At the start of the decade, the Secret Sisters surfaced in a roots music sphere carefully curated by Jack White and T Bone Burnett, with the Rogers sisters’ vintage-style pumps and up-dos matching the purity of their vintage repertoire.
Four years later, their second album, Put Your Needle Down, almost feels like the work of a different duo. Laura and Lydia Rogers can’t be passed off as unstudied musicians any longer — not now that they’ve proven their grasp of generations’ worth of pop songcraft. And especially not now that they’ve written a number of fetching originals, on their own and with singer-songwriter peers, Music Row pros and, in the case of “Dirty Lie,” with Bob Dylan.
If you’re wondering when the Voice of His Generation got so collaborative, that co-write didn’t happen the typical way. Burnett gave the sisters an unfinished demo and, as Laura puts it, she and Lydia “wrote on top of a Bob Dylan song that he kinda started for us.” She describes the final result as “a saucy little number,” and it’s not the only song with a honeyed bite to it in this batch.
CMT Edge: You often joke about the contrast between your penchant for melancholy material and your buoyant personalities. What attracts you to that material?
Laura Rogers: You write a song most of the time when you’re in a place that is a little darker. To be honest, I hardly ever write songs when life is good and I’m happy. Usually, I generate most of my songwriting material when I’m in a really bad place, whether it’s from a relationship or just life confusion or some sort of terrible thing that I’m dealing with. …
You write the song as a way to heal from whatever you’re going through or maybe even to show yourself when you look back on it that, “Yeah, it was tough, but I got through it, and I’m back to my regular, sunny, happy self again.”
“Iuka” is one of the darker songs on here. It’s always a complicated thing for women to perform murder ballads in which women are the victims. But you’ve written one with an especially harrowing storyline about a protagonist held prisoner by her possessive, abusive father. What’s it like for you to tell that story?
Laura: We haven’t written a song with that subject matter before. Most of our songs reflect on our own emotions. With that song, I specifically remember us saying, “We’d really like to learn how to craft just a simple story song.” And from there, it started getting darker and darker.
Lydia Rogers: We had been listening to a lot of Bobbie Gentry at the time. Of course, she’s very well-known for her murder ballads. We were inspired by that, and we had been thinking about Iuka, Miss., and how our parents and our grandparents had gotten married there.
Laura: I do feel like it has grown us up a little bit and has shown a different side of what we can do as songwriters.
Showing other sides of what you can do seems to have been a priority for this album.
Laura: That’s why it took so long, honestly. I mean, it’d been quite a long time since our first record. … But I’m really glad, in hindsight, that it took that long because even in the early stages of planning for record two, we both said we’ve got to write most of it and we’ve got to go in a different direction. It’s gotta be a little heavier and a little more grown up but also still youthful and hungry.
When I first became aware of you, your songs, sound and look were framed in a way that emphasized that you were fresh out of Alabama and uncorrupted by contemporary pop culture. But you’ve talked about loving Ace of Base as kids, along with classic pop and country that you inherited from your parents. How did your image come together?
Laura: All of those things that the media said about us being this pure, untainted, undiscovered, secret music living up in northern Alabama, all of that was true. It wasn’t hype and it wasn’t fabricated. We literally had never even played a show together until six months after we got our record deal. It sounds sensational because it doesn’t [usually] happen that way, but it really is all completely true.
At the time, we took a whole lot of guidance from record label people and management who were trying to groom us very quickly, more or less, in front of a whole lot of people who were gonna critique everything that you do. … For the most part, we had a say in everything that we did — especially musically. We were left to our own devices.
Over the last couple of years we’ve grown up and we’ve learned what it means to be artists — not because we’ve had any help but because the two of us have determined that this is a great place to be, and we enjoy it. Part of coming into your own as an artist is … being like, “OK, yeah, I needed that [guidance] in the beginning, but now I know what I’m doing, and I know what my fans like, and I’m gonna make it work.”
Lydia: We worked with our producer and everyone at the label in the beginning, and they just said, “We don’t really have enough time for you to get together and write songs. We want to record this record in a month.” So we just started pooling all these covers that we were drawn to, and from there, they kind of developed the look that would match that. I don’t want to say we were forced.
I didn’t expect to hear a PJ Harvey song on the new album.
Laura: We didn’t either.
Lydia: We were in the studio trying to get some more songs together, and T Bone came in there and said, “Girls, have you ever heard this PJ Harvey tune?” He played it through his laptop for us, and we loved it. But we were uncertain as to how we would make that come across.
Except for that you’d skip the F-bomb in the lyrics.
Laura: That word never comes out of our mouths. And [T Bone] was like, “Well, we just won’t say that line.”
It’s still a very visceral song about not wanting to feel tied down.
Laura: It actually ended up being pretty perfect for the way that we had both been feeling. There’s the whole societal pressure that, “OK, you’ve reached this age. It’s time to get married. It’s time to have kids.” That doesn’t really always work for every person. So as young, Southern women, that song ended up being kind of representative of where we are at this point — even though Lydia is about to get married in September.
You’ve said you wanted to make a more grownup album, but it also seems more in step with your generation, since you covered PJ Harvey and wrote with Brandi Carlile. Was that the idea?
Laura: I think so. … Luckily, what we do just naturally kind of [brings] us these fantastic, inspiring musical friends. So it felt a little bit wasteful to not tap into that. They really did help us. … They really did kind of pull away from that old-school, retro sound.
We want to keep surprising people with what we can do. I feel like that’s always gonna be a goal of ours, to show the people that listen to us how diverse our interests are. Still innocent and wide-eyed but certainly more aware of things than we were when we started.