Laura and Lydia Rogers are The Secret Sisters, the Greenhill, Alabama duo with a resume that includes collaborations with T Bone Burnett, Bob Dylan, Dan Wilson, Brandi Carlile and Jamey Johnson, and all of that after just their sophomore record. Their rich country sound is inspired by the likes of Bobbie Gentry, which can be clearly heard on the lead single from Put Your Needle Down, “Iuka”.
Laura spoke to Weld about the impressive collection of talent that made the new record possible and about the last few weeks that lead them to Birmingham on Wednesday, including a new collaboration with Jamey Johnson and an appearance at the Everly Brothers tribute show.
Weld: Put Your Needle Down is the first record that primarily consists of originals, right?
Laura Rogers: Yeah, pretty much. There are a handful of covers on the new record; there are three songs that we didn’t write. But mostly it’s original material, which was very important to both of us. We knew after our first record that it would be very easy to do a second record of just cover songs, but more for ourselves than even our fanbase, we knew that we needed to tackle songwriting. It was a task that we hadn’t worked on and it felt like an important part of being able to have a lasting impact in music. Once we got off the road from the first record, we spent a ton of time writing together, writing individually and, of course, writing externally with whoever we felt inspired by. We came up with maybe 30 songs that we were choosing from when we went into the studio for the second record.
Yeah, it’s mostly originals that are pretty personal. It’s been a really crazy year with a lot of unexpected things – a lot of really good things and a few icky things, but that’s kind of the nature of it.
Weld: You and Lydia did all of the writing on the originals?
LR: Yes, we did. There were several songs that were just the two of us, and a few were cowritten with Brandi Carlile, and there’s a song, of course, that we wrote with Bob Dylan, and there’s a song that we wrote with Dan Wilson and a couple of other writers. We just needed to learn from people who had been doing it for much longer than we have. We were apprehensive about matching ourselves up with other writers because we were afraid that they might not understand what we wanted to do. But it was also necessary because I felt like we had so much that we needed to learn. I feel like we learned a lot from each songwriter that we got to work with on this record. We’re never going to be exactly where we want to be as songwriters. I don’t think you ever really master that. It was a big leap of faith, and I’m pretty proud of what we came out with. So far, anyway.
Weld: How did the Dylan track come about? How were you presented an opportunity to finish that track and record it?
LR: It wasn’t your traditional cowrite.
Weld: It was very “Wagon Wheel”!
LR: [Laughs] Yes, exactly. We weren’t anticipating that, but we were in the studio, and we had finished most of the tracking for the record and we went into the studio one day to work on some things and T Bone [Burnett] came in and he said, “Bob Dylan sent over some unfinished song demos of his and he has given you his blessing to choose one that you like and finish writing it. And then you can record it and put it on your record so that you’ll have a cool story.”
Everybody wants to share a song with Bob Dylan; that’s just common sense. It was easily one of the most terrifying and intimidating things. We sell ourselves short on songwriting and we lack a lot of confidence in things at times. To be paired up with someone like Bob Dylan – that was big shoes to fill, for sure. We did the best we could – it was very nerve wracking, but we would have been idiots to say no to it.
Weld: You mentioned Dan Wilson, who has written piles and piles of songs. How did you meet Dan and decide to work together?
LR: That came about through business relationships – he had heard of our music and was a fan and had reached out to see if we could get together. We were sort of putting feelers out to see what kind of people would be interested in writing with us, and he took the bait, for some reason. He flew out to L.A. and we spent a couple of different sessions writing in his studio with him. He actually helped us cowrite “Iuka”, which has been one of the biggest songs on our record. We’re very indebted to him for his contribution to that song.
Weld: “Iuka” is really dark. What inspired it? Did you have some kind of personal attachment to it?
LR: We did, a little bit. At the time, we were listening to a lot of Bobbie Gentry and we went into the studio with Dan and we were talking about Bobbie Gentry and listening to a lot of her tunes and talking about how spooky and Southern her music is. I really don’t know how it came to be, but Iuka is – just to show how relevant it is to us – when our grandparents were young, you could go to Iuka and get married if you were underage. Our grandparents were married that way. It’s cool – if you’ll look in the newspaper in the 50-year-anniversary pages, a lot of times you’ll see underneath the couple’s pictures, “Married in Iuka, Mississippi.”
I remembered at that point that I had seen someone had written in the paper, “so-and-so was married in Iuka, Misssissippi” and I got to thinking about how there were so many couples that we knew that had been married for years and years that ran off at a very young age and went to Iuka to get married. We were talking about that with Dan and he was captivated by the name Iuka because it’s just not, you know, a very common name of a city. We kind of went from there. We had never written a murder ballad before, so we decided to take it in a dark direction and murder off some of the song characters.
I’m really proud of that song for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it’s the first song that we’ve written that tells a narrative story that isn’t directly related to something that Lydia and I have gone through, like a heartbreak or some kind of romantic struggle. I would like to do more of that narrative writing. In the future, I’d like to do more of that narrative writing. Here’s to album number three.
Weld: How did that Brandi Carlile collaboration happen?
LR: We had been fans of Brandi’s for a very long time – since I was probably 18 or 19, and I have been a huge fan of hers ever since – we had been to several of her shows, even before we had a record deal. She was always on the bucket list of people that we wanted to work with. We got lucky. After our first record came out, we were invited to go on tour supporting Ray LaMontagne, and it just so happened that Brandi was also going to be on the bill for that tour. We spent the whole summer touring with Ray and Brandi and we all became such good friends on that tour.
We had all come from a really similar place and a similar sensibility about our music. She became like a big sister that has been to all of the places that we want to go. We just forged a friendship with her. When we were getting ready to work on album number two, she invited us to come to Seattle and stay for a week and just write with her and her band and do some demos. While we were up there we wrote “Black and Blue”, “Bad Habit” and “Rattle My Bones”, which is actually a song that she had written prior to working with us. She offered that to us to record. It’s been great. She’s been great to us, and I’m really, really, really grateful for that friendship.
Weld: You just did some work with Jamey Johnson. When can we expect to hear it?
LR: Yeah, that came out of nowhere! We got a phone call one day from [someone representing him] and they said, “Jamey is recording a Christmas album and we were wondering if you would be willing to do background vocals on one of the songs.”
We knew him through a producer on the first record, Dave Cobb, who’s done several of Jamey’s records. We jumped at the opportunity and they sent us the track and it just happened to be “Mele Kalikimaka”, which is a song that is actually pretty easy to sing because the Andrews sisters did it many years ago. We went into the studio and filled in the parts that we needed to fill in. I’m just tickled to work with Jamey, I love the work that he does and the track actually sounded really good. I was really proud of it.
Weld: You girls also did an Everly Brothers tribute recently, right?
LR: Oh, yes, that’s the most recent big, monumental, bucket list thing we checked off. This past Saturday night, we were in Cleveland and it was outrageous. It is easily the most important thing that I will ever do. The Everly Brothers are my favorite thing to ever exist in the world – I love them so much. It was one thing to just be able to be there amongst the other artists and express gratitude for the influence that they have had on us, but Don Everly himself was there and we got to meet him and we got to sing with him at the end of the big production. I cried a lot and I still don’t believe that it was real. I don’t know how you end up in places like that, but I’ll take it.
Weld: What other acts were part of the show?
LR: Oh my goodness, it was crazy! Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Albert Lee, Vince Gill, Keb Mo – it was a ridiculous lineup. It was insane. You would turn around and it would be another huge musician walking by – I felt very unworthy of being there, but also really grateful for getting to be there. The main reason that we got to be a part of it is because we put an Everly Brothers song on our second record called “Lonely Island” and I think that was the selling point, so thank goodness for that.
Weld: The band you’ll bring here Wednesday – what does it look like?
LR: We have a bass player and a drummer and a guitar player/lap steel player. The vocals come from me and Lydia with the occasional acoustic or electric parts. It’s pretty traditional – we’ll play all of the songs from the new record plus a good chunk of the first record and a few of our favorite cover songs. We have a really good opening act on this tour named Jacob Tovar and he’s the traditional kind of country that everybody wishes was still popular.
I’m so excited. I can’t wait to get back to Alabama dirt. I just keep thinking, “If I could just get my feet on Alabama soil, I’ll be happy as can be.” I miss it so much when I’m gone. We’re really excited. It’s been a while since we have played a headlining show in Alabama, which is ridiculous, and I wish we would do it more often, but slowly but surely, we’re making our way back.
We opened for Nickel Creek in April, but that was a half hour set, and if I’m not mistaken, this is our first time to play our full-blown set for an Alabama crowd and there’s just no place better in the world.
Weld: How did you end up spending most of the summer with Nickel Creek?
LR: It was a long chunk in the beginning of the summer and another run at the end of summer. We had befriended Chris Thile several years ago, and we had known him and worked with him some. We had met Sean and Sara [Watkins] several different times in our travels.
I guess they were looking for someone that had a record coming out that would be a good fit for the reunion tour, and I’m so thankful that they invited us. At the point that they invited us, we didn’t know when our second record was going to come out – we hadn’t chosen a release date and there was no foreseeable release date on the calendar until Nickel Creek called for those dates and then it was, “Okay, now we go and do a proper album release.” I’m glad that they were the catalyst for it and it was an absolutely magical start to this year; it was great.
The Secret Sisters perform at the WorkPlay Theatre on Wednesday, October 29. It’s the final stop on their current tour. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 on the day of the show. Jacob Tovar will open. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., while the show begins at 8 p.m.