I was excited this summer as I made the trip to a small town, just north of Florence, Ala., to photograph the Secret Sisters, the group slated to perform at this year’s 47th annual FHU Benefit Dinner. The Secret Sisters, FHU alumna Laura Rogers and her sister Lydia, were born in Florence. Reared in churches of Christ, singing gospel songs and hymns, the siblings learned harmonies that, to their surprise, are in great demand regionally, nationally and internationally.
Their beginnings were humble. They learned to sing at home, listening to their grandfather and great uncles, and singing on Sundays and Wednesdays at church. Their style is tough to explain or define, but most agree that it is special and unique. The duo found that their music had an audience in Nashville. As they promoted their first album and the buzz began to grow about these Southern siblings, their original music also found its way to the soundtrack of the recent box office smash, “Hunger Games.” With their fame growing, they took time out to allow me to snap a few photos and ask a few questions.
We met at the home of Laura, the elder sister, at her small country cottage just outside of Florence. The house used to belong to her grandparents and provided the perfect backdrop for the Seasons conversation.
So, what is it like being famous?
Laura: That question is always funny. For some reason, we just would never describe ourselves in that way. I mean, sure we’ve had the opportunity to do some really cool things, but for the most part, we feel like most people have no idea who we are, so it’s always strange when someone uses that word in relation to us and our career.
Lydia: Yeah, we’re still able to go out in our hometown and remain largely unrecognized, which is actually really nice. Our goal in all of this isn’t to gain fame but simply to enjoy making our own kind of music and sharing it with people who want to listen.
How did you end up on the “Hunger Games” soundtrack?
Lydia: That came about through our relationship with T Bone Burnett, who was the producer of the movie soundtrack. T Bone was the executive producer of our first album, and so, knowing the style of music we write, he told us that they were searching for songs for the soundtrack, and asked us to submit one. That was one that we had in our pocket that actually really fit with the story and subject matter of the books and film. It was the biggest thing that has happened so far to spread our music to large numbers of people, and we’re both super thankful to have had that kind of exposure.
Do either of you have a bow and arrow?
Laura: Um, definitely not! I can only imagine the injuries I would sustain in attempting to shoot an arrow. Yikes.
Lydia: Yeah, we just never really got into weapons. Is that considered a weapon?
In the movie “Hunger Games” the hero steps in to take the place of her sister. Given that same situation, who steps up, Lydia or Laura?
Laura: Oh, I definitely would step up and take Lydia’s place. It’s my job because I’m the oldest. Plus, I can run faster, and Lydia’s afraid of bugs, so that tracker jacker situation wouldn’t go over so well with her.
What was it like when the first person asked for your autograph?
Lydia: That’s still a kind of strange thing to experience. I don’t even remember when exactly we signed our first autograph, but it still blows our mind that people will wait in line, sometimes for a pretty long time, just so we can write our names on something for them. Yet, Laura and I used to do that all the time with the artists we love. We’d wait to meet them, and once we had their autographs, we thought that was really something special. It’s fun to know that we are able to give other people that kind of joy, on a small scale. People really do us an honor when they ask us to sign things for them because it proves that our music can really touch those who listen to it.
Laura: Yeah, but there was that one time when we signed a lady’s very pregnant belly. To this day I wonder if that Sharpie did something to harm that poor kid. I sure hope not. Don’t want that on our shoulders!
What is the coolest thing that has happened to you since you have been “discovered?”
Laura: That’s such a hard question to answer! We feel we’ve both been blessed with dozens of opportunities because of the music that we play. For me, getting to tour with legendary artists that we both admire is one of the most amazing things. We got to tour with Willie Nelson, whom we both love. We also got to tour with Paul Simon, who gave us loads of good songwriting advice. We’ve gotten to see so many amazing places, and we’ve played shows in some really wonderful venues, for really wonderful people. I really feel like everything we get to do is cool!
Lydia: One of our biggest honors happened on the first tour we ever went on. We were opening for Ray Lamontagne and the legendary Levon Helm (the drummer and vocalist for the Band) back in 2010. Close to the end of the tour, Levon invited us up to join everyone in singing “The Weight” and “I Shall Be Released.” I remember us standing on that big stage, singing along with all those other musicians, looking over to the left, and seeing Levon sitting at his drums, just smiling and enjoying every minute of the song that he made so famous. Levon passed away earlier this year after battling cancer, and knowing that we were able to catch a little bit of his light is something that we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives. He was an incredible man and musician.
What celebrity or star have you met that made you feel as if you had “made it?”
Laura: Aside from the musicians and artists we’ve gotten to meet, my favorite celebrity that we’ve met is Sissy Spacek. She was at a show of ours on the east coast, and she was so sweet to us and seemed to really love our style of music. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t Loretta Lynn.
Lydia: We got to meet Elton John once. That was surreal. I don’t think those moments make us feel like we’ve “made it,” necessarily, but they just show us how far reaching music can be. It connects people in the strangest, most beautiful ways.
Okay, so you two are sisters, how often do you argue on the road?
Laura: Pretty much every day. When we first started touring, we fought all the time, and it would get pretty intense, like with tears and stuff. We’ve leveled out a little. Separate hotel rooms help, but we still bicker. About who’s going to shower first, about one of us being loud while the other wants to sleep, about which songs we want to sing during our shows. But I think most of the time we argue just to keep things interesting.
Lydia: At the end of the day we’re just glad to have each other along for the ride. I think that if either of us had had to do this on our own, we wouldn’t have lasted. But when one of us is homesick or worn out, the other steps in to help make it better. We’re learning to balance it out and be sweet to each other, but she’s always going to get on my nerves.
Laura: Yeah, you get on my nerves more than I get on yours.
What is your favorite song that you sing?
Laura: We’ve written a song for our next album called “Next Sunday,” and for some reason that song is just really fun to perform. I think it’s because that song is a quintessential Secret Sisters song. Strong harmony parts, a catchy melody and chorus, and it’s sweet. I really love that one.
Lydia: Mine is this song called “Bad Habit.” It’s dark and depressing, but I just love it because it’s so different from what we normally do. Plus the audience usually loves that one.
What is your favorite song of all time (no boundaries here-anything from Soft Kitty to Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap)?
Laura: I cannot even begin to tell you how impossible it is for me to answer this question. It’s like having a million really adorable kids and having to choose only one. There’s a very good chance that, if I were to have a favorite song, it would be somewhere in the Everly Brothers’ catalog of songs.
Lydia: It hurts my head to even ponder this thought!
When did the two of you begin singing together?
Lydia: We’ve both been singing since we were little. Music was a huge part of our lives growing up, and we would each sing on our own. But as far as singing as a duo, we probably didn’t do that until we were at least in our teens. But we just knew that we could. We didn’t necessarily sing together often, but we knew that we could harmonize with each other if we needed to. That’s why it was so weird for us to end up in a duet, singing professionally. Because we’d never really done it, we didn’t practice it, we didn’t work on it or rehearse. It’s completely instinctive, and I have no idea how you learn to do that. I think it was all just right place, right time for us.
Laura: I agree. So many times, people will be like, “How do you learn harmony? Teach me how to hear it.” I’m like “Well, give me about 25 years and a church of Christ with really strong singing, and we might can make some progress.” There’s no formula, there’s no class you can take or training you can go through. I think the way we sing is just a product of our life, our stories, our surroundings. It’s kind of bizarre.
From where do you draw your inspiration?
Laura: Obviously, we have a wide variety of musical influences. Those always find their way into our music and career somehow. Our family is a big inspiration to us. We grew up in a family where music was the primary form of entertainment. We weren’t trying to grow up and be singers. But now that we’re doing this, it’s hard to imagine that life was preparing us to do anything other than this.
Lydia: Our faith is probably the biggest inspiration for everything we do. There’s just something really magical about a cappella singing and gospel hymns and the way that four-part harmony works. It always makes us happy when people hear us sing and ask us if we learned to sing in church. I guess they can just hear that.
Who taught you to sing?
Laura: Our dad was really influential in our musical development. We weren’t ever taught to sing, really, but he was always singing, and our grandfather had a beautiful voice, along with basically everyone else in our extended family. So just being around it all the time helped us learn how to sing and blend and harmonize the way we do.
Lydia: And obviously a lot of our vocal training happened during church services, with the a cappella, four-part harmony. I mean, of course we weren’t going to church to learn how to sing, but it was definitely a byproduct of being in church every time the doors were open.
How would you describe your style of music?
Lydia: Another hard question! As far as putting it in a genre, we have no idea really. We’ve been called Americana, neo-Country, roots pop, bluegrass/gospel. I guess it’s just a big mixture of all of those styles of music. We just think we’re a very American, very Southern duo. I think the best kind of music is one you can’t really put a label on.
If you could be anyone else ever in the history of the world, who would it be?
Laura: I think I’d choose to just be myself, but maybe in a different time period. I often feel I was born too late, and would’ve loved living in the 1940s/50s/60s. That era in music history was incredible.
Lydia: Yeah, I can’t think of anyone whose place I’d want to take. There are definitely experiences I’d like to have, but I’m pretty happy with being in my own skin, doing whatever it is that comes my way.
Obviously, you are huge at Freed-Hardeman. What drew you to attend FHU (Laura)?
Laura: Well, I knew I wanted to move out after high school, and I had visited FHU several times while trying to figure out where to attend college. I felt like FHU was a good in-between place. That way I could move out and have some independence, but I’d still have the close-knit, family type atmosphere that I was used to. If I had tried to move off and attend a state university, it probably would’ve been too much for me. Moving to FHU was so exciting! I still remember my parents dropping me off and leaving me behind.
What was your favorite part of being at FHU?
Laura: My friends were the best thing for me. I made friends that I still love dearly and with whom I still keep in close contact. I have so many fond memories of us acting silly, doing things around campus, and, yes, sneaking out, trying to dodge security. (I was very good at it; is this fact going to taint my faultless reputation at FHU?) I also really loved the English classes I took there, and this is my moment where I shout out to my most favorite teacher I’ve ever had, Dr. Cargile! She was so much fun! To this day, when I make a spelling/grammar mistake, I think about how disappointed she would be. Ha!
So why didn’t you bring your sister with you, what’s up with that?
Laura: I don’t think Lydia had a real interest in moving away from home after high school. Plus, she came up to visit me really often, and maybe after she saw how weird my friends and I were, she wasn’t interested any more?
What is your pre-show routine-what is the one thing you have to do before you do a show?
Lydia: Honestly, we don’t have much of a routine. We just sit around, usually curling our hair and putting on lipstick. We’ll typically do a little bit of vocal warming up, which involves sitting around with our guitar and singing some songs together. Nothing too fancy.
Laura: I usually do a cup of tea and some neck stretches, but we’re both pretty unprofessional. So we just get up there and sing.
Who is the better singer? Laura or Lydia?
Laura: I’ll answer this one, and Lydia isn’t allowed to. I truly believe Lydia is the better singer. Her range is so much better than mine, and she can do all this fancy stuff that I just haven’t mastered yet. Growing up, Lydia was always performing, doing talent shows and such. I was much more insecure and rarely sang in front of anyone other than my immediate family. I’ve always known that Lydia’s voice was special, and I actually am a huge fan of her voice, regardless of the fact that she’s my sister.
What did you get each other for Christmas last year? This year?
Laura: We don’t go crazy at Christmas, usually. We probably got each other some jewelry or some house decorations. Last year, we were just so happy to be home again, with our family, that the presents were almost an afterthought.
Lydia: I’m not even ready to think about Christmas gifts for this year!
When will you be doing your holiday special? (Please say Dec. 7 at FHU)
Lydia: We are doing our holiday special Dec. 7, at Freed-Hardeman’s Benefit Dinner.
Laura: And we are SUPER excited!
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Laura: I think we both just want to be touring in a comfortable way. We’ve worked really hard so far, and have a lot more hard work ahead, but hopefully within five years or so, things will level out, and we can tour in moderation and keep making the music we love to make. We don’t really have goals as far as being enormously successful; we already consider ourselves successful because we’re happy with where we are right now. We both want to keep being the people we are, growing and changing but always progressing in the right ways.
Lydia: Ultimately, we know that all of this is fleeting. It’s a great way to spend a life, traveling and creating something beautiful for others to hear. But our music is only a part of us. We’ve committed our lives to something bigger than music, bigger than us. And as long as we keep pursuing that, we know the music’s going to be there, no matter what.