s just not being publicized.
Laura: It hasn’t reached that level of success yet but there’s still so much going on there. I think there’s a new horizon coming up for the Muscle Shoals area and we will be very happy to see that happen.

There’s one songwriter from Muscle Shoals who I think is just phenomenal. Are you guys familiar with John Paul White from The Civil Wars?
Lydia: Yeah, isn’t he great!
Laura: Isn’t it great how much success they’ve had too!
Lydia: They deserve every bit of it.
Laura: We’re really, really proud for them. They’re really amazing. We don’t know him personally but we’ve connected via social networks and he’s a sweetheart and we’re really proud for them. It’s nice to see other Muscle Shoals artists making their way in the world too. When you met up with them along the way, it’s like “ah, people who know and understand us a little.”

A lot of well-deserved attention is given to your stunning vocal harmonies. Were you ever taught to sing like that or is it just a relational, instinctual thing for you two?
Lydia: I think it’s mostly relational and instinctual. We’ve been singing since we were little kids and we went to a church that used only acapella singing with no musical instruments. So we had to learn how to read shape notes and harmonize. On top of that, our family’s just really musical and we were always going to family reunions with everybody playing instruments. So we were always surrounded by it.
Laura: It just became second nature.
Lydia: We didn’t think twice about it. It wasn’t something we had to really focus on. It was just there.
Laura: I think that’s why it still surprises us today that our voices have gotten the attention that they have because to us it’s just everyday. Like breathing or brushing your teeth every morning, showering everyday. It’s so generic to us but for some reason people like it and think it’s some exotic kind of thing. Looking at it from a bigger perspective, I don’t think you could learn or be taught how to sing that way. I think it almost has to just be innate. For siblings anyway. There’s proof that there are people out there who don’t have lessons but can sing really well together. But to get that tight, almost one voice but split in two…
Lydia: It’s like you better be related, you better have gone to church… (laughs)
Laura: …and you better have been singing together all the time. It’s not anything we ever have to think about. It’s funny because people will come up to us and say “I can’t imagine how many hours you must spend practicing to sound that way” and I just want to laugh and be like we don’t spend any hours. It’s almost unfair that it’s that way but I think the simplicity of it and the non-practiced aspect of it is kind of better. It works. (laughs)

It’s awesome you said shape notes because I promise my next question is actually about shape notes. I’m fascinated by shape note singing. Can you guys talk a little bit about what it is?
Lydia: (laughs) Sure, it’s just four-part harmony; tenor, alto, bass and soprano.
Laura: It’s just like reading regular music except the notes are in a shape. The shape represents the pitch of the note. It’s weird because if I were to have to sit down and explain it to somebody, I couldn’t. But after so many years of just reading it, I just know how. Anybody could come to our church and if they know how to read music, whether they know how to read shape notes or not, they could still read the songs and the music. My dad’s really great at it. Our dad’s a song leader so he knows all the little smart things about it. It’s cool, really cool. Our parents didn’t take us to church to learn how to sing but by default you learn how to.
Lydia: I think everybody in our church can at least carry a tune.

Have you guys seen the documentary Awake, My Soul?
Laura: I haven’t but I’ve heard it’s amazing. There’s those Sacred Harp churches where they sing the actual shape notes before they sing the songs. It’s amazing. We need to find that. I bet it’s fascinating.

By having such a timeless quality to your voices and covering these classic country songs, is it your hope to introduce a younger audience to a different musical era?
Lydia: Yeah, we definitely want to be a part of that. More than that though we want to translate well into all age groups. We always say we want a young person to be able to bring their grandmother to the show and them not be offended. We love that people are able to do that. We want to have that longevity. We want our music to last for a long time and not just be appropriate in one period.
Laura: There is something to be said for that. I didn’t know what to expect when we started. I don’t know how it’s going to work for the younger generation. We have kids as little as 2 years old that say they love when we sing “Why Baby Why” and I just think if you can teach one kid that there’s a song called “Why Baby Why” and this is how it goes. Whether or not they know who wrote it or what year it became a hit. It doesn’t matter. They know a good song and when you know a good song you never forget it. There are so many kids who are just missing that education on music history and it’s so important no matter what. Musical history is not just about the music, it’s about telling a story from a time period in American history that is very important. It’s just as important to me as teaching a kid math or science or whatever.
Lydia: We always like to let people know if you don’t know where you came from, you can’t know where you’re going. I think that’s really important.

You guys played the Ryman earlier this year with Amos Lee and you’re coming back in September to play the Opry. What does it mean to you to be a part of these revered institutions of country music?
Laura: There’s nothing like it. That Ryman show was easily my favorite show that we’ve ever played.
Lydia: The place is just so hallowed.
Laura: Anybody that knows anything about music, whether you love country music or not, you want to stand on that stage. I feel so haunted every time that I’m there. You’re walking around backstage and you’ve got all these old pictures of these unbelievable artists…
Lydia: Kitty Wells, Hank…
Laura: You can’t even wrap your head around all of that. It just blows my mind. That show was remarkable. It’s just crazy. I can’t even put it into words. For us to love country music as much as we do and to have such a fondness for the history of it and the good stories of it…
Lydia: There was a point…(laughs)
Laura: Oh, don’t tell that! (laughs)
Lydia: We were at The Ryman and Laura had gone to the bathroom. She was by herself and I walked in to hear her saying, “Patsy? Patsy?”
Laura: (laughs) I felt like I was about to pray and talk to Patsy! I felt like she was there!
Lydia: (laughs) Yeah, it was pretty pathetic.
Laura: I’m such a freak. (laughs)
Lydia: You know she’s in there though!

One thing about The Secret Sisters that has not been a secret is Laura’s devotion to Brandi Carlile. Describe the moment when you finally met her and what has it been like to tour with her?
Laura: Oh brother! It was ridiculous. I was nervous. I was afraid I was going to meet her and she was going to hand me a restraining order. She was so sweet and I expressed my undying devotion to her music. We all instantly hit it off. She is just the sweetest person. It’s almost like we were all just meant to get together and be good friends. It was an honor. She’s precious to me. I love her as a person and as a musician and a singer. I think she’s just remarkably talented. That was my favorite tour that we’ve ever done. There was just so much inspiration floating around everywhere.
Lydia: We learned so much on that tour.
Laura: Now we’re going to get to go on tour with her again this year. We’re so excited about that. She’s just been incredible. I think she’s going to be legendary if she’s not already. I’ve got to stop talking about her or I’m going to start crying. (laughs)
Lydia: (laughs) She could go on forever.
Laura: (laughs) I really could.

I’m pretty sure she’s getting pretty close to legendary. Have you guys listened to the album she just put out in May?
Laura: Benaroya? Yeah, her voice works so well with the strings.
Lydia: It’s like, how do you do that live? How is your voice on pitch every single time?
Laura: If you took the strings away, it’d be just as good. But there are moments when that music just swells with her voice and it’s like, “I’m going to fall in the floor.” It’s so amazing. We had such a good time with her and it’s really humbling because I think she was inspired by us for some crazy reason. She brought us out on stage to sing with her and she helped us write a song for our record. To go from being a super fan of somebody to tour with them and do another tour and write songs with them…she offered to produce our next record.
Lydia: We have pictures of us with her when we were fans…
Laura: …like waiting in the cold after a show. The crazy thing is when we were in the middle of recording our record in February of 2010, Brandi came and played a show in Nashville. I went to her show and stood out in the freezing cold for two hours waiting for her to come off her bus. I told her, “Brandi, I got a record deal because I sang a song that you wrote at an audition.” She had written a song, “Same Old You,” and I sang that song at the audition that got us our record deal and everything. Literally a year to the day after that we found out that we were going on tour with her.
Lydia: Then we got to sing that song with her on stage.
Laura: I told her, “I’m that girl who stood outside in the cold and told you that I got a record deal because of your song.” She said, “Are you kidding me?” It’s just crazy how things come full circle like that.

Have there been any moments for you when you felt the transition from trying to get your foot in the door to actually finding your own place in the country music tradition?
Laura: Yeah, there have been a few times. But I don’t think we’re ever completely satisfied. I think that’s there’s always this feeling of we’ve done this and we’re proud of it. We enjoy our accomplishments but that’s done. Good job. What’s next? What can we do to keep going?
Lydia: I think it’s important to always challenge yourself. Always strive to be better than you were. Don’t get too happy. Be proud of yourself but always think of ways that you can be better.
Laura: I think playing the Ryman for the first time was one of those moments were I felt like if it all ended tomorrow I’m done, I’m good, I’m happy, I’m satisfied. I’ve achieved a lot more than I ever though I would. When our record came out that was a great moment. When we played the Grand Ole Opry, that was really special. The first time we ever went to England and played a sold out show.
Lydia: When we played our home town for just a hundred people.
Laura: Yeah, when we sold out our first hometown show. Those are the moments were it’s not necessarily “oh, I’ve got my foot in the door” but it’s like if it all fell apart and was over tomorrow, I could go back to the real world and be so proud of myself. At the same time, you’re like, that was awesome but how do I go back to my hometown and sell out a venue that’s double that size. How do I influence other people musically and show them this great tradition of music. Even something as simple as writing a new song is one of those feelings were I’m like, I’m not some crazy, normal everyday Joe off the street. I can create something and give it as a gift to whoever will take it. I love that moment when you have a song finished.
Lydia: Yeah, it’s hard to do.

You took a vintage approach with your debut album by using analog equipment, recording to tape and singing into one microphone. Besides remembering to use breath mints, what was that experience like and are you looking to repeat it on your next album?
Lydia: I think we definitely want to use that same approach for the next record. I think we’ll always want to do that. Everything is so overproduced nowadays and autotuned. It’s always better to just stick to the basics and if there are flaws, there are flaws. People just deal with it and they relate to your flaws and they find it charming a lot of times. We love doing it that way.
Laura: One of the main reasons we did it that way was because of the kind of music we do. We thought let’s be very traditional and let’s do a throwback kind of thing were we take everything into consideration and do it the way they would’ve done it 50 or 60 years ago. But more than that, I just feel like those methods of recording bring out the best music. It brings out the best that you can offer as a vocalist. The band is more on top of things. I feel like it captures the sound in a much warmer, more living, breathing kind of way.
Lydia: Knowing what they did back in the day was inspiring. It enhances your performance.
Laura: And it keeps you on your toes. If you know that you’re not going to be autotuning anything you want to get a good take. There would be times that we would sing a song the whole way through for the first time and our producer would say “That’s the take we’re using” and you’re like “Are you kidding me?”…
Lydia: …“Really? I sounded horrible just then.”
Laura: He would say “You think that you sounded bad but you would not believe the emotion packed into that take.” So a lot of times we’d use that first take and say we’re done. It’s hard to release that and be at peace with it because you’re always criticizing yourself. But at the same time, you’ve got to let it breathe and be organic. It was a really good experience and I can’t wait to go back into the studio.
Lydia: Me too, I’m so ready!

I think it’s awesome that you guys have that kind of outlook because there is so much over-production and compression and taking out room noise. In some of the old Beatles albums you could hear kick drum pedals squeaking and people talking before a background vocal comes in, but it all creates an experience. If you really listen to the music, I think you can pick out a “copy and paste” chorus more than most producers think you can.
Laura: Absolutely, but it takes work. It takes a real passion and a real dedication to be able to hear that. I think most people are so spoon fed that it’s so easy to turn on the radio and listen to this drone of the same thing. It’s work to find new, good music but when you do and your ears are getting a massage, it’s like “Oh my goodness, this is different, this feels good.”
Lydia: Good music is out there today. You just have to dig for it.

In regards to songwriting, I wanted to commend you on the two originals on your debut album as they sound right at home with the other tracks. Have you been writing more for the next album?
Lydia: Thank you so much! We just wrote a song on the Brandi tour. We’re pretty proud of that and it’s definitely going to go on there. I think we have 4 or 5 good solid songs…
Laura: …and lots of good ideas that are kind of just finding their way.
Lydia: I’ve got so many parts of songs! I get started and I get going and then I’m like, “I’m bored, I want to go eat.” (laughs)
Laura: I think it’s different for every person who writes songs, but it’s not as simple as, “I’m going to write for an hour everyday.” I think that is so mechanical.
Lydia: You can’t plan it.
Laura: I want my songs to be floating around in the ether and I want to grab it and say this one’s mine and this is how it’s going to sound. All of our best songs are that way. “Tennessee Me” was written in probably 20 minutes. We’ve got a new song for our record called “River Jordan.” I bet that one didn’t take 15 minutes to write. Those are the best songs; the ones that you don’t have to wrestle with. That’s the kind of approach we take to songwriting. If I’m really struggling with it and I have a million different ideas fighting over each other I’m like, “this is not the moment for me.”
Lydia: I think that’s one of the problems today is that people arrange songwriting meetings and they try to force something out. Sometimes that works but a lot of times it’s just forcing out crap.
Laura: I think it makes things get homogenized a little too easily. When you’re writing with the same round of writers all the time or it’s “I’m writing at 9 o’clock, 12 o’clock and 3 o’clock.” It seems to take away the special of it. Sometimes that works for people and sometimes it doesn’t.
Lydia: It just doesn’t for us.
Laura: Plus, we’re so busy that I don’t have a free moment at 9, 12 and 3! I’m always doing something. (laughs)

Do you guys write together or separate?
Laura: It’s kind of about the same.
Lydia: Yeah, it’s getting to the point where we’re writing more together. If we’re ever lucky enough to have separate hotel rooms, I write a lot on my own. On the Brandi tour we were able to get some stuff out together. Which is a big step forward.
Laura: We’re still learning how to cooperate in writing. Because I’m the type of person, if it starts getting too complicated, I’m like “No, simplify it!” Hank Williams was so simple, but it was brilliant!
Lydia: And I complicate everything and try to add all these elaborate melodies. I try too hard! (laughs)

You’ve just a released a great version of the hymn “In The Sweet By and By” to people who’ve signed up for you’re email list. How did that recording come about?
Lydia: I think we wanted to get out some acoustic versions of songs that we do live. We went into FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals and just recorded like 5 or 6 songs.
Laura: We just had a lot of people asking. In our live set, we don’t have a full band because it’s hard to travel with a full band. So a lot of our sets are just stripped down acoustic. That’s a song that we had added in, just because it’s a beautiful song. We’ve had a lot of people saying that they loved it. So we decided to go in and record a few acoustic tracks and just put it out there. Plus with it being midway through the year, it’s kind of like “Let’s give the people some more stuff to keep them onboard.” It’s a beautiful song and it’s one that we’ve sung for years. People all over the world respond to that song. People of all different persuasions and walks of life just love it. It’s a really touching song, regardless of what you may believe or think or feel.

Was that another one mic take?
Laura: Yeah, we were facing one another singing into one big ribbon mic. It was the room where Aretha Franklin recorded “Respect”…
Lydia: …and The Stones and Little Richard.

You guys have worked with an astounding list of heavyweights so far, so I wanted to play a little word association with you. Tell me the first thing that comes to your mind when I give you a name.
Elvis Costello?
Laura: Fun... and spunky.
Lydia: I’m going to say energetic.

Jack White?
Lydia: Genius.
Laura: Yeah, genius. Absolutely, that’s the only word for it.

Loretta Lynn?
Lydia and Laura simultaneously: LEGENDARY! (laughs)

T Bone Burnett?
Laura: Tall. (laughs) No, I meant figuratively.
Lydia: (laughs) That’s not a good one!
Laura: He’s a listener. He’s got ears like a bat. He’s got these great, sensitive ears that hear so many things that a normal person doesn’t. He has supernatural abilities.

Elton John?
Laura: Charming.
Lydia: Yeah, charming.
Laura: The first thing he said to us when we met him was, “I’ve heard your record. It’s fantastic.”

Willie Nelson?
(At this one Laura and Lydia bust up laughing)
Laura: Texas pride. The first night we were on tour with him, after we finished our set we went out into the crowd to sign autographs and it was taking a long time. All of a sudden I hear the music go and I turn around to the stage just in time to see the big Texas flag fall to the ground and he starts playing “Whiskey River.”
Lydia: We were like “WE LOVE TEXAS!” I think his word is just proud. He’s proud of where he comes from.
Laura: We love Willie.

To catch The Secret Sisters in the UK or on any of their upcoming tour stops with k.d. lang or with Ray LaMontagne and Brandi Carlile, check out there concert dates

To download their gorgeous version of “In The Sweet By and By,” sign up for their mailing list

"In The Sweet By and By" - The Secret Sisters

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