The country music scene we have here in the UK seems to be marching ever onwards and upwards, spurred on by Radio 2, More 4’s ‘Nashville’ series and new breed of undeniably cool and accessible US country stars. As great as all that is, what’s even more exciting is the emergence of credible UK acts putting their own twist of British’ness on country.
Leading that charge are The Shires, a duo that since appearing on the pop-up stage at the 2014 Country To Country Festival at The O2 in March seem to be the name on every UK country-scene commentators lips (including Bob Harris with whom they had one of their first media interviews!). Already signed to Decca Records, with two singles already released and a Nashville recorded album on it’s way, it looks like Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes could be on an unstoppable flight-path to country music stardom…
On the opening night of their tour with fellow UK country music flag-bearers Ward Thomas, I met up with The Shires at Birmingham’s Glee club to chat about their time in Nashville, their forthcoming album and an interesting way to pass the time while on tour!
FRUK: I think I first heard of you guys at the start of the year…and by the time I checked back in the Summer, your name seemed to be everywhere! You must be excited at how fast everything is happening for you?
Crissie: Yeah honestly it’s been an absolute whirlwind for us. We met in April of last year so we’ve been together about a year and six months or so. We have done our homework…it seems like we’ve sprung out of nowhere but the two of us have been working constantly behind the scenes. Ben’s been a songwriter for years. He put up a status saying ‘There must be a female country singer out there to sing these songs with me’…a mutual friend put us in contact and we couldn’t believe that we’d both found someone who loved the music as well. Country 2 Country was our first performance to the country fans…and from there it’s just gone absolutely crazy!
FRUK: So what’s been the highlight so far? Has there been a moment where you’ve thought ‘this is getting a bit surreal…’
Ben: It’s all been a bit surreal, but I think going to Nashville for the first time…that whole week around that. We met Brad Paisley the night before…we did Country 2 Country, we’d just signed our record deal as well which was amazing…we were asked to play at a Radio 2 event and we didn’t know that Brad Paisley was playing straight afterwards and we were going to be able to go and watch him. So we went in and watched Brad Paisley playing which was just unbelievable, he was doing all these acoustic songs…sitting down with other writers and saying how they wrote the songs and what they’re about, it was amazing. And then literally we left there at midnight and we were straight off to Nashville the next day.
We went and wrote out there and recorded the album. For me the first time in Nashville was just a dream, it was quite surreal. We met so many people, we wrote so much…learned so much as well. It was great.
FRUK: I was going to ask you about Nashville. I can tell by the way you’re talking about it how motivating it was! Did it affect your creativity and the way you think about songwriting?
Ben: Yeah definitely, in a good way. It had all been just like this pipe dream and what you imagine it was gonna be like…and then we went out there and people were just…well they are ‘country’ so you’re in that world. The songs we wrote out there sound like they were written in Nashville. It wasn’t like you sit down over here and say ‘I want to write a country song’…over there it’s just like ‘I want to write a song…let’s just write a song’.
We went out to bars and watched people playing. One of the songs from our album is a song that I found in a bar. I was watching a girl playing this song…I said “I love that song…can we record it?”. The people who are out there who are playing in bars…they’re like signed writers. There are a lot of people who are struggling away and stuff, but there are people who are massive and huge playing small venues every night.
FRUK: Obviously there’s a big country scene in the UK and you guys are helping to fuel that, but it’s fair to say that country music is still ‘off-mainstream’ over here. Was there a moment when you had doubts about being country artists? Did you wonder if there’d be a UK audience for what you wanted to do?
Crissie: When we were first starting there was that kind of doubt. What we’re doing…it isn’t mainstream over here. We’re completely on par with what’s coming out of Nashville…we’re always listening to the American songs…so we had the belief that we were writing music that we love. And there’s definitely been a massive swell of country music over here…it’s just raising the profile constantly. People often don’t realise that it’s country…this is a new kind of country. People are getting more accepting of it…they enjoy and accept that they’re country fans now!
FRUK: Your album is coming out in January…how’s that going?
Ben: It’s all done. We did it in Nashville…we recorded all the band stuff in about five days…that was all just done. Then we went out to Sweden the next week, because our producers are Swedish, and we did the vocals out there for the finished tracks. The crazy thing is the way they work in Nashville. We had all these demos..some of them were demos that I’d done at home or that we’d done at home together…but some of them were just on our phones as we’d sung them through. They listen to the demos, pretty much just once and they have a chart that one of the guys in the band has written. They listen to it once and then they just go in and play. I think the longest it took was three takes, they often got it on the first.
I got to go in and play piano on one song. The first song…you sit there and listen and you just go ‘Woah, that’s amazing’…and then the second song you’re like ‘Ok that’s pretty good’…by the third song you’re sort of used to it. So then on the fourth song I had to go and play piano…I can play the piano quite well but even I was like ‘Oh…I’ve forgotten how to play the piano! ‘Cos they just play everything so well. It was fifteen songs in three days…it was amazing.
FRUK: You’ve been together a relatively short amount of time. How do you write and create together…have you sorted out a pattern or way of working yet?
Crissie: When we first got together we spoke about different songs that we liked, this artist and that artist…’listen to this song’…we were kind of on the same track with country songs. We also have the same background of like 90’s stuff as well that we were both brought up with. Sometimes the two of us will sit down, sometimes Ben will sit on his own and call me up and say “I’ve written a new song”. Sometimes we’ll get in a room and write with another songwriter as well…there are different ways that we go about writing really.
Ben: The thing that was important for us when we first met…we didn’t ever want to be like pastiche or copy what’s coming out of America. It was always ‘let’s keep our Britishness’. We talked about it once before how…a bit like the British invasion of the US in the 60’s, going out there, listening to their music and putting our own spin on it. It was really important for us to keep that British thing…
FRUK: You seem to be constantly promoting or performing…are you finding it difficult to continue to be creative when you’re this busy?
Ben: I think for writing new songs yeah, there’s literally not much time in the day. But there are different types of creativity…going up on stage and playing…you can get really creative within that. Even interviews you can be creative sometimes! You’re really great (Thanks mate: FRUK) but some people are like…does an imitation of someone mumbling at a low volume…and we’re like “Ok…let’s make this fun!”. What’s interesting for us is that at every stage we’re learning a new skill. When we listen to our first interviews…I don’t think we’ve ever been bad at interviews…but now, especially with radio, it feels so easy to us. One of our first interviews was Bob Harris I think…the first ever one!
FRUK: No pressure then!
Crissie: It was nerve wracking for sure…
Ben: His voice is so seminal, so distinctive. You’re standing there right in front of him and you can hear him your headphones. He’s saying “…and now we have the Shires…” and you’re like ‘Bob Harris is just over there!’
Crissie: Along the way you get to meet different people as well. Country songs are very honest…you meet people along the way and you can take from their stories. So although we might be missing out on some ‘general life’ because we’re going from this hotel to that hotel…from this venue to that studio…sometimes life gets a bit blurred you know?! You don’t get normality. But you can take from other people’s experiences. We’re always chatting on the road and coming up with new things…reading the news…there’s always stories around you. The creative stuff is still there…it’s just boiling away in our brains at the moment…
FRUK: What have you found so far is the hardest thing about being professional musicians?
Crissie: Food probably.
Ben: Yeah you might laugh but food is really difficult…trying to eat well on the road is really hard!
FRUK: I’ve never had that answer before…(I should say that at the point we were having this conversation Ben and Crissie were being served with their meals in the pub)
Ben: It’s really difficult…everything comes with chips…it’s really hard to get something that doesn’t come with chips!
Crissie: Especially in Nashville!
Ben: You don’t ever want to complain because it’s the best job in the world….
Crissie: Yeah it really is.
Ben: We went to this BBC thing in Manchester a couple of weeks ago…it was a radio awards event. Guy Garvey, the lead singer of Elbow, won an award. Richard Hawley was doing an introduction for him…he was saying that he’d known him for years and all that sort of stuff…and he was saying that one of the hardest things is travel. When you’re travelling around every day, from this city to that city, it is quite difficult. We can’t complain because we sign up for it. But he said there’s a great game that he and Guy Garvey came up with to pass the time…you take any song with the word ‘love’ in the title and replace it with the word ‘nob’! It’s great fun!…..’Can you feel the nob tonight…’
Crissie: ‘I will always nob you’…honestly me and Ben on the way home, we were just giggling like children…we were like ‘another one, another one’…we were repeating the same ones over and over and still giggling!
Ben: It made our 2 hour train journey go really quick! Then we remembered that we’ve got a song called ‘I just want to love you’…
Crissie: And the song that we’re singing with the Ward Thomas girls tonight… ‘I ain’t leavin without your love’! Lots of laughter
FRUK: Ok, so what’s the best thing about doing what you do?
Crissie: I absoutely love being able to sing songs that we write…and seeing the reaction of the crowd. And to be honest, just seeing the EP with ‘The Shires’ and then ‘Decca’ underneath…you always dream of getting that record deal, and then seeing it in physical form was a real moment for me, for sure.
Ben: I think it’s how much it moves people as well. We’ve got a song called ‘Brave’ which is the title track of the album…we get quite a lot of messages from fans on facebook and twitter and stuff…a couple said that their son had been really ill and was in hospital..that song came on hospital radio and it helped him through that time. And also the good songs…we’ve got a song called ‘On A Friday Night’ that’s all about having a good time. People come along to our gigs and they sing the songs and they know the lyrics…
Crissie: It’s nice that they can relate to them…we’re not just singing about things that are made up…they’re honest songs.
FRUK: What’s next?
Crissie: We’re touring now for the rest of the month, and then we have our third single coming out which is called ‘On A Friday Night’. We’ll be shooting the video for that and then we’ll be ready for the album in January. And we’ve just realeased an EP today as well…’The Green Note EP’
Interview by: Rob Bridge
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos