Ward Thomas

Surprise. There are two country acts in the U.K. Top 20 album chart at the moment. Dolly Parton is one. The duo debuting at #1 aren’t even American. They’re Ward Thomas, 22-year-old English twins Lizzy and Catherine Ward Thomas, from the small village of Hawkley, Hampshire, in England’s south. Local leisure options include Film Club or pilates classes in the village hall or maybe joining the church bell-ringing society. If Ward Thomas have worn “cowboy boots” before, it’s probably on the farm where they grew up.

Like many “country” acts of modern times, Ward Thomas straddle styles with keen pop songwriting and polished production, but the sisters’ flawless harmonies reveal a youth adoring the Dixie Chicks, singing Cash/Carter and Carrie Underwood at pub talent nights, and “obsessing” on Kacey Musgraves and Taylor Swift’s Red. Add the influence of The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac – favorites in their parents’ part-time covers-band – and you have the key ingredients of Cartwheels, Ward Thomas’s second album which has stunned the U.K. charts.

Gibson.com asked Lizzy – the younger by two minutes, since you ask – about how they went to Nashville first before bringing their own brand of pop country back to conquer their homeland. And why Gibson acoustics are their perfect live guitar...

“I started playing guitar at about 14, a bit before Catherine,” says Lizzy. “But although she followed me, I think she’s probably the better player now. But it was together, really. It was the Dixie Chicks that got us into this. We loved their songs, still do, and saw their musicianship. It was simply: We want to be like that!”

Your parents played in cover bands, though, so I’m guessing they were very encouraging?

“They were. But it only really became a career option, as it were, when we started writing our own songs in sixth form [twelfth grade]. We sang together in school choir, I was a soprano and Catherine was the alto, and that’s where we learned how to harmonize. But then we got into Johnny Cash and the Dixie Chicks – we have a Canadian cousin who loves them, Carrie Underwood, Zac Brown – and our parents used to play Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, The Kinks in a covers band, so we were surrounded by music our whole upbringing really.

“But it was only when we started writing songs and got sent off to Nashville that our parents went: OK, this is definitely promising. It was surreal, the only word I can use for it.”

Getting “sent off to Nashville” (for first album From Where We Stand, 2014) makes it sound like an everyday occurrence: but you were soon working with top producers and writers, and getting advice from Vince Gill. What really happened?

“Our teacher at school was actually a session singer for Amy Grant back in the day. Our teacher liked our songs and knew Bobby Blazier and Chris Rodriguez (session drummer and session guitarist for Faith Hill, Kelly Clarkson). She sent our song “Footnotes” over and, literally it seemed, we were straight on a plane to Nashville to record. Amazing.

“We’d never even to America before. Everyone in Nashville was really good to us. I think they were excited about these two teenagers from the U.K. playing ‘their’ music. All the songs on the first album were written in the U.K, about what we’d experienced growing up, it just so happened the music was country-style, so they found that perspective really interesting, It was certainly interesting for us playing live in Nashville for that reason, because we were quite different.”

Ward Thomas

But although d├ębut album From Where We Stand was recorded in Nashville, Cartwheels was recorded in London: any particular reason?

“Well, the Nashville sound, I don’t think you can get anywhere else. It seems very perfect, recording wise, very different, and we wanted to go in a slightly different direction. Although we wrote a lot of the new Cartwheels songs in Nashville, they’re still from our British perspective and we wanted to retain that. That’s one reason we wouldn’t call it a country album. It’s influenced by country, but in recent years we’ve been influenced by huge range of different music from all over.

“It was quite different recording in London. In Nashville, all the backing musicians learn the song, put it down immediately. In London, with Martin Terefe (producer, also Jason Mraz, Ron Sexsmith) we approached every song with the song speaking for itself, every song was treated differently. Some songs were live with a full band. Other songs, it was just Catherine and I singing and playing. We even did three songs on tape, the songs with Jimmy Hogarth (Amy Winehouse, James Bay) producing. That was very exciting.”

“A lot of this album feels more personal, a lot more coming from Catherine and I. The first album we were only really 16, 17 when writing, so we went into the studio in awe... we let the studio musicians do their thing. This time, we had a lot more to do with production, more collaboration. The vocals in Nashville, we recorded separately. In London, we did them live together, as we’ve sung growing up. So I think it has more of a personal feeling.”

Your lyrics aren’t always the usual country fare: I’m not surprised you’re fans of Kacey Musgraves...

“Oh, she’s a genius. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, and a lot of younger fans obviously like that. Everyone likes a rebel. Writing “When It’s Not Me” we actually said to each other; let’s make this one a bit Kacey! We’re still really into her, but on that song we were kind of going through anobsessed phase. We wrote that one in Nashville with Jamie Kenny, but we love how Kacey says what maybe a lot of people in the country world think, but she’s not afraid to say it. She’s exciting.”

When it comes to acoustics, you both play Gibson (Lizzy a J-185 cutaway in Limited Edition sunburst, Catherine a sunburst J-45)...

“Oh yes, we love Gibson. People say it all the time, but you really can’t go wrong with a Gibson. I love the richness, the full deeper sound than, say, a Taylor. Although actually, we came across Gibson more in London recording this new album. One of the guys we worked with in Nashville was a huge Gibson fan, always going on about them, but it took us to get back to London to really realise why. We started taking Gibsons out for (2015) summer festivals and that’s when we fell in love with Gibsons, really. They’re so good, live.”

With you and The Shires (fellow U.K. country act signed to Universal in Nashville), there’s now talk of Britain selling country music back to the U.S... what do you reckon to that?

“Well, we’re very English. We value our home, our country, a lot so we want to take it step by step. We’ll focus on the U.K first, hopefully America soon enough. But step by step. I think it’ll be better for our sanity, too! But it’s cool. If we can help make an American genre more popular in the U.K, that’s really rewarding.”

Watch Ward Thomas’s “Guilty Flowers” unplugged.

Photos: WTW Music/Sony