When Ward Thomas became the first UK Country act to score a number one album it took some by surprise. But many in the know had been tipping Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas for big things for a while.
We first saw Ward Thomas playing at The Castle, Manchester, back in 2014. We were instantly hooked. When they released their debut album a while later, we knew that Ward Thomas were a cut above. More Manchester gigs at Band on the Wall, Gorilla, the Ritz, the Deaf Institute, and the O2 Apollo only solidified our view, as did the release of their number one album Cartwheels. So good were they at Gorilla, that we had no hesitation in heading over to Liverpool a few days later to see them again at Liverpool’s Arts Club.
Ward Thomas are now set to release their third album, Restless Minds (out 8 February 2019), accompanied by a UK tour which takes in Manchester’s Albert Hall.
The duo have previewed the album with the release of singles Never Know, Lie Like Me and most recently No Filter. No Filter echoed something which Ward Thomas have been talking about recently, the effect of social media on our lives. The stress it brings, the comparisons with other peoples’ ‘perfect Instagram moments’, the feeling of inadequacy when looking at what other people are posting.
“It’s very different to what we’ve ever done before” – Catherine Ward Thomas
The reaction to the song and accompanying video, has been positive, they tell me. “We were quite apprehensive when we released it. We didn’t really know how it was going to go. It’s very different to what we’ve ever done before. [But] the reaction’s been amazing.” explains Catherine, “I think being in our mid-twenties and having a lot of friends that are going through similar or very different experiences, we found that social media can be very damaging. Even though most of the time it can be very positive and a lot of fun, it can also be very damaging when you talk to a lot people. A lot of our peers are actually struggling through life whether it be, they’ve got a new job, a new environment they’re settling into and they’re struggling to find their feet. Then you go online and then you just see everyone having the best time and they’re flying high ‘living their best lives’.” As we discuss what people post on online, the addictive nature of social media, showing only the good parts of their life, filters creating the perfect image, leaving the worst parts of their lives hidden away, it’s clear that this is a very important subject for Catherine and Lizzy. “I think that we’ve always found it a bit of an irksome topic where people are only going to show you the good parts of their lives. Not everything looks good with a filter. I think that it’s just really important to know that, so that we know that sometimes social media isn’t good for us, because we’re feeling low, we’re feeling a bit crappy. … it’s something that we feel very strongly about and we’ve been very much effected by personally and we feel like it’s important to write about the things that we really care about.”
The new album comes a little over two years after Ward Thomas hit the number 1 spot on the Official Albums Chart in 2016. Their second studio album, Cartwheels was the first by a UK country act to reach the top spot. In fact the best that had been previously achieved was The Shires’ debut album Brave in 2015, which hit the number 10 spot.
Does the success of Cartwheels burden Ward Thomas with any additional pressure coming up to its release? “A lot of pressure actually,” admits Catherine, “Cartwheels was one of those phases in life that everything completely surpassed our expectations and everything was so crazy that we really wanted to manage our expectations this time around. We wanted to be careful about how we presented the next phase to the world. We didn’t want to make another Cartwheels. We were very conscious of making sure that Cartwheels is done and it’s out there now and it’s not going anywhere, and you can always listen to it, but we wanted the next album to sound different, sound new.”
“Every project is about who we are at the time, about what we’re feeling at the time” – Lizzy Ward Thomas
“We’re different people when we make new albums” adds Lizzy “Every project is about who we are at the time, about what we’re feeling at the time. We want to always show a progression and show development. Let’s hope that Restless Minds shows that.”
Restless Minds has seen Ward Thomas working with a varied creative group including pop song writers, which they explain was an interesting process. And curiously the more country songs on the album were penned in conjunction with those pop writers. Production came from Martin Terefe and Joe Rubel.
There was certainly an evolution in style and sound from Ward Thomas’ debut From Where We Stand moving in to Cartwheels. So what can we expect this time around? “I think that the singles we’ve put out so far are quite a good reference as to what to expect. I think with Restless Minds, we tried to have a whole mixture of things. There’s some more country songs and there’s some just really pop rocky songs. It’s a real mixture” says Lizzy. “In this case also it’s different because we work with different people as well. You can hear the different influences from Joe’s touch on the production to Martin’s. It’s all very different from each other. It was very exciting to be able to work with those people. We learned a lot from loads of different people in the songwriting room and in the studio.”
Writing with Rachel Furner particularly stood out, they tell me. “We just completely connected instantly with her. We were quite nervous and apprehensive before going in the room. You’re always a bit worried whether you’re going to connect with the person, and whether it’s going to work. We just remember going into the room and she was so honest, and she was such a breath of fresh air. Now, we’ve become friends ever since and we went to her wedding. That session formed a relationship.”
But the biggest difficulty with the album came when it was complete, they explain, “I think the pressure of making it good made it quite hard for us to be relaxed about things. I think the skill of being able to leave it well alone when it was done was quite hard for us. I think we could’ve kept working on it forever, because we were so conscious of it being set, or just being better or if not just a good lead on from Cartwheels. Cartwheels set the bar for us. We were just so conscious of it still being as popular.”
Rachel actually featured on Ward Thomas’ Restless Voices series on YouTube. It was a series in which they discuss a range of issues, from music writing to mindfulness with a range of guests. They explain that the series came about as they had so much to say and talk about once they had signed off the album. We discuss the particular episode featuring Rachel Furner and Ed Drewett. “It felt like such a good opportunity to pair up with the album and talk to people that we really respect” says Catherine, “and almost give an insight [into the process] with Ed and Rachel, especially, and give insight into how much we talked before we even wrote a song in the room. We had so much to say about everything that we’ve written about! There’s so many amazing people out there doing some amazing things. It just felt like it was such a good opportunity to start something. It feels like a random idea and it’s really worked out quite well.”
“It shows you a little bit what the whole vibe was like in the writing room” – Lizzy Ward Thomas
“We like having the idea involved in what we’re trying to convey as a message with our album,” adds Lizzy, “We like to show people. Ed and Rachel had three songs each cut on the Restless Minds album. Seeing it from their point of view, from the topics we talked about, we find really important. It shows how we wrote these songs, where they came from. It shows you a little bit what the whole vibe was like in the writing room with all of us and how the song came about. We really enjoyed showing that to everyone.”
Once the album is released, Ward Thomas are wasting no time in hitting the road again. They are playing fourteen dates across the UK opening on 24 February. The tour brings them to Manchester for a gig at the Albert Hall on 6 March.
“We can’t wait to get back on the road and to show all these new songs” says Lizzy, excitedly. “It’s always really exciting to play new songs to everyone, and seeing their reactions. We’ve been planning the show, the set and everything and it makes us more and more excited to go on the road. We’re definitely ready to get back on the road. … We’ve done a lot of summer festivals where we’ve been playing a lot of the Cartwheels songs and a few of the new songs … We’ve had some really good reactions so far. We just can’t wait to show everyone the next chapter.”
As we talk about performing live, I mention Ward Thomas’ gig at The Castle five years back and how far they’ve come to performing in front of thousands instead of 10s. “That is one of the most rewarding feelings because it just shows you that the songs we’ve written in the tiny room are being listened to … and people relate to what we have to say,” comments Lizzy “That is an amazing feeling. I have to say that gigs like The Castle, are still our favourite shows because you get to be more intimate with the audience and get to see them all singing along and it’s always such a reward to see everyone singing along to the lyrics of not just the singles, but the album tracks to your record as well. It is always surreal to think about that.”
“I have a tiny bunk and you don’t have anywhere to change”- Catherine Ward Thomas
But there’s something that I want to know about touring. Ward Thomas have been encouraging people to lose the filter on social media and to share something, anonymously, which they otherwise would not post. Responses have varied from pulling a sickie at work, to spending all day in pyjamas without having a wash, to people being honest about emotional struggles which they are facing privately. In the spirit of this I want to know what the unglamourous side of touring is which they wouldn’t normally find themselves talking about. They’re both in agreement – “The unglamorous side is the sleeper bus!” laughs Catherine, “It’s horrible. Well, some are really nice, but the sleeper bus is not some people’s cup of tea. I have a tiny bunk and you don’t have anywhere to change and you live either in the living room or on your bed. It’s just there’s very little room to breathe. I think that’s probably the most unglamorous side, but I’m definitely not complaining. We are definitely quite happy sleeping on the bus and playing along with it.” “It’s part of the experience of the tour,” adds Lizzy “Also, you get to have a drink with all the boys at the end of the show and all just– It’s like being on the road with your family really. It is always fun. The sleeping part of it isn’t that easy, especially at the beginning of the tour it takes us a while to sleep a full night on the bus.”
When do Ward Thomas headline at Manchester’s Albert Hall?
Ward Thomas headline at the Albert Hall Manchester on 6 March 2019. The Manchester gig is one of fourteen shows announced:
24 February – Bexhill, De La Warr Pavilion
25 February – York, Barbican
26 February – Guildford, G-Live
28 February – Bristol, O2 Academy
1 March – Cambridge, Junction
2 March – Norwich, Open
4 March – Cardiff, St David’s
5 March – Leicester, De Montfort Hall
6 March – Manchester, Albert Hall
1 April – Birmingham, Institute
2 April – Southampton, O2 Guildhall
3 April – London, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire
5 April – Glasgow, SWG3
6 April – Gateshead, Sage
Restless Minds is released on 8 February 2019.
Image of Ward Thomas courtesy Damien Fry