Listening to The Secret Sisters’ blend of bluegrass, gospel, Americana and old-timey country, it’s only natural to wonder where those intoxicating songs and harmonies come from.
In a recent conference call with Laura and Lydia Rogers — one sister at home in Green Hill, Alabama, the other two hours south in Birmingham — they talked about their earliest vocal training.
“We grew up in rural Alabama, going to church every Sunday and Wednesday,” Lydia explained. “And in the kind of church we went to, we sang all a cappella songs as a congregation. Instead of using instruments, we had to read the music on the page, and we were encouraged to harmonize. So the bulk of our sound comes from that upbringing.”
And the rest?
The Rogers sisters’ father was — and still is — in a bluegrass band.
“So at first, we were really directly influenced by bluegrass and gospel,” Lydia concluded. “Then rock and all the other genres came later.”
The Secret Sisters are in Northern Utah next week for back-to-back concerts. On Monday, Aug. 13, they’re at Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City, opening for folk rocker Brandi Carlile — with whom they’ve developed a special bond. Then, on Tuesday, Aug. 14, they headline the Davis Arts Council’s “Summer Nights With the Stars” concert series at the Kenley Amphitheater in Layton.
Sister Laura explains what a visit to either of these venues will bring concert-goers in the coming week.
“They can expect really strong two-part sibling harmony, which is kind of what we’re known for,” she said. “We’ll sing a bunch of our songs, and sing some cover songs.”
And, they’ll crack a lot of jokes.
“We try to keep it light-hearted in between songs, because our music is so depressing,” Laura laughs.
It’s true. The Secret Sisters’ music deals largely with topics like love and loss and yearning — and even more loss.
And the songs on their latest album, 2017’s “You Don’t Own Me Anymore,” are particularly forlorn, courtesy of the events of the past few years. The Rogers sisters thought they were well on their way to establishing themselves in the music industry when everything just seemed to fall apart.
Explains their bio: “They went from touring with Bob Dylan to losing their label, purging their team, filing bankruptcy and almost permanently trading harmonies for housecleaning.”
Laura says they just sort of hit a wall.
“It felt like all the things we needed to make music and make progress, all those things crumbled around us at the exact same time,” she said. “We both felt this was the universe telling us that this was the end, that we had a good run but it was time to hang up the music and get real jobs.”
Laura actually did start taking odd jobs back home — babysitting, housecleaning, anything to scratch out a meager living to keep making the house and utility payments.
“It was depressing,” she said. “Especially in the South, there’s this pride of being able to take of yourself once you reach a certain age. It was humiliating not being able to pay my mortgage at 28.”
That, they say, was the “make or break” moment. And it almost broke The Secret Sisters completely.
But instead, they chose to learn from their tribulations.
“We got so lucky in the first few years of making music that it became not, say, routine, but we came to expect things would happen easily,” Laura said. “And when all that stops and it gets hard, you start to appreciate when it’s coming around again.”
Consequently, when someone buys a Secret Sisters album or tickets to a show these days, it means something more to the two women.
“You’re taught not to take things for granted,” Laura concludes.
In late 2015, while they were in the midst of all this turmoil and seriously considering hanging it up, The Secret Sisters opened a couple of shows in Seattle for Brandi Carlile.
“We’d written a few songs in preparation for a new record if it ever happened, but we didn’t think they’d see the light of day,” Lydia recalls. “We played a couple of those songs at sound check, and (Carlile) happened to be listening and liked what she heard. She said, ‘I’d love to produce your record,’ and from that point on we spent time in Seattle, recorded at Bear Creek (Studio) with her and her band, and crowd-funded the whole thing.”
Lydia says “You Don’t Own Me Anymore” is “for sure” the most personal record the sisters have ever written.
“We kind of pulled inspiration from all our struggles, and made them into songs — whether disguising them in the form of a relationship, or making ourselves into a river, or directly relating to our struggles,” Lydia said.
The result is a defiant album that Rolling Stone named one of the 40 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2017.
“I think it’s definitely a little heavier than previous albums,” Laura admits of their third album.
“But there’s plenty of energy in there, too,” Lydia quickly adds.
Indeed, Laura says one of the biggest lessons the learned in the last few years was the redemptive value of going through difficult times. And in their music and concerts, they attempt to express that hope of redemption.
“We try to leave everybody on a positive note,” she said.
For her part, Lydia says she just hopes they can continue to grow as musicians and keep playing music for people.
“We saw a lot of instability over the last five years, and it finally feels like we can say we’re stable,” she said.