Tim Hanseroth is sitting on a chair in Brandi Carlile’s Seattle-area home studio, strumming his guitar while Carlile glances over pensively from the corner of her brown leather couch, her arms hugging her knees. They’re gathered in this rather idyllic place — right across the driveway from the home Carlile shares with her wife and daughters, shrouded by evergreens like a treehouse in Narnia — to produce a new record for the Secret Sisters, a.k.a Alabama’s Laura and Lydia Rogers. On this misty afternoon, and fueled by a box of treats from local staple Taco Time, they’re working on a song called “Cabin,” a haunting meditation on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the rage that comes when crimes go unpunished — when the sisters land in harmony, their rumble carries the voices of thousands who feel hopeless in the face of unchecked power and patriarchy. But Laura isn’t so sure if the arrangement is where it needs to be yet.
“’Cabin’ is perfect,” Carlile counters, hopping up from the couch to cue it up on the simple recording setup, which is not much more than a computer and small rig on a wooden desk, facing a window outlined by Christmas lights. “You don’t sing about Kavanaugh pretty. It’s angry, so you don’t have to be.”
It’s January 2019 in Maple Valley, and the sisters are at the tail end of their time here to finish their fourth album, Saturn Return, which is their second collaboration with co-producers Carlile and Tim and Phil Hanseroth. Their previous work with this group, 2017’s You Don’t Own Me Anymore, is a stunning document of musical and emotional independence that earned a Grammy nomination. They’ve finished most of the songs in this cozy studio, interspersed with nights around Carlile’s large kitchen table and sizzling fireplace, flipping burgers on the grill and putting together cheese plates. They even tracked some vocals in Carlile’s living room. It’s a homestead vibe; a summer camp for adults set in Carlile’s gorgeously understated wood cabin on verdant property, except the goal is to turn all that play into art. There are very serious moments of emotional, intense musicmaking and there are also a lot of jokes, mostly about the ridiculous things Laura sometimes says during the duo’s live shows. “She regularly says ‘butthole’ and ‘twatrocket’ onstage,” Lydia says, reclining on a giant furry beanbag with her husband Mark Slage, a director who is there to film some of the recording process.
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“I haven’t said ‘twatrocket’ onstage,” Laura protests. She is few months pregnant, soon to be followed by Lydia, and those two babies will become an impetus for the delay of Saturn Return, out February 28th on New West Records. “I mostly talk about vomit!”
Carlile cues up another round of “Cabin,” standing up over the recording console in a pair of Gucci fur loafers. Everyone is hustling to get Tim finished for the day so he can head home and have dinner with his wife for their anniversary, so they’re zeroing in on his contributions first. The part he’s been working on is currently “too AC/DC,” he thinks, and they all want something a little more evocative of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Tim, in a knit beanie and T-shirt, massages it through, plopping in dissonant, livid notes: it feels like something, or someone, spiraling out of control. “Give it the tension,” Carlile says, “and the insanity it needs.”
These big electric guitar parts, or the drums courtesy of Chris Powell, are not the only thing different about Saturn Return. It also allows the sisters, who sing in exquisite harmony, to showcase their vocals outside of tandem — to express what can come from letting someone follow their own, independent path, even if it’s slightly out of sync, and the joys in coming back together. Right now Lydia is working through her part which opens “Cabin,” and she’s standing quietly at the mic on the other side of a glass pane: everything is pretty intimate in this part of the studio, which has vaulted ceilings and walls painted red, with heavy green drapes parted over the window. There are a few of Carlile’s knickknacks here — a couple of framed records, a guitar, a globe — and she helped to build the place, ice-picking the trenches across the driveway herself. She’s proud of that manual labor and it all makes the place feel like an extension of her.
They ready the part Tim just tracked, and everyone is silent for a beat as the last vibrations fall from the ceiling after hanging there like Seattle mist. Even the sound of rustling taco wrappers falls to quiet.
“Kavanaugh should be worried,” Carlile finally says.
“They all should be,” Lydia deadpans back.
Saturn Return is built on those moments of quiet fury, intimacy, and confession — of finding their place, of learning how to find balance in a world that is anything but. They sing of struggle, of aging, of coming to terms with the realities of life both beautiful and cruel. “Look upon your mother and the silver in her hair/Consider it a crown the holiest may wear,” they sing on the album’s opening track, “Silver.” They know that’s much easier said than done in a world where youth is praised as the true royalty.
“The songs on this record will always feel like that lucky photo you accidentally capture, at just the right moment, in just the right light. The one you look at and say, ‘That’s a framer,’” Lydia says later. “This record feels like our ‘framer’ because it forever documented us as the women we were before the page turned into a new chapter — motherhood, adulthood, grown-up grief, career identity, cultural identity, lifelong love.”
At one point, the topic of a possible cover song comes up — should they do one? If so, which one? Carlile, who as producer is both teammate and coach, talks them through the idea. “When you are making a record and are going to cover a song, it should be a statement of how people should perceive you,” she says. Carlile, alongside co-producer Shooter Jennings, guided Tanya Tucker through her own take of Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” on the Grammy-winning While I’m Livin’, and the choice fills that very role. “You know what you guys would kill?” Carlile adds, before singing a few lines of Annie Lennox’s “Why”: “How many times do I have to tell you that I’m sorry for the things I’ve done…”
In the end, they decide to cap the album without one, even leaving behind another song they worked on earlier in the day called “Quicksand” that contains such potent couplets as “I am scared of cruel leaders, and a world gone up in flames.” Saturn Return ends up landing on a tight 10 tracks, spiking moments of dreamy levity (“Late Bloomer,” “Hand Over My Heart”) with those like the deeply emotional “Cabin” and the salve of spirituality through sickness on “Healer in the Sky,” all built by the sisters to reflect the changes, heartbreak, and bittersweet joys that come as the time ticks by.
In the months since, Laura and Lydia have undergone even more transitions — two new babies, who will come with the sisters as they hit the road starting in March in Brooklyn. “In hindsight, making this record in the studio with Brandi, Tim and Phil feels a bit like an out-of-body experience,” Lydia says now, well over a year later. “We were in such different places as individuals, and even different from where we both are now. We are both new mothers trying to figure out how such a big love can fit inside us.”