Two twenty-something sisters from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, they began 2010 as novices who had never performed in public, never been inside a recording studio, and had never even set foot outside America.
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Things are happening fast. The sisters’ promotional jaunt to London is their first ever trip overseas. Ruminating over “little quirks” like door handles that turn the wrong way, they are clearly excited by the sudden turn their lives have taken.
Laura is the elder and does most of the talking, with Lydia occasionally interjecting. The younger sibling becomes most animated on the subject of working with Jack White, who produced their recent seven-inch single, a cover of Johnny Cash’s Big River. The occasion is recalled with much giggling; at one point I swear Laura almost purrs.
“What do you even say about that experience?” she says. “To look over and see Jack White shredding on the guitar is pretty amazing. You place these people on such huge pedestals, and then you meet them and it’s, like, Wow! He’s such a tastemaker in this business, he really knows what he’s doing. He’s a great preservationist as well.”
Cultural preservation is key to The Secret Sisters, who are preoccupied with what Laura Rogers calls “the pure music of yesterday”. Inspiration derives primarily from their love of the pre-war roots music of rural America; any musical innovation that has occurred since the early 60s is simply ignored. Featuring 10 songs, all but one under three minutes, the album covers 50s pop, Christian gospel, early rock and roll, classic country, traditional folk songs, a couple of originals and even a cover of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s Somethin’ Stupid.
“The music on the record is what we have loved the most from very early on,” says Laura. “American roots music, rock and roll and country. We do like modern day music. We like the Kings of Leon, we love Rufus Wainwright and Brandi Carlile, but we gravitate towards that nostalgic period.”
Everything from their demure patterned dresses to their stunningly pure harmonies harks back to a simpler, more innocent age. “We’re young and we’ve been in the real world for a while now, but we’ve tried to remain really pure-minded, simple, honest and sincere,” says Laura. “We wanted our music to convey that.”
The Secret Sisters would veer dangerously close to being a novelty act were it not for the fact that what they do is so immaculately executed and obviously heartfelt.
The Rogers sisters grew up in what they describe as the archetypal Southern family in north Alabama. “We were raised in a really big, extended unit,” says Laura. “We grew our own food, we spent weekends with all our cousins, we went to church. We’re very religious, we have a spiritual family.”
Music was always a fundamental part of their life. Their tight-knit harmonies, which recall the Everly Brothers and the Louvin Brothers, “pretty much came naturally,” says Lydia. “We grew up singing together since we were little-bitty, so it’s not something we had to practice to get right.” Adds Laura: “This is just what we do. It isn’t magnificent or rare, it’s just how we sing. A lot of people in the South can sing really well because of the whole church influence.”
Despite coming from one of the America’s great musical centres - everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones has recorded at Muscle Shoals‘ legendary Sound Studio – they harboured little ambition of pursuing a career in the industry. After high school both went to college. They didn’t play gigs or make demos; they only performed for their own pleasure and for friends and family. It wasn’t until they attended an audition in Nashville to find a new singing group that they began to realise that their talents might lead somewhere.
“My main reason for going to the audition was to overcome a small portion of my stage fright,” says Laura. “Growing up, Lydia would do talent shows and things like that, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I was so terrified. To this day I don’t like people to pay attention to me and watch me. At the audition I was looking around at the other people and they really had it together. I thought, What am I doing here? I’m completely out of my element.”
Not exactly. The judges were so impressed with the sisters singing they discarded the idea of forming a new band. Instead, producer Dave Cobb flew them out to Los Angeles – it was Laura’s first time in an aeroplane – to record demos. In January they signed to Universal and began selecting material for their first album.
“Most of them were just songs we’d heard before and loved,” says Laura. “But we also sat down at our computer with Dave Cobb and went through iTunes, YouTube, all these music sites. We came up with a huge list of songs we loved. The ones that came easily in the studio are the ones we kept. If it started being too hard working on a certain song we assumed that it wasn’t meant to be and we let it go. We finished it in two weeks, it was very speedy.”
Celebrated musician, producer and record executive T- Bone Burnett later became involved, inspired by the unlikely tale of two country girls who had never had any kind of formal music training being plucked from obscurity.
“He was drawn to the whole story and the sound,” says Laura. “He’s been a great friend and he has opened a lot of doors for us.” In October Burnett invited the sisters onto his Speaking Clock Revue tour, where they performed with Costello, John Mellancamp, Neko Case and bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
“It was amazing and overwhelming,” says Lydia, “To see Elton John a few feet away singing was just mind-blowing.”
All the more so considering the pair only made their first ever public performance in June.
“The fastest way to learn to swim is just to jump in the water,” says Laura. “I definitely had to get over stage fright. We’ve learned how to interact with the crowd and not stumble over our words. We don’t want it to be this big, formal thing, we want it to be a very interactive and enjoyable experience for everyone. We want to make the audience feel that we’re sitting in our living rooms with them.”
Having enjoyed a traditional family Christmas – “sitting around stuffing our faces, opening presents, playing lots of games and singing carols like The 12 Days of Christmas” – they’ll make their first UK TV appearance on New Year’s Eve, before returning to Britain in February as the support act for Ray LaMontagne.
In the meantime they hope to concentrate on songwriting. The two originals on their album, the lovelorn Tennessee Me and Waste the Day, suggest they’re capable of adding their own contributions to the canon of old time American classics. Like practically everything else in their lives, the writing process is a shared one.
“I’m good with words, I guess,” says Laura. “Then I bring the words to Lydia and show her what melody I’m thinking of and she helps me to improve it. She has such an ear for a melody and chord progressions, and I’m really simple minded when it comes to that kind of thing. We have a good dynamic.”
The sheer good fortune they’ve experienced during the past 12 months is not lost on the sisters. Every so often it seems to hit them all over again. “When we signed we had no fan base, no one had ever heard of us,” says Laura. “I’m proud of us, I feel like we’ve grown a lot since this first started.”
Lydia laughs. “It’s a whirlwind, but boy, we’re having a good time.”
The Secret Sisters is released on February 21. They support Ray LaMontagne at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, on February 28. Jools Holland’s Hootenanny airs on BBC 2 on December 31 at 11pm