Considering the music industry buzz surrounding the impressive debut album by the neo-traditional country duo the Secret Sisters, it’s remarkable to think that a year ago the act didn’t exist and that real-life sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers hadn’t been knockin’ ’em dead at talent shows or coffee houses in their hometown of Muscle Shoals, Ala., the past several years. They’re that polished, that charismatic.
About the only concession that was made to modern technology was using Pro Tools as a storage medium, but even that had an old slant: Cobb and Bolas used Endless Analog’s CLASP system in which the recording signal bounces off the repro head of an analog tape recorder (in this case, a Studer A27 2-inch 16-track machine) directly to a DAW so that the recording retains the favored characteristics of analog tape without requiring thousands of dollars of the medium. (For more on CLASP, see the Mix June 2010 review.) “We also had real slap going the entire time off a Studer B-67 and we printed slap live. We were printing effects as we were going,” Cobb says. The producer lauds Blackbird’s “incredible chamber, which is like a two-story-high entryway, but the ceiling goes up and goes down so you can change the size of it. It’s pretty magical.”
Indeed, as their producer Dave Cobb recalls of their origins, “We discovered them at an open-call audition in Nashville in October . One sister—Laura—got up and sang, and it was just the most magical thing: She sounded like Snow White or something; I’d never heard anything like it. It seemed very different but also sort of timeless. And she said, ‘My sister is coming in a couple of hours and you should check her out, too.’ So we paid attention to her, and she was great, too, and then they sang together and they were so good. But they’d never officially been a band or a group or anything and had never performed live. They didn’t consider themselves professional singers.”
Laura and Lydia Rogers, both in their early 20s, are from a musical family and had been singing for years informally in church and around the house, but as Laura Rogers says by phone from San Francisco where she was about to perform with her sister and T Bone Burnett’s band at the famed Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, “Up until the point we were ‘discovered,’ nobody had a clue that we were singers. I have friends from high school who message me on the Internet, and say, ‘I didn’t even know you could sing! You just played the Ryman, you recorded with Jack White, you made a record.’” She laughs at the seeming absurdity of the Secret Sisters’ truly meteoric rise.
DUO UPDATES CLASSIC COUNTRY AND POP SOUNDS
“It’s been a crazy year,” she continues. “Obviously, we never expected this. It’s almost like we get these Christmas presents every few months: ‘Oh, guess what, you’re going to be doing a taping [for an upcoming TV special] with Jakob Dylan and Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett’s going to be there. And then you get to play in San Francisco for the bluegrass festival.’ It’s pretty humbling and very moving for us emotionally to know that these big names are inspired enough by two little girls from Alabama who nobody has ever heard of before, to want to be part of what we’re doing.”
For Cobb, after the Nashville audition had knocked him out, “We had to figure out what to do with them because it was so out of left field—it’s certainly not your Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. What do you do with this? So my manager—Andrew Brightman—and I flew them out to L.A. and cut a couple of songs with them at my studio [known as 1974, after the year Cobb was born] and they were signed within a week. They had a couple of songs that they knew and we did an experiment with the recording and really had a good time trying to do something different. I love old records—I’m a huge fan of RCA Studio B [Nashville] recordings of the ’50s and ’60s, and also the whole Wrecking Crew era in L.A., and that’s what we tried to do with it [sonically]. I thought it would be cool to bring back a little bit of Skeeter Davis and a little bit of Patsy Cline, a little bit of George Jones and kind of blend it all together. Country, but also pop. So we had some A-list guys here in L.A. come down—some friends of mine—and we did it really quick. We did the demos with this engineer named Greg Koller, and he had access to all sorts of original Universal Audio 610s and Fairchilds and [RCA] BA6A compressors, and we really tried to pick period-appropriate gear.” Though none of those tracks made the eventual album, it set the tone for the duo’s aesthetic—retro but with a modern twist.
“Then we went to Nashville,” Cobb continues, “and did the record at Blackbird, mostly in Studio A, with the help of this pedal steel player named Robby Turner who used to play with Waylon Jennings, and he suggested Pig Hargus as the piano player. Pig was part of the whole RCA Studio B scene, and he actually helped invent that style of piano along with Floyd Cramer. It was funny, when we were going through and picking songs for the record, he’d say, ‘Oh, I played on that one.’ ‘Yep, I played on that one, too.’” [Laughs.] Rounding out the house band were guitarist Jason Cope, bassist Brian Allen and drummer Chris Powell. The songs are a blend of old country nuggets by the likes of George Jones, Buck Owens and Hank Williams; a couple of traditional pieces; and two originals written by the Rogers sisters. As Laura Rogers notes, “It was pretty cool to know that songs we had written in the 2000s were compatible with songs from the 1950s.” Their sound at times resembles a female Everly Brothers (and Louvin Brothers)—“It’s that thing where two voices sort of sound like one when they’re together,” Laura Rogers says. “Being sisters helps.”
Cobb notes that at Blackbird, “We did it all live in one room together, though the girls were in a booth separately but looking at the band the whole time. There was a lot of bleed. The first round of songs we did were with [engineer] Niko Bolas, and he did a great job capturing everything. Once again, we stuck with the old equipment. Blackbird really has anything you could want; it’s unbelievable. I stayed up at night dreaming about the gear in the place! So we really took advantage of what they had there, plus Niko had some original tube mic pre’s from a DeMedeo desk here in L.A. But the studio had some [Telefunken] V76s for the vocals and [Blackbird owner/engineer] John McBride had these old RCA OP6 [pre’s] that he recommended and sounded incredible. Then we used all period microphones: Greg Koller, who did the demo, had an original RCA KU3A ribbon, which is a mic they used to use for film in L.A., and it’s a great-sounding mic with a crispy top end, as well as the low end of a [RCA] 44; so we used that [as an overhead] on drums, a [AKG] D-30 on kick and then Niko also put up a couple of side mics—[RCA] 77s—to fill it in between the rack tom and snare, and one in between the floor tom and the kick. But in the final mix, it ended up being mostly the overhead and the kick. Nearly everything else was miked with 77s, except the guitar, which was an RCA BK-5—a really cool mic John McBride turned me onto. The girls were singing on a Neumann U48—just one mic in cardioid—and then on one particular song, ‘House of Gold,’ they were facing each other and we did that one in figure-8.
“We did the bulk of the tracks in about three days together—three or four songs a day—and they were just nailing the lead vocals on the scratches. We set ’em up so they could maybe punch in or come back to something, but we didn’t really need to. We did several passes on most of the songs and every pass was good. It was just really, really easy for them. They actually told us after a couple of days, ‘This whole recording thing is really easy,’ and we were thinking, ‘Girls, you have no idea how laborious this usually is!’ I’m not kidding—it was like hearing a finished record by pulling the faders up. We actually had a few more days booked for [Blackbird] Studio B for overdubs and fixes, but we mostly just ordered food,” he chuckles.
Though Laura Rogers says she and her sister had some typical first-time nerves in the studio, “Luckily, we really connected with all the session players who were there and Dave [Cobb] was such a huge source of comfort for us. It felt like there was no pressure. All we had to do was walk into a room and sing, which wasn’t hard for us.”
In truth, the whole Secret Sisters “package,” if you will—the name, the look—came after the sessions for the most part. Laura Rogers comments, “Dave was especially instrumental in helping us hone what we wanted to do. We knew that we loved that old kind of music and we knew there wasn’t a huge amount of it out there for the general public to hear, so we really kind of blossomed in the studio sessions at Blackbird. That’s when we became the Secret Sisters. We really became ourselves in that moment. And then, once the music was there, that’s when the label stepped in and they wanted us to have a unique look, so we decided the best way to go was let the style of what you see when we come out onstage match the music that you hear. So far it’s working pretty well because people are starting to recognize that aesthetic of the Secret Sisters. When we walk out onstage, you’re going to see us looking like we just walked out of 1957. At the same time, in our regular everyday life, we don’t dress that way and we prefer it that way because nobody knows who we are whenever we’re dressed like regular people and we like that anonymity. It’s kind of like the only time you get to see the Secret Sisters is when they come out onstage and perform. We like that mystery.” The name was suggested by manager Andrew Brightman.
After the Blackbird sessions and some subsequent mixing work by Darrell Thorp, Burnett heard the Secret Sisters and was so floored that he wanted to get involved, too, and signed on as executive producer of the fledgling act’s first disc. As Cobb says, “T Bone really opened up a lot of doors for people to pay attention to the record.” Burnett suggested cutting one last song for the album—the haunting Bill Monroe ballad “The One I Love Is Gone” (which the Rogers sisters sing similarly to duo versions by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard)—and also a couple of B-sides recorded at Blackbird with Cobb producing and McBride engineering. Burnett’s engineering team, including Jason Wormer and Mike Piersante, also supervised the recording of a few guitar and steel overdubs (by Russ Pahl) and re-mixed the album at Burnett’s Electro Magnetic Studios in L.A. on an API console, with Piersante and Burnett tackling four songs, Wormer the rest. Wormer says, “T Bone wanted to change the aesthetic a little bit and kind of bring it closer to what we do, which is a very traditional sound, but a very modern traditional sound. It sounds old-timey, but it’s also full-fidelity big. I think Dave [Cobb] and those guys were going for more of a pure ’50s sound, but when you hear the girls sing, they immediately take you to that era anyway, so T Bone wanted to hear something a little different.”
Separate from all of these sessions was a day the Rogers sisters spent cutting a one-off single with Jack White, who had also become enamored with the Secret Sisters’ sound. The feeling was mutual: “We’re huge fans of his and had to pinch ourselves and try not to seem like girlie fans,” Laura Rogers says. White and the ladies recorded the traditional “Wabash Cannonball” in a fairly straight style, but transformed the Johnny Cash nugget “Big River” into a full-blown, White Stripes/Raconteurs thrash number. “We were thinking it was going to be the same tempo as the Johnny Cash version, maybe have Jack play some bluesy bottleneck guitar on it, but before we know it, he’s got that guitar and he’s shredding!”
Not bad for a couple of unknown country girls—and that was all before their first album even came out. Their performing career is actually just beginning now. They’re off to a good start.