The Secret Sisters
There are two ways of handling a dangerous, raging river: you can surrender and let it carry you away, or you can swim against the flow. For The Secret Sisters, there was a point after the release of their last record when they could have chosen to do neither – instead, sinking to the bottom as the weight of the world washed away their dreams. They went from touring with Bob Dylan to losing their label, purging their team, filing bankruptcy and almost permanently trading harmonies for housecleaning. But there’s a mythical pull to music that kept sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers moving forward, and they came out with a biting and beautiful third LP, produced by Brandi Carlile, You Don’t Own Me Anymore. Their first as New West signees, it’s a document of hardship and redemption, of pushing forward when it would be so much easier to drown in grief. And it’s a story about how passion and pure artistry can be the strongest sort of salvation – how art is left, like perfect grains of sand, when everything else has washed away.
“We are more proud of these songs than we have ever been,” says Laura. “Some of the songs are a little more cryptic, but some of them are very pointed and honest and direct. And we had to let those songs happen. We had to let ourselves be angry again, and bring up things we wanted to forget.”
It certainly would have been easier to just try and forget the past few years of The Secret Sisters’ life. After their second album, Put Your Needle Down, didn’t perform according to their label’s expectations – however unrealistic they were in this day and age – the duo was dropped, leaving them with barely enough money to stay on the road and keep making music. So they retreated home to Alabama, worn and weary from experiencing the devilish side of the industry first-hand, scraping together whatever they could while trying to embrace what seemed to be a future without music. But when Carlile – someone whom The Secret Sisters have admired for years and one of our truest talents – offered to produce their record, it made them think that a future was possible. Soon, a PledgeMusic campaign that completely exceeded their hopes and dreams made it fiscally so.
“It was a nightmare that every day seemed to worsen,” says Laura. “We went through things we literally never thought we would come out of. “Adds Lydia, “it had just gotten so bad, the only option was to file bankruptcy.”
Even once Carlile gave The Secret Sisters some renewed hope, things weren’t instantly easy: what they went through left huge, gaping wounds that needed to heal before they could pour themselves into songwriting. But when they did, everything changed. Laura and Lydia found themselves in a more creative and honest space than ever, with their experiences flowing and morphing into collective tales of triumph, rage and the indefatigable human spirit. The resulting songs of You Don’t Own Me Anymore are about life when everything you think defines you is stripped away: from “The Damage,” as gorgeous as it is haunting, that speaks directly to those that did them wrong, to the first single “Tennessee River Runs Low,” that imagines the willful flow of a powerful river. These are journeys as poetic as they are confessional, always anchored by the timeless, crystalline ring of Laura and Lydia’s voices in sweet unison.
“This record is deeply personal because of what we endured,” says Lydia. “But it’s important as a songwriter and artist to talk about the times things weren’t great. This is a hard business, and it’s not all roses and rainbows. What we came out with is more honest than ever, and we couldn’t help that a lot of it is about the darkness.”
In the beginning, before that darkness moved in, things were a little like rainbows and roses for the sisters, who rose quickly through the music universe. An open audition in Nashville in 2009 lead them to a major label deal and a debut record produced by T Bone Burnett and Dave Cobb, followed by a tour with Levon Helm and Ray LaMontagne, a feat for any artist, let alone two that had just gotten started. From there, they opened for the likes of Dylan, Willie Nelson and Paul Simon, appeared on numerous late night shows and released a second album with Burnett. But the tides turned quickly – things can change in an instant, both for the good, and the bad. And when the clouds started to lift, Carlile was there to help usher in the sunshine.
“Brandi, Phil, and Tim had never produced a record for anybody but themselves,” says Laura about their experience in the studio. “We are all artists, and we could include our opinions. I felt like everyone was an equal force in the room. It is often lost on producers that you actually have to go perform your song on a stage – it’s easy to get so caught up on the production that you don’t discuss how this all will translate – but Brandi innately understood that.” The end product finds the sisters taking their music to new places, with soulful, gospel grooves and stirring vocal deliveries that never seek perfection over power. From murder ballads to skewering roasts, it’s a guidebook for survival.
After all, sometimes you have to lose everything to get a renewed version in return. Like the Tennessee River they sing about, only after a drought does fresh, new water come rushing in. The same could be said for The Secret Sisters, who were scraped dry and put through hell, coming out with their finest record, You Don’t Own Me Anymore. “The only way we could have completely healed was to have written an entire record,” says Laura. “I think we were just in the wrong parts of the machine,” says her sister. “We feel like we have learned where not to be, and where to go.” And that’s to never let anyone or anything own them again.
For seasoned Americana artist Mary Bragg, her rawest, most personal album to date—Lucky Strike—appeared when she hadn’t even been planning to record a new album. After finding success writing for and with other artists (her co-written song “Easier Than Leaving” appeared on Michaela Anne’s recent release and was featured in Rolling Stone), Bragg had begun to consider devoting herself solely to songwriting.
Then, Lucky Strike co-producer Jim Reilley (of indie stalwarts The New Dylans) heard a few of Bragg’s songs and insisted that they be recorded. She agreed—but only if she could skip the fancy studios (and budgets). “Lucky Strike was recorded in a backyard barn studio, where the microphones are old, not expensive-vintage-old, just old. Where the pop filters have holes in them. Where the vocal booth is unfinished because real walls never got built. It’s where ‘recorded live’ is for real recorded live, and everything is exposed.”
The result is a stunning collection of songs that speaks to our common humanity with uncommon honesty.
Bragg was born and raised in Swainsboro, Georgia, a small town where family and church are primary pastimes. “As the youngest of four children, and with 21 first cousins on one side, there was not a lot of empty sonic space for me to fill. I grew up listening by default which made me a great observer, but it also made me hesitant to ask questions – out loud, at least.” It was in this context that Mary developed the ability to keenly study, describe and interpret her surroundings in ways that awaken powerful emotions.
“It took me a long time to actually give credence to my own ideas,” she explains. “Even in a loving family, you can tend to fall into habits. For me that was watching, listening and doing what I was told.” Bragg needed to step out of her beloved small town and tight-knit community to find her own space to grow, hone her songwriting craft on her own terms and discover the fullness of who she could become.
A trip to New York City would change her life. With their deep southern accents and matching neon t-shirts, her hometown youth group worked in the city’s soup kitchens. “I was fascinated by the chaos of the city, and for the first time, I was hungry to learn and explore. I knew I’d be back some day.”
Against this backdrop, Bragg’s latest record Lucky Strike was born. After college, she headed back to the big city to nourish her dream of launching her music career, but she was quickly dealt a big dose of humility. “There’s this feeling – no matter the dream – this desire to be seen, acknowledged; like you’re just waiting on that one thing that will get you to where you want to be,” Bragg explains about the title track of her latest album. She sings, “I’m counting on a lucky strike to pull me out from the back of the line, make it easier to climb the mountain, and put me up on top.”
“The song ‘Lucky Strike’ is bit of a sarcastic poke at hopefulness,” Bragg says. “Because it might feel like there’s just one thing holding you back, but it’s never that simple is it? And- it might even be your own subconscious hangups standing in the way.”
Themes around coming of age and leaving home for new beginnings run throughout the record. In “Comet,” co-written with Becky Warren, she sings of the intimate journey a young girl and her mother take moving through loss, sadness and uncertainty together. Bragg’s vocals soar while the lyrics probe the small and tender moments that connect us to one another.
“Wildfire,” co-written with Liz Longley, captures the desire to be consumed by an undeniable passion, to tap into the irrepressible need to experience a deep connection to another person. This drive to refuse to settle for less is propelled by an unforgettable chorus that insists, “There’s nothing like a wildfire, feeling you can’t put out, loving that you can’t turn down, I want a wildfire.”
With candor and subtlety, Bragg’s songs probe this common journey to discover our truest selves, outside of our families and communities in which we are raised. That’s how she approaches the craft of songwriting as well. “I truly believe that a good song will make people feel something — even prompt people to ask themselves questions that I ask myself when writing the song. I can tell stories most effectively when I shake off that resistance to honesty, because that’s when the songs best resonate with my audience.”
Since she made Nashville home in 2014, Bragg has become a staple in Music City’s songwriting circles. For Lucky Strike, she wrote with several rising stars in the Americana scene. In addition to Warren and Longley, she worked with Robby Hecht, Stephanie Lambring, Bruce Wallace, Liz Poston, and Vince Constantino.
Bragg brought together her long-time collaborators Rich Hinman (electric guitar, pedal steel) and Jimmy Sullivan (bass) for the new album, along with Bryan Owings (drums), Eric Fritsch (engineer) and Jim Reilley (co-producer).
Her previous studio recordings include Edge of This Town (2015), recorded in a West Oakland, CA studio after winning the Zoo Labs music residency contest, Tattoos & Bruises (2011), recorded in Manhattan in Norah Jones’s home studio and produced by Lee Alexander, and Sugar (2007), recorded in Brooklyn and produced by Darius Jones.
Winner of the 2017 MerleFest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, she has also been honored in such prestigious songwriting contests as Kerrville New Folk, Telluride Troubadour, Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, Wildflower! Festival, and the International Songwriting Competition.