With country music on the up-and-up in the UK, duo The Shires have just become the first band to score a UK top 10 country album.  We caught up with one of UK country’s hottest properties at the Manchester date of their UK tour to chat to Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes about Brave, touring and country music in general.

Welcome to Manchester.  Congratulations on your album, Brave, the first country album to get into the top 10, a fantastic achievement.  How did that feel?

Crissie: Pretty crazy.  Pretty surreal really, I don’t think it has quite sunk in still.  It’s just a really great feeling.  Decca said to us that there could be a chance that we would get in to the top 10, and we were like ‘oh yeah, we doubt that’.  We really didn’t think it was possible and we still got behind it saying, ‘come on, let’s try and get this top ten album’ and the fans came out in full support and managed to get us in there, breaking history, a great achievement.

Ben: In many ways it shouldn’t have happened, and so that’s why we thought it couldn’t happen, but we went in at number 8 in the mid-weeks and we had a whole crazy week doing promo, the album was jumping up and down, and we had Country-2-Country on the Saturday and Sunday.  We found out on the Sunday and just couldn’t believe it, that it had gone top ten.  It still hasn’t really sunk in at all.

I think it speaks volumes of the quality of Brave, as it is a cracking album.  When you set about writing and recording it, what did you have in mind?  How did you set about the process?

Ben: We always said we wanted to do it in Nashville, it had to be done in Nashville and Decca had said to us, before we signed, ‘yeah, we’ll do it’, and part of me was concerned that they would change their minds, that it might be too expensive, but they just ran with the whole vision.  We were out there, three months after we signed, recording the album.  We were out literally two weeks after we started writing, recording.

Crissie: We had a week of writing.  The songs on the album had been written over the space of years, Ben had written some before and then when we met we then started writing more.  Then we went to Nashville for one week, we were writing for six days, did seven sessions and then it came to the process of recording it and we recorded fifteen songs in three days.  We literally walked in and had half a day, charting the songs out with the drummer and then the next day we were in the studio and the players would go in to the main control room, listen to the song once, they’d have their chart and they would go ‘yep, we’ve got it, cool’, they’d go in and the first take was it, done, finished product.  They were absolutely amazing.  It was so incredible to watch.

Ben: Sometimes the things they were listening to were out of the room, with a guitar and a dictaphone, it was really old fashioned, like going back in time.

Crissie: They were very excited to have us out there because having Brits going out there and doing their style of music, excited them.  And we’re not full on country like old school, which they’re very used to playing, there’s that kind of pop vibe in there as well.  So it was quite refreshing for them.

Who would you say your influences were when putting the album together?

Crissie: We’ve got, like, Lady Antebellum, Civil Wars, those are the two stand out ones for us.

Ben: Yeah.  Lady A, I think in terms of the sound, and Civil Wars in terms of the harmonies, the vocals, the way they play off each other.  We’ve been really fortunate to have met quite a few, really famous country stars and also really great ones and ones who are on their way there.  I think they influenced us a lot.  We saw Brad Paisley literally the day before our first trip to Nashville.  He did a Radio 2 event, playing songs and talking about them.

Crissie: It was like a songwriting round.  The team was there and they were all talking about their influences and why they wrote the song.  He’d be in the middle of playing a song and he’d go ‘that lyric there came because of this reason’.  It was the most inspiring thing to watch.

Ben: That was the night before we went to Nashville the first time.  We were changing money in Oxford Circus at midnight, changing it in to dollars, and then we got on the plane at 8am.  That was just incredible.

You mentioned that you have been well received over in Nashville.  There seems to have been a big resurgence in the UK over the last few years.  What would you attribute that to?

Ben: A lot of stuff.

Crissie: There’s a few things, I think Nashville the TV show has helped a lot.  There are so many of my friends who I wouldn’t necessarily think are into country music but they love the show and then in with that is all the country music, song writers like John and Jacob, people who are on the rise get their songs noticed on that programme.  I think Dolly Parton at Glastonbury, that was a big moment.

Ben: I think also, the thing is, country has changed.  It’s really, really accessible now.

Crissie: It’s a refreshing sound.  Over here I think we’re so used to hearing the kind of pop stuff in the charts and throw away lyrics, whereas I think with country music there’s so much honesty and people want to hear that someone else is going through that heartbreak or someone else is in love with another person as much as they are in love with somebody.

Ben: I think for a long time it was all about the Stetsons, the rhinestones, the cowboys and that’s what we expected when we went to Nashville for the first time but Crissie says a funny thing, apparently you can tell the tourists in Nashville because they’re the only ones who have Stetsons.

Crissie: I think it was Kip Moore who said to me, ‘I think it’s hilarious that you guys are wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots over here because in Nashville nobody does that anymore.  The only people who do are tourists, so you can tell them a mile off’.  It’s very cosmopolitan over there.

Ben: It’s a modern city, there’s people from the south and all around America, there’s people there from Britain, from Europe, from Australia, there are all kinds of people.  And the music is reflecting that.  I think that’s why it’s doing so well over here now.  Something like we do, you could argue is not a country song, it’s a pop song and it’s very similar to the stuff we grew up listening to in the ‘90s and the noughties.  That was the sort of music we listened to, things like Boyzone and Westlife.

Crissie: The Corrs.

Ben: The Corrs is a great example and Ronan’s You Say Nothing At All, was a country song and that’s what a lot of country is like now, middle of the road, pop with a lot of rock in there.

Did you play whilst you were out in Nashville?

Crissie:  We haven’t played out there so far for visa reasons, but we are going to go out there in June and we’ve got our debut at the Grand ‘Ol Opry, which we’ve just found out about this morning.  We’re pretty excited about that.  Any maybe a Bluebird Café performance and the CMA Festival as well.  The big ones over there!

You mentioned that you did C2C this year, how was that?

Crissie: Last year was our first year and I remember being a ball of nerves.  We got up on that stage and we did not know how we would be received.  We had a good few supporters out there last year, but this year was just absolutely surreal.

Ben: We played the same stage.

Crissie: The same stage again.  The security had to close off the area, because it was a hazard, there were too many people, which was surreal.

Ben: Last year we played that stage and a few people knew about us as we’d just signed our deal and were pretty much the first, at the time, to sign to a major, so we had about 200 people at the most and it felt, at the time, rammed.  It wasn’t – it was relatively empty as it’s quite a big space, we thought it was amazing.  This year was 1,200 people.  We just looked out and if anything I was more nervous this time because people were expecting a lot of us, people wanted us to do well, they love the fact that UK country is being listened to.

Crissie: We also got to go on the satellite stage, which was incredible, in the main O2 Arena and announce about the album too and then we got to go to the afterparty, and it honestly just felt like we were partying with our friends.  Everyone was just as drunk as could be, it was a real good old knees up!

Ben: I think we played about 3 or 4 more songs than we were meant to.

Crissie: Yeah, I think the tempos were pushed on everything!  It was a great weekend.

You’re on tour again now.  How does this tour differ from previous ones as you’re headlining and with the album behind you.

Crissie: I think the main thing we realise is that when we introduce songs, people cheer because they know them now and they sing along, they know all the words, a lot of them.  The singles are always working really well – Nashville Grey Skies, Tonight and Friday Night as well – and being able to play Jeckyll and Hide as well because before when we were acoustic it didn’t really work as well and people didn’t know it, so it’s really nice.  The band are absolutely amazing – we had rehearsals before we came away and we’ve stolen them out of Uni for the whole month (they’ve got major projects and we’re stealing them away!) It’s just brilliant to be on the road.

What have you got planned after this tour?

Ben: We’ve got a lot of festivals which is really exciting.  We’re going to Nashville, the CMA Fest which is incredible, then at the end of the year hopefully another tour.  We have an idea of how many albums we’d like to sell, the chart position is amazing, but what you want is to say ‘we’ve sold this many’ so at a time when people aren’t buying albums as much it would be nice to know we’ve sold quite a few.  And then we’ve already started writing for album 2, we’ve written quite a few songs together and we wrote one with Kip Moore which was great and we’re writing with John and Jacob at the moment, so we’ll get some songs together and then at the start of next year …

Crissie: We’ve got about an album worth of stuff already with the ones which didn’t make the first album as well.

And you’ve just finished filming a video as well for State Lines.

Ben: Yeah, it was incredible.  We finished up on a roof top in LA at sunset, with downtown LA in front of us.

Crissie: We worked with the same team as we did with Friday Night so we knew them all when we got out there and it just seems to be a really good time to work with.

Ben: It was a very different video for us as well, compared to the other ones we have done all ready.  We started out and were all about the ballads, that’s what we do, we love singing harmonies, slow songs and ballads and we hadn’t released one yet, we had Tonight, Nashville Grey Skies and Friday Night, so this for us was really refreshing, really exciting, to do a song like that.  And when I saw the first edit I had a tear moment myself (laughs) and I know the song inside out.  The director really bought into the vision and he really understood it, got it and took it to this place.

Crissie: The actors and actresses were absolutely amazing out there too.  We got to watch them do their thing and we kind of wanted loads of videos from them as you don’t get to see all the lovely parts that happened at the shoot.  It should be ready to go very soon.

Ben:  In about two weeks.

Who do you like to listen to in your downtime?

Crissie: I listen to a lot of Kip Moore, I love his stuff, Hunter Hayes, Little Big Town

Ben: We saw Hunter Hayes, he was amazing.

Crissie: I never get bored of listening to the same songs over and over, I don’t think you ever do.

Ben: I like Lady Antebellum, I love listening to them, especially the We Own The Night album.

Crissie: We can play that over and over.

Ben: When were just starting out and getting into country I would go running and put that album on and every time I hear it takes me right back.  Listening to a certain genre, it was really exciting back then – it’s still exciting now but it’s a different type of excitement.  Back then it was all new and every song I was like ‘oh what’s that’, ‘I haven’t heard that before’ and now I’m quite accustomed to country, but that album still gets me every single time.