Crissie Rhodes and Ben Earle, better known as British Country duo The Shires chat with Kevin Cooper about performing at Country 2 Country, signing to Decca Records, their latest album Accidently On Purpose and their current tour of the UK.

The Shires are a British Country duo composed of singer-songwriters Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes. Earle sings vocals, plays piano and guitar, and Rhodes shares lead vocals. The duo formed in 2013 and released their debut album Brave in 2015, and became the first UK Country act to chart in the top ten of the UK Albums Chart. The group’s second album, My Universe, became the fastest-selling UK Country album in history when it was released in October 2016.

Rhodes was an X Factor contestant and was tipped as a winner but she failed to qualify out of the early rounds. Earle was previously a solo artist and had supported KT Tunstall on tour. Also a failed X Factor contestant he had been a struggling songwriter for about ten years, before he posted on Facebook “There must be a Country singer somewhere” and Rhodes responded.

Hailing from the neighbouring counties of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, they named themselves The Shires in order to maintain a British identity. They were quickly signed to Decca Records and they secured a contract with American record label Universal Music Group Nashville. They were also the first UK Country act to receive an award from the American Country Music Association.

The Shires released their third studio album, Accidently On Purpose, in April and whilst busy touring, they took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what they had to say.

Hi guys how are you today?

Ben Earle (BE) I’m very well thanks Kevin how are you?

Crissie Rhodes (CR) I’m good thanks Kevin, how are you today?

I’m very well thanks guys and before we move on let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

BE Not at all, we love Nottingham and we can’t wait to come back. We are very excited at the thought of coming back to play there once again because we had a really good gig the last time that we played there.

CR I loved it, the Royal Concert Hall is such a lovely place for us to play in.

Well I have to tell you that I was there photographing and reviewing the gig.

BE Were you really, well all that I can say is that it was one of our best gigs on that tour so I am really pleased that you saw it.

The first time that I saw you and photographed you was four years ago at the Cornbury Festival.

CR Wow that’s amazing. I really did enjoy playing at Cornbury.

BE That’s all gone now though hasn’t it?

No its not, they are back this year with a vengeance (laughter).

BE Are they? Well what can I say, they haven’t invited us along (laughter).

CR It sounds as though you know more about it than we do (laughter). We really did enjoy playing there.

It is very heavily leaning towards female artists this year with the likes of Alanis Morissette, Mavis Staples, Amy Macdonald, Pixie Lot and P.P. Arnold to name but a few.

CR So that will be The Shire then and be me performing on my own (laughter).

I have to ask you just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

BE Well I have to say that life at the moment couldn’t be better. As you know the new album was released on the 19th April and people seem to be loving what they are hearing so far. We are really proud of this album and we both feel that we have really stepped it up. We wanted to make an album that was a bit more poppy sounding and one that we could go out and dance to which we feel that we did. It felt really natural and it was a lot more fun out there, hanging out with a much younger crowd. Songs like Guilty and Echo particularly on the album really do reflect that fun side of things and I feel that you can hear us having fun.

CR We also took some time out as well. We toured really hard and for quite a while with both My Universe and Brave, the previous two albums, and then we did a few festivals at the end of the tour. So it was really nice for the two of us to get some free time to spend at home and that enables us to reflect upon everything that we had done and achieved over the past five years. I think that really helped to remind us what we are doing and just why it is that we do it. I feel that has most definitely helped us with the writing process with the new album.

And you have become a father again recently haven’t you Ben?

BE Yes I have and thankfully my son Tennessee’s timing was much better than his older brother River who made an appearance on the same day that we played the Acoustic Stage at Glastonbury a couple of years ago. So all was good this time; and thanks for asking.

You mention the last five years, can you believe just how good those five years have actually been to you?

CR In all honesty I have to say that it has been amazing. We can’t even believe that it has been five years (laughter). On the one hand it seems like a long time ago now but on the other it seems like yesterday. Ben and I met and we had this crazy dream that we could bring Country music to the UK and for us to now see just how many people are being converted to that genre of music really is incredible. The stigma of having to be a closet Country fan has completely gone now. There are now so many more commercial radio stations that are playing Country music, it is so exciting to be a part of it.

How did things go whilst you were writing and recording Accidentally On Purpose which was, as we know, the notoriously difficult third album?

CR (Laughter) we didn’t get to feel that sort of pressure at all. In fact we got to write with some incredible writers out in Nashville. We picked the producer for the album off of the back of writing with him for two sessions. The label didn’t really get involved with the writing and recording of the album. It is only now because we have to pick what songs are going to be played on the radio, and what the singles will be, that a little bit more pressure gets put upon you. Having said that from my point of view it has definitely not been difficult, in fact it has been really lovely to be able to keep writing the whole time and get our life stories out there almost.

BE I have to be honest with you and say that from my point of view the writing process never seems to get any easier with each and every album. However, what I would have to say is that it’s the pressure that changes (laughter). We always work to such a very high standard and that is simply down to the fact that both Chrissie and I are perfectionists, especially when we get into the studio.

Well I have to tell you that I have been playing the album for the past few days and I think that it’s great; I love it.

CR Thank you so much, that really is so nice of you to say that. It is so exciting for us that it is finally being heard. That is so very exciting.

Normally at this stage of the interview I would be saying to you that I like this track and that track but I have got to be honest with you and tell you that I simply cannot pick one track off the album.

BE What are you trying to say, that they are all really bad (laughter).

(Laughter) not at all, what I was trying to say is that each of the tracks on the album have all got their own legs and they can stand on their own merit.

CR That really doesn’t help us when we are trying to pick singles (laughter).

It must make you feel good when you know that the people out there are listening to the album as a whole. They are not skipping from track to track; they are listening to the whole album as an entity.

BE No you are right. We pour everything into each and every song and there is always that feeling that a certain track will be regarded as an album filler. However, as an artist you never really want to put out any album filler; for every single song we have sat, thought about and considered it before putting it onto the album. Sometimes you don’t nail it and sometimes you do. But I think that we felt like we had nailed it with every single song this time. There was not one single song that got away from us in the studio. We had an idea of just how each and every song should sound, we wrote it and hats off to our producer, Lindsay Ryman, who was great at realising that kind of vision for each song.

I know that it is early doors but just what has the fans reaction been like to the album?

BE To date it has all been pretty positive. A lot of the people out there have been quite surprised by the album especially with just how far the music and the sound have moved on. What has also surprised them is just how poppy and more colourful the sound on the album is, and just how much more colourful the songs feel. We were having a great time over there in Nashville, hanging out with a lot of younger songwriters, and more to the point we were having so much fun.

CR The majority of the people who have finally heard the album are now saying that they feel that it is our best work to date, which I have to say is pretty cool.

Would you agree with that?

CR What can I say, there are many fans out there who have reached out to us, together with industry people who also have a copy of the album and they are all saying that it is our best work to date. From my personal point of view I feel that every time that we release an album it has been the best of what we could do. Because this one is brand new as well; we are both so proud that it is out there and we are really excited about getting out there playing the new songs live and seeing the fans reaction to those songs. We wrote all of those songs in a tiny little room and you don’t really know, although we have a little idea of what our audience might make of it, but usually when you get out onto the performance side of things, the tracks take on a completely new life. We are lucky in the fact that we get to meet a lot of our fans who tell us just what the songs mean to them.

BE When we recorded our first album there was that pressure of how many units we were going to sell, plus were people actually going to come along to our shows. However, the one thing that we now know is that as long as you do everything you can at every stage, you pour everything into your song writing, you do your very best when recording it and then again when you are performing it, that is all that we ever do, we always do the very best that we can. That is all that we can ever do.

You have mentioned writing, from writing to recording how long did the new album take?

BE (Laughter) good question, just how long did it take (laughter). We were writing while we were still touring the last album and playing festivals. We played a lot of festivals last year and we found ourselves writing in between playing those. We went over to Nashville in May and October last year for a couple of writing sessions. So in all honesty I would have to say that it probably took us eighteen months to gather up all of the songs. We did have some songs left over from the second album but unfortunately none of them quite made it.

CR The recording process took us around six weeks, I think it was.

BE If that, I know that it was really quick.

CR That was the actual time that we spent in the studio. However, there was the post-production stuff that had to be done as well in order to tidy it all up. But all in all it was quite quick.

BE I personally found the whole process really easy this time. With the last two albums there was a lot of going back and forth with the mixing side of things, whereas this time it was so good. Lindsay our producer was so good that he just seemed to nail it. It was a really fun process.

Please don’t shoot me but I have to ask, do you currently have any thoughts on the next album?

BE (Laughter) funnily enough yes we have actually. We have a few plans which at this moment in time we are keeping to ourselves but if we can pull it off it will be quite amazing (laughter).

CR Have we?

BE (Laughter) yes we have but I will tell you all about it later (laughter). We are currently touring the album and it is such a big tour for us. We are playing twenty-one dates together with some huge venues including the Royal Albert Hall in London together with the bigger regional venues which is all really exciting. Places like the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham and the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, places where the sound is really incredible.

CR With this tour we have most definitely stepped-up the stage show and we are both really excited about that. The new artwork is really bold and bright colour’s so that is reflected within the stage show as well. Or so I hope anyway (laughter).

Does touring excite you?

CR Yes it does because it really is so much fun. Touring is completely different to the writing process and the recording process. The touring really is a lot of fun.

BE I think that touring is still the best way to listen to music. You can never ever replicate that kind of feeling and it’s funny whenever you see people holding up their iPhones or their iPads. I have watched those videos back and thought ‘why’ (laughter). You can’t capture that feeling of being at a live show. We all know that record sales have been on the decline for many years now but live sales have been going up and up. That is because attending a live gig is just so much fun. I sometimes feel a little guilty because I wish that the audiences at our shows could feel what we feel on stage. Whenever we sing a song such as How Many Love Songs and we can see two thousand people with their hands up in the air singing the song back to us, it simply is the greatest feeling. We just wish that everyone could really feel that.

I understand what you are saying but I personally don’t think that the vast majority of the audience go to listen to the music anymore. They take a thirty second clip on their iPhone to put it on YouTube saying “look who I went to see last night”. It is more a badge of honour.

BE Oh yes I know what you are saying and you are totally correct. I don’t know why they do that because despite all of the advances in modern technology, we may look pretty good but it still sounds awful (laughter).

Would you say that both Country and Country Pop here in the UK are in a good place?

CR Yes most definitely. At the moment there is just so much going on; people seem to be talking about it all the time. They are continually sharing things that they have discovered online, and festivals such as Country 2 Country plus a new festival this year called The Long Road. For us to see the progression of that can only mean one thing; that the genre here in the UK is most definitely in a good place. There are now some massive American artists coming over to the UK, together with some great acts from both Canada and Australia. All is looking great at the moment.

BE There are so many young UK artists coming through now, people like Catherine McGrath and even The Wandering Hearts, although they are a little more folk sounding, but they have still got a lot of Folk in their music. Also, don’t forget our good friends Ward Thomas; there are some great artists coming through. There is a whole new UK sound emerging so much so that you can definitely hear the differences between the American artists and the UK artists. It is a great community and really fun to be a part of.

CR The great news is that now the big American artists are so pleased and excited to be coming over here to the UK. The UK audiences have put themselves out by being an audience that wants to listen and be able to sing every single album track. Over in the States it is all about the singles whereas over here it is all about the whole album. I think that is why so many American acts now want to come over here to the UK and do their groundwork by playing the smaller venues and working their way up. I think that is why we are so lucky. I can remember speaking to a Country fan and he said that it used to be that perhaps once a year you could go into London and see one major artist.

Now you are having to pick who you want to see because there are so many people coming over here. I know that in the summertime there are just so many artists coming over from the States because they are just so excited to be coming back to the UK.

Well on that subject I have got my name firmly down to photograph Darius Rucker when he comes back to the UK later this year.

CR Wow really. Let me tell you that Darius blew us both away when we saw him at Country 2 Country; he was amazing.

Of course being a lot older than you I can remember Darius from his days with Hootie & The Blowfish back in the late 80s (laughter).

BE Yes that’s right. He wrote and recorded a song called It Won’t Be Like This For Long which is all about a child growing up and stuff, and being honest with you, when I listened to it, it made me cry.

CR I can remember the moment when all three of us were all sat together at Country 2 Country and he sang that song. I just looked at Darius and thought ‘this is your song’, the whole moment was just so perfect.

BE I have to say that he really is amazing.

You are now signed to Decca here in the UK and Universal Music Group Nashville over in the States, and I have to ask how is that working out for you because they don’t come much bigger than that do they?

BE Decca have been incredible for us. I have to say that it is really hard nowadays to market an album and get it out there to the right people and say the right thing but Decca have been absolutely brilliant. In actual fact they have been responsible for the surge in Country music over here in the UK. They really do look after the Country acts.

CR As well as Decca, Universal Australia have really been supporting us over there. They have been getting our songs out on the radio, and they are crying out for interviews so that proves that there is some excitement going on over there. Our plan is to take our music to as many countries as we can.

What you really need is an eighteen month long tour of Australia (laughter).

BE Yeah, that would be fantastic.

CR That would be so good, having the chance to enjoy some warm weather (laughter).

Right, now we come to what could be a very embarrassing moment when I ask you what was the first record that you bought?

BE (Laughter) mine was bad, really bad. It was Stay Now by East 17 (laughter).

CR I can’t remember exactly and if I could I wouldn’t tell you (laughter). I have to say that it would most probably have been something awful by the Spice Girls (laughter).

And to finish off, who did you first see performing live in concert?

CR Please don’t hold this against me but when I was fourteen years old I went to see Busted and I dressed as a school girl because that’s what their video was all about (laughter).

BE Being brought up in Somerset there were no really big shows down there so the first proper gig that I went to was U2 at Twickenham.

CR Wow that’s pretty cool.

On that note Ben and Chrissie let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been fantastic and I will see you here in Nottingham.

CR No problem Kevin, thank you too. You take care and bye for now.

BE Thanks for your time Kevin and I will make sure that I give you a wave in Nottingham.