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There are two ways of handling a dangerous, raging river: you can surrender and let it carry you away, or you can swim against the flow. For The Secret Sisters, there was a point after the release of their last record when they could have chosen to do neither – instead, sinking to the bottom as the weight of the world washed away their dreams. They went from touring with Bob Dylan to losing their label, purging their team, filing bankruptcy and almost permanently trading harmonies for housecleaning. But there's a mythical pull to music that kept sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers moving forward, and they came out with a biting and beautiful third LP, produced by Brandi Carlile, You Don't Own Me Anymore. Their first as New West signees, it's a document of hardship and redemption, of pushing forward when it would be so much easier to drown in grief. And it's a story about how passion and pure artistry can be the strongest sort of salvation – how art is left, like perfect grains of sand, when everything else has washed away.
"We are more proud of these songs than we have ever been," says Laura. "Some of the songs are a little more cryptic, but some of them are very pointed and honest and direct. And we had to let those songs happen. We had to let ourselves be angry again, and bring up things we wanted to forget."
It certainly would have been easier to just try and forget the past few years of The Secret Sisters' life. After their second album, Put Your Needle Down, didn't perform according to their label's expectations – however unrealistic they were in this day and age – the duo was dropped, leaving them with barely enough money to stay on the road and keep making music. So they retreated home to Alabama, worn and weary from experiencing the devilish side of the industry first-hand, scraping together whatever they could while trying to embrace what seemed to be a future without music. But when Carlile – someone whom The Secret Sisters have admired for years and one of our truest talents – offered to produce their record, it made them think that a future was possible. Soon, a PledgeMusic campaign that completely exceeded their hopes and dreams made it fiscally so.
"It was a nightmare that every day seemed to worsen," says Laura. "We went through things we literally never thought we would come out of. "Adds Lydia, "it had just gotten so bad, the only option was to file bankruptcy."
Even once Carlile gave The Secret Sisters some renewed hope, things weren’t instantly easy: what they went through left huge, gaping wounds that needed to heal before they could pour themselves into songwriting. But when they did, everything changed. Laura and Lydia found themselves in a more creative and honest space than ever, with their experiences flowing and morphing into collective tales of triumph, rage and the indefatigable human spirit. The resulting songs of You Don't Own Me Anymore are about life when everything you think defines you is stripped away: from "The Damage," as gorgeous as it is haunting, that speaks directly to those that did them wrong, to the first single "Tennessee River Runs Low," that imagines the willful flow of a powerful river. These are journeys as poetic as they are confessional, always anchored by the timeless, crystalline ring of Laura and Lydia's voices in sweet unison.
"This record is deeply personal because of what we endured," says Lydia. "But it's important as a songwriter and artist to talk about the times things weren’t great. This is a hard business, and it's not all roses and rainbows. What we came out with is more honest than ever, and we couldn't help that a lot of it is about the darkness."
In the beginning, before that darkness moved in, things were a little like rainbows and roses for the sisters, who rose quickly through the music universe. An open audition in Nashville in 2009 lead them to a major label deal and a debut record produced by T Bone Burnett and Dave Cobb, followed by a tour with Levon Helm and Ray LaMontagne, a feat for any artist, let alone two that had just gotten started. From there, they opened for the likes of Dylan, Willie Nelson and Paul Simon, appeared on numerous late night shows and released a second album with Burnett. But the tides turned quickly – things can change in an instant, both for the good, and the bad. And when the clouds started to lift, Carlile was there to help usher in the sunshine.
"Brandi, Phil, and Tim had never produced a record for anybody but themselves," says Laura about their experience in the studio. "We are all artists, and we could include our opinions. I felt like everyone was an equal force in the room. It is often lost on producers that you actually have to go perform your song on a stage - it's easy to get so caught up on the production that you don't discuss how this all will translate - but Brandi innately understood that." The end product finds the sisters taking their music to new places, with soulful, gospel grooves and stirring vocal deliveries that never seek perfection over power. From murder ballads to skewering roasts, it's a guidebook for survival.
After all, sometimes you have to lose everything to get a renewed version in return. Like the Tennessee River they sing about, only after a drought does fresh, new water come rushing in. The same could be said for The Secret Sisters, who were scraped dry and put through hell, coming out with their finest record, You Don't Own Me Anymore. "The only way we could have completely healed was to have written an entire record," says Laura. "I think we were just in the wrong parts of the machine," says her sister. "We feel like we have learned where not to be, and where to go." And that's to never let anyone or anything own them again.
Bay Area-bred singer/songwriter Logan Ledger sets most of his songs in lightless or shadowy spaces: the bottom of the ocean, the abandoned cells of Alcatraz, dreamless bedrooms, desolate streets in the dead of night. Produced by 13-time Grammy Award-winner T Bone Burnett, the Nashville-based artist’s self-titled debut matches his moody noir lyricism with a darkly toned take on country music, a sound that’s stylistically wayward yet deeply grounded in classic songmanship.
With Burnett playing guitar on more than half the tracks, the album finds Ledger backed by guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello), drummer Jay Bellerose (Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne), and bassist Dennis Crouch (Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton)—the same band that played on Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, a Burnett-produced release that won Album of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards. Joined by guitarist/pedal steel player Russell Pahl (Kacey Musgraves, Tyler Childers), the band artfully threads in elements of acid rock and surf music and baroque ’60s pop to forge a decidedly Californian sound. But as the sonic antithesis of the sunshiney folk that Jimi Hendrix called “Western sky music,” the album is nearly subterranean in its mystique, indelibly informed by what Ledger refers to as “that gloomy, nocturnal, San Francisco/Ocean Beach vibe.”
Recorded at House of Blues Studios in Nashville, Logan Ledger emerges as a distinctly electric offering, yet continually reveals the rootsy sensibilities at the heart of his kinship with Burnett. “I think we’re each attracted to the more sinister aspects of folk and roots music, and we each have a desire to keep that music alive while finding a way to make something new out of it,” Ledger says. In turn, the album bears an era-defying quality made all the more powerful by Ledger’s voice, a timeless instrument that channels utter lonesomeness even in the album’s most joyous moments.
Right from its first seconds, Logan Ledger proves to be blessedly removed from all musical convention. To that end, opening track “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me” arrives as a gorgeously languid lullaby, its narrator longingly daydreaming his own death. A downhearted mood imbues much of the album, including “Invisible Blue” (a woozy meditation on inescapable sadness) and “Tell Me A Lie” (a sublimely tragic ballad written with John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars). And on “Nobody Knows,” Ledger achieves a cinematic grandeur, the drama intensified by his haunting lyrics (“Nobody knows where the lonely go/Nobody really seems to mind”).
Though Ledger sustains a certain heavy-heartedness even on the album’s uptempo tracks, that element is beautifully offset by the palpable joy behind each performance. On “Starlight”—a lovesick paean to self-delusion, its lyrics suffused in the minimalism of hillbilly haiku—the band slips into a prolonged instrumental section almost trance-like in effect. “We were jamming and once the song was finished, we just played the whole thing again,” Ledger recalls. “It was totally spontaneous and felt really good, so we kept it.” Two songs later, Ledger takes a cue from all those swoony Roy Orbison songs about dreaming, then flips the script with the oddly glorious “I Don’t Dream Anymore.” “It could be taken quite literally—the way I’m living, I don’t remember my dreams at all these days—or it could reflect a cynical attitude toward modern times,” Ledger notes.
Written by Burnett, “(I’m Gonna Get Over This) Some Day” brings a more cheerfully gritty pragmatism to the current moment. “It reminds me of something Johnny Cash would’ve recorded, where he’s addressing a serious matter in a very lighthearted way,” says Ledger. “In this case it’s forgiveness, and T Bone put a political lens on it: it’s about forgiving people who think differently from you, and trying to find some common ground.” The only other track on the album not authored by Ledger, “Skip a Rope” offers a playful yet potent update of Henson Cargill’s 1967 single—a No. 1 hit on the country charts, spiked with still-pertinent social commentary (“Never mind the rules, just play to win/And hate your neighbor for the shade of his skin”). “It’s sad that a song recorded so long ago is just as relevant now, but I think it’s important to show that there’s a progressive side to traditional music, and that we shouldn’t ever lose that,” says Ledger.
Elsewhere on the album, Ledger embeds his songs with strangely mesmeric storytelling. Co-written with Steve Earle, “The Lights of San Francisco” is a softly swaying lament narrated by a ghost wandering Alcatraz Island, eternally taken with the city lights. On the wildly hypnotic “Electric Fantasy,” he delivers a truly singular marvel of imagination: a psychedelic surf song built on endlessly shifting time signatures, its lyrics mining inspiration from Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie and relaying the story of a romantically frustrated computer program (“I want to hold you tight/My cathode ray/Will keep us warm at night”). And on the exquisitely melancholy “Imagining Raindrops,” Ledger takes a wholly mundane experience (“There was a day when I thought it was raining outside, but it wasn’t,” he explains) and twists it into a lyrical metaphor that feels both forlorn and defiant: “The world I see I don’t believe.”
All throughout his debut, Ledger makes abundant use of his self-described “archaeological impulse with regards to music-making.” “I’ve always believed that in order to create something new with purpose, one must be steeped in the past and work from within the tradition,” he says. “It has more gravity that way.” Ledger’s self-guided musical education began back in the Bay Area, where he first felt drawn to sing after his grandmother introduced him to the music of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and R&B vocal groups like The Platters. Taking up guitar at age 12, he soon began writing songs of his own, along with amassing a huge collection of Smithsonian Folkways CDs and immersing himself in the music of country/blues artists like Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt. While attending Columbia University, he hosted a bluegrass show on the campus radio station and played in a number of bluegrass bands, then headed to San Francisco after graduation.
In 2013, after a year and a half back in the Bay Area, Ledger moved to Nashville on a whim. Although his early days in the city were mostly spent working in bars and playing in cover bands, he later crossed paths with guitarist Mark Thornton and ended up recording a demo of “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me” in Thornton’s home studio. Soon enough, that demo landed in the hands of Dennis Crouch, who then passed it on to Burnett. After he’d shared a few more demos with the legendary producer, Burnett invited Ledger to his home in Los Angeles.
Since teaming up with Burnett, Ledger has joined him onstage in the only two full-band performances Burnett’s done in recent years. And on Ledger’s album, the duo’s immediate chemistry extends to a charmed communion between all of the featured musicians. “So much of this record is people not playing clearly defined rhythmic or lead roles—we’re all sort of twirling around each other and creating this great big texture of sound together,” says Ledger. “A typical country record would have very clearly defined solos, but I’m not interested in that. I love how everyone’s constantly improvising, but without ever getting in anybody else’s way.”
For Ledger, that uninterrupted and possibly transcendent flow is also the desired takeaway for listeners of his debut album. “I’d love for people to get into a meditative space when they hear the record, to sit with the songs and really take their time with them,” he says. “I think there’s a value in letting things happen at a much slower pace, especially in our current culture of instant gratification. It’s really not even a conscious decision for me—it’s just how I feel and how I like to do things, so I’m just going to keep going with it.”