Interview: The Wandering Hearts
We chat with two members of the UK country act who look set to follow the success of The Shires
With the critical and commercial success of The Shires and Ward Thomas, it’s a boom time for UK country. Our own acts are now able to compete with their US counterparts, at festivals such as C2C and on the airwaves. The Wandering Hearts have all that it takes to be the next breakthrough act, the four-piece of AJ, Chess, Tim and Tara have the songcraft, harmonies and ambition to make a name for themselves.
Early tracks Wish I Could and The Devil are an indication of what to expect from The Wandering Hearts debut album, which is due early next year. Slightly rawer than those acts mentioned above, they’re firmly in the sweet spot of where Americana, folk and country meet. We recently had the chance to chat with Tim and AJ to find out about the whirlwind start to their life as a band…
How did you first get together and were you writing from the outset?
Tim: “Myself and Tara met randomly at a gig that we were playing separately and hit it off. We got chatting about the sort of music that we loved and the reason that we loved particular bands and artists and it usually came down to great songwriting and a love of vocal harmonies. So we decided that we really needed to do something. I’m not going to say that we were both in a rut musically but we were doing a lot of stuff and wanted to focus and narrow it down into a band and just create. We were then lucky enough to be introduced to AJ and Chess through mutual friends and it was very much a chance meeting.
“I had written a song that I thought would suit a four-piece vocal group. I sent it out to the guys and said ‘what do you think about this?’ hoping that it would get us playing or get us singing. The first meeting of the four of us was at my flat in Crouch End. Everyone came over, they brought some gin and we sat around in my lounge and played this song. It wasn’t a case of going ‘this is your part, I’ve written this out for you’ it was just the bare bones of a song that everybody came to with ideas and everyone just took their lane. It all came together very well and it was quite magical really. I know we all came away from that rehearsal going ‘I don’t really know what that was, but whatever it was it needs to happen again.’”
You must have been keen to keep that momentum up?
T: “To cut a long story shorter, we then arranged another rehearsal. I do a lot of recording myself and was able to record the track in our second rehearsal. I uploaded it onto Soundcloud just simply with the band name, no picture, the name of the song and a hashtag saying ‘#ukcountry’. Within half an hour we were messaged by Steve, who is now our manager. It happened to be the first time that he was looking for artists in that genre on Soundcloud. He’d never done it before and it was a really strange turn of events. From there on it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. We’ve continued to write as a four, we’ve really shaped our sound and have done a number of co-writes that have been valuable.”
How does the writing work now?
AJ: “There’s no solid formula. Sometimes somebody will have an idea and we’ll all work on it until we feel that it is our song or we’ll go, ‘How is everyone feeling today, who wants to write a song?’ and then we’ll start with something. It might be a lyric somebody’s got, or just a feeling, or an idea, or maybe some chords. It can really vary, but the end result is what we love about it, when we’ve come up with something that is uniquely ours.”
It must be important that you’re open and prepared to share with each other…
T: “I think that’s a very good point. Learning to trust people enough to open up that much is a massive step. In all honesty, none of us have really struggled to do that and I think that is through being comfortable with each other, comfortable with ourselves and what we want to achieve from this. It’s also about life experience. We’re not all 18, fresh out of school or university. We’ve lived and we’ve done a lot of different music in a lot of different guises to get to this point. Those experiences have taught us who to trust, who to work with and who to avoid. We’re very comfortable as a four and wider than that, with our manager and our label, who feel like an extended part of that group. That comfort then allows us to go for it and write whatever we feel.
“Even in co-writing sessions, because we’re comfortable as a four and as a unit, we’re fine to let other people into that mix. We trust that they’ve heard it all in songwriting rooms before. It’s no different when we’re in there, we are going to bare our souls and hopefully they’ll understand where we’re coming from. There’s just no judging, I think that’s the main thing.”
AJ: “That’s part of the nature of the beast as well. We’re not writing any old tune, we do put our hearts and souls and our own experiences into them. In order for it to mean something to everybody in the group, everybody has to put a part of themselves into it and that does mean you open up a lot. I think if you’re going to write music that means something to you, and hopefully to other people, you’ve got to have that level of openness and trust between each other. It ends up being inevitable that you’ll have this closeness and be able to talk to each other about almost anything.”
Are you able to pinpoint the individual strengths that each of you brings to the band?
T: “Facial hair is my main thing! I think everyone has days and moments to really shine. It would be really easy for us to go into a room and fall into a pattern where maybe I play guitar, we give AJ and Tara the lead vocal line and Chess and I harmonise. That’s a formula that we know has worked for us but by the same token AJ has been playing some lead guitar stuff and trying out different instrument and Chess has been playing more mandolin. Tara is more than capable of playing brilliant piano and so we’re all challenging ourselves, which I think is really important. We’ll never just settle on something or fall into a routine.
“We’re all like that as people in our day-to-day lives as well. We know each other very well now, we know when someone is having a good day or someone is having a bad day. There’s always someone there to pick you up and I think that’s almost as valuable, if not more valuable, than the musical contribution. Contributing in a personal way to make people feel comfortable and to get the best out of them.”
AJ: “In that same regard, everybody does bring something unique to the table as well whether it’s organisation or having a deep grasp of music and how to use voice. Everybody brings something that they can share with everybody else. When it comes to writing, that stuff is really important; finding new ways of singing or making sound, playing something or arranging something. So all those strengths that we bring to the table outside of the writing sphere have a knock-on effect on how we write together as well.”
Something we wanted to ask you about is authenticity. You mentioned how you hashtagged your first song ‘#ukcounty’, do you have to be careful to not be too aware of that scene and just focus on doing your own thing?
T: “Absolutely, and we’ve learnt a lot since uploading that first song. I didn’t even know that UK country was a thing if I’m honest. We’ve always associated country music with its American roots but actually The Shires were beginning to make a really big name for themselves. That first song of ours, it wasn’t country. You wouldn’t listen to it and think we were a country band. It was more the storytelling aspect and the harmonies that gave a massive nod to that. Personally, we all love country music and we’ve very lucky to play C2C and very country focussed gigs and we love the bands of that genre, but our music takes on so much more than country music.
“Within our influences there are elements of folk music, which maintains our Britishness. We’re very keen to maintain that identity. By the same token, we’re very much Americana even though we are from the UK. We just draw from so many places, so the sound that the four of us make is just the sound that the four of us make. We’ve not gone ‘okay I’d love this song to sound like Chris Stapleton,’ we’ve never been like that and I don’t think we ever will.”
AJ: “I think we could very easily fall into the trap of putting on American accents and writing songs about stuff that might sound cool but isn’t relevant to us. Ultimately we have lives and want to communicate those experiences through the songs and music that we write. I don’t think it’s true to ourselves or to the people listening to the music to be one of those go-to American country artists, that’s really not who we are.”
But is there a flipside to that because it’s actually a really good time to be a country artist in the UK, as things like C2C prove?
T: “It does feel like it’s growing by the day. I remember when we did C2C, we’d been there as punters in the past and lapped it up and were so impressed, not only by the American artists but the UK artists that were performing. So actually going there and performing for the first time earlier this year was a huge thing for us. It was very eye-opening to see how these bands had started and how much support there now is for country music in the UK. Even though we knew that, the actual level was still a surprise in a very good way. Seeing how many established artists are changing direction to go down the country angle is also very telling.”
Is the album nearly finished?
T: “The album is pretty much done, if not done. The mastering is finished, it is a very exciting moment for us to be able to hear it from beginning to end. We’re so proud of it, which I’m sure everyone says about their albums, but it feels really special for us. The creative process of writing 60 songs to narrow it down to 12 is at times heart-breaking but I think we were fairly universal about those that should be on it. There’s nothing to say that the other songs won’t see the light of day. Hopefully there’ll be other albums, B-sides and EPs and we can play them live. But yes, the album is done, it’s due out early next year and there are more singles on the way before then.”
AJ: “As Tim said earlier, it’s been a whirlwind since our manager got in touch with us and that whirlwind has never really stopped.”
Will there be surprises on the album for those who have only heard Wish I Could and The Devil so far?
T: “Definitely. The main thing for us is that we all wanted to be represented in some way, to have our influences and loves represented, and I think for that reason there is diversity on this album. The two singles that have been out so far you’ve had one upbeat song, maybe not lyrically but certainly musically, and then you have The Devil which is out at the moment. The rest of the album has folky stuff, some very tight-knit four-part harmonies, a capella sections, some really uptempo stuff with a slightly more pop feel and then we might throw in a rogue yodelling session. I mean it’s just a bit of everything including some really epic stuff. We just wanted to get it all featured.”
To finish with, can you define the essence of a song by The Wandering Hearts?
AJ: “I think it’s what goes into it. We naturally work together on the harmonies and the direction and a lot of what we like to play with is having that quite stark contrast between singing an upbeat lyric with a melancholy tune or vice versa. There’s real honesty and lived experiences put into words and music, as well as a feel good factor.”
T: “I think there’s an energy and intensity to the music. We want everything to be as raw as possible.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell
The Wandering Hearts’ latest EP Burning Bridges is out now. To find out more and keep up to date with the band’s latest news, head to thewanderinghearts.com