The Secret Sisters on Their New Album and Returning to Music

The Secret Sisters. Photo by Abraham Rowe. Used with permission from the artist.

The story behind the Secret Sisters is surely a wild one. Two sisters who had never performed together outside of their own bedrooms in Muscle Shoals, Alabama showed up at an open audition in Nashville and walked away three months later with a huge record deal.

Within a matter of months, Laura and Lydia were on their way to releasing their first, self–titled record and were opening for huge acts, like Ray LaMontagne, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan.

The Secret Sisters - You Don't Own Me Anymore

But after their second album, Put Your Needle Down, was met with mixed reviews in 2014, things took a turn and they were released from their label a few months later.

The pair that had risen so quickly was abruptly plummeted back down to Earth. They spent the next few years filing for bankruptcy to deal with a lawsuit, picking up odd jobs to try and make ends meet, and trying as best they could to stay involved with music.

As Laura told me, “Inspiration was at an all–time low,” and they were having trouble writing songs. But after opening a few shows for their friend Brandi Carlile in Seattle, Brandi was moved to help them record another album and get back into music full–time.

For more information on the Secret Sisters, their tour, and their latest album, You Don't Own Me Anymore, you can check out their website here.

You guys came up pretty quickly when you first began. It all started with an open audition and then you were signed really quickly and then you were opening for Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.

How did those early days look for you guys? Did you two always make music together? What’s your origin story, if you will?

Lydia: Well, we don’t really have too much of an origin story, musically. Neither of us were pursuing music actively when this all started. Laura had just graduated from college and was a nanny in Nashville, and I was still in college at the time.

We showed up separately to this open audition in Nashville to try out. They liked our voices, and within three months, we had a record deal. So it all happened a little bit backwards for us. We got the record deal, and then we had to learn how to perform and be artists and write songs. It has been a wild ride ever since then.

We had some really amazing opportunities, like you said, in the beginning. And we still have great opportunities. But we definitely feel very, very lucky to have gotten those opportunities in the beginning because they’re what have saved us in the last couple of years — having those connections with artists.

The Secret Sisters - "The One I Love Is Gone" (Live)

So you two had never actually performed together before the open audition, before you guys got signed?

Laura: No, not in front of anyone. Lydia was always inclined to be in little talent shows, but I had really terrible stage fright my entire life, so I wasn’t pursuing the artistic side of music. I never dreamed that I would be able to be a professional musician.

We had never played a show together. We didn’t have a band name. We hadn't recorded any songs together, or written any songs together. So it’s pretty surreal to go from complete obscurity to being on stage, opening for people who are just larger than life in the music world.

Everything happened in such a way that, looking back, I think we were definitely spoiled. We were so grateful for it and so star struck by the entire process. But we got one incredible opportunity after another.

We had no experience prior to that. We just kind of got into this mindset that, “Oh, well this is just how it goes. We’re going to get to open for great people for the rest of our careers and it’s only up from here.”

But, of course, things took a turn, and it’s different on this side of the dark chapter. It’s definitely a different touring approach and a different mentality, but a better one, I think.

I think you can hear that maturity, thematically, in your newest album. A lot of the songs seem to deal with self reliance and resilience, and all of those characteristics of picking yourself up after a difficult time.

Were you writing these songs intermittently over the past few years? What has that time looked like?

The Secret Sisters (Photos by Abraham Rowe)

Laura: Well, there was a season where we got dropped by our record label, and then we were in the middle of a lawsuit from a former business relationship that went sour. The only way that we could get out from under that lawsuit was to file bankruptcy because we had depleted all of our money in legal fees.

We went through a spell where our primary focus was, “Okay, how do we get a show, even if it’s just one show a month, how do we do it? And if we can’t get the show, what can we do to supplement our income because touring is the only job that the two of us have?”

So when that stopped, and when your career starts to stagnate, you’ve got to get creative. We spent a good six or seven months where we were not writing at all. We were just taking odd jobs here and there, trying to pay the bills that come along with being an adult.

Inspiration was at an all–time low. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to sit down and try to generate ideas for songs because at that point in time, we knew we didn’t have a record label. We were completely out of money. We didn’t have management. We didn’t have anything.

So to us, it was like, “Well, what’s the point in writing a song if it’s never going to be heard and if it’s never going to go anywhere?” That wasn’t a good mentality to have because that isn’t the reason that you create music. But, you know, when life is a huge burden for you and you’re doing well just to survive from day to day, it’s a little bit challenging to sit down and feel inspiration for writing a song.

Most of the songs on this album were kind of put together after everything had settled down and after we had found our footing a little bit. It was our way of healing ourselves from all of the trauma that we had these residual feelings from.

We wrote a lot of songs in a pretty short amount of time, and then, within just a few months of starting the writing process, we were able to start the discussion with Brandi [Carlile] about making the record. We started booking studio time. It all happened and fell back into place pretty quickly, considering how dire the situation was.

Did you two know Brandi from the earlier days or did she reach out to you?

Lydia: We met Brandi early on in our careers in the summer of 2011 when we were on tour with her and Ray Lamontagne. She became a really good friend and mentor of ours That’s really what made her stay so involved up until we needed to make another record.

We were opening some shows for her in Seattle in December of 2015, and she heard some of our new songs and was like, “We’ve got to figure out a way to make a record.” And that’s what we did. We just kind of took it day by day and made it happen with her help. We definitely couldn’t have made it happen without her.

The Secret Sisters - "Rattle My Bones"

That’s wonderful. It sounds like an incredibly important relationship to have maintained, especially during such a difficult time. And I have to imagine that creativity was hard to come by battling a lawsuit and staring at a table full of bills.

What is your writing process like?

Laura: We’re pretty strategic with the way that we write. We work on our own and we generate ideas, and then when we get together to figure out which one is going to stick. I tend to be more lyrically driven, whereas Lydia is just so good with melodies. She’s really good at creating harmonies that are really unique.

Our songwriting process has remained pretty much the same throughout everything that has happened to us, but when we got started this time around, there was some tension and frustration. Not with each other, but we had unresolved emotions from what had happened.

I remember the first few songwriting sessions that we had together, we butted heads the entire time. We were trying not to write about all of the things that had happened to us. But then, it was the only thing that we felt compelled to write about. So finally, we just kind of surrendered to it.

At first, we were a little bit hesitant about even admitting what we had gone through and talking about all of our troubles. On one hand, to us, they were enormous. But compared to other people’s struggles, they don’t really measure up.

We didn’t know if it was professional to talk about or if it was cheesy, or maybe that we were trying to commercialize on some sort of narrative. We didn’t want to do it for any reason that wasn’t sincere.

We finally just realized our intentions were true and that we needed to tell the story. The songs just came from that. We just let it happen. We knew that whatever songs came out were the ones that needed to come out. That’s how this record came to be, with the material, anyway.

The Secret Sisters (Photo by Stephen Jerkins)

Totally. How was going into the studio this time around — aside from the cathartic nature of these songs — different from the first and second records you made? I would assume that it was just markedly different working with artists, rather than just straight producers, but what was your experience like?

Laura: It was a really different experience. For one thing, it was interesting to have a female at the helm. I don’t want to make it seem as though any one gender is better at being a producer than the other, because that isn’t true. But I think that this time around, it was really refreshing for us to get to work with another woman.

Brandi is a singer and a powerhouse vocalist. Her sensibilities about how to deliver a certain lyric in a song or when to be tender and intimate or when to be powerful — she just has so much wisdom about performance.

The whole time in the studio she was pulling a side of us out, as vocalists, that had never really been accessed before.

It was such a good environment. It was us with Brandi, and Tim and Phil Hanseroth were there, and Josh Neumann, who plays cello for Brandi. It was really collaborative and just felt really equal in a lot of ways. Everyone’s opinion really mattered. It felt the most like "us" that it ever has before.

We’re so proud of our first and second records. We had a good time making them and everyone involved was incredible. But this time around felt like an evolution of our career and our own self confidence.

I think that’s what you want. With every record, you want to grow and gain a better understanding of yourself. Because we had made two records before this, we really understood what we wanted to sound like and Brandi and the twins were just so good at allowing that to just blossom in the studio. There was no sort of manipulating it or any sort of guidance that put it in a place where it wasn’t supposed to be.

Totally. Based on what had happened to you guys in the past, were you nervous going into this at all, or were you mostly feeling confident and kind of at peace with everything because the worst had already happened?

Lydia: I think we felt a little bit of both of those feelings. We were confident in our music and what we were trying to say, and the people that we were working with. That was all wonderful. But we were admittedly hesitant about using a crowdfunding source to put our record into the world.

Even then, we weren’t even sure who would take the record and put it where it needed to go. So there were a lot of feelings involved. But luckily, we had the right team put together and they were able to get it into the right hands. We’re excited to see where it will go from here.

Laura: I think that artistically, we were very confident about our friendship with Brandi and her understanding of our music and what our strengths are. But on the business side of things, when we got ready to find new management and when we got ready to start shopping for a record label, we were so terrified.

It was like when you breakup with someone and it’s a terrible breakup. Then you start to try to date again and you feel like you’re going to get hurt again and this time, you’ll never recover. There’s always that little bit of fear that it’s going to be a complete failure.

But ultimately, we made the record we wanted to make. We’re very proud of it. Even if it doesn’t do what we hope it does, it’s all right because it’s completed its purpose. That’s the mentality we’re trying really hard to hold onto.

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