Interview: The Secret Sisters Laura Rogers and Lydia Slagle talk about “Mind, Man, Medicine”

Credit: DavidMcClister

The songwriting influence of motherhood and going back home to The Shoals to record.

The Secret Sisters have grown up and come home, and their new album, ‘Mind, Man, Medicine’, is the tangible proof of this. The songs on this their fifth album reflect the challenges of the pandemic and a change in their worldview now they are both mothers, and they recorded most of the tracks in their home town of Muscle Shoals at the legendary Fame studios, with a guest vocal by band supporter Ray LaMontagne and string maestro Larry Campbel on various stringed instruments, with producers John Paul White and Ben Tanner. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Laura and Lydia in Alabama over Zoom to discuss ‘Mind, Man, Medicine’ and the impact of motherhood on their personal and professional lives. They explain that not only has their worldview matured, but that they have more confidence in their own sibling harmonies and that that confidence means they can be more adventurous in the musical settings they perform in. The track ‘Space’ is a case in point, where they bring a touch of psychedelia to the arrangement. What is also very clear is that Laura and Lydia have great respect for their UK fans and their loyalty over the years.

How are you?

Lydia Slagle (LS): We are great. I’m in Birmingham, Alabama, and Laura is about two hours north in our home town of Florence, Alabama.

You have a new album ’Mind, Man, Medicine’  which is your fifth. How easy has it been to maintain the personal and musical bond over that time, particularly as you’ve been developing your own lives?

Laura Rogers (LR): It is quite shocking to have had five records, that feels like you’ve been doing it for a while, and it is a great privilege to put out one album of material. So to be on number five is kind of surprising, and also really validating in a lot of ways. In more recent years we’ve been a little more peaceable, and it seems we don’t have knockdown drag-outs as often as we used to. I think we’ve grown up a little bit since the early days, we’ve calmed down.

LS: I agree with that for the most part. We definitely still have our moments where we just want to kill each other, but most of the time we are appeaseable and we’ve realised that a lot of the stuff we used to fight about is just not that big of a deal. I think a lot of that came with getting older, obviously, but also with becoming moms as well. We are in the same phase of life right now, and I think that really helps us to be on the same page for the most part.

Has parenthood changed your view of the world?

LS: Completely, 100%.

LR: It has turned everything upside down. Those things that were important to us growing up and in adulthood before motherhood still hold importance to us, and maybe hold more importance to us. From the get-go, we’ve always been close with our family but now we have children we want our children to have a beautiful childhood where they are around their extended family, around their grandparents. So, we really prioritise those kinds of things, and for me, motherhood has definitely made the world seem a lot more frightening than it did before I was a mother. It’s kind of a terrifying thing to think of leaving children behind you in the world like it is right now, but there’s nothing you can really do about that other than to teach them to be good people and self-sufficient as much as possible. It’s changed everything, it’s changed music, our outlook on the world, and our relationships with one another.

You went back to your Muscle Shoals roots for the new record, that country soul sound of James Carr and Arthur Alexander with the latest Muscle Shoals musicians, Ben Tanner and John Paul White. Does this mean you are out of the ‘40s and ‘50s and are now in the ‘60s?

LS: That’s pretty fair, yeah. I think when we started we were thrown into the industry pretty quickly, and Dave Cobb had the idea to cover all these old country songs, and that sort of became our shtick in a way, doing all these old songs. As the years moved on and we started writing our own music we tried to get out of that world a little bit more. Doing this album in The Shoals felt like the right time, and that it should have happened a long time ago. It was just such a delight working with Ben Tanner and John Paul, they were really great co-producers and they listened to everything we had to say, and pitched things that we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves. It was just a really beautiful collaboration, and it was nice to be in our home town where we had our parents who looked after our kids while we worked. We knew there were great musicians and writers in The Shoals, but we’d never dived into that fully, so it was nice to really see the full potential that Muscle Shoals has. It was a really good experience. I would make another one in The Shoals, honestly.

Did you feel any ghosts when you were recording?

LR: There’s an energy there and you are certainly mindful of it. I feel the people who run Fame have preserved all the nostalgic effects you have in the studio, so it does feel a bit like a time capsule, but the recording gear and all that is all modern and what you need to make a record in 2024. I feel there is definitely some form of spookiness to it so that everyone seems to realise when they walk in that it is a very sacred, hallowed space. I think that brings out something in you subconsciously when you perform and think about what’s behind the intention of what you are doing. I think it can shape that in some way.

The songs you’ve written for the record seem to be about the world today and personal responsibility, and seem to take an adult view. Is that how you see them?

LS: Yeah, I definitely do. With these songs we dove a little bit more into our relationships on this record because that’s our life right now, we are surrounded by our kids and our family, our parents, and that came with the pandemic, and also just becoming moms made us be home more and shifted our priorities around quite a bit. So, we didn’t really know what else to write about because we write from a very personal place, sometimes to a fault. That was the lens we were looking through when writing most of those songs.

LR: Also I think what you said was most insightful because you said recognising your place in the world and who you are as a person, and what you bring to the table in a large-scale way. I think if you go through a global pandemic and you don’t become very aware of the role that you play, the things you espouse and the beliefs you hold tightly to, and what you can offer humanity I think you’ve wasted an opportunity. We’d seen other artists that we admire writing about their processing of the pandemic, and I think this record is our way of sifting through all the emotions that came with having the entire world shut down, and not being able to play music in a live setting, all while becoming mothers and being in the fragility of new motherhood. It was just this perfect storm for all these intense emotions to barrel into us. A lot of the songs are introspective, but a lot of the songs are different for us because they do look out into humanity and our perception of the role we play and what people should be contributing. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that.

The song ‘Space’ on the record sounded a bit psychedelic.

LS: We wrote that one with two writers out of Nashville, Tennessee, Daniel Tashian and Jessie Baylin. When we got into Daniel’s studio that day he just had every instrument you could possibly imagine in that space, and as we tried getting ideas together he was going from instrument to instrument seeing what sounds resonated with everybody. Finally, he picked up a little acoustic Gretsch that he was running through a small amp, and he started strumming on that and it had that kind of psychedelic spacey sound. I think the word space is what came to our minds first, and then we started talking about what space could mean to people, not just space in the sky but the space you hold for people. We just liked that idea, and it felt right to expand on the psychedelic part.

LR: One of the things you mentioned earlier is that our career started in the style of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and now we’ve evolved into the style ‘60s and into the ‘70s, and it’s really interesting because one thing Lydia and I have to wrestle with when we make a record is trying to be fresh, and not revisit too much what we’ve done before. One thing that’s been very helpful with all the producers we’ve worked with is they’ve always reassured us that as long as we keep the sibling harmony, and the interchange between our two voices, it doesn’t matter what landscape we set that in front of, it’s going to be who you are. So, with this record, we finally felt confident enough in sharing harmonies and we felt we could put those harmonies into a psychedelic landscape, or into a soul landscape like ‘All The Ways’  and even going back and doing a more traditional kind of folk song. I think with this album we finally reached the point where if we felt like we wanted to do something a little bit out of character, or out of the box for us, we are comfortable doing that, and as long as we maintain that sibling harmony and strong writing we try to put on every album, it will still be true to who we are. We believe our fans will follow along, no matter what decade we venture into.

‘All the Ways’ features Ray LaMontagne, how did you get him to do a guest slot?

LR: The very first tour we ever went on as a duo was opening for Ray LaMontagne, and ever since then he has just been a constant kindness to the two of us. He’s taken us out on the road several times throughout our career, and when we were talking about who we could get to make a guest appearance on the record I jokingly asked, what if Ray LaMontagne sang on ‘All the Ways’,  mainly because I just secretly wanted to hear his amazing voice on a soul song like that. It is the perfect combo for me, and we didn’t really have a lot of expectations he would go for it, but he very graciously said he would be happy to. I just wish he had sung the entire song, he made it so special, and when he comes in on that second verse I just want to cry because it is so beautiful. He is a very deep person, and he’s given us a lot of support over however many years we’ve been doing this.

LS: We’ve actually been singing that song on the road over the last few weeks, and Laura makes a joke from the stage about when we get to that second verse everyone is going to be disappointed because it’s just her and not him. Maybe one of these days we’ll bring him out.

You’ve got one of the best guitarists, and all things stringed, on the record with Larry Campbell. What was he like to work with?

LR: He is a master, everything he touches is just the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. I think this record would be so different if he hadn’t appeared on it. It is actually amazing that both he and Ray are a feature on this record because we met Larry on the same tour that we met Ray at the very beginning of our careers because Levon Helm’s band were the other headliner on that tour, and Larry was in his band. That whole tour was such a great introduction into what it means to be a touring artist. To get to spend a couple of days with him in Muscle Shoals, I’m not sure you can top that.

LS: Ben, one of the producers, has always expressed this desire to work with Larry, and for the record we were looking for multi-instrumentalists, and Larry happened to be that. So, he put the feelers out there to see if Larry would say yes, much like we did with Ray. He did, and he flew down from New York and he was so gracious, and added all his magic to the tracks. I didn’t even think about how they were both on that first tour we did, and that is another way we kind of came home in a way on this record, because of that first tour we did and us making a record in The Shoals, it was really rooted.

You’ve explained that you are concerned about the present, but I found the record to be uplifting and positive about the future to an extent.

LR: As I mentioned earlier, it is hard to be extremely hopeful and very optimistic when you have offspring who you love very dearly, and may at some point have to navigate the world without you, but I try to hold on to hope and the belief that we always manage to just figure it out as a race, the human race. I think we have to write from a place of hopefulness at this point, because if you spend too much time in the hopelessness of the world around you and then you write about that too much then there is no relief, no respite from the heaviness. So, a lot of our records have been serious and have had a lot of heavy subject matter, and I feel this record is our attempt to grab every strand of positivity that we can find.

Do you have any plans to come to the UK and Europe?

LS: We don’t know, we don’t have any plans to come this year, we are announcing a tour in the fall for the States, but who knows what next year will look like. I think right now it will be hard to make it happen because we have small children, but are kids will be older next year and a little bit more independent and able to function without us, hopefully.

LR: I would love to bring my children over there, at this point it does seem difficult to leave children behind on a different continent, but if there was a way to arrange it where our children could be with us and explore all the wonder of the UK. It’s such a special place that they’ve never seen before, and I’d love to give them that opportunity at an early stage of life.

LS: They’ve been so good to us over the years, they have the most loyal fans, and I feel we owe it to them because we haven’t been over since 2017 or 2018. We definitely owe a visit as soon as possible.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are three of your favourite tracks, albums or artists on your playlists?

LS: We are listening to a lot of Big Thief and Adrianne Lenker, she’s kind of at the forefront of our road soundtrack these days.

LR: We also love Sierra Ferrell right now. Her new record is just pristine, and we are loving her right now. My son has just heard the song, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and I’ve heard that song 5 million times already, and we’re now listening to it another 5 million times because children love to listen to things over and over again. ‘Rocky Top’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ are what we listen to over and over again.

LS: It’s better than ‘Wheels On The Bus’.

LR: It could be worse.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

LR: I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to our UK fans because they latched on very early on at the beginning, and have been so dedicated and passionate and so patient, waiting for us to come and perform and put records out there. We actually require more patience now than before, but we will get back over there.

LS: A lot of our listeners in the UK first heard us on Jools Holland singing on his New Year show, and we did two covers, and ever since then people have stayed with us and been so kind and have come out to all the shows. It is a different kind of fanship over there, and I’m so, so grateful for that. I’m ready to come over there, ready to get back on a plane.

The Secret Sisters ‘Mind, Man, Medicine’ is out now on New West Records.


About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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