The Secret Sisters Want to Tell You a Ghost Story
Watch the video for "You Don't Own Me Anymore"off the feisty Americana duo's gorgeous new album, and read our conversation about resilience, femininity, and murder ballads.
Back in the day, there was a certain justice of the peace in the tiny Southern town of Iuka, Mississippi who you'd go see if you had a certain type of problem—an overbearing mother or father, a golden ring, a lovesick heart. Over the years, this justice became quietly, locally famous for his willingness to marry young couples without parental permission. That romantic picture of star-crossed love is the stuff of many a country music video: a quick shot of two lovestruck teenagers skittering past disapproving old Dad and his cocked shotgun, hauling ass in their Sunday best across state lines in the sticky dark heat of a Mississippi summer to say "I do" and find out what the future holds.
Times (and laws) change, and that particular local quirk was laid to rest decades ago. These days, Iuka's still small (pop. 3,059) and still best known for its past—like the sweet, clear mineral water that won top prize at the 1904 World's Fair, and the Civil War battle that left 1,500 Confederate soldiers dead and buried in 1862. Its major cultural contribution rests on the shoulders of Laura and Lydia Rogers, two sisters from Alabama who write songs that sound a little like folk, country, Americana, and gospel—but mostly just sound like the Secret Sisters.
Though they were both born in Alabama's famed Muscle Shoals, Iuka looms large in the Secret Sisters' personal mythology. For one thing, the tiny town is the spiritual home of "Mississippi," a standout track on the pair's new album, You Don't Own Me Anymore (out June 9 via New West Records). It's a shivery murder ballad from an angry father's perspective, delivered in a soft, buttery twang, and sees the sisters at their best. Their strong, clear voices blend in sublime harmony atop a smooth, knowing acoustic guitar and sparse percussion; each word leaves a honeyed sting as the twain channel lost country souls, gospel tones, Americana daydreams, and their idols the Everly Brothers in equal measure.
The song also serves as a companion piece to "Iuka," one of the most enduring tracks off their last album, 2014's Put Your Needle Down. "We loved that story, and we just kind of took it and ran with it and killed everyone in it somehow. We didn't mean to!" Lydia tells me with a peal of laughter. "It's about this father who kills his daughter and her lover who had run away to get married. And then we were thinking about the song one day and we were like, what if we wrote from the dad's perspective and from a more compassionate perspective? That's what we tried to do. We were talking about his view—all he ever had was his daughter."
Laura adds, "What I really love is to write a song that is specific about something that only people in your neck of the woods would understand. Somebody sitting in Manhattan has never heard of Iuka, Mississippi before, but if you grew up in Muscle Shoals, you know exactly where Iuka is and there's a good chance your grandparents got married there. We love to incorporate those tiny, little personality traits of where we're from because it's our way of archiving the history that we know."
Even outside of geographical ties and local pride, Iuka means something more to the Secret Sisters. The little house where Laura lives now—a small tattoo of its frame adorns her wrist— was built by her grandparents in the 50s, after they themselves got married in Iuka. It's also where she (almost) met her first ghost.
"Our grandfather was in a bluegrass gospel group with his brothers called the Happy Valley Boys. When I bought my house from the previous owner, I asked her, have you ever experienced anything weird or spiritual here? And she was like, well, a couple different times I've been in the house by myself, I'll hear this really faint music somewhere. She says she turned off all the radios and made sure there was nothing on that could be playing music, and followed the sound of music to the back bedroom. She got down to the floor and listened, and it was coming from the floorboards. Right under those floor boards is an old well that they use to draw their water from that has been boarded up and built over. She swears up and down that she heard bluegrass gospel music coming up out of that well, which is crazy... I've actually listened for them. They're happy ghosts."
"The people that come to our shows—they want darkness."
Country music is up to its ears in sad ghosts, and angry ghosts, and vengeful ghosts, but happy ghosts are found in far shorter measure. It makes sense that the haints that follow the Secret Sisters are the kind, nostalgic type, though, because that's the sort of people they are. Even when they're discussing the darker sides of life and death, the sisters keep their spirits up, wits sharp, and smiles easy. Laura, the older of the two, is more talkative, while Lydia, who greets me with a shy smile, warms up once we all get more comfortable.
They tell me about their husbands (Laura's is in the armed forces, and will be dispatched to Kuwait for the next nine months; Lydia's is back home in Alabama), their hobbies, and their love for old Southern folklore; we swap stories about our significant others, share photos of our pets, and later, at lunch, swap favorite ghost stories. Interviewing the two of them feels for all the world like chatting with a couple of old friends at a bar; there's an openness and vulnerability to them that they're unafraid to share, but one gets the impression that any whiff of bullshit would be summarily smacked down with the utmost Southern charm. They may sing about darkness, and anger, and getting ugly when the whiskey flows, but their music is also fundamentally about love, and hope, and the South— especially the South, which functions as a sort of third Sister.
The weight of King Cotton and Queen Anne's lace drapes itself over the recording, and the sisters are very much aware of their identity as Southern women. You won't catch them singing about muddy tires or flying the Stars and Bars, though, or giving into any of the other tired, often sexist stereotypes that litter country radio. They readily bring up the region's complicated history, but are more focused on poetry than politics. "We're proud to be Southerners," Laura explains. "We live there, so we get all the beauty and we recognize all the magic. That's why we're still there. That's why we haven't run off with our tail in between our legs. We really try to be literary and poetic in the things we say and the lyrics we create. In that way, it's our way to say that you can be a Southerner who's not an idiot, you know? You can be a Southerner who sounds like they got out of high school and actually care about the world around them. I know we're not the only artists that care about that sort of thing."
They've found a kindred spirit in Brandi Carlile, a longtime friend and critically acclaimed singer-songwriter who rescued the sisters from the doldrums of self-doubt and major label shellshock with an offer to produce what would become You Don't Own Me Anymore. Prior to Carlile's involvement, the Rogers sisters had weathered several years of uncertainty, financial chaos, and depression following their unceremonious exit from Republic Universal Records in 2015. They'd gotten signed almost by accident, after Laura went to a 2009 open audition hosted by music business record executive Andrew Brightman and producer Dave Cobb in Nashville, and wowed the judges. She was asked back, and brought Lydia along with her; in what seemed like a flash, the pair were dubbed the Secret Sisters, signed to a fat major label deal, and flown out to LA to figure out how to be a band. It sounds like a scenario ripped straight out of the early 2000s, when Lou Perlman's manicured, manufactured boy bands ruled the earth, and Laura looks back at the time ruefully.
"It sounds so dumb to me to hear it like that. What kind of big multi-million dollar company signs a couple random redneck girls from Alabama who don't have fanbase or a band or a website? We had nothing. We didn't know how to put on a show. We just knew how to sit on a couch, play our guitar, and sing with our dad," she says with an incredulous look. "All of the sudden, it was flying to LA, going to New York, staying in the nicest hotels and really expensive meals that the label pays for. Honestly, we were so spoiled in the first few years of our career. In a way it was awesome because we got catapulted into something incredible, but I think we lost out on a lot of common sense and that intuition you need as an artist. Even though it had been a hard road, I'm glad we're paring it down to the bare roots and what really matters to our fans."
The women both emphasize how good they had it, and how "spoiled" they were compared to more DIY bands who had to work their way up from the bottom, but are also frank about the fact that the way they did things wasn't exactly easy, either. They came into the music business as total greenhorns, and often found themselves kowtowing to label executives and marketing folk who they assumed knew best, whether or not they really agreed with every decision being made in their name. "I think we've had to learn that just because you say no or disagree with someone, it doesn't mean you're a bad person. It just means you're a person. It just means I have an opinion and I have to be able to live with myself at the end of the day. You know? I think for so long we equated that with being uncooperative or difficult or dramatic," Laura tells me. "I think our own worst enemy has been the voice in our heads because we are such victims of that kind of self-deprecating, not believing in yourself, stay humble and don't ever expect too much. It's a Southern thing for sure."
"A lot of business people back in the early days took advantage of the fact that we didn't know what we were doing. When we started, they kind of put us in this genre of that retro throwback sound because that's what it sounded like. When we did our photoshoot for the album, they put us in vintage dresses and put victory rolls in our hair," Lydia adds. "And so immediately we were put into this niche, and I think people were like, 'Is this authentic? Is this the real deal? They're going to be placed in this box forever. They can't make this music forever.' And we saw that too. Now, eight years later, we kind of feel like we can say, no, we've done this before. We understand how it goes. We wanted to move forward while also paying homage to music of the past."
"Why can't we just wear our dresses and still be strong, you know?"
They released two albums through the label—2010's The Secret Sisters and 2014's Put Your Needle Down—both of which enjoyed critical success but didn't rake in the kind of sales the label was expecting, which led to the band being dropped in 2015. It pulled the rug out from under the Rogers sisters' feet, and left them in terrible financial shape. They could barely afford to play gigs; touring became out of the question; Laura had to take a job cleaning houses, and Lydia was eventually forced to file for bankruptcy. At a certain point, the sisters became resigned to a future without music—until Carlile stepped in. The pair grasped onto their last shreds of hope and resilience, steeled themselves for whatever may come, and took the leap.
The music they're making now bears the scars of those long years in the wilderness, but is also wholly authoritative in conveying the authenticity that the Secret Sisters have been trying to harness since day one. You Don't Own Me Anymore is more than just a defiant title; it's a cool, calm statement of who and where they are now in their wild, still developing career, and Brandi Carlile was the perfect person to dig in and bring their vision to full color life. "She's really helped. We were in shambles after all of the bad stuff happened, and Brandi just stepped in and said this is what we're going to need to do," Laura explains. "And we listened to her. It all resonated. It felt like she really understood where we wanted to go and how to get us there. She's never really steered us wrong. I think in spending so much time with her in and out of the studio, we've kind of taken some of her influence into our own decision-making. I'll have days where I'll wake up and think, 'What would Brandi do about this situation?"
"We should also say Tim and Phil, the twins, I feel like they are just as integral to the whole thing happening," Lydia chimes in, referring to the multi-instrumentalist Hanseroth brothers who have formed the musical backbone to Carlile's voice for years. "They were there from day one, have been so supportive, and literally the kindest people I've ever met in my life. Again, we got kind of spoiled!"
The album was recorded out in rainy, grey Seattle, which, atmospherically speaking, may as well be Mars as far as its similarities to Muscle Shoals are concerned. It may seem almost perverse for a Southern band to continually pass up the chance to record an album in the hallowed homeland of Southern rock, but to Laura's thinking, there can be such a thing as being too Southern—and that's something she and Lydia sought to avoid by heading West.
"We really felt like everything we have written is so Southern, we're so Southern, and we felt like we needed to go out of the South to make a Southern record. We felt like we needed to go to a place where our Southern-ness would shine a little bit and not be so commonplace," she explains. "So, we went to Seattle, and we made it with a bunch of punk kids from the Seattle music scenes. Our drummer we used on the original record was the drummer from the original Nirvana record, and we recorded one of our songs in [Pearl Jam guitarist] Mike McCreedy's basement."
"I feel like it would be a lot more predictable had we recorded it in the Shoals. On "King Cotton," it could have had a lot more banjo and a lot more swinging. When we went up to Seattle, they just put a little bit of a flair on it that you couldn't get somewhere else," Lydia tells me. "I feel you can really respect an artist a lot more when they get out of their comfort zone like that."
In speaking with them, it's hard to pinpoint a time when the Secret Sisters have ever had a comfort zone—their journey has been that convoluted and confounding. The duo were already feeling raw and vulnerable (albeit triumphant) by the time they got to Seattle, and then to hit the studio with one of their musical idols, thousands of miles from home, takes a lot of grit, and a lot of guts—something these two have got socked away in spades. After getting in touch about the album, Carlile urged them to launch a crowdfunding campaign via PledgeMusic; both women shudder as they think back to how they felt in those first few moments after hitting the publish button, and then look at me in wonder as they talk about how they raised 50 percent of their goal in 48 hours—and surpassed it in just over a month.
"I think that was such a huge and timely confidence boost for us because we were still trying to recover from the ego-crushing experience we had. When someone suggested crowd-funding, we were like no, there's no way anybody is going to give any money to us. Why would they do that? Then, they convinced us to try it and it was so successful," Laura explains. "It helped us realize the resiliency of music. It's not as fragile as everybody in the business part of it makes you think it is. I think it was just so easy for us to convince ourselves and honestly to be convinced by the people who were helping manage us in the early days, any little wrong move was going to send your career down the drain."
Now, eight years into their career, the Secret Sisters are free of major label entanglements, and are as close to DIY as they've ever been. They're surrounded by good people (as Lydia mentions happily, most of the team they're working with now are women) and still seem a bit taken aback by the wave of good fortune they've been riding since that fateful call from Brandi Carlile. That's not to say that it's all smooth sailing ahead, though; for all their hard work and good luck, in the world of modern country and Americana music, the Secret Sisters are still at a marked disadvantage due to their gender.
"We don't love modern country," Laura tells me as Lydia nods in agreement. "I call it garbage country; the other day, I was listening to a garbage country station for an hour and a half and I literally heard one female. One female artist! I never really even noticed how male-dominated the music industry is until recently. We have no problem working with men; we work with a lot of incredible men that really understand what we're doing. [But] if you look at any of the major festivals, how many of those headliners are female-fronted or just a female on their own? It's very rare. It does kind of feel like you're left in the smaller font. That's as far as you can go. You can't get to the big font."
"It's a sad reminder that we still have a pretty long way to go," Lydia says. "That's the thing though, especially in pop—the diva is all you can be. To be a successful female, you have to overcompensate and be especially strong. But for us, we're not super out there, and don't try to overbear anything, and I just wish there was a way for that be OK and for us to still be successful. You should realize there's room for everyone. Can we just be two feminine women without having to wear a cowboy hat and a Nudie suit on stage? Why can't we just wear our dresses and still be strong, you know?"
It's a question that's plagued the country music industry (and the music industry in general) for far too long. There are no easy answers, either, but the Secret Sisters are determined to stay true to themselves—whether the rest of the industry likes it or not. "The fact we're even making music shows we care what people think of us," Lydia says. "But if you can put on your Sasha Fierce when you get on the stage, or if you can listen to it when you're 95 years old, and go, 'That's not so bad!' It's always thinking in terms of being as timeless as you can while also being relevant."
As they carefully make their way back into the spotlight, it seems quite clear that the Rogers sisters will be out there haunting the nation's winding roads, singing murder ballads, and hunting for ghosts for many years to come. God help anyone who tries to stand in their way.
"It's maybe a little cliché, but I love [the murder ballad tradition]. It's there for a reason," Lydia adds. "So many people request the sad songs in our shows. They want the slow stuff. The people that come to our shows—they want darkness."
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's on Twitter.
Photos by Taji Ameen