As they prepare to go stratospheric with their new album My Universe, the follow up to last year’s UK top ten Brave, The Shires camp out in a West London hotel and chat a bit about their inexorable rise, playing arenas and learning to cheat on the acoustic guitar.
The lift dings at the 15th floor, where current star country duo Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes have parked themselves at a table in the hotel’s lounge to talk about their huge new record, My Universe. The most noticeable difference between this new set and their debut is the sonic size and scope of the songs - more muscular and grown up than the ones on Brave.
“The ambition was to have these bigger songs for the bigger shows,” begins Earle. “We’ve played a lot of arenas, with people like the Corrs and Tom Jones, and we’ve done a lot of festivals too, so it’s great to have those bigger sounding songs. It’s definitely a different skill, playing to all those thousands of people, so to have the tunes to back it up and get everybody going is really exciting.”
“We started writing this just after Brave had been recorded,” Rhodes says. “So it’s been two years in the making really. It wasn’t until the back end of last year through this year that we realised we needed to step it up and produce those anthemic songs that would fill an arena, alongside the more personal ballads.” “It hasn’t really changed the songwriting process much,” says Earle. “It was more the approach in the studio that was different this time round.”
“Our producer Toby also worked on Brave with us, and on that album he wanted to put some production stuff like synths behind it and we said ‘No, thanks’. But on this one we went: ‘Let’s put some on there now!’ Only two years later,” Rhodes grins.
But what a snowball the two Brits have been a part of since they met on Facebook three years back. Earle puffs his cheeks out:
“It’s just gone better than we could have imagined. We’ve recorded these two albums in Nashville, so it was like walking into a memory; we had the same band, same producer, and the same engineers. But what had changed was our confidence as a band,” he continues, after a slight pause. “Last time it was all new to us, we didn’t really know what we were doing and we didn’t really know each other that well either!”
“We were quite green and a bit scared to have an opinion with all of these talented musicians in one room,” Rhodes picks up. “They played incredibly well and were so professional, that asking them to play something a different way was quite daunting.”
“It’s different now,” says Earle. “This time, when we walked in, it was just walking into a studio. It’s a pretty wonderful studio, but it is still just a studio, and we felt more comfortable all round really.”
It must have been a jarring experience being flown to Tennessee to record a debut album in the music capital of the world, with a bunch of professional musicians at the ready to flesh out the duo’s songs.
“It just felt like Nashville was the place to go for us,” Rhodes answers. “Going out there and getting that musicianship from guys who play music all day and everyday; they’re amazing session musicians and we felt that we couldn’t beat that here in the UK. And because we are from here and we’re playing country music, it gave it a different spin for the guys out there who play so much country music. They really embraced our sound.”
“We were so focused as well,” says Earle. “When we were out there doing the albums, we were away from our lives, so there were no distractions; we were just there making music all week to get the album finished, so there was a discipline there too.”
Far from home
It all seems such a far cry for two musicians from Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, sending each other fragments of tunes to test the water. “It’s crazy,” admits Rhodes.
“For example, we went in to the studio for these sessions with an acoustic guitar line and a dodgy vocal over the top - not that we ever do dodgy vocals - that would become ‘Beats To Our Rhythm’, and they created this whole masterpiece just from that tiny demo.
“They chart the whole thing out and everyone takes a look at it and then off they go into this main room, count it in and go for a take. It’s incredible and I don’t think there are many places that do it like that anymore.”
It’s a valid point, especially given that these days particularly, musicians are keen to shun studio use entirely in favour of location recorded albums and songs on minimal hardware.
“That’s David Gray’s fault, isn’t it?” laughs Rhodes, as Earle cackles. “Didn’t he start all of that bedroom studio recording? You see him on Instagram saying ‘I’m in the studio today!’ and the picture is his bedroom with a computer.”
“It’s a good thing though, in lots of ways,” Earle suggests. “That’s how our demos got heard by Decca and Radio 2; they were just bedroom recorded. But what you can’t really get, and what I loved about our Nashville sessions, are the little moments of magic when people playing in a room together are so in sync that they give something their own personality and create a little bit of magic from nowhere.
“It’s still amazing when we hear the band play our acoustic songs,” he adds. “I remember the first time was just a ‘wow’ moment and we still feel so privileged; we know there aren’t many musicians who get to be in this position.”
“And it’s great for the music industry too,” Rhodes says. “There are these guys who spend thousands going through music college - so if all of the parts of a song are done separately or on a computer, how are those musicians going to make a living?”
Although size seems to be an important factor in the band’s sound these days, what with the venues being of cathedral proportions, the pair are still careful to strip it back from six live members to just the two of them sometimes. “We tend to send the band off mid-set for their ‘beer break’,” grins Rhodes. “And then we just play some acoustic songs.”
Strip it back
“Playing in a band is amazing,” adds Earle. “Hearing the drums kick in and the crunch on the guitar is really exciting, but there is a lot more freedom when it’s just us; a band still can feel regimented.
“And to me, the measure of any song or act is whether they can stand there with just a guitar or piano and sing. There’s something really magical about two voices singing together, especially a male and a female.”
“The crowd is interesting too in the acoustic moments,” says Rhodes. “In the UK and parts of Europe, there is absolute silence during those songs; people really love to strip it right back and hear that honesty coming through. It seems to really work over here, but I think it can unnerve some American artists, who are more like, let’s get a beer and get into it!”
“I think it’s different, because over here we go to really watch music,” Earle continues. “Over in the US and Canada people will chat and dance and have a good time, but it’s less obviously about going to watch it. It’s interesting how different cultures experience live music.”
Going back to the beginning of the Shires, when was it that they realised they may have stumbled onto something significant as a duo?
“It was kind of from the get-go,” says Rhodes. “I can’t quite remember what we sang first,” says Ben. “I think it was ‘Black and White’. I’d sent Crissie some songs, and that was one of them. So she came round the next day and, although it wasn’t telepathic like it is now, it still felt right. It was really easy and we both felt it could work, but the main thing was the ambition; I remember saying to Crissie that I wanted this to be it.”
“Your ambition was much bigger than mine at the time,” Rhodes says. “I just wanted to sing a bit. I came from a country background, so I knew a lot of songs from singing at weddings and parties, whereas Ben was more business. I just thought I’d be a session singer, I never thought I’d be a pop star.”
“We’ve always wanted the best,” Earle adds. “Our mantra has always been to do whatever the song needs, so it always comes back to the song, which is what country music is all about. So Crissie might do a take that’s amazing, but it might not be the right one for the song, or she might say a guitar part isn’t quite right.”
“Our energy is great,” Rhodes continues. “We don’t take anything personally, because it’s about what the song needs, and that’s why it’s so easy between us.”
What is less easy, as we all know, is starting out on the road to learning an acoustic instrument, as Rhodes is currently doing. “I’m learning guitar,” she says, with a slight grimace. “But I’m not too good yet.”
“I think you’re pretty good,” Earle chimes in, diplomatically. “You’ve picked it up way quicker than I did when I started out.”
“I’m quite glad that I learned to sing first,” she continues. “I sing very differently when I’m playing; it’s quite soft and folky, compared to the strong vocals that I usually do. But I’m quite enjoying putting my four chords together on my Baby Taylor. It’s good fun and really light, so I can take it anywhere.”
Rhodes’ musical other half has a slight head start on her, having been involved with instruments from a young age. “I started piano when I was about seven,” Earle says. “And I picked up the guitar when I was about 13.
“I love the guitar, especially for writing and for all of the rhythms that you can’t do on piano, but I like how visual the piano is and how you can translate that to the guitar. You understand things like playing a G chord over and E chord and how that works more on piano, because it’s there in front of you. It’s harder to learn the guitar just from chord shapes. But I love playing the guitar now, even more than the piano. (“And you love buying more guitars too…” Rhodes adds with a grin.)
“I wouldn’t mind some electrics soon, but at the moment it’s only acoustics I’m into,” Ben states. “I started off with a Faith Venus, and from there I went to a Takamine, which I still have. After that I went onto Martins, with a 000X1AE, which is their basic model.”
A sign of things having changed for the Shires can be read from how Ben’s guitar collection has grown, as he almost shyly admits.
“Now I have a Martin HD-28E Retro and a 000-18E Retro, both with the Fishman Aura Plus pickup systems.” “He’s going to get a bigger house to accommodate them all this year,” laughs Rhodes. “And we now have to take two vans touring, because of Ben and Charles’s [band guitarist] guitars!”
“The thing is they have such personalities!” argues Earle, to Rhodes’ crowing laughter. “I have the Dread in DADGAD and the 000 in standard and it makes them so different to use. I sometimes do the DADF#AD one too, but it’s cheating.”
“I’ve tuned mine down half a step now and I use a capo sometimes,” says Crissie. “It’s been a game-changer for me when I’ve been learning some new songs.”
“That’s a real Nashville thing,” Ben teases. “They tune them down so when they play in bars, it’s easier to do the F# instead of the G chord.
My Universe is out now on Decca Records. The Shires tour the UK this winter.