Secret Sisters, Brandi Carlile and Trina Shoemaker on the Benefits of Forming a Female Studio Team (Deliberately or Otherwise)

grammy nominations
Courtesy Sacks & Co.

With their two Grammy nominations for the album “Saturn Return” and song “Cabin,” the Secret Sisters are representing not just for sibling duos but, implicitly, for the rare power of an all-female (or almost all-female) team. The project found sisters Laura Rogers and Lydia Slagle again bringing on as producer no less a name than Brandi Carlile (sharing that duty with her usual collaborators, Tim and Phil Hanseroth), with the pioneering engineer Trina Shoemaker coming in to mix — a too-rare combination of women behind the boards as well as in front of the mic.

The sisters, Carlile and Shoemaker met up with Variety just before the holidays to discuss this harmonic convergence of female energy and talent, and how they only came to realize what the combination meant after the team was already in place, even if they’d like to urge other artists to consciously and conscientiously emulate it. You can watch the entire illuminating and occasionally irreverent 45-minute conversation in the video above.

Carlile has a long track record of working with Shoemaker, having enlisted her as co-producer on two of her earlier solo records (“Bear Creek” and “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”), as well as an engineer or mixer on albums she’s produced, including Tanya Tucker’s “While I’m Livin’,” which collected its own set of Grammys in the last go-round.

“I will say that before I had daughters, and while I was younger and very, very driven, when I crossed paths with Trina, it didn’t even occur to me that I was making a conscious choice to go into the studio with a woman,” said Carlile. “And it didn’t occur to me there was a lack of representation in that realm. Because all I was thinking about was myself, and pushing myself forward in my career, getting where I needed to go.

“Once I had daughters and I started thinking about how many paths were actually open to them, it slowed my mind down — and I stayed as driven, but I started to gain a periphery,” Carlile continued. “And that’s when I realized, God, not only are there so few women pulling the chair up to that console and saying, ‘Actually, I’m in charge of this session and I’m going to control the way that it sounds,’ but I haven’t made a conscientious choice to put the women forward that I know who have commandeered that role in such a brave way. And so I made a conscious decision when my kids were born to start gaining control in that realm myself, to start acknowledging and pushing people like Trina forward in a more deliberate way, and to really start thinking about it, so that it’s an option for my girls and for so many other girls.”

The Secret Sisters actually used Carlile and Shoemaker in those roles on their previous Grammy-nominated album, “You Don’t Own Me Anymore” (with Carlile succeeding a couple of other big names, T Bone Burnett and Dave Cobb, in producing them).

“I don’t think we thought about it” at the time, admitted Rogers. “We didn’t approach our third record in the mindset of ‘Let’s find every possible woman.’ But (part of) that was just youth and naivete, because being an artist, it feels like you’re just constantly looking at yourself and being very self-centered… But then once someone — and in our case it was Brandi — enlightens you to the way that you can empower other people, even if you have a small platform, then you’re all of a sudden so aware of how you can facilitate the shining of the light on the people — and the women, specifically — that you work with and admire… And Trina just got it and understood our Southern sensibilities and our voices and the timbres that we access together. And it would be great to have that with anybody regardless of their gender. But…”

“It was a cherry on top that she was a woman,” said Slagle.

“And I think that because of her womanhood,” added Rogers, “she understood the female voice in a very special way that is an advantage for her in her line of work that we’ve really benefited from and loved.”

“But she also understands bass and distortion,” pointed out Carlile. “Trina mixes every record that I produce because she’s the best. It’s only midstream that I realized that that’s a revolutionary thing, that we’re both women. So I realize we’re in a unique position to offer this up as a way forward. Like, ‘Hey, we’re women, but we’re also like very, very, very, very good.’ And that’s really cool because it allows other women that think that they might also be very, very, very good to be in the most terrifying place in the studio, which is pulling that chair up to the console and putting your finger on a dial… Everything about you guys’ team, by the way, is female-focused. And none of that was on purpose. You went with everybody because that was who you wanted to work with. Only after you assembled the team did you realize that we were all women. I think that that is a template that other people could look at and respect and then see as possible within their own world.”

With other female artists who take on that kind of team, though, it might have to be more of a conscious effort, given how infrequently it ever happens now.

“Yeah,” agreed Carlile. “When someone like Taylor Swift makes a conscientious decision to work with an all-female team, because they’re great, and because they’re women, I think the trend will be like a wildfire of people conscientiously going, ‘God, there are women in this field that are amazing, that I can make a conscious decision to work with.'”

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The Secret Sisters and Brandi Carlile in the studio Courtesy Sacks & Co.

Shoemaker was the first woman ever to win the Grammy for best engineered album (non-classical), sharing it with Tchad Blake and Andy Wallace for their work on Sheryl Crow’s “The Globe Sessions” in 1997. More than two decades later, it’s shocking that there is still so little competition when anyone is asked to name a prominent female engineer.

“Why there are fewer is endemic to the entrance of women into a field,” said Shoemaker. “In the ‘50s, there would have been… I can’t say none, because maybe there were two in the entire world during the nascent years of recording. Women didn’t start to even enter the field until probably well into the ‘70s. There would have been trace amounts. But it always takes a few decades for a new group of people to enter a field dominated by a different set of people before that. So whether it’s pilots or scientists or surgeons or anything, it takes at least really 20 years before they are entrenched. And then maybe even another 10 before their greatness (is acknowledged). Because greatness in the studio is genderless. You are either great in there, or you are not. So for there to be enough women, or enough women who are wildly talented, to then surface is about a 30-year commitment. And that’s where I think we are.”

The Secret Sisters are reluctant to say they wouldn’t have chosen the same material for the new record if they’d still been working with, say, Burnett or Cobb. But it’s hard not to notice that “Saturn Return” starts right off the bat with three songs from a distinctly female viewpoint — one about aging, another about infertility, and then the Grammy-nominated “Cabin,” a song about living with memories of sexual assault that was inspired by the Kavanaugh hearings.

Said Rogers, “One of the beautiful things about working with Brandi is that she’s able to see the collection of songs that we have at our disposal in the moment… step out of it and up above it and kind of go, ‘Look, this is what you’re dealing with. These are the big subject matters that you’re approaching in your songs for this record.’ And so we didn’t mean to (focus in that direction), but there are definitely these themes of womanhood and motherhood and maternity and grief and these very feminine emotions that we were feeling, and Brandi was able to rise above all of that and go, ‘Look, this is the picture. This is the landscape that we’re trying to create.’ But for us, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, let’s make a woman record.’ It was just that we are women, and I can’t write a record from a man’s perspective, because I haven’t lived it. …  I think that the songs that we had for this record would have been loved by T Bone if we were still working with him, and loved by Dave Cobb. But I think they are cherished in a different way because of Brandi.”

Said Carlile, “I love to lean into the psychology of production… Suppose that I were working with a man, and I was looking at his body of work and the place that he’s at in his life. I’d be asking him a lot of questions about how he’s feeling and whether or not he’s at a precipice — because we almost always are when we make a record. That’s where the material came from. And if I noticed that he were questioning his decisions in life, if he were feeling like society had put him into a gendered role and he was struggling with the fact that maybe he didn’t feel like he could cry every once in a while, if I were noticing things about him that were decidedly male, or maybe a construct of the environment that he was raised in, I would gear the record towards representing that truth for him. And that comes into play with things like sequencing, truth-telling in vocals…  encouraging him to get and feel more emotional; setting the scene, and making sure the candles are lit and the lights are off. I really like to support the psychology of an album, because when it comes together like that, people are able to wrap their arms around it because it’s a life experience. And that I think is my strong point as a producer. I actually can’t splice tape or understand gear.”

Between having Tucker and the Secret Sisters as her initial production clients, is Carlile actively out to champion female artists in particular? “Absolutely,” she says — with a caveat. “And I’ve pitched a number of male artists, too. I actually pitch them regularly. I just haven’t had one choose me yet.”

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The Secret Sisters and Brandi Carlile Courtesy Sacks & Co,

Shoemaker had a good deal to say about embracing what might be seen as the stereotypes, or possible realities, of both male and female energies in the studio. She confessed she always thought of herself as one of the boys in the studio until she became a mother (of a now-16-year-old).

“I’m a kind of thin, muscly, slightly masculine human being,” Shoemaker said. “I mean, I just have testosterone, I guess. So I embrace my male side… And so I can look at a song that is written, for example, about infertility. And I can see that it’s from a woman’s point of view, obviously, because I feel it… But I love to also harken forth my maleness, which is great and big, and ask it to also view the song from the uniquely male perspective. That’s a fantasy of mine: What would they feel? And then that comes back around to interpreting it through my ears, which are in a woman’s body. So you can have a lot of fun (with that duality), if you have it in you… Brandi has a very, very marketed masculinity, and so do I. So when it was time for us to be women, we were women. When it was time for us to feel like men to each other, we felt like men.”

“Yeah,” said Carlile. “When guys are are in the studio and make dick jokes, they don’t know how good we are at that.”

Motherhood was a frequent topic of conversation in the roundtable. Carlile noted that her song “The Mother” started with a remark Shoemaker made upon meeting Carlile’s eldest daughter, Evangeline, and stroking her eyebrow: “Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind.” As for the Secret Sisters, both were either pregnant or about to be with their first children when “Saturn Return” was being recorded at Carlile’s home studio outside Seattle.

“The girls named this album ‘Saturn Return’ because they’re in their wisdom,” said Carlile. “It was the precipice, the moment they went from being children to mothers. Whoever gets to record that? I mean, it’s so rare, (even if) we only figured that out after the fact, after they had written the songs and the record was made. … You’ll never feel that way ever again, but you’ll always have this record.”

Carlile recently finished a new album of her own, produced, as her Grammy-winning “By the Way, I Forgive You” was, by the team of Cobb and Shooter Jennings. “I mentally and emotionally committed to two album cycles with that combination of producers, because they had a bag of tricks that I was very interested in learning,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean that’s the way she’ll always go. “That I co-produced two records with Trina is probably one of the most under-publicized record experiences that I’ve had,” Carlile said. “We talk much more about my working with Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett and Dave Cobb. As a byproduct of my youth and my drive, I under-publicized (the self-production in tandem with Shoemaker). I didn’t talk enough about how revolutionary that was. Now that I’m looking at 40 and I’ve got these two daughters, I kind of want to go back in time and go, ‘Wait a minute… Two of my records are actually produced by women.’ I didn’t want to talk about that more because I didn’t think it was important at the time, but I was wrong.”

So we might see her producing her own records again? “Yeah, you will. For sure. And you’ll see me doing it with a grateful education from Dave, Shooter, Trina, Rick and T Bone.”