Interview: The Shires.
It’s hard to have missed the relatively recent upsurge of interest in Country music in the UK. Be that huge American Country music stars touring in the UK more and more and the establishment of the UK’s very own Country music festival, to home-grown talents making their mark. And leading the wave of British Country music acts are English duo The Shires.
Formed in 2013, the duo of singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ben Earle and singer Crissie Rhodes have gone from opening support slots at tiny venues to a number ten-charting debut album, a packed-out Glastonbury festival tent and a sold out capacity Shepherd’s Bush Empire headline show within a year.
Kalpesh Patel went along to The Shepherd’s Bush Empire to meet them ahead of their headline show and have a chat about the success of Country music in the UK, recording in Nashville and their songs about all things English.
Crissie, Ben, how did two English musicians from Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire come together to write great Country music songs?
Crissie: We met on Facebook actually. Ben had been song-writing for a long time but came into Country more recently and I was just a gigging singer. He put up this Facebook status saying “there must be a female Country singer in the UK that wants to sing these songs with me” and a mutual friend of ours tagged me into that status. With a little bit of research online, he messaged me and sent four of the songs he’d already written. I just absolutely loved them and we met up the next day, straight away.
Ben: We were so lucky we lived so close, we were literally twenty minutes away from each other.
Crissie: You said I looked high maintenance!
Ben: Well the thing is, there’s a website where you can see a lot of singers’ profiles and Crissie had a profile for her function things, so she’s all glammed-up with this huge pandery clown blusher and I just scrolled straight past her [thinking] nah she’s way too much work!
I just thought I bet she lives miles away, and then you lived so close. She drove around the next day in her big soccer-mum car, I remember this huge car and this tiny girl gets out!
Crissie: It’s only a Ford C-Max, he makes out that it’s this huge vehicle. I was gigging at the time so I needed a big car to put all the stuff in.
So what sort of stuff were you singing before?
Crissie: I was singing basically everything, for functions and parties and even people’s birthdays, weddings. I was covering everything from, pop, soul, Motown and throwing in a bit of Nine-to-Five by Dolly Parton, a bit of Shania Twain as well wherever I could. So I just covered all bases with music at the time.
So you did hit on the Country notes as well?
Crissie: Well Country was where my background was and I had recorded some songs online of Country covers and that’s where I wanted to go with my music at the time. But as a function singer, you have to be kind of broad and cover everything, so you can’t be specific because, let’s be honest, at the time nobody wanted to listen to Country music.
I’m assuming “The Shires” comes from the fact that you’re each from neighbouring ‘shires?
Crissie: It does take ages to pick a name
Ben: It’s the most boring process in the world, the most painful process, especially now with the Internet. Every name is pretty much taken. We had loads but that was actually Crissie’s, one of the first ones she came up with. It’s funny, ‘cause now it’s just a thing “The Shires”.
Our name sounds better in American. When the American’s say it: “The Shy-ers”, over here we sometimes get “The Shars”. It was one of the first names she came up with, I thought it was a bit Hobbity at the time with Lord Of The Rings. It just sums up everything that we’re trying to achieve which is Country music with our UK spin on it.
Where do you draw inspiration from to write your songs?
Ben: That’s really important for us actually, when we first met it was always to only go with stuff that we know and be honest. We think a lot of the reason Country hadn’t taken off so much in previous years was because people thought Country was all about the rhinestones and the cowboys and the trucks and stuff. For us it wasn’t about that, it was about the fact that that is what life is like for those people, that’s what they know and that’s their honesty and that’s why people gravitate towards it. So we were always like, let’s only sing about things that we know. Nashville Grey Skies, for example, was all about our dream of building a Nashville over here. That’s why we sing: They won’t be wearing …
Crissie: … Cut-off jeans, and they won’t be drinking moonshine and have G&Ts instead.
Ben: And people relate to that. And similarly we’ve got a song called Made In England which is just celebrating all the things we love about England, and cups of tea and fish ‘n’ chips. Country for us is real and honest and storytelling. We just write about what we know.
There’s a cover on your record, how did you choose that cover?
Ben: Islands in the Stream.
Crissie: BBC Radio 2 asked us to be part of an album of theirs, and it was all songs from the eighties. We looked at the list and everyone else, like Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, had picked some great songs that we thought “oh we could do that one” and look on there and [say] “oh they’ve got that already”. As a joke of mine, I said “we could do Islands in the Stream?” We thought you can’t cover that song, and then we just kind of played through it.
Ben: Well, we were sat in your kitchen weren’t we? Crissie’s kitchen has been really important for our journey, every big thing that’s happened has happened in that kitchen including playing to our manager for the first time. It was the first time we ever played live and her dog was there.
Crissie: Yep, I had a dog at the time and he had a very poorly tummy.
Ben: He farted halfway through Black And White, it was such a bad fart! We had to stop the song, honestly. Like Crissie said, we started playing it in her kitchen and it just sort of worked, we put our own spin on it.
What do you believe are the key elements that make a good Country music song?
Ben: I think a good Country song can be changed into any genre at all. I mean, we’ve seen it with Avicii recently and Hey Brother.
Crissie: They say it’s “four chords and the truth”, that’s basically what sums Country music up.
Ben: That’s perfect actually. A lot of the songs we grew up with in the nineties and early noughties were Country songs at their core. Ronan Keating and Westlife, they brought a lot of Country songs over from the U.S., When You Say Nothing At All was a Garth Brooks song.
Country music hasn’t been huge here before but there seems to have been a relatively recent upsurge of interest in the UK, with the establishment of the Country to Country music festival. Do you attribute that to the crossing over of big Country music stars into the mainstream, TV shows like Nashville or just great new Country music songs being written?
Ben: It’s a lot of things, the fact that Country has changed so much. People like LadyAntebellum, they’re just pop songs, they’re not fast, they’re not slow, they’re just great songs with great lyrics.
Definitely Country to Country, the fact that the stars are now coming over and are making the effort, when people like Rascal Flatts are playing to thousands of people in the U.S. but still make the effort to play to 500 or 1000 [over here], that makes such a huge difference.
The TV show is a huge thing, absolutely massive. That’s what got me really, really into Country and we’ve been lucky enough to hang out with Sam Palladio who plays Gunnar on the show quite a bit, and it’s very real that show. The fact that they actually have real songwriters and real songs used in the show was great.
But also, I think if you look at it on a bigger scale, I think that all the artists that are doing really well at the moment are artists that are writing real songs, like Adele, like Ed Sheeran, like Sam Smith. I think there’s a real outcry and people just want real songs again.
Crissie: It’s almost like songs now are being written like therapy, that people can listen to them and it gets them through. It used to be that you’d go around to your friend’s house and you would see their whole display of CDs and you could go: “err! Why are you listening to Country music?” But nowadays people can just put it on their Spotify and their iPods and nobody has a clue that they’re listening to that so they can secretly [listen]. And I swear to you, some of the people we see out in the audience, they’re like young lads coming along and singing away.
The Shires seem to be leading a wave of UK Country music acts such as Ward Thomas and Sasha McVeigh. How does it feel to be blazing a trail for UK Country music?
Ben: It makes us really proud. I think we were both uncomfortable with that sort of statement when people first started saying it to us. But I think it’s such a close community of people, it’s probably like the least cool underground movement ever! I love that fact that Nashville Grey Skies has become sort of the unofficial anthem of UK Country.
I think it would be really great if we had our own place soon. In America, in Nashville they have The Opry which is like the home of Country, that would be the next step, just to have somewhere …
Crissie: A hub
Where would Nashville be in the UK, do you think?
Ben: We’ve always said, Glasgow. They have their own Opry up there actually. But there the crowds, they really know their Country. We played Edinburgh this tour and they just go for it.
I was lucky enough to catch your Glastonbury set where Sam Palladio joined you and played that Striking Matches’ tune with you guys. How was your Glastonbury experience what were each of your personal highlights?
Crissie: Oh man, it was so good! I couldn’t believe that we got to walk out on that stage and say “hello Glastonbury!” You just don’t really expect to say that.
Ben: Four or five years in a row, I went with my good friend Ben and every year I’d get drunk and I’d turn to him at like two in the morning and I’d be [drunken voice] “next year Ben, next year.” That was about ten years ago now.
It’s nerve-wracking. With your own gigs, we know how many people are coming and also we know they’re our fans.
Crissie: That was our third festival of the season, so we had no idea what to expect. We had two acts before us and we looked out at the crowd for them and it was just people sitting on blankets. But I think we started out with about three thousand and then by the end we had about five.
Ben: But going out and seeing the flags and stuff
Crissie: Flags, people singing away, it was a bit of a surreal moment. And the actual place, Glastonbury, you feel like the whole world stops around you and it’s only Glastonbury that goes on, like nobody else lives.
Ben: You just can’t put into words what that is like, Glastonbury. There’s nothing else, that’s it.
You’re headlining the Shepherd’s Bush Empire tonight. How does it feel to be headlining a venue that hosted Wogan for six years and has also been played by huge rock acts like Green Day and Prince and also big Country music acts like Zac Brown Band and Kacey Musgraves, all in recent years?
Ben: It’s just brilliant isn’t it. We supported Little Big Town here in February and we thought, as with a lot of things in our career so far, one day, one day. Eight months later to be playing here, it’s just so surreal. It’s amazing.
Crissie: It just seems like a really nice venue because it’s a big venue but it’s also kind of small at the same time, everybody’s on top of each other so you can see all the faces out there, and that’s want we like the most. But there’s still going to be 2,000 people sat there tonight.
Ben: I think it’s almost the perfect venue for music.
You recorded your debut album Brave in Nashville. How was that experience and why was it important for you to make this record in the home of Country music?
Ben: It was so easy! That was the really crazy thing. You hear about people spending three, four months in a studio, relaying that and mixing this. We went in with a live band and they did their parts in three days, they did 15 songs, they’re so professional.
Crissie: We met up with our drummer the day before and he charts everything out. They’ve got the Nashville numbering system over there, so he’ll listen to the song and say “ah that’s a one-four-five” and he will do all of his little diagrams and numbers. He just printed all of those charts out for each member of the band. We would say “we were thinking of this kind of vibe” and then they just go into the studio. It was just amazing to watch them, it’s almost like it was over and done with too quickly.
Ben: And they’re so seasoned these musicians. On State Lines I had to go in and play the piano with them. Piano’s my thing, I’ve played it since I was a kid and I really know it, but even I looked down at the piano and thought “oh what am I doing?!”
We went to Sweden a week later and did the vocals and we did 16 songs in eight days. That was really full on but I think we’re both so glad, every part of the process we poured everything we have into it.
We do get tired sometimes on the in-between days, because we’ve had jobs before and we know how much we wanted to do this and we thought it wouldn’t happen originally, we thought it might not happen ever. Whenever we get an opportunity, we just do it because we’ve got the best job in the world really, we can’t complain.
Brave peaked at number 10 on the UK album charts, which is a major feat for any Country music album, let alone a debut album by a UK act. How did that feel?
Crissie: Pretty amazing, it was a surreal weekend that weekend. We had Country to Country and we found out in the best possible way. To find out on that weekend in front of thousands of Country fans, all of us were just like, yeah finally some Country music [is] getting recognised. But, as our day to day, it doesn’t change anything, there’s nothing physical that we’ve got from it. But it was just an amazing, amazing weekend for us. Since then other things are coming our way.
We’re hoping if we can get to gold, we’re on our way at the moment, that we might be able to get a disc that we can share, timeshare it or something.
Ben: We’d get one each!
Some of the songs on Brave seem to be specifically about Country music in the UK – You guys have mentioned Nashville Grey Skies and Made in England. How important is it to communicate your British roots through Country music?
Ben: It’s everything. It’s so important to us and we talk about it on stage. When we went to America for the first time we saw how proud to be American they are and we just thought, why don’t we do that back here? Why don’t we celebrate being English and British, it’s never seen as that cool. It defines who we are and it should do, we shouldn’t not be proud to be where you’re from.
I caught you guys supporting Striking Matches at the Borderline last year and that was one of the stand out things about you, Made In England.
Crissie: Yeah, because that was the first time we had people laughing at it. We were like “what?” And then we realised that it was kind of a comedy value song, everybody relates to it and gets it but we wrote it dead seriously, like this is what we love and then since, people have just been giggling. But then you get those kind of comedy songs in Country music.
Ben: They’re not laughing because it’s out and out funny, they’re laughing because that’s what we do.
How did you find shooting your recent video at God’s Own Junkyard in Walthamstow?
Crissie: Very cool
Ben: Very bright! It was amazing, it was great to do it in London because the last couple of videos we’ve done in L.A. which is very different and on camera everything just looks bigger because there’s more space in L.A.
Crissie: People thought we were at a bar or something. I tried to explain, no it’s just a neon light shop. It’s just like a really cool place, I felt like I’d been in there all day but I still managed to see new things constantly.
You’re about to head out on tour in the U.S. with Little Big Town, are you looking forward to that? Which stop are you looking forward to?
Ben: I don’t know, we haven’t really looked at the dates really closely.
Crissie: We’re going to Canada for one of them.
Ben: I’ve never been to Canada, so that’ll be cool.
Crissie: Seattle, Chicago.
Ben: We learnt so much from them when we did three dates with them here. We did Glasgow, Manchester and London, they’re just brilliant. They’re so nice as well, we hung out in Glasgow after the gig, they’re just awesome.
Crissie: They had Nando’s and fish ‘n’ chips in their dressing room.
Ben: Americans don’t have Nando’s, they don’t know what it is so they’re amazed when they come over and have it, they absolutely love it. Yeah, we can’t wait, it’s going to be really good that.
Crissie: And its arenas as well. We’ve just done this tour where we’ve had the boys and the band with us, but this time we’re doing arena tours so these are going to be big, thousands of people and it’s just the two of us. So, it might be a bit scary. But we enjoy doing it, just the two of us as well so it’ll be fun.
You guys are then coming back to the UK and Ireland supporting The Corrs. How did that tour come about?
Ben: That was through Bono.
Crissie: The actual Bono.
Ben: Oh gosh, our manager was at a U2 gig.
Crissie: It was their first European date and they invited Jo Whiley who is married to our manager. So the two of them went over to see them in Italy and he said to our manager “what are you up to?” and he goes “I’m managing this band called The Shires” and he said “oh, ok.” And then half an hour later he came back to him and said “The Corrs, they’re going out on tour, maybe you should get them to support?” and that was it. It’s Bono that is best friends with Andrea Corr and he just kind of sorted it out, which is like the most rock and roll.
Ben: And we’re such huge fans as well. We’re playing Runaway on this tour as a cover but they wrote so many great songs, you forget how many.
Finally, what’s next for The Shires once you’re done with The Corrs tour? Can we look forward to some new music?
Ben: Yes, we’re playing a couple of new songs on this tour in a Nashville songwriter’s round style, so really acoustically with no production or anything, which is really fun. Then Country to Country in March and then, the world’s sort of our oyster really after that. Getting songs together for the second album.
There’s always that pressure on this whole second album thing. The thing is, what’s good is that we’ve been writing and writing and writing and I think understandably we get it now, a lot of people get really busy and they just don’t have any time to write because you’re touring, it’s hard to write.
Crissie: And your life becomes not normal as well, it’s not relatable to a lot of people so you need to make sure that you still living life a bit to get those inspirations to write more songs.
Ben: We’ve got a lot of songs now because we’ve been writing the whole time. There are songs on Brave that are really old. Brave is five years old so I’ve played it literally hundreds of times, so it’ll be great to just have a new album out and play some new stuff.
But we just always want to keep the level really, really high. We always want to challenge ourselves, always be better and never forget that it’s all because of the songs. That’s the thing about Country, everything else is amazing, the gigging, the TV, the album sales etc. but none of it is possible without the songs, so we always focus on the songs every time.
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Many thanks to Ben and Crissie from The Shires for taking time out of their busy touring schedule to have a chat with RockShot!
Interview & Portraits by Kalpesh Patel. He has more music photography up on his Flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate