The Secret Sisters, the acoustically based sibling duo out of Alabama, have typically walked down the less sunny side of the street in their Grammy-nominated past work. But they’re uncharacteristically full of healing good cheer in “Hand Over My Heart,” a track from their forthcoming album “Saturn Return,” which was produced by Brandi Carlile and Phil and Tim Hanseroth. Variety has the video premiere and talked with the two about how they arrived at a tune that skews closer to buoyant pop than the more sober Americana that’s been their signature sound.
“We don’t typically have a lot of fun songs,” admits Laura Rogers, with a knowing laugh, “so this was a change for us.”
Laughter comes easily in any conversation with Rogers and sister Lydia Slagle, but not so much in the songs themselves. And just to be clear, “Saturn Return,” their fourth album, which comes out from New West Feb. 28, will not necessarily be an exception to that rule — however much “Hand Over My Heart” points to something contrary.
“We don’t want anyone to get their hopes up,” says Rogers… again, with a laugh.
“I feel like this song is a standout track throughout the span of our songwriting, just because historically we tend to write heavier songs about love and loss and sadness,” she continues. “We were both trying to kind of go in a happier direction with this song. I certainly had my current husband in mind as we were writing it and, you know, the feeling of finally finding someone that can pick up all your broken pieces and handle you with all the sharp edges. Actually, when we finished the song, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this song is entirely too happy for us. We’ll never record this onto an album.’ And then it was born in the album process anyway and became this super-catchy, undeniably fun song that is completely out of our realm. So I think it’s a breath of fresh air, hopefully, for our audiences, but also for us as performers. Sometimes it’s fun to not have to sing about the heavier things that you feel called to write and perform.”
But fans shouldn’t worry that they’re becoming poptimists — after all, the previously released description of the album did promise songs rooted in “insecurity, anxiety, fear… (and) the loss of loved ones, an unjust system and the fragility of time.” Says Rogers, “Most of the songs are what you would probably expect from us. I don’t know if it will evolve over time, but right now, we are very introspective, and we write about what we experience and the hard things and beautiful and sometimes triumphant things that find their way into our music. And I think we’ve kind of surrendered ourselves to the fact that that’s just the kind of writers we are right now.”
“I think we’ll always write that way,” adds Slagle, “but maybe we’ll try to shroud the lyrics with happy melodies and it’ll suffice.”
The “Saturn Return” album was the first to be recorded at the home studio set up by Carlile and the Hanseroth twins at the former’s rural homestead outside of Seattle. It was actually recorded over a year ago, but got held so that they could properly promote and tour it when first one sister, then the other, became pregnant with a first child.
“I was in my first trimester of pregnancy when we recorded the album, so I don’t remember very much of it,” admits Rogers. “I remember what Brandi’s toilet bowl looked like! I had a bird’s eye view of that.”
Adds Slagle, “Our original plan was to release the record in June of last year. But then Laura got pregnant and was due in June. So we pushed it until September, and then I got pregnant and had my baby in October, so it got pushed to February. So finally, we can get out there and tour this thing that we’ve had sitting for 18 months.” A tour begins March 25 in Brooklyn (see dates below).
Carlile and the Hanseroths are producing the Secret Sisters for the second successive album, after their debut was helmed by Dave Cobb and their sophomore album by T Bone Burnett (with a Jack White one-off single in there, too, along the way). Clearly, things got cozy on their previous album, 2017’s “You Don’t Own Me Anymore,” which was nominated for a Grammy for best folk recording. Keeping the collaboration going, it doesn’t hurt that Carlile is as big a booster for them as she has been for another production client, Tanya Tucker, and that she has a bigger platform from which to proclaim their glories now than she did three years ago.
“It’s the first album that she’s actually recorded on her own property,” Rogers says. “That was a neat experiment for us, but also for Brandi and the twins, because they had never kind of touched on that in their own backyard before. The twins did a whole lot of the carpentry and the wiring in her garage/barn space, getting everything ready for us to come up there. Brandi flew in some really amazing musicians and a few local people. It was like a big family reunion where we’d spend the night at her house, and she feeds us all this great food, and then we’d roll out of bed and get ready to record. Most of the time we were in our pajamas.
“Brandi has this kind of futuristic vision that sometimes we lack. She can see our potential in ways that we can’t because we’re so close to what we do. And we always benefit, not only from getting a great, fun, collaborative record out of her, but just having the encouragement and the camaraderie and the belief system that she kind of puts in us, that we don’t always have in ourselves. She thinks that we’re capable of everything that we set our minds to. And sometimes we are defeatists and don’t believe that. And the twins, too — they think that we do no wrong, and that we’re these incredible musicians and songwriters, whereas we see all the progress that needs to still occur. So it’s a really good dynamic.”
They kept it really in the family for the music video for “Hand Over My Heart,” which was shot in Birmingham under the direction of Lydia’s husband, Mark Slagle. It starts out with a ballet dancer before moving on to hip-hop dancing and finally square dancing. “We love the way that it showcased different styles of artistry that we have absolutely no talent in. We are not dancers,” says Laura. “And I found it really inspiring because there were people from basically every age category.”
If anyone wants to try to recreate the square dancing while the Secret Sisters play live, there are upcoming opportunities to attempt that. Just don’t ask the duo to name of the venues on their itinerary. “Mom brain is the most real thing,” says Rogers. “I just know we’re coming to your city. We could be playing in the middle of the freeway for all I know.”
They had enough time off, they say. “It’s been a gift for us to get to slow down a little bit. And one of the most beautiful things about this record is that we wrote most of the songs before either of us were pregnant, bit so it’s interesting to me how strongly the concept of maternity and motherhood and womanhood is represented on this record in a way that feels even more authentic now that we are new mothers who have walked that road. In a way, I feel like our songwriting was a little bit of a prophecy for what we were about to go through. And now we’ll see we’ll see if we can take this life on the road and deliver the songs in a sincere way.”
The Secret Sisters’ tour dates:
May 9—Florence, AL—Shoals Community Theatre
May 10—Atlanta, GA—Terminal West