Originally published at Phaser Magazine
*Disclaimer* This interview was conducted before the Covid-19 crisis.
The Shires, comprising Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes, are the UK’s biggest selling Country act of all time, combining heart-warming harmonies with soulful storytelling. I sat down to chat with them about their brand new album, their tour, and bringing the Nashville sunshine back to the UK’s grey skies.
Ben and Crissie, thank you for taking the time out to talk today! You recently dropped the single 'Independence Day', which is an empowering break-up anthem, and the previous single 'Lightning Strikes' is also about an ex, but it’s full of energy and excitement at the possibility of rekindling a lost spark. It would’ve been easy to make both of these sad songs. What made you want to turn them on their head, and make them sound more celebratory?
Ben: That’s a really good question! It wasn’t a conscious thing, it’s kind of from seeing someone who’s going though a break-up and saying, ‘I know you’ll come through the other side, and I can already see you’re happier than you were before’. I think we’re quite happy people generally, and at live shows you can only get away with a handful of really sad songs. My opinion about music, as well as the media, is that I want to be uplifted. It’s also harder to write a song that picks you up.
In what ways did you want it to carry on the bright, buoyant nature of Accidentally On Purpose, and in what ways did you want your new album, Good Years, to be different?
Crissie: For the first three albums, we were so relentlessly in a constant ‘go-go-go!’ kind of mode. We were always here, there and everywhere, and it was hard to grab a moment and appreciate everything we’d done. We actually left our record label that we’d been with for the first three albums, and sat in limbo for a little moment without a label, before signing with CMG. We had a bit of time away from the craziness, and we got to spend time with family and friends, and get some normality in our lives. The songs are generally quite reflective, showing how we’ve been feeling appreciative of where we are in our working lives and home lives.
Accidentally On Purpose contained a lot of crossovers into new genres and sounds. Is this experimentation something we can expect more of on Good Years?
C: It wasn’t a conscious effort at the time. We were partying quite a lot in Nashville, and that was reflected in the songs we were writing for Accidentally On Purpose. We were influenced by the music scene there, and we were still trying to break America, so we thought going on the poppier side would cross us over. And it helped with the live performances, because the songs have so much energy and fun.
B: I think we go back to our roots on Good Years. The irony with this is that in not trying to target the US as much, we now have more support there than ever! It’s funny how that wasn’t even really part of the plan, the aim was just to record the songs the way we wanted them.
There’s generally been a lot of genre-blurring involving Country over the past few years. How do you tread the line between pleasing the die-hard Country fans, and also infusing this with Pop and Dance impulses? Do you ever feel restricted in a sense by the ‘Country’ label?
B: Trying to please everyone is the hardest thing. You just don’t need to, there are always going to be people that say ‘It’s not Country enough’, or ’It’s not Pop enough’, and so on.
C: As long as you can release something you’re proud of and 100% happy with, that’s the main thing. It’s always going to be open to opinions - I remember having a chat with a fan when we’d just released Accidentally On Purpose, and he mentioned about us going Pop, and he wasn’t pleased. But sometimes you have to broaden the genre to give other people a taste as to what Country is all about.
B: Crissie’s right that at that time, we loved that record, but Good Years is definitely us now.
You’re about to embark on another huge UK tour. Do you prefer the writing and recording process of the album, or is it more fun finally getting to showcase the new material live?
B: I think the live show is kind of the pay-off, the celebration at the end of the whole journey. When you’re sat in a room in Nashville or in the UK, you just have an idea for a song, and then you go into a room with your notes and it becomes something tangible. I personally love that, and if I could do just one thing for the rest of my life, I would do that. You get that moment of ‘Wow, I love that song'. At the same time, you’re trying to make something that’s perfect, so it is quite intense. You’ll do a thousand vocal takes, and you go a bit neurotic - it’s exciting and nerve-wracking. So when we finally get to our tour in April-May-June, we’ve gone through the process, and you can tell which songs really connect with people. For me, that’s the most enjoyable part, but it’s not the part I’d do for the rest of my life. Having said that, it is great to connect with people in a moment, live, and that’s why live music is so popular still.
I was lucky enough to see you both perform in Oxford for your Accidentally On Purpose tour. Are you excited to be back this year?
C: Yeah, we’re very excited! We’re putting it all together at the moment, sorting out the staging, etc. It’s hard to pick the setlist - we’re trying to make it work as best as we can, because we don’t really want to drop any songs!
B: Yeah, last time in Oxford we went to a quirky, underground bar, and we had a good party there after the show. The New Theatre is brilliant as well - I love how old-school it is.
You’ve introduced a whole new generation in the UK to Country music. Do you think the genre will continue to grow in the UK over the next decade?
B: Culturally, I’d like to think we’re post-cool. It used to be that you have your record collection and people would come and judge it - ‘Oh…you listen to the spice girls?!’ Now it’s more personal, because it’s just on your computer or phone. Country music really reminds me of the Noughties, the sounds and the things they’re singing about. Like if I wanted to talk about getting high with my friends, that would be too risqué and they’d be like ‘You can’t say that!’. Compared to the Hip-Hop world, it’s very innocent. Also with streaming, even more of an audience can come on-board. I think it will get bigger and bigger.
C: Absolutely! I think it’s still in its early days, but more and more people are enjoying the genre. More people are proud to say they love Country music. It’s funny we’re still trying to promote it, because we’ve been surrounded by it for seven solid years, and it’s crazy to think people don’t know about it yet.
For you both personally, what’s your favourite song on the new record?
B: Mine is between ‘On the Day I Die’ and ‘Crazy Days’. As a writer, I was always chasing ‘I Just Wanna Love You’ [from debut album, Brave], I remember writing that song really quickly by myself. It was just so honest and pretty much just a conversation. As much as I love writing in Nashville, sometimes there’s a lot of pressure to do something clever. That’s the Nashville way, and they’re geniuses at it, finding an idea or lyric and turning it on its head. Some of the biggest songs, though, are just straight up. ‘Crazy Days’ was me at home in my shed, with a piano, and I wanted to sing to my wife about how it’s hard because we’re away a lot, but it’ll be worth it. It’s a very honest and real song.
C: I remember hearing that for the first time, and it was everything Ben had always sung about. That's him at his finest, and I was a big fan of that from the get-go. He would just talk about that situation, and he means every word. I can draw from that, that it is crazy, but it’s a great reference song to bring you back down to reality. Also, I love the sentiment behind ‘On the Day I Die’, where you’ve lived the best life you can, and it’s all about appreciating every day. It was a real pleasure to sing.
Artists will often be going through something, and they pen lyrics that can really help the listeners who are going through that same struggle. ‘Naked’ is a perfect example of this, as it’s all about seeing someone for who they really are and accepting their flaws, and trusting them to accept yours. If you could pick just one, which song of yours would you want listeners to pay especially close attention to, that you feel can help people the most?
B: ‘Brave' is that song for me. I think I wrote it seven years ago, and it was a dark time for me to be honest. Similarly to ‘Naked’, I wrote it for myself, just to say you don’t have to be so brave all the time, and it’s okay to to tell people you’re not feeling 100%. That’s an important message. I have two young sisters, and they have their battles stemming from social media. I think it’s easy to put on this front of ‘I’m doing great’, ‘I’m on holiday’, etc. whereas a lot of people are struggling behind that. So I think it’s important that they have someone they can let their guard down to.
You recently performed with 5,000-8,000 children as part of the Young Voices choir project. You’re undoubtedly role models and inspirations for numerous young singers, songwriters, and bands out there. What would be your main piece of advice for anyone trying to break into the music industry?
B: It’s so hard not to fall back on clichés. From personal experience, I tried for so long to write a song to sound like someone.
C: Yeah, I tried to fit moulds, to be someone I didn’t believe 100% to be me.
B: Exactly, but when I found Country, I just made music that I loved. It’s the same with anything you do, as long as you actually love it, then no-one can take that away from you really.
Switching that question around a little, who in Country music is inspiring you right now?
B: Lady Antebellum have been an incredible inspiration for me. Also Nina Nesbitt, and I know she’s not Country, but she co-wrote ‘Naked’. When we first met her, she was without a record deal, and it’s great now seeing her do what she loves, and just be who she is. Suddenly in the last two years she's found great success, just because she’s being herself. We went out with her in Nashville, and I think her songs are so her.
I read somewhere that you both met on Facebook through a mutual friend. Songwriting can be an incredibly personal process, and can involve putting yourself in quite a vulnerable space. How long after you two met were you able to feel comfortable enough to really open up lyrically in this way to one another?
B: We’ve always been honest, and there’s no ego with us. If I throw out a bad idea, Crissie’s open enough to tell me that it’s bad, and vice versa. But it’s a myth that in every songwriting session people sit down and pour their hearts out.
C: When we met it was all work based, we’d sit together and write songs that we thought we should write. We didn’t really pour our hearts out as such, the more sessions we had, the more we realised it’s quite an open space in a writing room, and some things get blurted out, and everyone’s quite open and understanding. In the studio, usually you sit down and chat with the writer, and catch up a little. For the song ‘Accidentally On Purpose’, I was just talking about leaving Nashville the next day, and I was genuinely just telling the guy that I wanted to stay a bit longer, and I was just chatting and telling him what was going on at that point. I did not expect to be writing that song on that day! It’s just kind of amazing that it happened like that.
You’re the UK’s biggest selling Country act of all time. Do you feel more pressure each time you release a new album to live up to this reputation, or does it give you an added boost?
B: I definitely feel more pressure every time. I turned my shed into a writing room, and I asked the decorators to put my gold discs as far away as possible from me! It’s funny, I’d say to our manager, ‘Once we’ve sold this many records, I’ll feel comfortable and relaxed’, and he just said, ‘You’ll never feel relaxed!’ The goalposts change. We both want to be the very best we can be, and the other stuff that comes with it, that’s not as important. You can’t forget it’s the music that drives everything.
C: When we write the songs and record, I’m a pretty go-with-the-flow person, I never focus on the business stuff. I’m just enjoying the process. When the album’s ready, and it comes to realising there’s so many people involved, and so many things to do, that’s the only time when I feel pressure about it. We’ve done our bit recording the songs we love, and everything we put into it is everything we could do at that time. It’s the business stuff that always adds the pressure - you don’t think about that when writing and recording. There’s also always pressure in putting the tour together, but when you’re on stage you don’t have to think about anything else, it’s just about getting up there and just being in that moment.
The Shires’ new album, Good Years, is out now on all platforms.
Hello! I'm currently studying Philosophy & Theology at Oxford University, UK. Having always loved writing and music in equal measure, and having always hated decision-making, I figured hey, why do I need to choose between the two?