Crissie Rhodes’ right-hand man shows off the essential instruments and paraphernalia that go into making the duo’s new country sound
Alongside songwriting partner Crissie Rhodes, Ben Earle makes up The Shires, UK country’s record-breaking duo. Their 2015 debut album Brave became the first ever British country album to enter the UK Top 10, while the follow-up My Universe entered the Top 3 in the UK chart and simultaneously became the fastest-selling British country album of all time.
As their latest LP, Good Year, also hit No 3 in the UK Album Chart, we asked Ben to share some insights into his trusty songwriting set-up…
1. Old Bechstein Piano
There is nothing as inspiring to me as sitting down and playing the piano. I’ve tried all the best plugins there are (and some are amazing), but nothing can replicate the weight of those real keys under your fingers or the feeling of that wall of sound coming at you. I’ve had this reconditioned, old Bechstein for just over two years and it has such character, which I find great for writing ballads. Carole King, Elton John and Stevie Wonder were all huge influences for me growing up. There’s something so romantic for me about sitting down at my piano, with a glass of whiskey resting on top, writing into the early hours of the morning.
2. Martin Dreadnought Guitar
I love moving between the guitar and piano. I have a few Martins, but I find the dreadnought particularly inspiring when I’m writing as it’s so full sounding. You can play a G chord and it just oozes Country. I experiment a lot with different tunings and I find that can really take a song to another place. This guitar is so robust that it can cope really well being pushed around tuning wise.
3. Toy Guitar
This guitar cost £30. I can’t remember why or where I bought it from but there’s something really fun about how bad it sounds. I think keeping things fun is really important when you’re writing. I get some very strange looks when I pull this guitar out in a co-write but a lot of songs have been written on it, and it sounds amazing recorded.
4. Penguin Dictionary of Clichés
I take this tattered book with me pretty much everywhere I go. In country music there is so much wordplay, often trying to find a new turn on a turn of phrase. I love the conversational approach to the lyrics and reading a couple of pages from this book often gets me in that frame of mind. There are so many clichés and sayings that we don’t really consider the meaning or history behind. I find words and language so interesting and this book is great to get the lyrical juices flowing.
I’ve gone through periods writing on my phone or with pen and paper. I always come back to my laptop though. I find it so quick to jump online to look for rhymes or to use a thesaurus. Also, seeing the lyrics on a computer screen laid out clearly just really makes sense to me. It’s very easy to see what the song has lyrically and what it still needs. There are so many distractions on a phone and I end up crossing out lots of words and lines if I’m using a notebook that it becomes a horrible mess! When I’m riding a wave of inspiration I don’t want anything to slow it down. I’m a quick typer and the laptop really works for me.
6. Paint Prints Of My Children’s Feet
My kids are four and two years old and they have brought so much joy and fun into my life. Writing songs can be really hard sometimes and I’m more the type of writer that will push through the wall instead of taking a break. Just glancing up on top of the piano at their little footprints reminds me not to take everything so seriously. Even when it’s challenging, writing should be fun.
7. CMA Award
Sometimes I just need a reminder that someone once said I’m good at writing songs! My songwriting confidence level is like a rollercoaster that goes up and down with every song I write. I’ve written a lot of average, even bad songs in my time. Sometimes as writers, we’ll go on a losing run and it can be really disheartening. Having something to pull you out of that mindset is really important.
8. Irish Bodhran
I bought this traditional Irish drum in Galway last year. Most of my songs start on guitar or piano, but that initial spark can really come from anywhere. I like to have a lot of instruments around that I can just play, especially sounds that my ears are not that familiar with. It’s great fun to constantly challenge yourself, and to keep everything fun!
The Shires’ latest album Good Year is out now. Find out more at theshiresmusic.com