Folky-Americana-Meets-Country-Soul Style: The Secret Sisters Come Full Circle on New Album

The Secret Sisters’ Laura Rogers pulls into the parking lot of a Baptist church in the town in which she lives in her home state of Alabama. In a different Alabama city, her musical and blood sister Lydia Slagle pulls into another church parking lot. The two are on a quick getaway from their children, a matching pair aged four and two, so they can Zoom into this interview. They shriek with laughter when they realize they’ve both found respite in church parking lots. “We are in the Bible Belt after all,” Laura points out. “Church parking lots are usually empty—except on Sundays.”

Their children may only see them as “Mom,” but The Secret Sisters’ fans—a steadfast bunch who kept the duo afloat when they were cut loose from their first record deal after the release of their second album—are anxiously awaiting the next album, Mind, Man, Medicine.

The album is The Secret Sisters’ fifth, and the first one they recorded in their hometown of Muscle Shoals, primarily at FAME Studios. Before completing their full-circle journey home, the sisters recorded with Dave Cobb in Nashville for their 2009 self-titled debut, and with T Bone Burnett in Los Angeles for its 2014 follow up, Put Your Needle Down, and with Brandi Carlile in Seattle for their third and fourth albums, the Grammy-nominated You Don’t Own Me Anymore (2017) and Saturn Return (2020).

Once The Secret Sisters began co-production of Mind, Man, Medicine with Ben Tanner and John Paul White in Muscle Shoals, Laura and Lydia reached the same conclusion as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, which is, “There’s no place like home.” The duo’s folky-Americana-meets-country-soul style remains intact on the album while their singular voices reach new heights. “Same Water,” “All the Ways” (a song with Ray LaMontagne, incidentally the first artist to take The Secret Sisters on tour a decade ago), and “Paperweight” preceded Mind, Man, Medicine, allowing a glimpse into where they are in their lives now, most prominently as mothers.

SPIN: You’ve had two successful albums produced by Brandi Carlisle. What made you move away from that working relationship for this album?

LAURA: We put pressure on ourselves to do something different. When you are accustomed to a certain way of making records or a certain group of people making records with you, it becomes a comfort blanket.

Also, it was necessary to change course because of logistics. Gone are the days we could hop off to [Carlisle’s studio in] Seattle for two weeks with no worries in the world. At this stage of life, it’s too difficult for us to be gone for that long. We knew if we went away from Alabama, we would need to be able to commit a decent amount of time and we both didn’t feel like we could do that.

LYDIA: I don’t know if other musicians felt this way, but for us, we didn’t feel ready to go back into the touring world. We weren’t ready to leave. It was becoming moms; it was becoming settled in our life and our routines. We got used to being at home and realized we had all the resources we needed at home. It was time for us to be in the place where we grew up that had so much history. 

What brought you to Ben Tanner and John Paul White?

Laura: During the pandemic, we had recorded an EP with Ben Tanner. It was such a good collaboration and such a good experience that we weren’t satisfied with just an EP. We knew we wanted to make a full record with him. Then John Paul came on board.

Being at home and tapping into all the resources we have here, not only childcare but also just the amazing musicianship that is in this area, it felt like a natural place to land for the fifth record. You can create magic in a studio with certain producers and musicians, but ultimately what it comes down to is your artistry because musicians and producers are going to weave in and out of your story. We have to have the confidence in what we bring to the table to carry us through records no matter who the producers are.

Lydia: We had such camaraderie with those two guys. They’re so identifiable for us. If you’ve been in this area for a long time, you just have a way about you and the energy is similar. It’s almost like you’re not trying to impress each other, because they know where you come from. You can’t pull anything on each other, which, I think, served to our advantage.

What was it like for you to work in Muscle Shoals?

Laura: You know how you’re disenchanted with your own backyard and you don’t fully appreciate it?. You almost have to leave it and go elsewhere to understand the magnitude of a place like Muscle Shoals. We’re at a point in our career where it’s hard to do a record somewhere else because we’ve got little kids at home. We’ve got this amazing playground where we can make any kind of music with any kind of musician, and it will be top notch as far as musicianship goes. It took this many years to realize, “Let’s stay home.”

What were some challenges with self-producing?

Lydia: We all had different parts of our brains that we were accessing. Laura and I are not gearheads at all. We can say, “We want it to sound like this. Can you help us achieve that?” Ben was so good at following our instructions. He knew what instruments to add and he tweaked until his brain fell out.

Laura: I don’t think we are at the point where we could self-produce without any outside help. We are so neurotic and perfectionist-minded. We benefit so much from the outside perspective of, “This is not going to get any better or more authentic or more moving. The take we have is the right one. Yes, your voice did a weird-like wobble because you were emotional or you were tired that day, but it adds to the feeling of the song.” If it were up to the two of us, we would be at it until the song had no life left in it. We will always need someone to be the bird’s eye view and say, “Come out of your neurotic artistic mindset, see this for what it is and trust it.”

With all the new things in your life—including motherhood—did it automatically feel like you had fresh topics to write about?

Laura: Because I feel like so much of my brain disappeared when I had children, it was more like, “We have songs, but are they good enough? Are they as thought through and wrestled with as [our] previous records’ material has been?” Truthfully, we didn’t arm wrestle the songs the way we have for records in the past because we don’t have the luxury of time to do that anymore. We have a song and we put it in a folder and we forget about it until we go in to make the record. When we started pulling songs out for the record, I was like, “Are they good? Are they interesting?” Thankfully, once the songs started to materialize, we saw the thread that connected them all. It was like, “Okay, good. I’m reassured that I do have things to say. I still observe the world, just through a different lens and there’s got to be an audience out there who can feel what I feel in some way.”

Lydia: Our co-writers helped pull that out of us, too. I wouldn’t say we were struggling to write songs. It was just that we didn’t have time to write them. We had to be more thoughtful about scheduling time, whether that was a retreat at a cabin outside of town or we go to Nashville for a couple of days and write with people. It ended up being a really good experience. I don’t know if I ever want to not have co-writers on a record again. It’s challenging and fun and keeps us in the game.

You’ve had many ups and downs over the last 14 years. Do you feel like you have a steadier footing in the music industry?

Laura: The pandemic gave me a new set of eyes about everything. One of the good things being forced to stay home showed us was, “Don’t run yourself into the ground playing shows. Saying ‘yes’ to every single opportunity is no way to live, because you’re going to burn yourself out.” Coming out of the pandemic, and especially as new mothers, I don’t take it as seriously as I used to. It isn’t that it doesn’t matter, or that I don’t care. Music is everything, and the music business is kind of nothing. If I don’t have my people and my health and my grounding place, I don’t have anything. I want to keep making great records and playing shows and meeting the people who resonate with what we have to say, but I’m not going to trade the things that truly matter to me for that. 

I’m not fearful of the industry anymore, and I can’t say that was always the case. I’ve been very fearful of, “What if we don’t get the album sequence right so that we get a Grammy nomination?” Things like that matter and they move the goalposts, but stressing yourself out about it and worrying about what your peers are doing, and if this record is going to be as good as the last one, or if it’s going to get the same notoriety or the same airplay, I don’t have the capacity for fretting about those things anymore. It’s a nice place to be, because I feel like I trust the music and I trust what we do in a way that I never have before. 

Originally Published Here.

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