Skip Matheny – currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle and former bartender in a retirement community, was recently able to catch up with The Secret Sisters at The Holland House in Nashville, to talk about their creative process, and the collaboration involved in creating their debut record.
What is your favorite drink?
Lydia: I love a good soy Machiato. We love that sweet coffee.
Laura: I love a mocha.
When did you start making music? I’ve read you both grew up singing in the Church of Christ.
Lydia: At the Church of Christ, where we attend, there are no musical instruments, so we had to learn how to read shape notes and blend with each other and harmonize. That’s really where we got most of our musical education, through the church and through our family. Both sides of our family are very musical. It’s just always been there.
What age was that?
Laura: There wasn’t a certain age. It was just kind of like walking, you might as well just suck it up and learn to do it (laughs). That’s what music always was. It wasn’t just shoved down our throats but it just was always there, just built in.
So at what point did you start to move into the world of secular records?
Laura: We don’t have the cool story where we were “sheltered” from secular music or whatever. From a really young age, my Dad had a record player, and we learned how to work it when we were itty-bitty. We would be getting ready for church on Sunday mornings and we would be listening to George Jones and Tammy Wynette and you know, all these different gospel tunes. Like I said, it has just always been around. We were never banned from listening to secular music. I mean obviously anything that was too filthy or vulgar we weren’t allowed to listen to, but, I mean we grew up on Mariah Carey, New Kids on the Block.
Lydia: Paula Abdul.
Laura: Ace of Bass‚ I loved me some Ace of Bass. Even up until we were in our teens and into college, we loved not just the old music but were a bit more are all over the place. We draw influence from everybody. Rufus Wainright to Brandi Carlile to Fiona Apple to Jenny Lewis. We’re just all over the place when it comes to that.
Lydia: Yeah. we listen to The Dead Weather, and Mumford and Sons.
Laura: I’ve been a Kings of Leon fan forever now. I liked them before everybody else did. Let me just put that out there (laughs).
Laura: Yeah, I mean, us being into that classic country music, it’s not a fabrication. We really do love every bit of that. And I think our voices just kind of lend themselves to that era. Whether we like it or not, we just kind of fit into that time frame. But as far as sitting in our room, wearing our 1950s dresses and listening to records — that is a fabrication (laughs). We are modern girls. We went through our college phase where we wanted to like bands that nobody else has ever heard of, and then it kind of came full circle where we went back to what our dad was listening to and thought ‘Hey, my dad knew what he was talking about.’
When did you begin thinking you might want to start writing your own songs?
Laura: That happened really in college. It was really just an outlet. It was just when I was feeling something strongly I would write about it. It was just a great way to get some frustration out. I wasn’t going for a certain kind of sound in the things that I wrote. I think that Lydia was the same way…
Laura: But the two originals [on our record], I think they hold up really well. And those songs were not written specifically for this record. They were written prior to us having a record deal. So it is kind of cool that they fit really well with George Jones and Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra. I took a songwriting class at MTSU that really helped me focus cause you had to write songs for a grade. That’s where we graduated from.
I do love that you all made a record closer to how some of the great Willie Nelson record’s were usually put together, where there were a combination of originals and covers to make a great listening record. The point being that the record is great and the songs are well chosen. There are a bunch of country records out there made up of mediocre songs, but the artist had a hand in writing all of them, and I think the focus is a little warped. When you guys were sitting down to make this record how much did you two already have in mind when you came started out, and how much of it was a collaboration in the moment with the producer?
Laura: With our producer Dave Cobb, when we were getting ready to go into the studio, we know that we wanted to pull from the country catalog. I mean there are just so many great songs. And in truth, we hadn’t had time to develop ourselves as songwriters and if we had taken he time to do that it would have taken a lot longer, we wouldn’t have been ready yet to release a record. So we were like, well, forget this. There are a ton of great songs out there that can be reborn and reintroduced to people who haven’t heard them or to people who have forgotten about them. So we just got together with our producer, we dug through iTunes , through YouTube, through his record collections and what we had heard growing up and we came up with a pretty extensive list of stuff that we just loved. And then we honed it down once we got ready to go into the studio.
I think it’s right what you say about people focusing so much on wanting to write their own songs. That that can be important from an artists standpoint, to know that they are able to accomplish that but at the same time I think that a lot of times the motive is purely about the financial benefit of writing your own songs. And in this we were like, it’s not about ‘oh I wrote every song and I am going to get the publishing money’. It’s about, ‘yeah we got a couple originals on there but these other songs are juts great songs and who cares who wrote it.’ A great song stands on it’s own no matter who wrote it, no matter what genre it is. It stands on it’s own. So, we think we chose pretty well. (laughs)
Tom T. Hall has talked about the sheer number of songwriters on the credits these days, often being disproportionate to the actual quality of the song.
Lydia: It seems like it sounds forced.
Laura: Yeah. And I am almost glad that we didn’t really have any time to write any originals for the album‚ specifically for this album. Because I think it can really constrict you. And the songs that made it onto this record, they were not contrived in any way. They were just, ” I liked this sound. We liked the way these harmonies worked together.” It was just so simple. And they just so happened to work. It wasn’t contrived in any way. It wasn’t, “We want to sound like I came from the 1950’s era.” You can really box yourself in whether it be main stream country or indie or rock and roll‚ you really box yourself in if you try to fit in the lines. I’m curious to see how our future songwriting develops.
Can you describe how you came to know T Bone Burnett and how you all worked together for this record?
Lydia: That actually came about through our record label. They really pushed for him to hear the record. And he liked what he heard and he really wanted to get involved.
Laura: But the great thing about his involvement, and really with anybody who has gotten involved in this so far, was that nobody has had the music stuffed in their face. Everybody has had it, “Okay, listen to it and see what you think.” Kind of hands-off. And so for T Bone to hear it and love it as much as he has. For him to sign on and not just to help make the record but to help promote us and to bring us kind of under his wing has been tremendously helpful in getting us going.
Lydia: And he is just such a great person too.
Laura: Yes he’s really insightful. He knows so much about sound and about history involving music and recording.
Lydia: He’s a library.
Laura: He really is. He is a remarkable person. I wish every person who loves music could talk to him one time.
(laughs) I do too.
Laura: And I really hope you do one day because he will impart to you more knowledge in one conversation that anybody will. He is really intelligent. I can’t say enough about his ear and his intuition. One thing that was interesting is that we would talk to him about sound and he will hear little blips and things that the average listener might not hear but over time they would agitate the ear..and he makes it his job to go in and smooth out the sound so those little agitations don’t occur. I think his ability to hear those things is one of the secrets to why the albums he is involved in have such longevity. I mean he produced Brandi Carlile’s The Story one of my favorite albums ever. And I have listened to that constantly ever since it came out and I never get sick of it. And I think it is because it is so pleasing sonically. There is nothing that makes you go “ergww”, you know and he helped to do that with our record. He just polished it and trimmed it up.
Lydia: But not so much that it sounded contrived or didn’t have any flaws. It’s still cool that there were some flaws in there.
Laura: That is definitely what we wanted. And when we recorded it we were very true to what they did 50 years ago‚ into one microphone. We recorded it all to tape. The band was live in the room with us. We didn’t do auto-tuning. Nothing. So we just tried really really hard to be really true.
That sounds like fun.
Laura: It’s a little intimidating. You go in and they are like, “oh we did so-and-so’s record and you have to like piece in every little syllable of every word because one syllable might sound better than the other and it’s like, “how do you ever mimic that live?” you know? (laughs) you don’t.
Yeah. Record making is an oddball thing.
Laura: We were surprised at how trusting the label was with us. They were like “go do it and then show us what you got.”
I think that labels and artists have much more of a friendly relationship these days because everybody is struggling. I mean nobody drives a Bentley into a swimming pool anymore.
Laura: Yeah it is amazing how the relationship improves when the money shrinks (laughs).
Who are some lyricists that you really enjoy?
Lydia: I really draw a lot of inspiration from Elvis Costello. He is an amazing lyricist. We really enjoyed getting the chance to perform with him too.
For the PBS special?
Lydia: Yes. It was amazing.
Laura: He is a remarkable songwriter. I highly recommend him to anybody to appreciates lyrical genius. He is that.
Any Elvis song in particular, or any other lyricists for that matter?
Laura: “Jimmy Standing in the Rain.”
Lydia: Yeah it’s a song about Jimmy Rogers impersonators. He’s also got this song called “Slow Drive With Joespehine.” And we really like Brandi Carlile too . I feel like she writes every emotion that I have every felt. I talk about her in every interview because she influences me so much. On every level as a n artists she influences me.
So you were way onto Brandi before you knew about T Bone? So I imagine when you got the call from T Bone you were…
Laura: Oh yes. When we got the call from T Bone I was like, “Alright. Cool T Bone. Okay , when do we get to meet Brandi?” (laughs) No, I’m kidding. I also love Rufus Wainright. I think he is the most under-appreciated songwriter of our generation. The way that he writes is so phenomenal. I think he has the most creative mindset. It blows my mind. And of course, the one thing that is so different about Brandy Carlisle, Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainright, all of these lyricists – they are so complex and they are beautiful in their complexity but they also go back to the music that we draw the most of our inspiration from, I mean Tammy Wynette, “D-i-v–o-r-c-e.” The sincerity of the lyrics, it hits you in the chest. I mean the line about “I can’t spell away the hurt that’s dripping down my cheek..”
Was there any moment when you guys were kids and you heard a particular record or song and something just clicked into place for you?
Laura: I remember being really young and I remember the first time I ever heard the song “Coal Miners Daughter.I heard it on the T.V. and I remember being so intrigued by that, and to this day it always captures my mind.
Lydia: I remember the first song I ever sang live was “You say Nothing At all” that Alison Krauss song. I was 5 years old.
Laura: We actually got to meet [writer of “When you say Nothing at All”] Don Schlitz a couple of weeks ago at the Ryman. He turned around and introduced himself. He was like “I would like to talk to you guys before you record your next album.” and we were like, “will do.”