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Interview: The Secret Sisters on new album Saturn Return, songwriting and working with Brandi Carlile

We caught up with Laura and Lydia to discuss their fourth album.

The Secret Sisters
Credit: New West Records

The Secret Sisters – made up of real-life siblings Laura and Lydia Rogers – have been going through something of a renaissance in recent years.

They’ve worked with the likes of Dave Cobb, T Bone Burnett and Jack White, but were dropped by their previous label and ended up filing for bankruptcy. However, their third album, 2017’s You Don’t Own Me Anymore – produced by Brandi Carlile and Tim and Phil Hanseroth – won them critical acclaim for their gorgeous harmonies and strong songwriting, as well as a Grammy nomination. Now they’re reuniting for their latest record, Saturn Return, which was released in February.

I recently caught up with Laura and Lydia to talk about the record, how their approach to songwriting has changed, what it was like working with Brandi and more…

The last time we spoke to you was back in 2017 – what have you been doing since then?

Lydia: Oh wow!

Laura: It feels like a lot of things have happened since then. I mean, we put out our third record right about that time and we toured on the third record pretty extensively. That record had a really long life cycle because of our Grammy nomination. And so we dragged out as long as we possibly could. We went on so many tours, and then we made our fourth record and we both had babies [laughs]. And now we put our fourth record out and we were going to tour that record but of course, you know, a pandemic has a way of getting in the way of touring, so… [laughs] yeah.

You’ve mentioned the new album Saturn Return – can you tell us a bit more about it?

Lydia: Yeah, I guess we started writing that record in the summer of 2018, and a lot of the songs were kind of inspired by just the grief that we went through with our grandmothers passing away and just getting into adulthood ourselves and learning how to be mothers. So it’s just kind of about us coming into our own as adult women in 2020.

And why did you choose the title Saturn Return for this record?

Laura: Well, we kind of went through all the songs looking for a title that encompassed the whole feeling of the record. But we soon realised that there were just so many different aspects and emotions and experiences that we write about on the record that they were all kind of summarised by this idea of having your Saturn return, which of course happens every 29 years and is kind of this marker of this major life shift where things kind of throw you off for a little while but then they settle into a new normal. And that concept and the thought behind it just really wrapped everything up in a way that felt really succinct and really clear. We both felt like we had gone through both separate Saturn returns and then Saturn returns as a pair. And so I think that is such an interesting phenomenon that we were intrigued by it and we felt like it was the perfect way to describe what we’ve been through in all of the songwriting.

One thing which stood out to me listening to the album was it feels like a shift in terms of the tone – there’s a strong 60s and 70s influence. Was that something you consciously wanted to do beforehand or did it evolve that way?

Lydia: I would say it evolved into that type of sound for us. We don’t usually go into writing a record with a particular theme in mind. We just start writing one song at a time, and they become what they become in the studio. Once we got into the studio with Brandi, she was kind of the inspiration, I guess you could say, behind the sound of the songs. Especially on Late Bloomer. She was really good.

Laura: I think that for me it felt like the songs were just what we always do. Because the way that we write songs is we write as a pair and then it’s usually just on acoustic guitar. So we don’t really have any sort of preconceived notions about what era we’re gonna go towards or what kind of vibe the record is gonna have. And I think that historically with our records, just by default it kind of has a throwback sound to the 50s and 60s roots country, that kind of thing, that we always gravitate towards unintentionally. But I think that this time it felt like it was time to make a transition into a different feel, a more grown-up sound, just because we listen to music from every time period. And so when we got into the studio with these songs Brandi was really good about hearing the final product before we had even accomplished it. She heard Late Bloomer, that Lydia referenced a minute ago, and she said, “This songwriting style is just so reminiscent of Carole King and those amazing female songwriters of the 1970s”. And so that’s why that song has that vibe to it. And then there are other songs that I think are more stripped down and maybe a little more modern in a way. So it really feels like there’s a lot of diversity on the record. And any time that we’re compared to people like the Everly Brothers or Carole King or any of those legendary incredible music-makers it’s a compliment. So if you hear the 70s in our record, then we are very proud of that. What a great time for music! [laughs]

You’ve mentioned working with Brandi Carlile on this record. Was it a different experience compared to the previous record you made with her?

Lydia: It was kind of a different vibe this time around. With the third record we were at Bear Creek Studios just north of Seattle. It was a good vibe then but we were all new to working together. It was a lot of fun but there was a little bit of hesitation on our part, just because we weren’t used to working with them. But I think this time around we were a lot more comfortable working together and it felt more collaborative this time around, I would say. We had more of an opinion this time and we were able to say if we liked something or if we didn’t like something, and they really took that to heart and wanted it to be our record fully. So that was really refreshing and nice. We have always loved working with them. It’s just very natural and easy.

I wanted to ask a little more about the writing process for this record, as I know you didn’t have any co-writers but also had some solo writes for the first time. Did you find that a challenge? Or was it quite liberating somehow?

Laura: I mean I found it to be both – a challenge and liberating. I get overwhelmed when I’m writing songs. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by all the possibilities and it’s hard for me to lock in on one thing or to know ‘OK, this is what feels right for this song’. But we’ve made four records together and I think with this batch of songwriting, we knew that we were feeling really inclined to share personal themes that were very heavy and very intimate, actually. And so I think that was liberating in a way because of the fact that it’s completely our experiences. It’s exactly what we’ve gone through and what we’ve walked through as we have had our Saturn returns. And so we always love the way that we learn things from writing with outside people who aren’t in the band, but I think for this the strength of our songwriting really came through in using just the two of us as writers on the record.

One thing that I’m incredibly proud of is that Lydia did a lot of the writing on this record by herself. And I’m finally at a place in my life where I can give her credit for that [laughs].

Lydia: Ten years later, it’s fine.

Laura: But no, she’d come to me and be like, “hey, I wrote this song, I don’t know if it’s any good”, and she would play it and it would just be so great on its own, and it wouldn’t need any editing or improvement. And so I will always be proud of this record because I feel it’s where Lydia really stepped into her place as a songwriter and I could see that transformation happening from outside of what we were doing. So yeah, I think it’s our best songwriting work yet, but there’s always more to learn [laughs].

Were there any songs on the album that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?

Lydia: Laura, I feel like you wrote Hold You, Dear really fast.

Laura: Yeah. There’s a song called Hold You, Dear that I did most of the songwriting on, and that song came to me in about 15 minutes of just sitting down. It was like it just happened in my head and I just wrote it down. It doesn’t happen that way very often for me. And oddly enough, the day that I wrote that song I found out that I was pregnant with my baby [laughs]. And I was just feeling all the emotions that come with a pregnancy, especially your first pregnancy, and I was feeling all the things and so I sat down and wrote that song really quickly. So the writing on that one was definitely rare because of the way that it happened.

But then there were songs that we really had to work on for a long time. A part of it would get written in one moment and then we wouldn’t finish it for months, but we’d know that we’d need to. So there’s a song called Tin Can Angel that I wrote some of the verses and chorus for but it wasn’t finished. We knew that it wasn’t completed. So we waited months and months before we finally finished the bridge for that song. And then there were other songs that we wrote. We dedicated ourselves to doing some songwriting retreats for this record. We would rent a house in the middle of nowhere and go hole up for a weekend and write, write, write. And some of the songs were harder. Silver was one of those songs – it wasn’t hard to come up with but it was hard to wrap around how it was gonna feel and how we were gonna transition from the verses to the choruses. Every song is just a different creature, and I think if you can navigate that kind of thing and still have a record that feels like it’s all connected you’ve accomplished something [laughs].

Silver was one song I particularly wanted to ask about – was the sense of legacy and family something that was quite important for you to capture on this record?

Lydia: Yes.

Laura: Yeah, I mean, Silver, Lydia mentioned earlier that we lost our grandmothers – they both had cancer and passed away within a couple of weeks of one another. And so much of the record is tinted with our sort of grief process over losing them. But yeah, that song almost became this really strange sort of prophecy, because we wrote the song after we had lost our grandmothers but before we were pregnant, and we were pregnant at the same time. So it was strange to hear that song after all of that had transpired, because it really felt like the passing of the torch from our grandmothers as matriarchs of our family to us as new mothers, entering motherhood for the first time together.

That song speaks to so many things about womanhood and feminine traits and the fact that one thing we were feeling is that the two of us are not in our early 20s, and in Alabama it’s very common for people to start their families right out of school. And so we felt like we had waited a very long time to start families. There is that idea of ‘can I still be a good mother even if I’m starting to go grey?’ [laughs] ‘What does it mean to be a mother that’s a little bit older than the typical mother where we’re from?’ There’s just so much wrapped up in that.

But I think the thing that I’m most proud of about that song is that it honours old age in a time where old age is frowned upon or maybe not revered in the proper way. I’ve actually been thinking about that song a lot lately, because we’re in this pandemic where so many people have said, “oh don’t worry about this virus, it’s only an old people virus”, and I think, ‘but if it is only an old people virus, what a tragedy to lose them’. What a tragedy to lose our elders because they have so much to give us that I think our culture just doesn’t respect. So that song is about revering old age and all the things that come with it [laughs]. There’s a lot to unpack with that song [laughs].

You also recorded some of the vocals separately for this record. Was that quite a strange experience?

Lydia: I mean it was sort of strange. But it really felt appropriate with several of these songs, because like Laura said we wrote a bunch of these songs separately. So it would have felt stranger to sing them together almost. So even though we’re not used to singing separately and it’s very new territory for us, it felt like it was time to do our own thing and to show our own voices. And it was a different way for us to record, which we needed. We needed that refresher a little bit. And it felt good. It felt good for me, I don’t know how Laura felt about it, but I think it was good.

Laura: Yeah.

You’re hopefully going to come over and tour in the UK later this year. For people who haven’t seen you live before, what does a typical live show look like?

Laura: Well typically we usually perform as a duo, especially when we come over to the UK, but our hope is to have a couple of players with us out on the road with us this time. So it’s going to be a different dynamic. We’re hoping to bring the piano into several of the songs, so that’s a new element that we’re adding. But yeah, it’s just a whole different vibe altogether. We will be learning and we will be having as new an experience as the audience.

Lydia: Plenty of time to practice!

Laura: Yeah, we will have a lot of time on our hands [laughs].

You’ve also got a couple of festival shows planned as part of that. How would you say festivals compare to playing other shows?

Lydia: Well it’s different to play festivals in the UK and Europe. We’ve found that the festivals in the UK and Europe are much more suited to what we do and the audiences are just super-attentive and just very invested in what you do. So we actually prefer UK festivals to American festivals – I don’t know if I should say that out loud! But yeah, the festivals over there are different compared to a show that’s actually in a building. But overall I think our favourite thing about playing in the UK is just how attentive and kind the audiences are. The shows are very quiet and respectful and you can tell that the crowd is really listening, whether you’re outside in a field or elsewhere. But yeah, we love playing festivals over there, for sure. But we also love playing shows over there. It’s a win-win!

Normally I’d ask what you’ve got planned for the next few months but given the current situation – what are you doing to keep busy during lockdown and social distancing?

Laura: One of the things about being a musician is that your summertime is pretty full of shows, so I never get to have a garden that I can work on and enjoy, so we’ve planted a garden. And it’s an amazing thing to have a baby. My little boy is nine months old now and he keeps me very busy and our days are not relaxed or calm. He is on the go and busy, so I’ve been paying attention to my baby which is a really good thing! [laughs]

Lydia: Yeah, you might wanna do that right now! [laughs] I’m kind of in a similar boat – my little boy is almost six months old, and so he’s in a very fun stage right now, so I’m having to pay attention to him. And I wanna plant a garden as well. It’s a weird place to be in because I also feel like we should be doing creative things as well, but I don’t know exactly what we need to be doing. We’re in a really weird spot. But I’ve been painting a little bit, drawing, just trying to stay semi-creative during this time. But it can be hard [laughs].

Are you starting to think about the next record at all yet?

Laura: It’s very strange to think about the next record, but one thing we have talked about is maybe doing something that’s a little more unexpected. So we’ve talked about maybe doing a gospel record with just gospel music because we’re so influenced by that kind of music. We’ve talked about doing a kids’ record, a lullaby-type record. So I don’t know. We will eventually get to the point where we’re thinking about material for the new record. We don’t live in the same town, we’re about two hours apart, so it’s hard to get together when there’s a raging virus to write songs [laughs]. So maybe not for a while yet depending how long the virus goes on [laughs].

You’ll have to do it over Skype or something like that…

Lydia: That’s true!

Laura: We’ve never done that before so we’ll have to see if it’s successful [laughs].

Lydia: If it works.

The Secret Sisters’ latest album, Saturn Return, is out now on New West Records. The band will be performing a livestream on Facebook and Instagram Live on Tuesday 14th April at 10 PM UK time.

See the Secret Sisters live on tour in the UK this June:

Wednesday 10 June – The Apex, Bury St Edmunds (with Mary Bragg)
Thursday 11 June – The Met, Bury (with Mary Bragg)
Saturday 13 June – The Sage, Gateshead (with Mary Bragg)
Sunday 14 June – Firth Court, Sheffield (with Mary Bragg)
Tuesday 16 June – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (with Mary Bragg)
Wednesday 17 June – The Stables, Milton Keynes (with Mary Bragg)
Thursday 18 June – Union Chapel, London (with Mary Bragg)
Friday 19 June – St George’s, Bristol (with Mary Bragg)
Sunday 21 June – Black Deer Festival, Tunbridge Wells

 

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