It’s been something of a rocky road for Alabama-born duo The Secret Sisters over the last couple of years.
After being dropped by their record label, the pair ended up filing for bankruptcy and didn’t know if they would make another album. Thankfully Brandi Carlile came to the rescue and worked with the band to produce their third record, You Don’t Own Me Anymore, which was released this summer.
I sat down with Laura and Lydia ahead of their recent show at London’s Union Chapel for the London Folk & Roots Festival. Read on to find out what they love about performing in the UK, their favourite cover songs to play, what would be on their career bucket list and why Laura wants a pet swan…
You’ve been to the UK a few times now – what keeps you coming back?
Lydia: Definitely the people – they’re always so kind to us and they respond really well to our music, sometimes even better than Americans do. So it’s been five years since we’ve been over here for an actual tour, so it’s been a long time coming. But we’re always drawn to the people and the venues are always wonderful.
Laura: And it’s beautiful. It’s so different to the places we’re used to. We tour in America all the time but Europe and the UK are just so magical and historical.
Lydia: They do bring inspiration as well – it always inspires us to write again and gets us in a different place mentally.
Do you find that UK audiences react differently to your music compared to other places you’ve performed?
Laura: It’s really more the amount of people. We’ll have people who are excited in America and that’s always wonderful, but I feel like our crowds grew a lot more quickly in the UK than they did in America. No matter how much we toured in America it just felt like it wasn’t growing at the same rate that it has here. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that when we first came over in here I think 2011, we played the Jools Holland Hootenanny on New Year’s Eve which was a very big deal but we don’t know about those sorts of things in America – we didn’t know it was such a big opportunity. But after we played that event it was like everyone who came up to us at our shows would say ‘I saw you on Jools Holland and I became an instant fan’. And so I feel like the audience just grows more quickly here than it does in the States.
Lydia: I also think there’s a bit more of a fascination with Southern American culture over here. Living over there and people being a part of that culture, it’s nothing new to them, but over here I think people get a little bit of a charm from that or something like that and they seem to be more receptive to that culture.
Would you say that Southern culture has been a big influence on your music?
Lydia: It’s just who we are, y’know? Our dad is still in a bluegrass band and we were really influenced by bluegrass and gospel music. We grew up in a really conservative church so they didn’t even use musical instruments and they encouraged harmony and reading shape notes and that’s kind of where we learned how to harmonise the way that we do. So we’re just Southern through and through and we can’t deny it.
Laura: It’s almost obnoxious [Lydia laughs]. Yeah, that’s definitely a huge contributing factor to the kind of music that we write and up until we put out our first record we never travelled anywhere outside of the South. We mainly stayed in the Southern states and so it’s kind of crazy to spend your whole life in that culture and then to start travelling outside of it and find that people in other parts of the world are intrigued by the lifestyle that we kind of grew up in. But we’re thankful for it, so…
And what would you say your influences are now?
Lydia: There are a lot.
Laura: Obviously we love classic country music. We love music from the decades before we were born. We listen to a lot of 60s and 70s singer-songwriter folk music, a lot of Crosby Stills Nash & Young and a lot of Fleetwood Mac and The Mamas & The Papas, and that was all kind of our dad exposing us to that kind of music. But a lot of that, a lot of harmony-rich bands that we’ve always loved. But we also actually like bands that are still making music and that are young and modern [laughs].
Lydia: We were always listening to bluegrass music or some form of old country music when we were really little, and then when we became teenagers we kind of rebelled against that and listened to The Ramones and Fleetwood Mac and that kind of thing. So I think we’ve gotten a saturation from all the worlds, which has been good for us. We especially rebelled against bluegrass and folk music for a long time but then when we got in our 20s we found the charm in that again.
You mentioned one of the things you liked about playing in the UK is the venues – do you prefer these smaller more intimate venues or are you happy to play wherever?
Laura: I think mostly we’re just happy to play anywhere. We like smaller rooms where we feel that we can have more of a conversation with the crowd than just a performance.
Lydia: We’re drawn to audiences that are seated because that kind of suits our music a little bit more for people to actually be able to listen.
Laura: This room at Union Chapel I think is the biggest we’ve played in Europe so this is as big as we’ve gone in the headlining department. But obviously if it gets to the point where we need to be playing bigger rooms we will. But we’ve also played a lot of really nice smaller rooms that have been just really special and you recognise that as kind of a moment where the audience can connect with you in a really kind of special way. I think as a music lover I have certain bands and artists that I love so much that I would be so happy to see them in a tiny room with just a handful of people rather than thousands.
Lydia: And in those venues it seems like artists are a little more inclined to have conversations with their audience and be a little more relatable, and I think we’re both drawn to that. So if we can be those people that’s cool for us.
The new album has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride – was there ever a point where you wanted to give up on music and what was it that brought you back?
Both: Oh yes!
Lydia: Oh, especially when all of that happened we both were very close to giving it all up and starting fresh. And even now I think we still have those days. I think once a week we probably think ‘is this right for us?’ But we have fewer of them than we used to. But it all happened at once – we were dropped from the label and a former business relationship went sour and we had to fire them and they sued us and we went into bankruptcy and it was just all at one time. And so as you can imagine we were not inspired to write songs in any way or do anything creative for that matter. I think probably we just had to force ourselves to be creative again and to take a day out of a week and get together and write even though we didn’t really want to, and we really had a hard time with it. We would butt heads every time we wrote. But the more that we did the more we were able to come up with and work on together and that’s how the album came to be. It took probably two years to put all the songs together but we did it! It took a long time but it was worth it.
Do you have a favourite song on the album? What were the easiest and hardest songs to write?
Lydia: That’s a good question!
Laura: I think my favourite song on the record is the title track. It’s called You Don’t Own Me Anymore. I remember when we wrote that song thinking that that song was really powerful and it really kind of communicated all of the frustration and pent-up resentment and bitter feelings. It’s been my favourite song throughout the entire process of writing and recording the record. I feel like that’s a really powerful moment during the live show as well. The hardest song to write was probably… maybe that one or there’s a song called The Damage that was pretty specific and it kind of was written at a point where we were both very vulnerable and emotional and everything was just raw and painful. But that one I think is the most charged emotionally for both of us.
Lydia: Probably my favourite was Mississippi. We have been trying a little bit more to explore narrative songwriting outside of ourselves, and that has been a challenge but a fun one and something that I want us to explore a little bit more on the records to come. It’s just mysterious and dark and that’s how we are [laughs].
Laura: It’s a murder ballad, it’s literally a murder ballad. You weirdo! [laughs]
Lydia: I know. I’m fascinated with murder.
Laura: What does that mean?! [both laugh]
What does your writing process look like? Do you still try to write together one day a week?
Lydia: No, that’s not the case.
Laura: Typically when we are in touring, record-cycle mode we are just there mentally. We don’t really divert from that – we are always just focused on performing and it’s hard to have two different brains. So we really don’t start writing until we know we’re just about to make another record, which sounds awful; we’re not always writing the way a lot of artists are. But that’s just how we work. We have to schedule time together and figure something out. Sometimes one of us will come up with a few lines and a melody and send it to the other and we’ll go back and forth expanding on it, because we live in separate places.
Lydia: Typically I like to write melodies – that’s my favourite thing to do and Laura’s a wordsmith and really wonderful with lyrics. It works well for us most of the time but we do get in a lot of fights.
Laura: We just had to kind of force a schedule upon ourselves when we were going through the rough patch because we knew that if we didn’t we would just completely stop because it was so much work to sit down. At the end of the day we were just trying to figure out ‘how am I gonna pay the rent this month? How am I gonna pay groceries? How am I gonna pay my bills?’ because we weren’t touring, we weren’t doing anything. And so it was really, really challenging to sit down and make ourselves generate song ideas. So we kind of had to force ourselves into a little more of a routine but now we’ve slackened up a little.
Lydia: We’re feeling the bug again, though. It’s been enough time since we wrote these songs and we’ve played enough shows now that we’re kind of ready.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Both: Oh yes!
Laura: All the time, definitely.
Lydia: It’s a constant struggle for us. I feel like most artists can just… it seems like songs just spill out of them pretty effortlessly but for us that’s hard. I mean there have been songs that we’ve written in fifteen or twenty minutes but I think our best songs took a day to put together.
Laura: I’ve been a little bit worried – I’ll tell this story on stage tonight but I got married last year and it’s unexpected and kind of shocking that I found someone who could tolerate me [Lydia laughs]. But I’ve been really happy – I’ve been married over a year and I’ve been really happy, but I tend to write more when I’m sad. And so because I’ve been happy and at peace I just haven’t done nearly as much songwriting as I should so I’m gonna have to find some sadness [laughs].
Lydia: A lot of those songs were drawn from sad experiences we were going through, and now we’re relatively stable and happy so that’s why I think we’ll have to start learning how to write from other perspectives.
Laura: I feel like I was just so emotional. Like when I was in my twenties and we were writing the second record, I feel like I was just so emotional and so angry. And I still am emotional and angry but I feel like I’m not as passionate – not that I’m not passionate but I just feel like I’m not as temperamental.
Lydia: Mmm… I disagree.
Laura: She disagrees of course [Lydia laughs] because we are sisters, so…
Lydia: You can just write them about me.
Laura: Yeah! It could be ‘today I wanted to strangle my sister, but I didn’t wanna damage her vocal cords!’ [both laugh]
If there was one song you wish you’d written, what would that be?
Lydia: Oh dear…
Laura: Are you kidding me?!
Lydia: I don’t know if this is the one I would have most liked to write but it’s what came to mind – Helplessly Hoping by Crosby Stills & Nash. But oh my goodness… I can’t imagine being on that level.
Laura: I think maybe I wish that I had written Happy Birthday [Lydia laughs] or some song like… maybe that Sweet Home Alabama song. Because you know, whoever wrote that must be so rich.
Lydia: [sarcastically] Because that’s what it’s about, is making money. [laughs]
Laura: No, but artistically… oh it’s so hard to know. We’re both really big fans of Rufus Wainwright and his songwriting is just absolutely shocking and stunning and magical. Sometimes I listen to the things that he writes and I can’t believe that a human brain came up with that. It’s just so much larger than human to me. It’s… I guess extra-human is the way I would describe it, but he’s just larger than life and so any of his songs I would have gladly penned if I could have. But maybe one day [laughs]
You’ve worked with Brandi Carlile on this album – what was that like and how did it come about?
Laura: It was so good.
Lydia: It was the best recording experience I think we’ve ever had. We first toured with her in 2011 and ever since that tour she has just been really good about being a mentor to us, checking on us, taking us on tours periodically and she had brought us to a couple of shows up in Seattle. We played her a few of the songs from the new record and she was hooked and wanted to be involved, and within two months of that time we were in the studio with her making a record. And she’s just been such a good friend to us and she’s always encouraging and pushing us which we need.
Laura: And it’s been nice to just work with a female, because we’ve worked with so many really talented men who we admire and respect but it was just so different and refreshing to work with a female vocalist. Because Brandi really understands what it means to write a song and then deliver it. We’re not writing songs for someone else to sing; the songs that we write are what we will sing on stage and so I feel like Brandi was so instrumental in helping us translate those songs into something that was a real conversation or a real statement that could hold its weight the way that we wanted it to.
Lydia: A lot of times we have to play shows just the two of us and a guitar, so she wanted us to be able to translate that from the record to the stage.
Laura: Not once did it feel like work or ‘oh well we have to do this’. It felt like just a complete pleasure the entire time. It was fun and there was this camaraderie and this kind of tangible ‘oh we didn’t think we were gonna get to make a third record and now we’re doing it with our friends and heroes’. It was wonderful.
Do you think things are changing for women in country music and Americana at the moment?
Lydia: I think it’s coming.
Laura: I think in some quarters it is. I think that there are certain areas where it’s actually toxic to be so against one another and it’s actually more incredible to support each other and cheer for one another. It’s slowly – at least in America it seems like there are a few people who are catching on to it and mainstream country… I don’t know, we don’t really work within those parameters very often. But at least in our world of Americana, roots music I do feel like women are starting to get over that strange sense of competition that you feel. It’s not a competition at all, but I think we’re made to believe that it is. I think we’re slowly getting past it.
Lydia: And we’re gonna need the men to get on board as well, and that seems to be taking longer than we all want it to. I think it’ll still take a while but I can feel it coming. I can see it getting better but we’ve gotta all be a part of it and work together towards that.
Why did you decide to go down the crowdfunding route for this album?
Lydia: Because we had no money! [laughs] There was no other option. I don’t really know what else we would have done. We had to rely on our fans and our connections in the industry. Brandi was actually one to suggest crowdfunding and we were really, really hesitant to do that at first because we had a lot of pride and we didn’t want to ask people for money. And for so long admittedly we had had a label that poured money into us and so we didn’t ever have to worry about it. So it did take a lot for us to admit that we needed it and we’re so glad we did. It established a deeper connection with our fans and we were able to set up different ways to connect with them. We wrote down lyrics to our songs or we did videos and Laura painted for them, and it was just a really cool way to do it and we ended up funding it within two weeks.
Laura: I think that more than anything it was nice to be able to connect and offer something to our fans. But going through what we went through with the bankruptcy and getting dropped from our label and almost giving up, it really did a number on our confidence and our belief in ourselves as artists…
Lydia: And people.
Laura: Yeah, so when we finally got the money that we needed to make this record it was like, ‘wow!’ There are enough people in the world who care what we’re doing, even though they have no idea what it’s going to sound like. We could literally be belching into a microphone [Lydia laughs] and pulling it off as a record, but they like it enough that they’re gonna give us their money so that we can do it. It was really kind of reaffirming and it made us aware that this is what we want to do and this is the right thing right now for us to do is to make a record. So yeah, it was great.
You’ve been quite open about the more negative experiences you’ve had in the music industry – do you think it’s important for artists to talk about that side of things?
Lydia: I think so. For us at least it’s just a part of our story – it’s a huge part of our story and for us to have ignored it would have meant not talking about the album at all, because it’s what the album is about. So we debated for a long time on whether or not to be specific about what those struggles were, but I think we’ve just given in to being open and people respond to that so well. We’ve had people come up to us after shows and say ‘I went through a similar thing and this really touched me’, and so that has been nice to be able to connect with people in that way.
Laura: And we’re not good at keeping secrets. So even if we had decided that we weren’t gonna tell anyone what happened, when people ask ‘what took you so long to get back to the UK?’ it would have been hard to be like ‘well we just took five years off’. When artists disappear there’s a reason.
Lydia: Yeah, it’s quite contrary to our band name.
Laura: Yeah. So I think that it would have damaged us further if we had not kind of revealed what we went through and I think it sets the tone. It helps people understand the context of the songs, for sure.
Lydia: It helps us to heal too.
You’ve been on the road a lot this year promoting the new album – what have you learnt from that touring experience?
Laura: I think one of the most valuable things that we learned… we had some pretty toxic business relationships in the early days of our career, and some of those relationships made us believe that if you stop for a little while or if you don’t drive yourself into the ground working hard…
Lydia: Saying yes to everything…
Laura: If you say no to anything your career is over, and it stops and everyone forgets about you and no-one cares about your music any more. I think we were made to think that it was just constantly like if you don’t stay in front of everyone all the time then someone else is gonna get the opportunity that you turned down. And that is true in some ways but it’s also exhausting to have to keep up with that kind of pace. And what’s been really nice is to set our schedule and say ‘I can’t be on the road for more than two weeks at a time and I need time at home with my family and my home’. And you can go back and play another show and people still come and still buy your record. I think that a good solid career with good quality music is not as fragile as we were made to believe it was. So that’s what I took away from the last year of shows.
Lydia: It’s definitely set our priorities in the right place. We’ve found a good balance in home life, family life and our careers, so that’s been a good learning experience.
You did a lot of cover versions on your first album – do you have a favourite cover that you like to play live?
Lydia: I love playing cover songs in general. We just love playing other people’s songs more than our own! [laughs]
Laura: But it’s often frowned upon. Music critics are like ‘don’t play cover songs’ but there are really great songs that have been written and in so many cases those artists are not alive any more, or they’re not touring so they can’t play their music.
Lydia: Who’s gonna keep them alive if we don’t?
Laura: We both really love any Everly Brothers cover that we do – they’re always really special and something that we kind of gravitate towards.
Lydia: I love those soulful songs like the Etta James cover that we do. There’s so many covers that we do it’s hard to pick which one I like the most [Laura laughs]. We do a Crosby Stills & Nash song that we love… what else?
Laura: I wish we had three hours to play tonight because it’s been so long since we played in London that I feel like we need three hours to make up for the time that we’ve spent. But there’s a Woody Guthrie song that we do sometimes called Where Have All The Flowers Gone? And that one’s really powerful just because it was a song that was written as a war protest song, but it still feels relevant even though it’s so old.
Lydia: That’s the best kind of song, one that is still appropriate fifty years later.
If you had a career bucket list, what would be on that?
Lydia: Oh my goodness! Probably for me to headline the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Although this is pretty up there for me – being able to headline Union Chapel and have people actually show up is pretty incredible.
Laura: It would be great to do something with Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, especially the strong females in country music. This is gonna sound so selfish but we’ve gotten to do so many cool things already. We’ve gotten to cross off a lot of things on the bucket list so I feel bad because I don’t have as long of a bucket list as I used to.
Lydia: That’s a good thing!
Laura: Some things are on the bucket list but you don’t even realise they are until they happen. Until you’ve done it you don’t realise how big of a deal it was. But honestly, when you go through the things that we went through – thinking we were never gonna play another show or make another record… We never dreamed we would be able to come back to England ever. That was so far out of reach for the two of us when we went through the dark spell.
Lydia: We didn’t even know when we would have another tour, let alone get back over here.
Laura: And so honestly even though the big moments and the moments where you’re starstruck by some incredible artist or person that you admire are so special, but every day is pretty great because we thought we weren’t gonna get it any more. And we’re doing it – we’re able to make a living and play shows for great people and it’s growing and it feels like people really are responding to it, and to me that’s number one on the bucket list. Just being able to keep going.
Lydia: There’s definitely a renewed sense of gratitude for us – just the fact that 50 people will come to your show and pay money and take time out of their week to come and listen to your voice is just a huge blessing. And that’s something I don’t think that we grasped so well in the beginning. And we do on the other side of the hardship that we went through, so we’re thankful for that.
Are there any artists you like at the moment that you think more people should know about?
Lydia: I have been listening to a lot of a girl named Courtney Marie Andrews. I think that she’s from Portland. I just love her voice – she sounds like Joni Mitchell and she’s just a great songwriter. She’s been my favourite as of late.
Laura: We’re really big fans of a guy from our home town. His name is Dylan LaBlanc. He has toured over here a good amount and we are such huge fans of him and always rooting for him, so he’s somebody that we love and admire. There are so many! My recent listening has been a whole lot of Gillian Welch, and then there’s this really incredible artist named Willie Watson who is basically just the world’s greatest folk singer. He’s great if you like folk music. We’re all over the place but there’s a lot of good music out there right now so a nice time to be creating.
What’s next for you?
Lydia: Another year of touring is ahead. We’ve already got half of 2018 planned. We’re actually coming back over to the UK for the Transatlantic Sessions – we just got added – and then we’re doing more touring over here in the springtime for four weeks. So I think just touring until the end of the year next year and probably making another record. That’s the plan at least. You can’t really plan any more.
Laura: We learned that the hard way, that you just have to take it a phase at a time and say ‘OK, now this is what we do’. But we hope that this is the beginning of a long, long return visit to this part of the world because we love being over here. I’m trying to figure out a way to kidnap a swan from Hyde Park and take it back to America, but I’ve heard they’re mean.
Lydia: We have swans in America!
Laura: Yeah, but I want a British swan.
Doesn’t the Queen technically own the Hyde Park swans though?
Lydia: Yeah, somebody commented about that on our page today!
Laura: I don’t wanna steal from the Queen. But can you imagine showing up at the airport with this huge package flapping under my arm and ‘what do you have in that?’ ‘Nothing!’
Lydia: Sometimes you can register animals as a service animal…
Laura: Yeah! I’ll be like ‘this is my anxiety swan, I need it for the flight!’ [laughs]
The Secret Sisters will be touring the UK on the following dates:
2nd February 2018 – Glasgow, Royal Concert Hall (part of the Transatlantic Sessions)
4th February 2018 – Glasgow, Royal Concert Hall (part of the Transatlantic Sessions)
5th February 2018 – London, Royal Festival Hall (part of the Transatlantic Sessions)
6th February 2018 – Bristol, Colston Hall (part of the Transatlantic Sessions)
7th February 2018 – Cambridge, Corn Exchange (part of the Transatlantic Sessions)
8th February 2018 – Gateshead, The Sage (part of the Transatlantic Sessions)
9th February 2018 – Manchester, Bridgewater Hall (part of the Transatlantic Sessions)
10th February 2018 – Birmingham, Symphony Hall (part of the Transatlantic Sessions)
22nd March 2018 – Dublin, Whelan’s (headlining tour)
23rd March 2018 – Belfast, Empire (headlining tour)
24th March 2018 – Sligo, Hawk’s Well Theatre (headlining tour)
25th March 2018 – Saltaire, Live Room & Caroline Social Club (headlining tour)
27th March 2018 – Bristol, The Tunnels (headlining tour)
28th March 2018 – Milton Keynes, The Stables
29th March 2018 – Gateshead, Sage Gateshead
30th March 2018 – Glasgow, Cottiers
31st March 2018 – Sheffield, The Greystones
1st April 2018 – Bury, The Met