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Concert Preview: The Secret Sisters

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview: The Secret SistersPhoto by Abraham Rowe.
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The Muscle Shoals natives will be at Rumba Café on Friday night previewing material from their forthcoming third studio album, "You Don't Own Me Anymore"

If the already-released tracks “He’s Fine” and “Tennessee River Low” are any indication of what The Secret Sisters have accomplished musically on their forthcoming third studio album, You Don’t Own Me Anymore (arriving June 9 via New West Records), singer-songwriter siblings Laura and Lydia Rogers had better prepare to be overwhelmed with accolades. The twelve-song set was produced by folk-rock virtuosa Brandi Carlile, along with her longtime collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth (a.k.a. the Punch Brothers), and arrives three years after their last release, Put Your Needle Down.

The Rogers’ talent is readily obvious — beautiful, pure voices in harmony that lovingly cling to well-crafted Americana-rooted melodies. Despite their artistic capacity and a growing audience, the sisters found themselves dropped from their record label in 2014 and struggling to make ends meet, puting a full stop on their future recording and touring plans.

“It was a nightmare that every day seemed to worsen,” Laura recently said in a press release. “We went through things we literally never thought we would come out of.” Adds Lydia, “it had just gotten so bad, the only option was to file bankruptcy.”

With their prospects in the music industry looking bleak, an offer from Carlile to be at the helm during the recording of their next record, with whom the sisters had previously toured and written songs, provided a glimmer of hope. Financing a new album was an altogether different challenge, however, so the Rogers launched a PledgeMusic campaign to raise funds for the project. In just 48 hours, half of the needed funds were committed by supporters. And, within two months, donations had exceeded the campaign’s goal. Nearly 1,500 of the duo’s fans contributed, a testament to the connection they’d made with their listeners.

Still, there was healing to do from those dark days, and the sisters poured their lingering feelings into their music as they wrote and recorded. You Don’t Own Me Anymore is an intensely personal album, and there is a palpable depth that strikes you on first single “He’s Fine,” even on the first listen. It’s achingly soulful.

In just a few short weeks, the Rogers’ dream of releasing new music for the first time in three years will become a reality. And, the Rogers are back on the road, something that seemed inconceivable not terribly long ago. They’ll stop in Columbus this Friday night at Rumba Café in SoHud. Advanced copies of You Don’t Own Me Anymore will also be on sale at the venue for those who don’t want to wait for the album’s street date.

The Secret Sisters will also appear on “Saturday Sessions,” a segment on CBS This Morning. It airs this Saturday at 7 a.m. on local affiliate WBNS-1oTV.

You both learned how to sing and harmonize in church. Were there specific songs you remember being important in that process?

Laura: “Well, I don’t think there were any particular songs, but in the church we grew up in, you know, as in most churches there was just this really thick song book. And we just basically sang. I mean, every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, we would go to church and sing a handful of songs out of that book. You know, we were not obviously going for the purpose of learning how to sing, but because of the style of singing. It was all a cappella singing and four-part harmony. There were no instruments to lean on, and there was this real need to learn how to blend and harmonize with everyone around you. And so those were really the songs we cut our teeth on, even though we weren’t really intentional about doing that — it was just kind of the by-product of being raised in a religious family. So it was really just one particular church hymnal that all the songs that were just kind of in this really unique style of music – and that’s really how we learned to do it, aside from just being in a really musical family.”

Lydia: “A cool side note: we actually brought that hymnal out on tour with us, so we’re now performing songs out of that songbook!” (laughs)

Ha! Wow, I love that! And, I can vouch for that level of discipline you spoke about, because I used to sing choirs when I was in school, and there’s nothing quite like sacred music that will ingrain in you the importance of precise pitch and meter…and not much room to mess around…

Laura: “Yes! Exactly.”

You mentioned how musical your family is, and listening to your first album was really interesting because it took me back to the really classic, vintage country music my grandparents used to listen to. They always had this AM station on in their house in Winnipeg called 63 CKRC, and that same vibe I remembered hearing when I was a little boy hit me when I heard those first songs of yours. What initially drew you to country or roots music as a genre, and what compels you continue in it?

Lydia: “Right, well, it’s honestly like Laura was saying. Because it was what we were raised on, I think it’s just something we’re naturally drawn to. We kind of got away from that in our teen years. Our dad was in a bluegrass band, so our whole childhood we were going to bluegrass festivals on the weekends. And so we were really raised more on bluegrass and gospel music. And then our dad would play some George Jones records, or Loretta Lynn, things like that, the Everly Brothers. And then in our teen years we kind of drifted away from it because it got on our nerves (laughs), and we would listen to, you know, the Ramones or Rufus Wainwright, converted from it a little bit.

And then once we got…I would say into our college years, it became a more nostalgic thing for us. So we were drawn to it again. And that hasn’t changed. Every time we sing that kind of music, it brings us back to something that is really special to us.”

Laura: “And I think a lot of it, too, is just the way that we sound together. I mean, we’re not super intentional about sounding a certain way or from a certain era of music, but I think that there’s just something about two siblings singing together that, you know, if it’s even remotely in the world of folk music, or country music, or Americana/roots music that it lends itself to an older era of music. Especially with the first record, when we were discovered in 2009, we had not written any songs, so we really didn’t know what our sound was supposed to be.

But we knew that country music was the most familiar thing, and it just felt like the perfect way to kind of test the waters and dip our toes in a little bit and see what kind of fan base we could grow. And it was great for the first record and we were incredibly proud of what that record did and where it placed us. But, of course, after a while we started realizing that we didn’t want to box ourselves in too much, and we didn’t want to be categorized as a throwback band. And we felt it getting a little bit claustrophobic after the first couple of years, so that’s why we tried the expand upon it a little bit with the second record, and the third record now. We’ve found the way we sound, and we’re always just going to try to let what is natural happen with us. We try to keep components of our favorite classic country music, but we also are inspired by other things and I think you can hear that especially on the new record.”

And so on the new album, you worked with Brandi Carlile and the Punch Brothers as your producers, which is just phenomenal. And reading some of the press you’ve done recently, you talked about the album’s production and how thoughtful you’ve had to be about making sure that the natural sound you just now discussed is preserved, and that it doesn’t sound like a mere projection of your producer’s influence. And Brandi’s esthetic is so unique and so distinctive. How did you ensure that happened knowing the sheer force of talent you had behind of the controls?

Lydia: “Luckily before we made this record, we’d been on tour with Brandi several different times, so we developed a relationship with her and the twins, and they knew our sound very well, and they appreciated it so much that they didn’t want to change any of it. They wanted it to remain as true to us as possible. And so we were thankful that when we got to work with them, they had that in mind and they didn’t want to change anything about us.

It was cool because it would have been easy for us to record in Nashville, or in our hometown of Muscle Shoals, even, and it would easily sound even more like a country and roots record. But because we recorded this in Seattle where they’re from, it kind of added this edge to it that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. So we were able to be ourselves, but it has this little thing that’s just a little bit different because went to a different place and we were with these punk Seattle kids. I’m really happy with how it turned out.”

Lydia: “I mean, anytime you make a record you have to prepare yourself. If you’re not producing it yourself, you have to prepare yourself for the fact that whoever is the producer, they’re going to out their specific sound on it, and that’s great because you know what you’re getting most of the time. And there are certain benefits to having a distinct producer sound. But because Brandi and the twins had never done any kind of production for a band other than themselves, it was a pretty new experience for all of us. And admittedly Lydia and I — before we’d gotten into the recording process and after we’d decided we were going to try it out with Brandi at the reins — we were like ‘we’ve got to make sure it sounds like a Secret Sisters record and not a Brandi Carlisle record with the Secret Sisters singing it.’

But they were just incredibly mindful of that, and there was never a moment where we had to sit everybody down and say ‘oh, this is getting way out of our comfort zone.’ They got it perfectly, but they also pushed us to be better versions of ourselves on our vocals, and they allowed us to play most of the instrumentation on the record, which we hadn’t really done much of in the past. Thankfully they just knew that intuitively, that it had to be its own distinct sound. And I think — for the both of us — we just think it sounds…it sounds like us, but it sounds like we had our friends come in and put the icing on the cake. And that’s what we wanted. We got exactly what we wanted out of it.”

The new album was created as you’ve both worked through a lot of adversity, and you’ve shared that experience rather openly as you’ve been talking about the project recently. And now, you’re taking it on tour. How does that feel? Making an album is more of an introspective process because you’re sort of isolated as you write and record, but then you’re suddenly in front of thousands of people putting those songs out in the universe and reliving them night after night. In what sort of place does that put you in personally and professionally?

Laura: “One thing that’s been so overwhelming, especially in the past week-and-a-half of us being on the road, is just how receptive the audience has been. We’ve had really good crowds at every show, and they come and they’re excited about the record, and they know some of the songs already. And they buy lots of copies of the record because we do have it printed early and we have it out on the road for sale with us right now. I think both of us are just in a place of so much gratitude and humility, because after we went through all the trials and tribulations that we encountered we really didn’t think we’d be going on another tour or making another record. We couldn’t even find the inspiration to write another song, so when you make the record and you hope it’s going to generate some interest and that you’re going to be able to tour again, and when you see them again and you hand them the project you’ve worked so hard on and it has literally your blood, sweat and tears in it, it’s a pretty special thing when people respond to it. Obviously that means the world to us, but honestly we’re so fiercely proud of this record and the songs we wrote for it are what healed us and got us back to a place of stability and confidence.

If no-one else likes the record, it really doesn’t matter because Lydia and I are proud enough of it that, you know, we’re at peace with it. So people liking it and responding to it and buying it is just the bonus part of everything. But it’s been wonderful and our fans are just so dedicated, and kind, and generous. We just can’t believe we get the chance to do this every day, you know? It’s tiring, but it’s pretty beautiful.”

And so now that you’re going to be on the road for quite some time with this yet-to-be-released album, are you continually writing while that’s happening? Or do you have a stopping point on the creative stuff where you have to focus on touring and go back to writing when you’re home again?

Lydia: “We kind of have to separate those two mindsets with us. It’s just kind of how we operate. When we’re touring, we’re strictly focused on touring, and when we’re home and we’re making trying to make another record, we’re focused on writing. I know a lot of other people who are out on the road and always writing, but we’re just not those people. Whenever we’re trying to make a record, we have to make ourselves get together and come up with something because it’s not something that we always…enjoy I would say? But it’s always very rewarding. So, I don’t know what’s next for us. We’re just going to be on the road all year promoting this, and probably next year, too. You know, we’ve talked around the idea of a gospel record at some point in the future. Not sure when that will happen, but, yeah, the possibilities are endless.”

The Secret Sisters (with special guest Cheyenne Medders) will be at Rumba Café on Friday, May 26, 7 p.m., 2507 Summit Street. Tickets are $20 (under 21 attendees pay an additional $2 cover at the door), and are available via TicketWeb. More information and music can be found on their official website.

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