Hampshire’s UK country stars Ward Thomas: ‘We are still very much in love with and influenced by country music’
Early in their career the Ward Thomas sisters Lizzy and Catherine played a rather ignominious gig in Kentucky on an American tour.
Lizzy laughs as she recalls it: ‘We did this tiny gig in a sandwich shop, and the only people there were the two owners of the cafe, and us, and the guitar player, so it’s definitely one we will always remember.’
Fortunately, since releasing their debut album, From Where We Stand, shortly after their 20th birthday in 2014 the country-pop act have been busy breaking preconceptions about their chosen genre back here in the UK.
Second album Cartwheels became the first UK country album to top the charts.
And last month their most recent album Restless Minds went top 10. Then shortly after they became only the second British act to be given the prestigious CMA Jeff Walker Global Artist Award which recognises outstanding achievements by a country music artist originally signed outside of the United States.
It’s not bad going for the twins, who grew up on a farm near Petersfield.
The Guide caught up with Lizzy shortly before the release of Restless Minds to find her in a state of nervous anticipation.
‘Cartwheels completely surpassed all of our expectations. We never dreamed it would go to number one – we still can’t quite believe it did!
‘Doing this album, there’s definitely a bit more pressure on me and Catherine – we always want to show a progression and development in our music we create and the albums we bring out, and every album we bring out is completely who we are at the time.
‘It is like a portfolio of your personality when you write an album. We were very adamant about showing this album is different in a good way – it shows a development and growth, but also has a mixture of our country influences while showing we’ve been influenced by other areas of music.’
And it’s true, the album sees the girls branching out further stylistically than they have before.
‘Some of the tracks I wouldn’t call country, but we do still stick to our roots with songs like No Fooling Me and I Believe In You. We are still very much in love with country music and heavily influenced by it, but we never liked to box ourselves in to a specific genre.
‘We always like to go into a writing room and say: “Let’s write a song – let’s write what we’re feeling”. And then every song we let speak for itself.’
‘We write together most of the time, and we love co-writing with other people because we learn a lot and it helps us then to write songs on our own.
‘With Cartwheels we wrote mostly with just two people, Jessica Sharman and Rebekah Powell, but this time we wrote with so many new people – lots of pop writers, like Rachel Furner and Ed Drewett, who’ve had cuts with Little Mix and One Direction, Olly Murs, people like that.
‘We were very concerned before going into the session whether it would work or not – we’re very rural country girls and we thought: “Oh god, are we cool enough?” But a lot of the more country songs are the ones we wrote with those people!’
Thematically the album is very ‘now’, as it looks at issues including social media, the women’s movement, what ‘the truth’ means in the modern world and mental health.
‘We definitely set out to write about all of these things. Being millennials and being a big part of the social media world, we find it gets very overwhelming – people always comparing your life to someone else’s and seeing the triggers of mental health and how that triggers anxieties.
‘There’s a great side to social media and how it can connect people, and raise awareness. But it does get overwhelming and too much after a while so it became a very natural topic to write about it, and the people we were writing with all felt the same – they’re all there as well, they’re part of the same generation. But it’s not just us, people who are older and younger are feeling it as well.
‘It’s about finding our way back to keeping real relationships alive, rather than our fake relationships.’
And to prove actions speak louder than words, they launched the #NoScrollSunday campaign, challenging people to give up social media one day a week.
‘I’ve always been very private and even my Instagram account is only uploading very rarely, but you still see a filtered version online, even if you are trying to be honest. We started #NoScrollSunday to encourage helping ourselves as well as others to turn off the machines for a day – it’s an important family and friends day – or “you” day. It’s a good day to have your own space.’
So far Lizzy insists she’s been sticking to it, too.
Recent single No Filter also plays on the relationships we have with social media and the pressure to present a perfect face at all times. Its accompanying video is rather affecting.
‘We’ve always struggled with our videos in the past and we wanted to come up with the perfect concept for this song, because it’s a very honest open song.
‘We had some treatments come in from different directors and Dan sent in his about the whole group therapy session, showing the characters’ backstory with us narrating it.
‘We were concerned that we’ve got to really get this across – it’s hard to get a great story across in a three or four minute video with several characters, so we were nervous about it working out, but we’re very happy with it.’
On their current tour they’re playing their biggest headline shows to date.
‘We’re so excited – we’ve been building up the set and the whole show with our production team, so we can’t wait to use these big stages and put on a proper show and we want to take people on the journey of the album. It’s a real rewarding feeling going on these tours and going on these bigger stages and having people turning up and knowing the lyrics to our songs.
And she laughs: ‘It’s really surreal.’
Ward Thomas are at O2 Guildhall, Southampton on Tuesday, April 2, doors 7pm. Tickets from £18.50. Go to academymusicgroup.com.