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The Secret Sisters are playing by their own rules now

by Jonathan Shifflett and Paola Mardo | The Frame

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The Secret Sisters, Lydia (left) and Laura Rogers.

Sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers — known as The Secret Sisters — had an auspicious start to their career.

After landing a record deal in 2010, the singing and songwriting duo from Muscle Shoals, Alabama released two albums — 2010's "The Secret Sisters" and 2014's "Put Your Needle Down." Both were produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett. The sisters were also in demand as an opening act for the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Paul Simon.

But creative differences with their label, Universal Republic, led to a series of problems, including a lawsuit from their former manager. Laura found herself cleaning houses and Lydia was forced to file for bankruptcy.

But the story of The Secret Sisters didn't end there. Following the advice of singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, the sisters turned to their fans for support and launched a crowdfunding campaign via PledgeMusic.

The sisters are back with a brand new album, "You Don’t Know Me Anymore," that speaks to the resilience they've built up over the past eight years of their tumultuous career.

You Don't Own Me

When the Secret Sisters stopped by The Frame, Laura talked about why they parted ways with their old label:

I think in the early, early stages … with the first record cycle … a lot of choices were made that maybe had good intentions, but not a lot of longevity. But then, of course, when everything fell apart and we found ourselves completely alone with no label and no management — our entire team had just disintegrated — that was when we really started saying, You know, if we’re going to rebuild this and do it again we're doing it our way — we're wearing what we want to wear, we're playing our songs that we want to play.

The beauty of this new record is that we were not signed at the time that we made it. We crowdfunded the whole record. There was no label standing there [saying], You need a radio single, you need a hit song that you need to put on a TV show … We just allowed the music to be what it was.

Lydia says that launching a crowdfunding campaign for their new album was an important decision they made following the suggestion of singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who helped produce the record:

[The crowdfunding campaign] was so integral to everything we did. Brandi was actually very helpful in helping us do that. We did two shows with her — opening for her — in Seattle, I think it was late 2015. That's when we started having conversations about making a record together. Even when we weren't touring with her, she would call and check on us and give us advice. And then when we went through the bad part — we went through bankruptcy and weren't really feeling creative — she was the one who checked on us and told us that we had to continue.

That's really when she put the idea in our heads to look at crowdfunding. And we were very intimidated by that for a long time. We were afraid we wouldn't raise the money in time or it would make us look weak in some way. But our fans just came together and it established a really true connection. And I am so thankful that we did it because it was crowdfunded within two weeks or so.

The sisters talk about how growing up in Muscle Shoals, which was home to two studios that produced a lot of classic R&B and soul music in the 1960s and '70s:

LYDIA: It didn't really influence us that much when we were really young. We actually grew up around a lot of bluegrass music and gospel music. We were always going to a lot of bluegrass festivals with our dad and spending a lot of weekends doing that. I think when we were very, very young we weren't even aware of the legacy that Muscle Shoals left. But when we got older we realized that it had a huge impact on music. And we're still finding out things about it that we never knew.

LAURA: It's a really interesting place geographically because it's kind of right in the center of a lot of different styles of American roots music. You have country music coming down from Nashville, you've got Appalachian music coming down from the mountains, you've got blues up in Memphis, you've got Cajun style next door in New Orleans. So I feel like there's just this really cool music that just kind of mixes together all in the state of Alabama ... We're always cautious about trying not to imitate anyone and to try to forge our own way, but also keep in the influences there that are kind of hard to resist.

Another big influence on their sound was church music. Lydia talks about how they learned to sing at church:

[Church music] was absolutely critical. It was really all of our influence growing up. We grew up in a church that didn't use any musical instruments whatsoever. And so when we would sing together, there wasn't a choir, there wasn't one person singing. We were all singing as a congregation. And so we would get out our songbooks and learn how to harmonize that way, without realizing that we were learning how to sing. And we can really attribute all of our sound to that.

Tennessee River Runs Low

The sisters agree that, despite the twist to their Cinderella story, these experiences shaped their new record. But they had to write about them in ways that could be relatable for their audience:

LAURA: The things that were inspiring the record — the bankruptcy and getting dropped from our record deal and finding ourselves in a lawsuit — those are not things that your average music consumer is going to be able to identify with ... In writing the songs, we knew that we, for our own sake, had to express the emotions behind what we had endured. But we also realized that the music had to have a space for our listeners to find themselves.

["Tennessee River Runs Low"] was actually the very first song we wrote with the hope of making a third record. I think that river — the river that runs through our home town — is just mythical in so many ways and so it felt right to write about it, especially after all the tumultuous rough current that we found ourselves in.

LYDIA: Yeah, a lot of those emotions we tried to personify them in a lot of ways — whether it was through a lover or from the perspective of a river. So I think in that way we were able to make it more relatable.

To hear John Horn's conversation with the Secret Sisters, click on the player above.

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