Lizzie Ward Thomas is so country her ringtone is a horse neighing. “Did you hear that?” she laughs, passing the blame on to her twin sister Catherine, explaining that she was actually using her phone for the interview. Together they make up Ward Thomas, the singer-songwriter duo that is in part responsible for the rise of country music in the UK, having had their second album Cartwheels be the first country record to ever top the UK charts. With this kind of claim to fame, it’s no wonder country music has seeped into every aspect of their lives.
And their latest album, Invitation, out today, is no exception. Written and recorded in their Hampshire cottage during lockdown, Lizzie tells me it felt like they were really getting back to their roots when making this album. “We were often recording in our pajamas with a cup of tea”, she explains, completing the picture by describing their rustic cottage as “something straight out of the movie The Holiday”, complete with a continuous stream of chickens wandering through the kitchen.
Apart from being quintessentially country, Invitation is also a deeply personal album as it was produced at a big crossroads in both of the girls’ lives. Lizzie explains: “It’s got a lot of me and Catherine in it, individually as well as together. Like the rest of the world, we’re in a transition stage at the moment. Both of us have lived together our whole life, done everything together, but now we’re splitting up. However, we’re ready to separate to bring us closer together. So, a lot of the songs on the album have a transition feel to them, quite naturally.” However, despite this moment of fracturing, the album also has a surprisingly upbeat tone which Lizzie hopes conveys a positive message overall. “We finished it in the summer months and we wanted it to have that happy, summery feel. So while you can hear that we’re experiencing change, it’s a positive change, rather than a negative one.” This ethos is reflected in the name of the album, which Lizzie says is an “invite to people to listen to the album, but also to invite people to the massive party that we’re all going to be having when this is all over,” something which both sisters are really looking forward to, especially since their tour has now been pushed back until April.
Now at a defining moment in their relationship, I ask Lizzie what kind of pressure making music has put on her and Catherine. “We’ve grown closer as a result”, she says. “We’ve experienced so much over the years from a slightly different perspective, so when it comes to writing about those things, it just comes so naturally”. Their natural abilities also lend themselves to this harmonious way of working. “If there’s a big belty chorus I tend to take the melody and if there’s a nice low verse then Catherine takes the melody. To decide we just point at each other and say: ‘you’ll take that?’ Obviously when you work, live and do everything together like we do, and you’re always on tour, you end up bickering and there were times we didn’t feel as close as normal, but we just had to have space from each other. Just like any sisters do.”
Being twins I ask them if they’ve ever had any trouble asserting their own independence, pointing out their strikingly different hair colour as a potential example of this. Lizzie laughs and tells me: “Funnily enough I’ve actually always been blonde and Catherine’s always been brunette. We’re actually IVF twins so we’re non-identical. We’ve always looked more like sisters than twins and our mum always made the point of not dressing us up in the same outfits when we were little so we could be our own people. Our friends would say we’re very different, we have different relationships with all of them. Ultimately we’ve got very different personalities, but they’re also quite similar, if you get what I mean?”
Admittedly, they’ve had quite a long time to get used to their sister dynamic being put under the spotlight as despite being only 26, they’ve already been names in the country music scene for almost half a decade. Talking about their first album Lizzie states: “Everyone will say the same, when you make your first album and release it into the world, it’s an experiment. You don’t know how people are going to take to it, especially with country music in the UK. We were so young, making the album was our first experience of going to the U.S. We were so doe eyed! We were writing with all these amazing people and kept thinking to ourselves: “oh my god – we’re doing our A Levels.”
Their story definitely is a bit of a whirlwind; first having their tapes sent to a Nashville producer by their singer-songwriter teacher, followed shortly by themselves when they went there to record their first album. Of Nashville, the hallowed home of country music, Lizzie says: “we love it over there, being musicians and artists, you’re living and breathing music, and not just country music – all different kinds of genres. We lived out there for a few months at a time after we first went there, made a real community out there and stuck ourselves into the Nashville scene. Every time we go and write in Nashville we write that one song that shapes the coming album. We wrote ‘Cartwheels’ there and we wrote a lot of the songs for Invitation there, like ‘Open Your Mind’ and ‘Sweet Time’.” Despite their album defining material being produced there, it seems as though the approach to writing in Nashville is miles away from the norm in London. “We’ll normally have one long session with wine or tea, get take out, be there from morning until night, whereas in Nashville it’s more of a quick business thing. People are running from session to session so you end up churning out a song pretty quickly.” This seems to present its own set of issues. “Sometimes it’s great if you have good chemistry with people but other times it’s like ‘oh my god, how are we going to get a song out in three hours time with people we have nothing in common with?”
However, when the duo first started writing, the country music scene in the UK hadn’t yet been through a resurgence, meaning the girls naturally went to Nashville to write. “I think before a lot of people thought of Country and Western as a really American thing; but when people say Country and Western that’s a whole different genre. Country music is such a wide genre, there’s Country Rock and Country Pop, and it goes on. A lot of people didn’t understand that it could be separate from Western and didn’t have to talk about cowboys and trucks, because unfortunately we don’t really have cowboys in this country, as much as we might like to.”
However, in the last few years TV shows like Nashville and stars like Taylor Swift and the sister’s themselves have introduced country music to a whole new generation of Brits, with Dolly Parton amassing the biggest crowd of any artist at Glastonbury Festival in 2014. Incidentally Dolly has been a big inspiration for Ward Thomas both on and off stage. Lizzie and I got to talking about Dolly Parton’s America, a fantastic podcast produced by WNYC Studios. One episode entitled ‘Dolitics’ focuses on how the country monolith escaped the fate of groups like the Dixie Chicks (now named Chicks) by sidestepping any questions about her political views. This is something Ward Thomas has also tried to do, an increasingly hard stance to take in an era of outspoken social media fueled political opinion. “Times have definitely changed”, Lizzie admits, “but for Catherine and I, we’d rather speak through our songs rather than come across too opinionated. We like to stay open minded, everyone has different opinions and that’s just the nature of being human. We respect it so much when it comes from other bands, but for us, we’re just in it for the music”.
However, it’s not to say that the UK has never been interested in country music, with classics like Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson being in relative common parlance for decades. Lizzie says that this type of country music appeals to British people more because of the stories they tell. “The songs are about genuine stuff, they have harmonies and an authentic message. That’s what country music is for me. It’s just singer songwriter music”. It’s potentially this attitude that made the sister’s music so accessible, “Well I guess we didn’t try and write about anything that wasn’t country. We never wanted to genre-specify ourselves, we wanted to experiment and let the songs speak for themselves. When we played our music in Nashville – a lot of people said that it sounded like a British version of country. And people could relate to that more. We don’t really try to be country, we’re naturally country. We grew up on a farm.”
The rise of country music in the UK could be due to lots of things like social media or trans-genre figures, however, considering the turbulent time we’re all experiencing at the moment it might not be a coincidence. Lizzie says: “Country music brings out a feeling when you listen to it; it brings out a lot of emotion, the natural authentic sound with harmonies, and the stories in it. People want to hear nice stories. I feel like country music is a good thing for people to escape to, like reading a good book.” I ask Lizzie if she feels that potentially country music is the healing that we all need right now? “Definitely, from my perspective as a real country fan, when I listen to Miranda Lambert, it’s a therapy feeling. I think when people can hear a song like that and relate so much, it’s a real healing process. And I think country music does that best out of all the genres.”
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Photographer Doh Lee
Stylist Camelia Marinescu
Stylist Assistant Patel Rekita
Makeup Rebecca Hampson
Hair stylist Shari Rendle