Interview: Ward Thomas – Carry Them Home
Ward Thomas prove that there’s still magic in the country music business, writes Steve Faragher.
If there’s one thing about country music that delights me, it’s that talent will out, and honesty will prevail. It’s like the American Dream, only real. If you’re super-talented, super-nice (and ambitious enough), then the gods of Nashville will smile on you. Don’t believe me? Too cynical to accept that? Step forward the case for the defence: Ward Thomas.
It’s incredible to believe that, in 2012, two completely unknown 18-year-old twin sisters from rural Hampshire were writing an album, while completing their A-levels, that would reach Number 9 in the UK album charts and launch an international career that, just four years later, would see them being a successful headline act at festivals across the country and releasing (for Sony Music no less) one of the most eagerly anticipated country music albums of 2016.
What’s even harder to believe is that, having just talked to them, I can honestly tell you that there is no meanness, no brattishness to this pair. What they are, though, is a lot more grown up from the heady days of their debut.
“We worked first on Cartwheels about two years ago. That was the first song we wrote. That lead us in the direction of this second album. We decided to call the second album Cartwheels because when we played that song live on our tours in the UK it was a moment in the set when we realised this was the kind of music we wanted to be making, the kind of sound we were heading for. The reaction from the audience was really special as well. There’s a pause in the song during which you could have heard a pin drop. I watched the faces of fans, women mostly, and knew they felt the vulnerability of the lyrics. It was a magical moment.”
It’s Lizzy (the blonde one, the press release tells me) talking to me on the phone from their tour car in Ireland. The signal keeps breaking up, but her sincerity is clear. Catherine’s also in the car, but on the other line, though sometimes she clearly leans over and interjects.
“The first album, we wrote when we were a lot younger. We’re at a different stage in our lives. We wrote Cartwheels from our experiences and from stories we heard. It’s all about the experiences that people go through in their early 20s.”
Apparently, Ward Thomas were always Nashville-bound, and it was all kicked off by their Canadian cousins: “Cousins from Canada came over and lived with us for a while when we were younger, and introduced us to all sorts of country music, but particularly the Dixie Chicks. The Dixie Chicks were
the reason we got into writing songs and doing music. They were our biggest influence, and still are. We love everything about them.”
So, heavily influenced by The Dixie Chicks, and doing their A-levels, they decided to write a hit album… “Our first album was a very unexpected hit for us, it was so exciting. We started writing it at school. The day after our very last A-level exam, we were flying off to Nashville to record the album.
“I didn’t do very well in my last exam,” Lizzy adds. “I was too busy thinking about Nashville. All our friends were doing gap years or thinking about going to university, but not us. We knew exactly what we wanted to do, and we thought we could do all that other stuff later on. It’s great for us on tour, as all our friends are at university and so everywhere we go we’ve got someone to stay with – it’s very useful. We get to see them a lot.”
That independently released first album, From Where We Stand, written at school and recorded in Nashville, sold more than 25,000 copies. The sisters went on to play two UK tours, including gigs at London’s O2 arena and Hyde Park along the way.
But now they’re older, and with a second album and a seriously major record deal come different sorts of expectations, and a definite change in direction. Do Ward Thomas agree with Eric Church that there are no genres in music any more?
“For this album, I think we’re very country-influenced harmony-wise, but there is lots of crossover and that’s great because it’s just a whole lot of music mixing in together. Country as a genre has a big meaning to it and it always has had: back in the day Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn sang very heartfelt, emotional country music, Willie Nelson too, and it goes from there to Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, Kacey Musgraves, Taylor Swift – all very different kinds of music.
All the songs have stories and they’re very authentic, and they all have real music; very live instrumentation, very honest. You might say that Adele has some country influences because her music’s very storytelling and honest. That’s what they all have in common.”
So, how does their songwriting process work? “We co-wrote a lot for this album with two girls. Jessica Sharman’s from the UK too and Rebekah Powell is from Nashville [she’s the Nashville-bred daughter of revered hit-maker Monty Powell], and we met Rebekah in Nashville and we had a really great connection with them both. Four girls in their early 20s going into a room and pouring their hearts out, sometimes with a bottle of wine for the late-night writing sessions.
“Catherine had ‘guilty flowers’, that phrase, in her head and we were talking about how it was a great title for a song, and we got into a writing room with Shelly McErlaine of Alisha’s Attic and Ben Adams from A1 and then we created the stories and the concept for that song with them. Other times, we might start with a melody and create from that, it’s different every time.”
The girls have just finished a summer of festivals across the UK and were gearing up for a major tour in October when we speak. We wonder how the songs from the new album have been going down. “When we performed the new material at festivals we were worried because a lot of it is more pop, more crossover,” says Lizzy. “We were worried that people who took to our first album wouldn’t take to it so well, but we’ve been fortunate.”
“Touring our debut definitely made a difference,” adds Catherine. “The tighter you become as a band, the more comfortable you are with experimenting. After two UK tours, festivals and playing to 55,000 people in Hyde Park, we had more confidence in who we were as musicians and what we were capable of. That gave us the freedom to explore.”
Lizzy expands on that: “We’ve already got loads and loads of songs that we didn’t manage to get on our second album and we’re still writing new songs. We’re quite spontaneous with that. On our last tour, we wrote Safe one day and played it the next day, and that’s when we knew it was going on the album, because of the strength of the reaction. We like to try out new songs and see how the audience reacts to them live; it helps us to plan how they might appear on the album.”
Yet though the live experience may help to forge the direction of a song, the sisters had another big leap to take with this album, working with their first big-name producer.
“We still write all our songs in a very country, ‘Nashville’, way but when we got into the studio in London it was very different. We worked with producer Martin Terefe from Sweden, who is very much from the pop world; he’s worked with loads of singer/songwriter pop-acoustic people like KT Tunstall, Jason Mraz and James Morrison and it was very exciting to work with him and see the way he works.
He works in a way where he hears the song and then lets every song speak for itself, so we ended up doing something different with every track. Some songs we recorded with a full band; some we recorded with just a piano and then created the track around that; some songs we just did it live with just us and the guitar.”
Safe is the last song on the album and a great example of that simple approach. It’s also the most obviously country-sounding song on the album. The girls agree. “It’s a very good way of closing the album, going back to the roots, just us and the acoustic guitar. The song’s about a safe place and making it as simple as that just works and lets it speak for itself.”
But other songs got different treatments: “Lose Me was a pop song, so we just made it quite big and rocky-pop; it had that vibe to it and we brought it out,” says Lizzy.
So what do their family make of all this sudden success? “Mum and dad were in a covers band, a 70s cover band. They weren’t well known. They called themselves The Swamp Donkeys after a cider at our local pub, and they played mostly friends’ parties and mum tried to be Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac.
These days they live a more normal life, mum’s an artist and dad runs a removals company. They’re very, very supportive, because they were in their own band. Our whole family is very creative, our older brother is an actor and scriptwriter. And now we have a younger half-sister who’s only 18 months old. We love being big sisters.”
So with all this success, surely Ward Thomas have made the acquaintance of their heroes The Dixie Chicks by now? “We’ve never met them. We saw them at the O2 recently and they’re flawless. If we ever met them we’d get very starstruck and we wouldn’t know what to say.”
See? Remarkably unaffected by their rapid rise to fame, and still fans just as much as music makers, Ward Thomas prove that there is still magic in country. They even still live with their mum, though a move to London is on the cards soon. That might be the price of stardom.