A Brief History of the Secret Sisters, as Told By the Secret Sisters
"We know all about those small towns."
The Secret Sisters — Lydia and Laura Rogers — grew up just outside of Florence, Ala., and though they've toured the world, their hearts (and homes) are still firmly placed in the South. Their camaraderie and respect for their hometown roots have always inspired their music, and helped them overcome some abrupt, difficult and life-altering obstacles.
"For us, this story doesn't seem that interesting," Lydia Rogers says casually, "but I guess, from the outside looking in, it is different."
As the Secret Sisters prepared for the release of You Don't Own Me Anymore, their latest record -- and their first with New West Records -- the Rogers sisters sat down with The Boot to discuss their history and newest project, out Friday (June 9). Below, they tell their story -- one that's interesting, challenging and inspiring -- in their own words.
Lydia Rogers: Music is something we have always shared, but it never really was our ambition. It happened really quickly: There was an audition being held in downtown Nashville, and anyone who wanted to come could try out for this major label. Laura went to try out on a whim, and they really liked her. They started talking about record deals.
Laura Rogers: Yeah, they started talking about all these scary things.
Lydia: And she was like, "Well, hang on, I have a sister!" So I drove two hours from Alabama, from my college ceramics class. I sang, and they liked me, too. We were about to walk out of the room, and they asked us if we could sing a song together. We had never done that before. We sang two songs, and that was kind of it; two months later, we had the deal.
Lydia: We sang a Brandi Carlile song, and we sang "Tonight You Belong to Me," an old, old '20s song by a group called Patience and Prudence.
Laura: We didn't come to this audition as a duo. We came individually, and when they asked us to sing together, it wasn't like, "Duh." We just did it, and we had no idea it would actually be something. We knew these songs, we're siblings, we grew up in church, so we knew how to harmonize with each other, even completely unrehearsed.
I remember at the audition, the people on the panel were immediately like, "Okay, what's your MySpace page? Who books your shows?" We didn't have any of this; we weren't a band, we didn't have a demo -- I was a nanny! But we love music and we always have, so we wanted to see what would happen.
We thought it was a fluke, or even a scam, like they were trying to get us on a TV show or something, and it would be a horrible deal for us. People told us, "You better be careful, they want something from you." But what would they have gotten? I was 22 years old and didn't have anything! Fortunately, that wasn't the case. There were people on that panel who really believed in us.
Lydia: That was eight years ago.
Laura: We made the record a month after signing with Republic. We had no songs; we had, like, two or three songs. Our first record [The Secret Sisters] is pretty much cover material. We had no fanbase.
Lydia: They just threw us out there quickly. That was a blessing ... and a curse.
Laura: It was like the label wanted to test the waters and see what the response would be, and all of a sudden T Bone Burnett came into the picture.
Lydia: But before T Bone was Dave Cobb. He was actually on the panel that found us, too. We kind of owe everything to him.
Dave Cobb is the one who took a chance on us and flew us out to LA and paid for demos. Without him, we wouldn't be where we are.
Laura: Yes, we do.
Lydia: He's the one who took a chance on us and flew us out to LA and paid for demos. Without him, we wouldn't be where we are.
Laura: He opened the door. Everything that came down the line wouldn't have happened if he hadn't responded to us in the way that he did.
When T Bone came along, that was when everybody went, "Oh, this might be something bigger than we thought." We were big fans of the kind of music that he represents, so it was huge. In the first year, the first kind of interaction on that level was with T Bone. Then a couple of months later, we worked with Jack White.
Nobody gets these opportunities! It was overwhelming. It all happened super fast, in a terrifying way. [Laughs] We decided we needed to give it a shot, and put the record out and toured with some of the most amazing headliners.
Lydia: So it was Dave Cobb, then T Bone, then Jack.
Laura: I think the record came out in the fall of that year, and our first tour was with Levon Helm and Ray LaMontagne. Then it was Willie Nelson. Then we went to Europe with Ray LaMontagne and played [Later ... With] Jools Holland. And then from there on, we had a really big response in the UK and Europe, and we kept going back. When we weren't there, we were touring with Punch Brothers, Paul Simon, kd lang, Amos Lee -- just a whole plethora of incredible artists.
Lydia: We were spoiled. We knew better to think this was normal, but yeah, we got used to walking into a venue and there would be a massage therapist waiting for us.
Laura: When it came time for us to put the rubber to the road and see what we were really made of, things changed. We didn't have catering, you know? We didn't have dressing rooms. [Laughs] We realized, in the moment, that we were very fortunate. And in a way, we always kind of felt bad about it. We knew bands and artists who were trying for years and years and years to get somewhere, and here we were with this dream experience.
Laura: I would never wish to go through the bad phase that we went through, but in a way, I do feel like we earned our stripes a little bit. Everybody has their bad experience or horror story that propelled them forward, and I guess that was ours.
Lydia: Yeah, this was as we were releasing our second album, [Put Your Needle Down]. We decided to make a management change, and that happens all the time in the music world. What should have been an easy transition from one manager to another turned into a nightmare: We found ourselves in a lawsuit that we could not get out from under — it would have been one thing if were Grammy-winning, multimillionaire artists. Sure, we got to do great things, but we had nothing to show for it except a cool photo album.
Laura: We found ourselves in this place where we felt betrayed by someone who we considered a friend. The only way to get out of it was to file personal bankruptcy. We depleted all the money we saved because of legal fees, and so when we filed, we had to list everything that we had, from dogs that we got at the animal shelter to the china our grandmother gave us.
Lydia: We didn't lose anything because none of the things that we had were worth anything to anyone but us. [Laughs] It was an emotional toll.
Laura: It was an insult. And it strained our relationship a little bit. We were in a place where we were ready to give it up; I was especially ready to say that. I went into anxiety like I had never been in before. I couldn't do it. I had a little mortgage that I couldn't even pay. It was insulting to me to have to ask for help. I'd call Lydia in tears. I felt like I had to stop.
Lydia: More than anything else, I think it hurt our creativity. There would be times where we'd need to be writing a song and gearing up for the next record, but we just didn't feel like writing because all of this stuff was happening.
Laura: We were very alone, and we had no idea where that next record would come from. We were still under contract, but we were in a lawsuit, and we were bankrupt. So it might be fun to think about a record, but who's going to pay for it? Who's going to put it out? We didn't have any money; we didn't have a manager.
Lydia: I went through bankruptcy at 25 years old! If you were talking to us two years ago, we'd have a lot of tears. What kept us going were the few shows that we did have, or even conversations that we had with peers. We'd talk with John Paul White, who is from our hometown, and ask him to have coffee with us. He would give us advice about what we should do. We would call Brandi, who we toured with before all this happened, a few times and ask for advice. We relied on those relationships. We had a show with Old Crow Medicine Show, and when we got through it, we just kept looking ahead.
Laura: Those relationships were our saving grace. From there, we had two shows with Brandi near the end of 2015 in Seattle. This was right after the bankruptcy, and she asked us to come open for her. She asked us what was going on, and we told her the whole story.
When we did soundcheck, we played one of the first songs that we had been working on — that's now on the new record, "Tennessee River Runs Low" — and she heard it, and she was like, "You better not have written that song!" That was the moment that she wanted to make a record with us. So we started the crowdfunding campaign and hired a new manager.
Lydia: Crowdfunding was not easy. We don't throw shade at anybody who uses crowdfunding, but for us, we felt established and thought this was a step backwards and would make us look weak. That's what we thought.
Laura: We felt like it was admitting defeat. But we talked to Brandi about it, we talked to our new manager about it, and we had to change our perspective on this. Crowdfunding shows you who really believes in you. And it's not like charity: Fans get something really special out of it, and it's an opportunity to interact with them in a really special way. It gives you a chance to connect and rebuild your confidence.
Going through all that hardship, it took a real toll on our music and our own belief in ourselves. A huge part of our confidence coming back was seeing how overwhelmingly generous our fans were with this crowdfunding.
Lydia: Within two weeks, it was 107-percent funded.
Laura: We never thought it would succeed, let alone get fully funded that quickly. It was a wonderful experience that we would do again if necessary.
Lydia: Yeah, we started the campaign in March or April of 2016, and then we signed with New West Records in January of this year.
Laura: We started talking to New West in the fall. We were looking for someone to help us put the record out; we knew we didn't want to put it out by ourselves. We recorded the entire record, and it was done by the time we started talking with New West. The fact that they loved it just as it was and they saw a place for it, it was such a huge boost for us. We spoke from our heart, and it resonated. It made so much sense to work with them. We love them.
Lydia: We feel like we're finally in the right place.
Laura: I think what we needed to learn as a result from the darkness that we went through was to believe in ourselves. We let ourselves get completely plowed over in the first few years because we didn't know any better.
Lydia: We're Southern women, and so, you know, we don't like to be mean. We don't like confrontation, and we were always surrounded by men in the music business who seemed to kind of lord over us sometimes. We'd just let them have their way and do what they wanted to do.
I think we had to discover our strength as artists and writers and women.
Laura: We sacrificed a lot of things we felt very strongly about in exchange to just keep the peace.
Lydia: That's not just a Southern thing. A lot of times, that's a female thing. This new record, it's a lot of us overcoming that.
Laura: We don't want to go on and on and on about how unfair it is to be a woman, but it is almost blatant sometimes. I think Lydia and I had to discover our strength as artists and writers and women. I feel like we've gone through this renaissance on our own, and this new record really expresses that.
Lydia: This record is deeply personal, more than anything else. That's why we want to do the best we can in conveying that.
Laura: That's why we had to set it up with people who actually cared about it, who care about every single aspect of it, all the nuance. It feels like our child: We can't put this in the hands of somebody who doesn't know what to do with it.
Lydia: The title track is a direct reference to all of this.
Laura: We went through such a strange and odd and unique experience, and as we were writing this record, we felt compelled to be specific. We knew not everyone would get the references, so we had to try to broaden it a bit and put in hints of our own struggle. We wanted to keep it relatable and understandable. We veiled our struggle.
Lydia: This is really scary; I won't sugarcoat it. Yeah, it's liberating in many ways, but it's also really tough to share all of this with the world.
Laura: Thankfully, the songs have been written and recorded for long enough that the shock value has worn off a bit for us. There were moments when we'd be writing these songs and it made us mad at each other, even though we weren't mad at each other. It took a lot to get these songs out. It feels like letting someone read your journal from your darkest days -- you know, days that you'd never relive if you could avoid it.
Lydia: We're not vengeful people, either, but the people who needed to be called out will be called out when they hear the record; the people who are talked about will recognize it. And apart from that, simply put, we couldn't not write this record.
It was never about being vengeful or spiteful. This record is just about what was happening in our lives at that time. To not write it would have been unfair to us and our careers.
Laura: People connect to this stuff more than you think, too, and you have to share it.
Lydia: Now, as we look ahead, we realize that every single day is different. Sometimes, we think we'll be doing this until we're 75 years old. But then when we're home for two or three months, we start wondering what the future really holds. I want a family — I can't tour with a family, you know? That inner voice is there, pushing us along.
Laura: When I was so sure our career was over, that's when I wanted it the most. But going through everything we went through, that's when I really understood, "I'm going to be okay."
I want to make music, I want to tour, I want to put out records, I want to do it with my sister. But more than anything, I learned that I still have everything that really matters to me; I have so much more than I ever deserved. I am meant to be a creator, I know that, but whether or not I'll always do that for income ... who knows?
Lydia: That brings up the southern-ness in us, too: We don't like to promote ourselves. We've said before, our dream job would be the background singers because we can do what we want to do and nobody looks at us or cares about us. It's a weird back and forth to go out and try to remain humble and also promote yourself; we'll always struggle with that. But at the end of the day, this is what we enjoy more than anything else. We feel so fulfilled by this.
Laura: Our belief in ourselves is worth everything we went through.
Lydia: I am so grateful we went bankrupt. [Laughs]
Laura: We're in a place right now that I never dreamed we'd be. It feels like our first record in a way. Everything we went through, the entire journey, it has all led up to this record.
This is our debut album.
More New Albums Coming in 2017