Alongside former touring partners The Shires, Ward Thomas are at the vanguard of a homegrown revival in country music.
The two acts have been trading ‘firsts’ over the past couple of years, but Hampshire twins Catherine and Lizzy have just scored the biggest first of their career so far – the pair became the first UK country act to score a number one album. Their second album, Cartwheels, went straight to the top spot when it was released last month.
But the 22-year-olds, who grew up on a farm outside Liss, have been taking it all in their stride.
WOW247 spoke with Catherine – the brunette sister to Lizzy’s blonde – on the eve of Cartwheels’ release.
‘It’s all go, go, go,’ she says with an easy laugh.
Debut album From Where We Stand was released with little fanfare in summer 2014. It made it to 41 in the charts, but also attracted plenty of attention for the duo.
‘Our expectations were low on the first album – we’ve definitely got higher ones this time around.
‘Luckily we had lots of time to write this album. We’ve been working on it since right after the first one came out, so we’ve made sure that every song that’s on this album is one that we want to be there and we’re really proud of each song individually.’
Although the album remains rooted in country pop, their sound has broadened out on this album. And even though they wrote most of it in Nashville, the home of country music, they have made sure to put a British twist on the style.
‘When it came to writing this album we wanted to let each song speak for itself without being pinned down to a genre. We let each song find its genre during that process, rather than last time when we went to Nashville and did the Nashville thing. This time we recorded it in London and we wanted it to be more “British”.
We’re writing from our own perspective – it’s not about cowboys and growing up in Tennessee – hopefully what we’re writing is more relatable to the British publicCatherine Ward Thomas
‘We’re writing from our own perspective – it’s not about cowboys and growing up in Tennessee – hopefully what we’re writing is more relatable to the British public.
‘We wrote Cartwheels in Nashville, and it was the first song we wrote that made our ears prick up, like: “Ooh this is interesting, this is the kind of sound we want”.
‘We came home and performed it live, and there was that moment in the set when we saw the audience reaction and we knew that this is what we wanted to do with this album.
‘We wrote that with Rebekah Powell and Jessie Sharman. They’re the two girls we wrote a lot of the album with. The four of us, we got in a room and sort of clicked, so we wrote nine or 10 tracks with them and then we wrote another with Jamie Kenney, who’s a pop writer but he lives in Nashville, so we had the Nashville vibe but with a pop writer.
‘(Recent single) Guilty Flowers was written with Shelly Poole, who was in Alisha’s Attic, and Ben Adams from A1, so the four of us, were all artists in our own right and it was really interesting.
‘When you’re in a room and you’re all coming up with ideas and everyone’s drawing from their own experiences, I think that makes the song more relatable.
‘Hopefully if it comes on the radio and someone thinks: “That’s like me”, then that song’s a success.
‘We’ve grown up a lot as well – we’ve matured a lot since the first album. Well, I hope we’ve matured,’ she adds with a smile.
The sisters’ parents played in a classic rock band called The Swamp Donkeys, which helped influence the pair as they were growing up.
‘They don’t play any more, but that’s where we learned all the ’60s and ’70s rock covers and got all our music tastes from and seeing them onstage, that became quite an aspiration for us to do that.
‘They were definitely not the conventional “get a sensible job” type of parents. They’ve been very supportive of everything, and our brother’s an actor and playwright, so none of us have taken the conventional route.’
What do they think about the state of country music here? It seems to be having a bit of a moment in the UK.
‘We were really lucky, I think, with the timing, coming through at the same time as The Shires.’
Another duo, The Shires have now scored back-to-back top 10 albums – narrowly missing out on their own number one when their new album My Universe came out a fortnight ago.
‘They were a huge flag-flyer for country music in the UK. We went on tour with them in November two years ago and we’ve been very lucky to be a part of such a cool movement.
‘At the moment it feels like there’s a lot of things going on, with the Nashville TV show, and there was a lot of love for Dolly (Parton) when she was at Glastonbury a couple of years ago.
‘I think people are slowly getting exposed to country music that’s not so old school.
‘There’s so much in country music – there’s Loretta Lynn, and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, but there’s also the old Taylor Swift stuff – it’s such a diverse genre that it’s possible to like parts of it and ignore others.
‘When people go: “Oh, you sing country and western”, we have to say: “No, it’s country, country and western is something is completely different”.
‘And yes, “country” was a dirty word here for a long time, but the nicest thing anybody can say to us is that I don’t usually like country music, but I like your stuff.’
The benchmark for country/pop crossover success remains Taylor Swift, who is now one of the world’s biggest music stars. Could Ward Thomas see themselves abandoning their country roots completely?
‘Taylor Swift’s definitely not country at the moment, but she could go back at any time if she wanted to.
‘She’s done a couple of albums now where she’s become a humongous success and she’s clearly thought ‘‘I’m young, I want to crossover and do something a bit different’’.
‘We’re wanting to keep that country honesty and that style of writing though – the way we write and talk about stuff, instead of the very pop process which is very different. And we still listen to country all the time.’
So we shouldn’t be expecting you to bust out the dance moves and hotpants any time soon, then? ‘Oh, that will definitely never happen, I can tell you,’ she says with a big laugh.
As with any new band, getting the backing of radio is crucial to success, and Ward Thomas have had the full weight of Radio 2 behind them. But they still find it funny to hear themselves on the radio.
‘We’re so lucky to have such amazing people on board helping us and supporting us. It is surreal, I don’t think we’ll ever get used to it. It’s such an exciting time.’
With Britain already falling for the sisters, have they thought about trying to crack the big one – America?
‘We went out for three months after the first album came out and we were playing in a lot of little bars and clubs within a two-hour radius of Nashville, probably to one person in the audience or an old man and his dog, but it was a good learning curve for our performance and our craft.
‘We got a little taste of America from that, but we didn’t really go any further.
‘Honestly we haven’t even thought about America yet, we’re concentrating on here. We’ve got a lot to do here.
‘America’s the next step and we’ll get there when we get there.’
n Ward Thomas are at the Engine Rooms in Southampton on Friday, October 21, doors 7.30pm. Tickets £14.85.
Go to seetickets.com or call 0871 220 0260.