Ward Thomas are hitting new heights for country music in the UK, having seen their second album Cartwheels hit the top spot, a historic first for a UK act. With a spring tour and new single lined up for 2017, the irresistibly positive duo are ones to watch over the next 12 months...
Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas are gamely posing for photos by a ruined church in Bristol, wearing thin clothes on a blowy afternoon and seemingly loving every minute of it. However, the rest of us are quite happy to trudge back to the plush Gibson tour bus to chat about their new Cartwheels LP.
“The response to the new album has been amazing,” begins Lizzy, settling next to her sister on the bright sofa. “We can’t believe we got to number one; we were hoping for top 40, so the response is just incredible.”
“It’s been really interesting so far too,” says Catherine. “We’ve been touring with this record for a little while now and we see a lot of young girls singing along to the album tracks as well as the singles, which is really positive because it means people know the album as a whole, and that’s a great feeling.”
“That’s why we love going on tour so much,” adds Lizzy. “It’s where you really see the response and you see that people know the words and are singing the songs.” The sisters are clearly excited about how far they have come in their fledgling career, and their second effort is a confident and rewarding listen.
“I think we’re both really proud of this album,” says Catherine. “It was a very different experience from the first one; we wrote with loads of different people and produced it with Martin Terefe, who was amazing. He just took each song as it came and let it speak for itself instead of deciding what it should sound like beforehand.”
“It was really interesting seeing the recording process in Nashville, where we did the first album,” Lizzy says.
“We recorded Cartwheels in London and did a lot of it live with a band, and some of it with our two vocals live together, like on the song Carry Home. And we did some of it with just a piano and vocals and built a track around that, which was so interesting and so different for us.”
“We recorded it in a room,” Catherine continues, in the twin-sisterly way characteristic to the girls. “In Nashville the studios were very well designed to ensure the sound is perfect. With this album we wanted a little more of a rustic feel, where it’s fine if you can hear someone breathing and it’s fine if you can hear the rain. There’s a big clock tower where we recorded, so on the hour there’s a big ‘dong!’ on there. I don’t know if the dong made the cut, but I think you can hear some snoring on there if you listen hard enough.”
“We learned a lot of the processes involved from doing our first album,” Lizzy says. “It feels like this is a lot more about who we are. We wrote this one in our early 20s, while the first one was written when we were 17 and 18, so it’s a completely different stage of life.”
“Recording in Nashville had such a perfectionist attitude that it taught us to have that level of perfectionism when we were making this record,” Catherine adds. Cartwheels certainly comes across as an even more self-assured effort than From Where We Stand, which is no mean feat.
“We wrote this over a two-year period,” says Catherine. “By that point we had learned a lot from touring and different life experiences, and I think that comes across.”
“Cartwheels was one of the first songs we wrote for the new album,” Lizzy continues.
“The concept came from our friend Rebecca Powell, who wrote a lot of the album with us. She had this line from a Patty Griffin song called Let Him Fly, which went ‘It would take an acrobat, and I’ve already tried [so I’m gonna let him fly]’.
“She had taken the line and the cartwheels idea to some sessions and didn’t get much of a response, but we thought it was just wonderful and decided to write a song around it. After the first verse [was written], we looked at each other and said, ‘This is really cool.’”
The girls were onto something with the song and it arguably began to define their new sound, which would become the album. “We performed it first in Nashville and the reaction was great,” Lizzy says.
“It was especially positive from the younger audience members; and then when we sung it over here on our last UK tour, we noticed a real reaction and response from the audience and I think it was then that we knew we had a special song and a clear direction for a second sound. It was a massive inspiration for us.”
It seems that the Ward Thomas sisters, along with their peers The Shires, are kick-starting a UK obsession with homegrown country artists. What is it about this particular genre that resonated with the duo and when did they feel they were onto something?
“When we started writing songs, we realised we might have something special,” Lizzy says. “And it was the harmonies we were singing too,” interjects Catherine. “It was partly the sibling sound coming through. People say there’s a certain thing you get from a sibling harmony that you can’t really replicate.”
Back to Lizzy: “Our whole family are very musical too. We’ve always been around music; our parents were in a covers band singing Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles and the Kinks, so we were brought up with that music, but it was also the Dixie Chicks and watching Walk The Line that really sold us on country music.”
Three chords and the truth
“It’s that whole ‘three chords and the truth’ saying that stuck,” Catherine says.
“Although some of the songs are more developed and advanced in their structure now, it’s the honesty and authenticity of it [that’s important] and a lot of what is being written about is what everybody goes through. We’ve never tried to write about trucks and cowboys as if we’re from Tennessee, because we’re not.”
“It would be a bit obvious if we started wearing cowboy hats and shouting ‘Hi y’all!’” laughs Lizzy. “We just try to write about feelings and things we have been through as human beings, and we think that’s what people want to hear.” “That and a good melody,” Catherine says. “It’s all about the melody.”
“I’d even class Adele’s songs as country music,” states Lizzy. “She sings about human emotions and her melodies and songs are strong. Our grandma loves Adele and so do our tiny cousins; she has everybody following her.”
If tunes and melodies are two things abundant in Ward Thomas, then so is on and off stage intuition and receptiveness, something that comes from knowing each other and playing together for a long time. “Our dynamic has grown stronger,” Catherine says. “We’ve grown together from birth to adults, and we bicker like any sisters would, but our set-up has made us even stronger.”
“We’re very in sync with each other,” Lizzy adds. “We know how to tour as a duo because we’ve spent our whole lives together and do everything together anyway, so it’s been pretty easy really.”
“It’s quite handy on stage,” Catherine says. “Because if one of us has a bit of a sore voice and doesn’t want to hit that note, we just have to give a look and we’ll both know what’s going on. There’s this song where we can’t breathe, so on this tour I’ve noticed that we have automatically sung a word each in the line so we can take a breath.”
Earning a crust
On stage that evening the girls are clever in keeping the line-up changing, having the full band up with them for some of the songs and stripping things back to just the pair of them for some of the more intimate numbers.
“We’ve brought a keyboard player for this tour who is great for the big moments, because he can fill out so much of the sound,” Catherine explains. “It’s great, but we have to stay on the beat, and sometimes Lizzy and I stay in sync with each other but leave the band a little bit.”
“When it’s just the two of us we have more freedom to go off a bit,” Lizzy laughs. “When it’s live it’s fine to make those little mistakes, because it’s just a part of it and that’s what we’re like most of the time anyway!”
“It’s fun with the band though,” says Catherine. “We get to play with a whole load of musicians. The boys we’re on the road with now have been our band since we started out and they know us so well.”
When it comes to guitar playing in the band, both can hold their own, but it seems that Catherine is the most serious of the pair.
“Yeah, I think by the end of this tour I’m going to have pretty cut up fingers,” she smiles. “I always try to play guitar more often than not, because I look so awkward without one. With each tour I’ve been able to play on more songs because I’ve been upping my guitar skills, which has meant having horrible hands with peeling tips! I look at old-school players who have such rough hands from working so hard at their guitar and that’s my aim - I don’t want soft, silky hands!”
On the earlier photoshoot, the girls were wielding some very pretty Gibson axes; we dug a little deeper into the hardware. “We both play these Gibson acoustics that were lent to us a long time ago,” Lizzy says. “We don’t know if they’re actually ours, but nobody has asked for them back yet.”
Catherine plays a J-45, while Lizzy slings a cutaway Gibson J-185 EC on stage. “We’re really spoilt,” Catherine says, “because we get to play a lot of guitars now. Our mum and dad never let us have a good guitar until we could play it properly. So it’s a reward now to have these wonderful instruments to play and it makes such a difference when it’s just the two of us on stage. They sound so lovely and feel so good to play; it makes a lot of difference”
Cartwheels is out now on WTW/Sony Music CG.