Well it gives me great pleasure to bring you today’s post! I have had the pleasure of meeting these guys in the past whilst they were on their headline tour earlier in the year and their performance blew me away. They are arguably the most successful UK Country act of all time, with their debut album reaching the top ten back in March. I took my mum to see them and ever since I think thats the only album she’s listened to, they are that good! So it makes me unbelievably giddy to be able to share the interview I did with them. Yes, it can only be Ben and Crissie of The Shires! I caught up with the pair before their set on the Songbird stage at the Cornbury Festival and this is what they had to say. The photographs are taken during their performance.
JZ: What we alway do is start with a quote on the blog, a song lyric or just a life quote, whatever you want?
Crissie: Oh gosh this is big!
Ben: We can build our own Nashville underneath these grey skies, I think it just sums up everything that we’re about, especially these past few months, going to the Opry, we sang that song there actually. It sums everything we’ve been trying to do for the last two years, trying to get country bigger.
JZ: I was going to talk about the Opry, its a huge achievement for you guys getting to play there and we were all as fans really excited for you!
Crissie: It was so lovely to see on Facebook and Twitter, so many fans getting behind us and getting excited, sharing our dream with us. We had so much great support from the UK.
JZ: And how was it, what emotions were you feeling?
Ben: It was quite surreal and the funny thing was we got into the dressing room and all the dressing rooms are themed so because it was our first time playing we got to go in the “into the circle” dressing room. So we get there and theres people walking past and Crissie opens her suitcase and she’s like oh no I’ve forgotten my dress!
Crissie: I’d genuinely forgotten my Opry dress.
Ben: She had this special dress planned out and she’d left it at the hotel.
Crissie: So it was mainly nerves of not having a dress! I had turned up in a nice dress anyway but it wasn’t THE dress. But it was pretty surreal walking out onto that stage, we’ve seen it on the TV show Nashville, you even said, there was a moment when you looked over at me, he thought he was in the show and someone was going to shout cut at any minute! It was an amazing feeling though and the audience reacted really well. We were introduced by Bill Anderson which was just incredible, I was stood there shaking, he was holding my hand.
Ben: You wasn’t sure whether it was you or him at first, was you?
Crissie: I’m pretty sure it was him because why would Bill Anderson be shaking stood on that stage! It was a great feeling though.
JZ: Your debut album was incredibly successful in the UK, congratulations! Can you tell me about your songwriting process for some of the songs on the album and where you drew influence from in the arrangements and instrumentation?
Ben: Yeah, well the album spans a lot of years.
Crissie: As many first albums are.
Ben: There were some songs on there that I’d written with other people years ago, ‘Brave’ for example was written I think four years ago.
Crissie: Theres a guy here today as well that you wrote ‘Tonight’ with isn’t there?
Ben: Yeah a guy called Jack McManus who is in a band with his wife Martine McCutcheon called Stargazer and we wrote ‘Tonight’ way before The Shires. Then there were songs which we’d written together like ‘All Over Again’ which is the first song we wrote. There are songs we did in Nashville like ‘Drink You Away’ and ‘Only Midnight’ so there’s a real range and I think the album is in the order which we thought would sound best but if you put it in chronological order we know which song comes first and last and every song takes us back to a time when we wrote it. Things like ‘Friday Night’ and ‘State Lines’ they were written literally a week before we recorded the album. Its funny because I felt like we had enough songs and we’d written so many songs and I felt quite burnt out because writing is so intense and you’re doing it every day for a few weeks so I felt like I’d run out of things to write about but our producers really wanted to do a writing session and our manager’s like, come on just do it and Crissie’s like yeah go and do it. So I had to fly out to Sweden for a day and I got there and I was pretty tired but I thought you know what I’ll try my hardest and we came up with ‘State Lines’ and ‘Friday Night.’
Crissie: Both single tracks.
Ben: Yeah arguably the biggest songs on the album in some respects. What we’ve learned from this whole process now for the second album is to constantly always be writing, on the road, on a plane, always have ideas in your head and write them down that instant or record them down because you will forget them. Thats the only songwriting advice we give to anyone, always put it straight down because you will forget, the amount of good ideas I’ve lost, the amount of number one songs I’ve lost haha!
Crissie: In terms of making the album, I mean we obviously wanted to release it here in the UK so a lot of the American acts would come to the UK even though they’re full on Country over there, they’d come over with a tamed more pop version of their songs so we were a bit conscious of you know, putting violin/fiddle kind of stuff on there, we have some Banjo, not got much pedal steel only in ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ and even that wasn’t live was it?
Ben: No that was pedal steel programming.
Crissie: Because at the time we didn’t know anyone who played Pedal steel, we were so new to this kind of country music and here in the UK we didn’t know who could play and that song never got re-recorded we recorded it once and that never got re-done.
Ben: I basically did that by chopping up like loops on the computer and a lot of the parts from that song were the original guitars and the claps we did but the band was unbelievable. We had a drummer called Ryan who got all the songs before he charted them all out on a Nashville charting system so he listened and wrote them all out. We had a day with him when we got to Nashville to check and go through every one and the band listened to it once, just a demo, like ‘All Over Again’ and just managed to play it. Other songs we made real rough, like ‘Made in England’ that was just recorded on a phone and they did it and brought it to life. Was it ‘Black and White’? And they started it and we both just looked at each other and thought wow this is amazing.
Crissie: Yeah they just did this really nice build, I mean you’d already done a demo and they just strung it out and when they did this pay off build we were like wow, this is great. But the actual recording process took like a week, two weeks with the vocals, it was the quickest process and though it was great to get it done so quick we wished we prolonged it a bit because it was such a great process.
JZ: Whats your favourite song to play live?
Ben: We played ‘Young Hearts’ last night which is not one of our songs, I loved it and it shows that these things change.
Crissie: It changes as well if we’re doing it acoustically or with the band as well.
Ben: I think ‘Friday Night’ is always fun because everyone knows that now, they all sing along, put their glasses in the air, someone actually put their glasses in the air, their spectacles. ‘Made in England’ is a good one too.
Crissie: Its comical.
Ben: Its comical yeah, people laugh but they do love it, theres not many songs around at the moment that sum up how proud we are to be English. We have people crying and stuff.
JZ: Whats the strangest song you’ve ever written?
Ben: We wrote a bad song, we wrote a song called ‘Beautiful Life’ it wasn’t very good.
Crissie: I don’t think it was a bad song it just wasn’t right for us.
Ben: It was one of those songs I still listen to sometimes, it reminds me of a time when we were in a really creative process and Crissie used to come over, when we first met we’d never do anything but make music, we never hung out or go for a drink. She’d come over, we wrote a song, I’d go to hers, we’d rehearse for a gig. That song reminds me of that, I mean you’re never going to hear it ever! Thats probably the weirdest one isn’t it?
Crissie: I remember writing a little ditty song once about my ex who wouldn’t do anything around the house, it was a bit like Alesha Dixon’s ‘Does He Wash Up’ but that was just a little bit of fun, getting my anger out haha.
JZ: So when I’m on stage, I never really think about what I’m doing because if I think too much I forget the lyrics, so I let my mind wander, so I wondered what your mid-gig thoughts were?
Crissie: The thing that I focus on a lot is the talking in between because the singing for me, I feel like I know what I’m doing, performance, I probably should move a lot more but talking is the most frightening thing for me, I mumble and I jump through things don’t I?
Ben: No you’re fine.
Crissie: And I have a dry sense of humour and it might not come out the right way.
Ben: Crissie’s sense of humour in real life, I think your being a bit hard on yourself, I think you’re great on stage but in real life she’ll say something and it wont sound like a joke.
Crissie: Completely dead pan face. But thats what I think of the talking.
Ben: My thing is, like what you said, the lyrics because I get really confused. It happened last night, we did a gig in Bristol and I sort of go, what am I doing. We sang ‘Young Hearts’ and thats the first time I’ve sung that song in ages, like 3 or 4 months. I got thinking about the lyrics, like oh whats the next lyric. So I don’t know, I’m the same as you, I try not to think about it too much.
JZ: So did you both come into The Shires with similar influences or completely different music tastes?
Crissie: Both of us kind of came in with different influences, I’d been listening to Country for years and never really told people about it, so I listened to the 90s and the female Country singers like LeAnn Rimes and Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, all the females of Country and then discovered the Civil Wars as well and was absolutely taken aback by those guys and I remember meeting Ben and saying, “you’ve got to listen to these, they’re incredible.” I remember seeing them at Camden Roundhouse, their last ever show and I’ve never seen anyone like it. Ben had only recently come into Country hadn’t you?
Ben: Yeah, Lady Antebellum was what did it for me, I heard ‘Need You Now’ and it came at a time for me when I was just fed up of music and songwriting, I wasn’t writing good songs I was always just trying to and I heard that song and it embodied everything I wanted to do in music, lyrically and melody, the honesty. So when we got together and Crissie started showing me all this other stuff like the Civil Wars and Martina McBride and Faith Hill who I’d heard of but never really listened to, people like Brad Paisley as well. It was just the most exciting thing ever.
Crissie: Everyday it was like have you listened to this song, and then Ben would send one back and we still do it don’t we?
JZ: Great! And you have a few festivals lined up, I was talking to one of the security men who said he’s going to see you 3 times in the next five days!
Crissie: Haha the security guards catch us off guard!
Ben: They’re the ones you least expect, we had one the other day well actually they were two brothers, really big guys. They came over after we’d finished signing and we thought oh we’ve done something wrong. He was like, excuse me, and we said yeah, he said will you sign my CD too haha.
Crissie: He said I specifically asked to work tonight so I could see you guys haha.
JZ: Haha thats great! Do you have any preference then, festivals or on tour, do you prefer playing out doors or at a venue?
Crissie: Well its funny because we had an indoor gig yesterday in Bristol and it felt like we were back on our tour again but it kind of came out the blue! Festivals are great but you just don’t know who’s going to be out front! With your own shows you sell tickets and you know how many are selling so you roughly know how many people are going to be out there.
Ben: Yeah I mean festivals are great because everyones just there to have a good time, not that they’re not having a good time at your own gig but its the weekend, its hot, people are drinking and having fun.
Crissie: They’re usually quite drunk at festivals so yeah they’re having a laugh and we love to hang out at the front as well. The great thing is I never get recognised because I’m just another blonde but Ben gets recognised all the time.
JZ: So do you have a favourite guitar make or model, Ben?
Ben: Yeah I’ve got two Martins now, they’re like babies to me, I’ve got a big one and a small one but they’re basic entry level Martins. Its funny, we did a gig with Sir Tom Jones in Munich on Monday and his guitarist is really famous he’s also played with Paul McCartney, he’s huge and he came up to me after our set and said, I love your guitar sound, I must admit I didn’t realise who he was at the time and he was like yeah I love your guitar sound and I said, its just an entry level Martin and he said well its really really great, keep it up. And he walked off and my tour manager came up to me and said, do you know who that was? So I think they’re great, they’re not really expensive, I mean they’re not cheap either but you get a Martin out of a case here or in Nashville and everyone says thats a nice guitar.
JZ: The album’s still going strong and you’re busy on tour and at festivals but whats next for you?
Crissie: A whole lot of Festivals until September and then come September we might have a few days off and in October we start our headlining tour for three and a bit weeks and then we’re out to the states as well in November with Little Big Town, we’re going to go down the west coast of America for about a week and a half I think. We want to go to Nashville after that and do a bit of writing as we’re in the states.
JZ: Just quickly, how does ‘Made in England’ go down in the States, whats the response?
Ben: We didn’t play it over there I don’t think we played ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ and even that though its not lyrically as obvious as ‘Made in England’ we played it in a bar in Nashville and we played it in a writers round and they listen to the lyrics don’t they?
Crissie: Yeah they were all really quiet listening to the lyrics and they were laughing at us weren’t they?
Ben: We’re just mega excited for UK Country really, like being back stage right now we have Raintown, Ward Thomas, Striking Matches, Jess and the Bandits so its really exciting, its great that its starting to move forward.
Crissie: People are starting to take it seriously now and starting to follow it which is great.
There you have it folks; the pioneers of UK Country music. Throughout their set the crowd grew and I wandered to the back for their last few songs and could barely see them because the audience was so big. In the short time they’ve been active as a country duo they have built up a loyal fan base and gone far with their music, and the attention they have been getting is much deserved as their calibre of songwriting is top notch and they put their all into every performance I have seen of theirs. Its nice to see the pride they have for their Country come through in their songs and to see they still have time for the fans. I believe their attitude and musicianship will carry on taking them far, conquering the states and putting them up amongst the best country acts of all time, from any Country!
Just Zoe x