Alabama siblings, The Secret Sisters, played a one-off show in London last week to announce a bigger UK tour in 2018. We caught up with them to discuss the past, the future and their new album, ‘You Don’t Own Me Anymore’.
We spoke to Laura and Lydia and so for the purposes of the interview their voices have been amalgamated into one narrative unless identified differently.
How was the show in London?
Great, it was wonderful. You know, it’s been so long since we were over here and so it was nice for our ‘return’ show to be in our favourite venue, Union Chapel. The room is just so beautiful, we don’t have rooms like that in America – our greatest venue back home is The Ryman, and we love the Ryman so much but it doesn’t compare to Union Chapel, which is so majestic. We grew up singing in churches and we can see that there is something so spiritual about it that makes it really special to us.
Is there a difference between an English and American crowd?
The English crowds we’ve played for tend to listen better, they really pay attention to what we are saying. Even when they clap, it’s different, it’s a little more polite. That’s not to mean they are enjoying it less, it’s just more polite. Last night was great – we told all these funny stories in-between songs and the crowd laughed and whilst that seems like a silly thing to be thankful for it makes you feel like they are really engaged and actually really rooting for us. Afterwards we were at the merch table for over an hour, chatting to people who had been wanting to see us so for so long. We’ve always had huge support from our English fans and in many respects they are the most dedicated we have.
The new album (‘You Don’t Own Me Anymore’) is a powerful title – Is it a ‘middle finger’ to your previous management and record label.
(A quick Google check will tell you all you need to know about the struggle the girls have been through in the past 2-3 years with those organisations)
No, no, of course not…Maybe!
It’s a direct kind of statement towards the ‘machine’, you know? That ‘machine’ that kind of chews you up and spits you out. If you don’t progress at the rate that ‘they’ think you should they just cast you aside and it makes you feel unworthy. It’s no one person’s fault it just the nature of the beast. It’s kinda a nod to the people who have held us back or told us we weren’t good enough and made us feel inadequate.
It’s also a kind of criticism of our own perceptions of ourselves. We’ve been really judgemental on ourselves and really tough on ourselves as musicians and creators. We’ve had to let go of that kind of toxic mentality and those toxic relationships we found ourselves having – it’s our anthem to letting things go!
You didn’t put yourselves on the album cover. What was the thinking behind that?
We don’t know! This record seemed to be more than about just us. It was a more powerful statement than that. We had actually done a few photo shoots actually hoping to make an album cover but none of them were quite right. We were looking at old family photos one day, trying to find things to put on the inside of the record and we happened to come across that picture of our grandmother and it occurred to us that that would be the perfect picture for the cover, it says everything we are trying to say on this record. She was a firecracker and went through a lot of things, she didn’t take any crap from anybody and we are trying to channel that!!
When you declared bankruptcy in 2014 and Laura started cleaning houses did you ever see a way back into the music business at that point?
(Laura): I couldn’t. I had given up. I’m a more pessimistic, negative person sometimes and I really have to fight that attitude sometimes. I was single, living on my own, I had a mortgage, bills and responsibilities that I could not meet. When the shows stopped happening and the music stopped I thought that my only option was to get a job, a real person job! I resigned myself to the fact that I needed to find myself some work, so I cleaned houses, I did babysitting, anything that I could find to bring in a solid pay check. I didn’t think, at that point, that we would be able to get out from under all of our struggles. Lydia was a little more optimistic and I’m not ashamed to admit that she was the one who pulled me out of the darkness. If it happened have been for Lydia I wouldn’t have kept going and there would not be a third record. I’m thankful that she had a little bit more faith in us than I did.
(Lydia): I’m not so sure it was even faith. I was married at the time so I had other income to support me. Laura’s situation was maybe a little more worse than mine was so that’s probably why I was more optimistic.
In hindsight, which is a wonderful thing, was it a mistake working with some of the biggest names in Country and Roots music so early, so quickly. Did it breed resentment amongst other artists?
We definitely wouldn’t say it was a mistake (working with the likes of T-Bone Burnett, Jack White and Dave Cobb). Obviously there are things we’d love to go back and change but the artistic people that we’ve worked with we would never change. The universe handed us those opportunities and we really learned so much from each person we worked with. I wish we could have had, you know, maybe a little more say in what we produced as we tended to think that everyone else is much smarter than we were – we never stood up for ourselves or stood our ground because we felt we didn’t know what we were talking about! Our frustration came from the industry and the people who put our music out there, it wasn’t caused by the people who helped to create it, that was all really good. It was the label, they pushed us to wear certain things, to not say certain things on stage – they tried to mould us into something we probably weren’t, they tried to tell us what to say in interviews for example. We were so young and inexperienced that we just thought that was the way it went, that there are all those men in positions of power who control the money and they know what’s best for us!!
Tell us about your writing, the songs and what you are trying to achieve.
We just sit down and try and write about what we are feeling that particular day. Every song comes from a place of honesty. It’s not as well planned as it might look like but we are not writing songs to give to someone else, so everything is written in terms of our voices and what we want to sing. We don’t do a lot of outside, co-writing, we tend to try and keep it just between the two of us and our close song-writing friends. There are some great song-writers in Nashville doing some really amazing work but we want to keep our authenticity and just reach our crowd with what we are trying to say. For us it’s about quality, not quantity!
Typically, one of us will have a lyric or a melody and when we get together we expand on those ideas. We live only 2 hours apart (Muscle Shoals and Birmingham, Alabama) so its easy to meet up and write. If we get together with no ideas in place we end up fighting!
We don’t really write a lot on the road. We kind of have to separate the mind set – we need to focus on the live shows when out on tour. So we wait until the tours are over before we begin to write music. I (Lydia) tend to focus on the melodies and Laura is more lyrically driven. It can be a slow process for us but we get there in the end.
Do you think you guys would be more popular if you moved to Nashville and played the ‘industry’ game?
Sometimes we do, yes, especially in the world we live in with social media. You know, you see people who are living in Nashville and who are always at some really cool show or event and tweeting or face-booking about it. Sometimes it makes you think we are not as connected as we should be but then again maybe that goes back to our authenticity and our ‘thing’ that we do, which works for now and anyway, we don’t wanna live in Nashville, we are happy in Alabama and if that means we don’t go as far as other people then thats ok, it’s a sacrifice we are willing to make.
‘You Don’t Own Me Anymore’ is a powerful album. Let’s talk about some of the standout songs.
Mississippi : (Which is a follow up song to ‘Iuka’ – is it part of a trilogy?)
It is a sequel song, which we’re glad you picked up on. Maybe we do need to write the third part of the story, we hadn’t thought about that yet! Writing that song was really fun for us (it’s part of a murder-ballad story!!) because it wasn’t personal to us we were just writing story and that is a different song writing experience for us and something that we possibly need to do more of in the future. When we had written ‘Iuka’ we didn’t know that there was still some story left to tell but with all the industry stuff that happened to us we sometimes tried to think about what the people on the other side of us were feeling in an effort to understand why they were behaving as they were – that led us to think that we could have a look at the story of ‘Iuka’ through a different set of eyes, even though that person may be a murderer!!
We wrote that song a long time ago, it is probably the oldest of the new songs. We started writing that song on tour in Germany several years ago. It’s funny how being homesick can play a part in your writing. Because of ‘Tennessee Me’ on the first record a lot of people just assumed that’s where we were from and then they would say, ‘well, if you are not from Tennessee – why don’t you write a song about Alabama?’ And so, finally we did! Growing up we felt stifled by Alabama and we wanted to spread out wings and get away from it but as you travel the world and grow up a little you come to realise that there is always something special about where you come from and this is our tribute to our favourite state!
To All the Girls Who Cry: (a perfect song in this post-Weinstein world we now live in)
(The girl’s laugh heartily at the Weinstein comment.)
It’s funny how you can predict or reflect current events unexpectedly with your music! That was another nod of ours to ‘the machine’ or ‘the man’. We tried to make that one relatable to situations that women could see themselves in. It so incredible just how much of an issue it (the treatment of women) is worldwide throughout so many professions and industries. Women have to always prove themselves and it’s never enough just being talented or smart – the issue is not to have fewer men or even more women it’s to teach the men to respect the women and not diminish what they are capable of or exploit their sexuality. Men and women are both different, it’s not like we all have to act the same, we all have different purposes – it’s about respecting those differences. The music industry still has a lot to learn about that. Taylor Swift brought that lawsuit against the DJ but luckily enough we haven’t had a lot of personal things happen to us like that but you do hear about it.
Tennessee River Runs Low: (outstanding harmonies)
(Laura): That’s because Lydia is brilliant at harmonies, I do not do well with writing harmonies!
We had been listening to a lot of the Andrews sisters and were really inspired by them. That was the first song we wrote in preparation for the new album – we were actually in a little river house, facing the Tennessee river as we wrote it. It came really quickly.
The Secret Sisters UK Tour 2018
22/3 Dublin, Whelan’s
23/3 Belfast, Empire
24/3 Sligo, Hawk’s Well Theatre
25/3 Saltaire, Live Room & Caroline Social Club
27/3 Bristol, The Tunnels
28/3 Milton Keynes, The Stables
29/3 Gateshead, Sage Gateshead
30/3 Glasgow, Cottiers
31/3 Sheffield, The Greystones
01/4 Bury, The Met