Campfire Tales: Ward Thomas interviewed
The story of Ward Thomas, the English twins that broke Nashville, is a fascinating one. Catherine and Lizzy Ward-Thomas are from the deepest south (Hampshire), sisters who wrote and recorded an authentic-sounding country album in Nashville (“the perfect place for us being country music fans” according to Catherine, and “the most amazing place” for Lizzy) and which gave them the chance to immerse themselves in the music that they love.
We had the chance to catch up with them on a short break from their summer tour, which included Maverick Festival and a key date at Green Note in London. Despite an unsteady start (Catherine isn’t sure who I am when we first speak [Easy mistake - Ed.] and Lizzy is slightly under the weather - “I’ve lost my voice after lots of gigging; normally we talk over each other all of the time. I love talking!”) they are soon in full flow, talking quickly and excitedly about their debut album, From Where I Stand, their experiences in Nashville, and how this adventure came to pass.
Despite being around music as children, with musical parents (“[They were] in a band together, doing classic rock covers; dad was a drummer, mum was the singer,”) they they had no industry exposure. Even so, things have moved at lightning speed for the twins since their talents were noticed at sixth form where they started writing songs. Lizzy remembers: “We wrote a few crappy songs, obviously. You’re gonna have to write a few bad songs to get a good one,” and they wrote ‘Footnotes’ while working with their vocal coach. “[She] wrote with us after she heard this song. she had been a session singer in Nashville as well.”
What happened next demonstrates the impact modern technology has had on the music business. “We recorded it in a room on a phone. She sent it via WhatsApp to a producer out in Nashville and they were really interested. Especially with our image - British twins doing country music, harmonising and everything, so after he heard us the next thing we knew we’d organised to go over to Nashville.” A career started by WhatsApp - very 2014.
That trip to Music City turned into multiple visits over the last year or so, and it’s a place Catherine finds “absolutely amazing”. It’s reputation was upheld by their time there. “The whole vibe in Nashville is totally different because they literally live, breath, eat and sleep music. They just soak it all in.” And they were in good hands when they got there. “We were so privileged to work with some really cool, established Nashville people who really knew and understood the town and how it works. The thing with Nashville is that the atmosphere is really great because everywhere you go there’s live music; you can’t escape music. Everyone you meet, even in [the supermarket] - or my back specialist, he was a singer songwriter - everyone is in the music industry in some way,” Lizzy adds.
Now, you might think that there’d be a negative reaction to two well-spoken British girls turning up in Nashville, Tennessee with a handful of songs already written and ready to record country music - but that wasn’t the case. Catherine remembers quite the opposite: “It was strange at first but they seemed to love that we took their influences and made our own version.” “They got quite excited by it,” says Lizzy. “I think it’s because nowadays in female modern country like Miranda Lambert and Dixie Chicks - they talk about more everyday life things, rather than cowboys and trucks and guns and beers. People like Taylor Swift and Dixie Chicks, Zac Brown Band, have really helped spread country music.”
The reason they had the confidence to turn up in the USA with a bag full of songs is each other says Lizzy. “We’ve been writing for years together. It’s great when we have written with other people and they say 'Oh, you can tell you’ve been writing together for a long time!' I don’t think I could write a song without Catherine. If I’m in a situation and I come up with the idea I’ll pitch it to Catherine and we’ll talk about it for ages together and come up with something. We’ve just written a new song and I wrote the verse then Catherine came in and did the chorus, so it changes all the time, who writes the melodies and the lyrics, it’s a very collaborative thing.” “We wanted to make sure that we’d written this album (as opposed to co-written tracks from Nashville) because we were new writers when we started the album together and feel like we’ve grown quite a lot. We picked all of our own songs for this album but that’s not to say that we’ll just do that in the future. We might pick songs that we didn’t write but really, really mean a lot to us and that we’d want to cut,” Catherine explains.
When it comes to favourite songs, the twins disagree for maybe the first time. For Catherine it’s “‘Push For The Stride’. We’re really excited about that, and ‘From Where I Stand’ which is a very personal, slow song which I love too.” For Lizzy - “That’s a tricky question, me personally... ‘Take That Train’ is very special to me. It was when I met a lady on the train with a very interesting story and a good life lesson. But all of them are to do with our experiences, they’re all to do with growing up and our life, and how we see things.”
With personal songs about real life situations you wonder whether they are difficult to write and then have to sing over and over. ‘From Where I Stand’ is about their parents' separation, but from a different perspective. “There are lots of songs about break-ups and stuff but we thought it’d be interesting to write about it from the children's point of view, which is quite relatable. It’s such a common thing these days, divorce.” Catherine explains, “As songwriters it’s natural for you to think deeply about things and use it to write songs.”
But that’s better than the old country trope of writing about your dead dog, as Catherine tried to explain on breakfast television recently. “Country music is all about feelings and opening up. We were interviewed on BBC Breakfast the other day and they were saying country music can be bleak, and I talked about dead dogs but I didn’t really explain myself because there wasn't time! But the idea was that lots and lots of old country music, they have this generalisation about their dog dying. I felt like I had to justify it - now everyone just thinks I talk about dead dogs!”
Ward Thomas seem to be enjoying the ride that they’re on at the moment. They’re two very English girls who have found themselves as fast rising stars of the growing UK country scene, with an authentic stamp of approval from Nashville itself. With a lot of hype, they’re handling it well, but above all have put out an excellent record which we will cover in Campfire Tales next month.
From Where I Stand is available now from all good music retailers, and you can check out more details on the duo on their website.