"We write songs as a way for us to keep a scrapbook of our lives," says Laura Rogers, one half of the traditional-country harmony duo the Secret Sisters. On their vulnerable new album, You Don't Own Me Anymore, Laura and sibling Lydia Rogers flip the book open wide, revealing their most personal project to date. Produced by Brandi Carlile, the sisters' third album arrives June 9th on New West Records, but is streaming in its entirety below on Rolling Stone Country.
You Don't Own Me Anymore didn't come to fruition easily. There was a lawsuit with a former manager to overcome, the shadow of impending bankruptcy and the loss of their record deal following the commercial failure of their second album, 2014's Put Your Needle Down. It all resulted in an overbearing feeling of despair for both Laura and Lydia.
"There would be many days that Laura would call me and say, 'I just don't think that I have it in me to do this anymore,'" says Lydia, referring to that troublesome period. "Music itself was painful at that time," Laura adds, "but thankfully we were able to find our way back to the therapy of songwriting."
Throughout that tumult, one of the positive constants for the sisters was having Carlile in their corner, a relationship that has evolved from fans to tourmates to collaborators. "I feel like there are assembly lines of songwriters in Nashville as we speak trying to garner a sliver of the sentiment that Laura and Lydia absolutely embody," Carlile says. "It's Southern songs with real perspective and biblical references that hold the weight of someone who actually lives inside that narrative. They're perfect singers, disturbingly good writers and two of the funniest people I know."
During the fall of 2015, a time that Laura refers to as "a period of stagnancy where we were just trying to stay afloat," Carlile invited the Rogers sisters to open shows for her, including two notable hometown Seattle concerts. During soundcheck, Laura and Lydia tried out "Tennessee River Runs Low," a new song that would eventually end up as the lead single from You Don't Own Me Anymore. Carlile had been listening from the auditorium seats and shouted her enthusiasm, encouraging the duo to share the rest of the songs they had recently written. Soon, Carlile was producing their next album.
"They're complete fucking unicorns and I couldn't stay away" - Brandi Carlile on producing the Secret Sisters
As Carlile describes it, her not-so-secret affinity for the Secret Sisters was the defining factor in her decision. "They're complete fucking unicorns and I couldn't stay away," she says. "I remember the first time I ever heard them sing and I literally could not believe that it was happening in real life. They were and continue to be two of the most stunning singers in the world."
On past releases, the Secret Sisters have worked with T Bone Burnett, Jack White and Dave Cobb in the producer's chair. But having such luminaries judging one's work can result in timidity and hesitancy in the studio. "With our previous albums, our producers always had a really good idea of where they wanted our sound to go and we felt like we didn't need to interfere with that," Lydia explains diplomatically. "With Brandi, it was very collaborative and we were much more involved this go around."
The track "Mississippi," which Carlile wrote with the Rogers siblings, stands as the producer's favorite. "They gave me the honor of getting to write the very end of the story and you can feel the pen change hands in the middle of the poem," she says. "It was like living inside a Choose Your Own Adventure book from the 1980s."
"Mississippi" is a sequel of sorts to the murder ballad "Iuka," off Put Your Needle Down. But while "Iuka" is about a father killing his young daughter and her lover as they try to elope, "Mississippi" cleverly recasts the story from the father's perspective. "By the end [of "Mississippi"] they don't excuse him, but somehow they've done the impossible by making you forgive him," says Carlile.
With You Don't Own Me Anymore, the Secret Sisters attempt their own difficult feat: resurrecting a career that was nearly derailed for good. Their biggest champion, Carlile, says they've done it. "They've come through the other side, they've made quite a few friends who will support them in whatever they do, and they will continue to give more to this world than they take away from it," she says. "I think we're finally seeing who the Secret Sisters are."