With a new album celebrating the band’s 10th anniversary, we catch up with one-half of UK country sensations The Shires
It’s no exaggeration to say that the last decade has been a hugely successful one for The Shires, the country duo made up of Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes. Since forming back in 2012 the pair have become the UK’s biggest country music export and have had four consecutive Top 10 albums (each of which hit the top spot in the UK country charts). It’s quite an achievement for the band who famously came together when Rhodes answered a Facebook post in which Earle was seeking a country singer to start collaborating with.
In many ways, new album 10 Year Plan is a celebration of that journey. With a title harking back to the modest goals Earle and Rhodes set for themselves at the outset, including getting their music heard by Bob Harris and having 1,000 Facebook followers, the record is also a testament to how far they’ve come – both geographically and sonically. Their boldest offering yet, it brings together the worlds of country and pop, in a way that’s bound to earn them further crossover success and elevate their position at the heart of the UK country scene.
We recently caught up with Earle to chat about the new album and look back on his decade in The Shires…
How has your songwriting evolved in the last 10 years?
“Travelling to Nashville over the years and writing with so many of the top writers we’ve learnt so much. The attention to detail in the lyric and telling a story has been the biggest progression really. Starting with a title, the ‘Nashville way’, is something we weren’t even aware of 10 years ago.”
Do you tend to start every song in the same way, or is your process less formulaic than that?
“It’s funny, with this record I definitely went back to more of an instinctive approach to the writing. Sure, there were many songs where I approached it as we would in Nashville, Baby We’re Rich for example is a very lyric-driven song and came from a title. Whereas songs like Skydive and Wild Hearts were a lot more in the moment, playing around on the piano and guitar just for the fun of it. Letting the idea just flow through instead of crafting it too much.”
What would you say is your biggest strength as a songwriter?
“In a co-write, I’m very good at taking on whatever role the session needs. I don’t let my ego get in the way. Writing Bar Without You with Eric Paslay and Jennifer Wayne, it was very clear that being more of an editor that day was where I should be. Sometimes I’m the driving force, sometimes the cheerleader. I just genuinely love songs more than anything in the world and feel so privileged to sit in a room with like-minded people who have the same calling.”
And what do you think is Crissie’s?
“Crissie has such an incredible voice that really inspires the writing process. Great singers can elevate simple ideas so much, and you feel like you’re hearing something very close to the finished record already.”
Do you discuss lyrical ideas or will someone bring completed songs into a session?
“I love discussing lyrical ideas in the session. I’ll try to bring in more than just a title or tagline, but having a skeleton form is brilliant. There are a couple of writers I know who will sit and tap away at their laptops and come back in 15 minutes with whole verses written that are pretty perfect. I just can’t do that. I agonise over every little word and love exploring it with other people.”
Are you always looking for inspiration for songs, or do you have to be in a specific place for that to happen?
“It’s definitely a muscle – the more I’m in the habit of writing, the more often the ideas jump at me. I have a voice recorder app on my phone and it’s always close at hand. The amount of ideas that come to me in the shower, washing up, or driving is insane. Some of my voice notes are incomprehensible but I always try to capture the energy of the idea at its birth. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years, that generally, however brilliant an idea is, you will probably forget it, or at least not remember it fully!”
When it comes to influences that are outside country, do you find ways to bring those sounds back into the country world or are you happy to explore different genres at this point in your career?
“It’s not something we consciously think about, especially when we’re writing. During the pandemic, I started listening to a lot of songs from my childhood. Particularly Coldplay, who have been massive inspiration over the years. I think the biggest thread through all my inspirations is just great songs. I’ve never really been a die hard fan of many artists, but songs, whatever the genre, that’s my thing.”
Tell us about some of the co-writers you have worked with on the album – what have they brought to The Shires music?
“With this record, I really tried to bring ideas to the writer I thought would really get the idea. I sat on Plot Twist for ages. I knew my friend Beth McCarthy would be the best person to finish it with as she is so good at vulnerable lyrics. I was desperate to finish the song myself, but I waited till our session and I am so glad we did. Jeff Cohen co-wrote I See Stars with me. I love Jeff’s energy. You can tell so many of his ideas have come from 3am flashes of inspiration, and we really capture that in I See Stars.”
Did any of the new songs grow out of particularly memorable sessions?
“Writing the title track 10 Year Plan with Sarah Sheldrake was really special. It was our second writing session on Zoom. I had the title for so long, literally years, but had never really found a way to say what I wanted. We wrote till really late in the night, I think around 11pm. I kept on saying, ‘Are you sure you don’t need to go to bed?’ We pushed on, and I’m so glad we did. We both felt like we had written something very special after we had finished the song.”
We’ve always seen you as part of the vanguard of the modern UK country scene, but your success extends far beyond this country – does that mean you’re writing with a larger audience in mind at this point in your career?
“Breaking in the US is still a massive goal for us, and production-wise it’s definitely been a consideration for us. A song like Bar Without You is one we would love to take to US Country Radio.”
What are you hoping to achieve each time you sit down to write a song?
“Honestly, at the start, deep down, the dream is to write something so undeniable, that crosses every genre and is just a hit! But a few minutes in, the goal is to just write the very best song that day and to enjoy it. I’m learning a lot more now, that intention is so important. If you’re trying too hard in the session and pushing through, I think it comes across in the song. Great songs come from trying to be as relaxed as possible and in the moment.”
Looking back over the last decade, can you pick a song of yours that means the most to you as songwriters?
“For me, it’s I Just Wanna Love You. It came from such an honest place – the heady days of being completely in love. It’s since gone on to mean so much to so many people. People have used it as their first dances at weddings and walked down the aisle to it. That was the greatest lesson to me, that you can write something so personal that can go on to touch so many lives. It’s a really humbling thing. Crissie’s song Daddy’s Little Girl is such an incredible song too. Even though I didn’t write it, I feel so proud of it. It’s truly special, and seeing the tears in people’s eyes throughout the audience at our live shows is testament to how powerful a song it is.”
And is there a moment from your career that you’re most proud of?
“There’s so many, but headlining the Royal Albert Hall and selling it out is definitely THE moment. It’s such an iconic, historic venue. So many of the people who’ve been so important to us, and shared this incredible journey over the years, were able to be there which was so special. It’s still kind of surreal to think we did that.”
Lastly, what songwriting ambitions do you have for the next 10 years?
“To have a No. 1 at US Country radio. That would be absolutely incredible!”