The Shires are a new duo currently riding the crest of a country music wave and the swell does not seem to be retreating. Coming from the UK allows Ben and Cassie to approach the resurgent genre from a slightly different angle and their debut album Brave is a very English take on a songwriting style unfairly maligned in the past. The charming pair are currently touring the new record and AMBY caught up with them both in Manchester, following a night off which included a trip down the curry mile as well as experiencing James May at the wonderful Albert Hall.
AMBY: Hello guys and welcome to Manchester. Things must be good. Shows are sold out and you were originally on at Academy 3 tonight and you’ve been bumped up to Academy 2 which is awesome, so how’s the tour going? Any highlights so far?
Ben: It’s going amazingly. We played Glasgow on Friday night at Òran Mór and that was unbelievable. That was, I think, possibly the best gig we’ve ever done. The crowd were packed in there and were just amazing and we finished our last song ‘Tonight’ and we went off stage and we were waiting to do an encore and you’re always nervous and you never know if they actually want you to do an encore and we stood there and it sounded quiet and suddenly they started to sing the bit of ‘Tonight’… ’you’re mine and I’m yours’… because we split them during the song, and they split themselves and just started up again and it was like a football crowd. It was really moving actually, it was just incredible.
AMBY: The album was released in February. As a fan of the genre, it’s quite invigorating to hear an English take on it. Songs like ‘Made in England’ and the imagery that it evokes is excellent. What do you think you guys add to the genre?
Crissie: We don’t try to do anything, but we write about what we know, what we experience and things like milky tea and cold-pebbled beaches and fish and chips on Fridays, you know, we understand that. We absolutely love country music yet singing about trucks and stetsons, we just don’t understand that. It’s not over here so I think that’s kind of what we bring to it. We just appreciate the music a lot really.
AMBY: It does have that image of stetsons and sequins and all that kind of stuff.
Crissie: Yeah, it’s been this kind of ‘Don’t tell anyone’ secret society of people that like country music.
AMBY: People seem embarrassed of it sometimes.
Crissie: Yeah, and now meeting so many fans recently at Country to Country and they say ‘Oh, we’re so pleased that finally we can be proud to say we love country music.’
AMBY: How have people responded to the record, particularly in The States?
Ben: It hasn’t been released there yet but people in the industry are loving it. We played at Country to Country on the Satellite Stage and we played ‘State Lines’ which is our next single and Sam Hunt and Kip Moore, they were just like “we love that song – that song is the most amazing song”, so we’re really excited to eventually, at some point release it in The States. It’s just about getting the timing right and it’s really important for us to be successful in our home first, because why should anyone listen to us in The States if we’re not successful back home.
AMBY: But you’ve had some good news! I saw on your Facebook page that you’re going to be playing at The Opry. I mean, that’s like the Mecca of the genre.
Crissie: Yep, that’s the big one! That was the news we woke up to this morning which was very exciting and straight away we took to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram…
AMBY: That could be the launchpad couldn’t it?
Ben: Oh yeah, of course.
Crissie: We were there [Nashville] a year ago when we were writing and we went to see Sam Palladio playing with Striking Matches and he took us back stage and we were hanging out in the dressing room and at the side of the stage where everyone stands together and watches. That would be so surreal, I’ll probably be a bag of nerves but it’s very exciting.
AMBY: If your album ‘Brave’ could only be listened to in one place in the entire world where do you think it would be?
Ben: I think a test of any album is if you can listen to it in the car. I think the car is the best. I really do. There something about driving in the car and listening to an album, you just get perspective on it. I think because your brain is occupied with the driving you just listen to it.
Crissie: We did that recently. When we recorded the album we were listening constantly to all the different mixes and we got to a point where we were like “I can’t even tell the difference between the little things changing in the mix”, so we stopped listening for a long while and we were gigging so we were out on the road anyway performing the songs, but then it wasn’t until about December that we decided to listen back individually in the car and we took that step back and went “yeah, we’re really proud of this album, we really are.”
AMBY: The landscape for creating music appears to be changing quite dramatically recently. Can you just tell our readers how The Shires actually came to be? How did you meet and how was the band formed?
Crissie: We met on Facebook, you know, the exact same way that Dolly and Kenny met [laughs]!! So Ben had been a songwriter for many years and found country music through Lady Antebellum.
Ben: I heard the song ‘Need You Now’, which blew my mind.
Crissie: Yeah, it spiralled on to this journey of country music and it was the style of music that just seems to fit his songwriting style and he decided he wanted to do a duo and he put this Facebook status up, saying there must be a female country singer in the UK and a mutual friend of ours tagged me into that status and Ben sent me four of the songs that night! I mean, the emails were like straight back, almost like a text conversation and I absolutely loved the songs and we met up the next day and it just went from there. I think the fact that we’d been working so hard individually meant that when we came together it was just plain sailing for the both of us. It really has been.
AMBY: So, when you got together was it always the intention to become a country duo or was it more of an organic process of finding a sound?
Ben: It was always country. Hearing that song, it suddenly felt like coming home as a songwriter and it was all I ever wanted to do. We just sat down and sang and it sort of IS country because that’s what we do.
Crissie: We listen to so much of it don’t we.
Ben: Exactly, it’s all we listening to and I think when you try to make something, it might work for a bit, but then you get found out eventually and you won’t enjoy yourself
AMBY: Your heart has got to be in it.
Ben: Yeah, and that’s the thing. People question, what is country nowadays because people are so used to it being just about the twang, about the stetsons and rhinestones etc etc but I think for us country is about honesty, songwriting and storytelling and that’s why we write about things that we know, like we’ve said before… we write about fish and chips and pebble beaches.
AMBY: There was a great documentary on BBC2 by Reginald D. Hunter exploring the music from The South and that’s what he was saying. You know, it’s storytelling, it’s about people, it’s about your experiences and that’s what I got from your album as well.
Ben: Thank you!
AMBY: Country music seems to be more popular than ever at the moment. Do you know any reason why that may be? Can you put your finger on it?
Crissie: There’s been some key things that have helped. ‘Nashville’ the TV show…
AMBY: That was one of my questions actually….
Cassie: [Laughs] I think people can get into it because it’s kind of soapy, but at the same time you’re getting this country music from unsigned artists and songwriters as well as the big names, so that has really helped. When Sam Palladio came over here for Country to Country he could not believe how famous he was. He couldn’t walk anywhere without people going, “Oh my gosh, it’s Gunnar!”, so he was completely taken aback by that and then I think Dolly Parton at Glastonbury last year was a massive step for us. There’s been pop up radio stations, the DAB stations, Radio Two… there has been so much more radio coverage, there’s more blogs going on, more articles, it’s not something to be shy of anymore, there’s so much more coming forward.
Ben: I think we both feel that the music has really changed as well. Country is so accessible now. It’s such a wide genre. At Country to Country you had Lady Antebellum and you had Bradley Gilbert who is as heavy as it gets! I think the music is so diverse that there is something for everyone but there is a more relatable side to it which is why it’s popular here now. Lady Antelbellum is not talking about trucks, not talking about things that are alien to us. It’s very relatable.
AMBY: I saw that when I saw Kacey Musgraves last summer. The audience was not your stetson wearing male. It was everyone! It was awesome to see that kind of interaction with that kind of artist.
Crissie: She covers so much current day stuff and the age range now is crazy. We’ve got nine year olds listening to our songs because their mum and dad’s are listening to it!
AMBY: You talked about being in Nashville and you’re going to be there in June now. I’m actually going to be there in August. What is the perfect day out in Nashville?
Crissie: Whoa, it usually starts with food
Ben: Noshville! Noshville is a breakfast place which is really famous and then I love Bicentennial Park personally. It’s the only place in the world that has a replica, full size Parthenon from Greece! There’s a one mile loop around it. Our hotel looks out to that and I go for a run around that which is always nice.
Crissie: There is the Ryman, the Grand Ole Opry. You can book tours to go around those places.
Ben: Country Music Hall of Fame!
Crissie: Arnolds! Which is a great place to get your meat and three veg, even though macaroni cheese is classed as veg! Just take a really good stroll around… Winners and Losers bar…
Ben: That whole mid-town area, that comes alive at night because that’s the industry part of town and you can see a lot of people playing in the bars, but the thing is, the quality of people… they’ll be really famous songwriters who’ve had countless number ones just playing the bars… just do everything!
AMBY: What’s in store for The Shires over the next twelve months?
Crissie: We’re heading to Nashville early June and then we are back and I think we’re festivalling every single weekend! We’re already writing the next album if it gets the go-ahead and probably another tour maybe.
AMBY: At Albert Hall this time?
Crissie: Albert Hall would be VERY cool!
Thank you The Shires, for giving us your answers!
Interview by Iain Fox | @iainafoxphoto