Songwriting speaks with two of Nashville’s unlikeliest rising stars – a pair of convent school-educated twin sisters from deepest Hampshire
ow here’s a question we bet you’ve never been asked before… who’s your favourite British country music artist? Struggling to come up with an answer? It’s not surprising. While country music has always had a following here in the UK – particularly during the Golden Era of the 70s, when the likes of Kenny, Dolly and Glenn troubled the charts regularly – homegrown talent has generally been pretty thin on the ground. But two 20-year-old sisters from rural Hampshire, Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas, might just be about to change that.
Already on heavy rotation on BBC Radio 2 – and not just on the specialist country shows – and regular visitors to Nashville, Ward Thomas are without doubt the hottest property in UK country since we don’t know when. And with a deluxe reissue of last year’s debut album From Where We Stand about to hit stores, and the girls set to embark on their first headlining tour in March, their star’s only going to be shining brighter for the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, Songwriting picked up the phone for a chat with Lizzy, the younger of the siblings by two minutes, to get the full story of their inexorable rise to stardom…
Let’s start with the obvious question… how did two sisters from Hampshire get into country music in the first place?
“We got introduced to the music by our cousin, who’s from Canada. She came over and she introduced us to people like the Dixie Chicks and Carrie Underwood, and older artists like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. And we completely fell in love with it and that was how it all began really, before the songwriting started.”
So as long as you’ve been making music, it’s always been country?
“In terms of songwriting, yes. Catherine and I were both at a convent school and we were both in the choir, and I played the flute in the orchestra, but then when we went home we picked up guitars and played country songs instead.
“We’d grown up surrounded by music our whole lives. Our parents were in a covers band: Mum was the singer and Dad was the drummer, and they used to play Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel stuff, so we really loved music like that. And then when we were growing up, when all our friends loved the Spice Girls… well, we loved them too but we loved The Beatles and all the old music.
“So we always loved songs with a good melody and a story to them, and I think the first country song we heard was Carrie Underwood’s Before He Cheats, and we loved the melody and the story to that. And then we just completely fell in love with the Dixie Chicks – everything they do is just genius. So we started singing Dixie Chicks and Johnny Cash and June Carter songs at our local pub, and it began to stick.
“And then after being influenced by those artists, we started trying to write our own stuff, and obviously when you first write a song, it’s awful! Your first song is always awful. But we just worked really hard at our songwriting, and we started putting our own stories, from our own upbringin,g into our songs. So we put a country style to it but with our British influence.”
“You’ve got to write a bad song to get the good ones out!”
Can you remember what that first song was called?
“The first song was called Imperfection’s Beautiful, and we were very young when we wrote it, about 14 or 15. There wasn’t much maturity in the song. But you’ve got to write a bad song to get the good ones out!”
So how did you get from being playing in local pubs, to flying off to Nashville to record?
“That was thanks to our music teacher, Anne Bailey. She’s originally from Michigan and she’d been a session singer in Nashville for a few years before she came over to the UK. We wrote Footnotes, which later became the title track of our first EP, and we showed it to her and she got really excited by British twins doing country music, and she introduced us to a load of session musicians over in Nashville, like Bobby Blazier – who’s produced our album – and Chris Rodriquez. And the next thing we knew we were flying over there to write and record! So it was a brilliant coincidence.”
And how did two English girls singing country go down over there?
“At first they were like, ‘Oh my God, they’re English!’ and we were quite scared because we were thinking, ‘What if they’re like “Oh, they think they can come over here and do our music?”‘. But everyone you meet in Nashville is just so nice, the attitude over there is amazing. Everyone there loves music, not just country but rock and pop, there’s music everywhere you go and they just love to hear something different. As soon as we got there, there was live music going on in the airport, and as I said we’ve grown up with our parents being in a band so it was like a second home for us.
“I think what helped as well was that our songs are all about our own experiences here in the UK. And so they were interested because we weren’t trying to write songs about trucks and cowboys. Those songs are great but we don’t experience those things over here. We had a really a good reaction on the whole.”
What about the country scene in the UK… is that strong at the moment, do you think?
“I think recently it’s definitely growing. We did a co-headline tour with The Shires in November and the turn-out was amazing at every show. I think what’s helping in the UK is people are coming out like Katie Musgrove and Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert, and they’re singing about everyday life things that people globally can connect to, as opposed to songs that are just American if you know what I mean. I think that’s a very important factor in why it’s getting more popular over here. And of course Dolly Parton headlining Glastonbury last year helped!
“Mumford & Sons definitely have a country element as well, with the banjo and everything. Their music to me is a mixture of folk, pop and country and of course that helped as well, with them being British.”
Okay, so let’s talk about your songwriting. Who does what, generally?
“We collaborate. Catherine and I both play guitar, but Catherine’s been getting into it more and I’ve been learning piano, and when it comes to songwriting it’s a collaborative thing. Sometimes I’ll come up with a melody and Catherine will come up with the lyric or vice versa, and we love co-writing as well, sharing our ideas with other people outside our own experiences.
“It’s different every time really, like with a new song we’ve just written, I came up with a melody and a chord progression and a few lyrics and I was like ‘Catherine, look at this’ and then we finished it together. We always write together. I have written songs on my own. and so’s Catherine, but they’re never as good as the songs we write together. We have a real connection, being sisters and stuff. We can always make the song better with both of us rather than just one of us.”
You write a lot with other people as well, don’t you?
“Yes, we wrote our album with a couple of people called Matt Greaves and Anne Bailey, and then recently we’ve been writing with a load of different people, like our friend Rebecca Powell from Nashville, and a lovely girl called Jessica Sharman, and we’re writing with a girl called Sonia Leigh next week who’s written with the Zac Brown Band. And on our last trip to Nashville, we were there for 10 days and we wrote with Jeff Cohen and Jamie Kenney, and a guy called Vince Gill who’s written with the Dixie Chicks which was really exciting for us.”
Do you prefer to write like that, rather than just the two of you, then?
“I think what we get out of co-writing is you can always get a better song with three or four of you, with your different viewpoints and different stories. I think it makes the song stronger. Especially when you’re writing with Americans, because we speak the same language but have very different cultures, so it’s interesting to write with them because it brings a good mix to the song. That’s what we’ve experienced, anyway. You’re bringing a team together to create a project.”
Can you see a time coming where you might want to step away and do it alone?
“I guess there’s some songs where you might want to do that, if it’s a really personal song… Taylor Swift wrote the Mean album on her own, for instance, and I think that was because she wanted to make it a personal thing. But I think it’s also good to share your thoughts and ideas with other people, because they can then share their ideas and it can create a stronger song. I think both ways are great.”
How does being twins affect your songwriting, do you think? Do you tend to finish each other’s lines?
“Well, Catherine and I have literally spent 24/7 together from day one, so we’ve experienced a lot together growing up and I think that’s really helped with our chemistry when we songwrite. It’s not a twin thing so much, but just how well we know each other. Like, I’ll think of a line and she’ll say the same thing in a different way, so it brings the best line into the equation.
“It probably does help that we’re twins but I’m sure other sisters who write together who aren’t twins, like [Australian pop duo] The Veronicas, would say the same thing. It’s more the fact that you know each other so well. Or if you’re writing with a best friend who you’ve known years and years and years, I’m sure it’s the same thing because you know each other well and you’ve experienced so many things together.”
What’s the story behind your recent single, A Town Called Ugley?
“That’s quite funny. It started when me and Catherine were booked to sing at a wedding in Essex, and we were staying at a friend’s house that was supposedly half an hour away from the venue. But we found ourselves driving around this little village called Ugley for two hours, with the sat-nav taking us in all the wrong directions. We got stuck behind a tractor, roads were closed, we kept passing the same pub over and over again, and you know how it is… you get frustrated with each other and you want to throw the sat-nav out the window. But two days later we were talking about how funny it was and we thought we’d write a fun song about it.”
The single’s one of a few tracks that have been added to a ‘deluxe’ edition of your album. Tell us about the rest…
“There’s some new songs on there, and we’re also adding some live tracks from our last tour with The Shires. And there’s our version of Man In The Mirror which was part of ‘Sounds Of The 80s’ on Radio 2. We did a very country, Nashville-sounding version of it. Everyone loves Michael Jackson, he was a genius, but we chose that song because our last single Way Back When has the same chord progressions, so we do a mash-up version when we play live.”
Speaking of which, you’re about to head out on your first headline tour…
“We are! We’re very, very excited about this! It starts in March, and we’re going all across the UK and Ireland. We have a band with us: there’s Catherine and I on guitar, plus a lead guitarist and a drummer and a bassist. And for this tour we’ve got a piano player and I’ll be playing some piano as well.
“I’ve bought myself a little piano with a recording thing where, when you’re writing, you can record vocals as well as the piano line, so it’s great for writing. I’m very excited about the piano at the moment, I’m playing it all the time. I think it helps a lot with songwriting: for me it’s easier to create a nicer melody on the piano than the guitar when you’re writing ballads, and then I find when you’re writing on guitar you can get more into an upbeat, country-style song.
“Catherine’s not following me into piano playing though, she’s been getting into the electric guitar so I think we’re gonna experiment with that a bit more, and also the six-string banjo which is really good fun to play. We really want to develop musically and instrumentally because our favourite band are the Dixie Chicks and we love seeing them playing all sorts of different instruments. We look up to that.”
“I personally look up to someone like Loretta Lynn”
Things are certainly going well for you at the moment… but what’s the end game? You mentioned Mumford & Sons, for instance: would you like to be to country music in the UK what they are to folk?
“That would certainly be something to aspire to and it would be a lovely thing to achieve! We do want to be successful, and we want to be doing this for as long as we can. I personally look up to someone like Loretta Lynn, who’s still recording and touring and performing at the age of 85 or something. That’s just brilliant, I’d love to be like that when I’m 85. I think both Catherine and I would both like to carry on doing what we love like that.”
And what about the US? Is success in country’s native land important to you?
“That would be amazing. We’ve explored the US a bit, but the album isn’t out there yet: we’re releasing it in the UK and Europe to start with just to see what the reaction is. I think America is a very different market. We’ve explored it for quite a while now, we’ve been going backwards and forwards to Nashville since we were 17 and we’re working on stuff over there, but we’re taking it step-by-step.”
Interview: Russell Deeks
The deluxe edition of Ward Thomas’s album From Where We Stand and their new single A Town Called Ugley are both out on 2 March. For more information, see their official website.