Ward Thomas could tell that change was afoot from the moment they wrote Cartwheels, now the punch-to-the-stomach title track of their sensational second album. Straight away the sisters knew the song was special.
What they didn’t know was that their second album ‘Cartwheels’ would sail to the top of the UK Album Chart on release making them the first ever UK country act to do so.
Back to the track though. Whenever they performed it live, they felt an intense connection to the crowd. When they sang it at London’s O2 Arena, fans hearing it for the first time fell silent.
“There’s a pause in the song during which you could have heard a pin drop,” says Lizzy, the blonde half of the Hampshire duo who were barely out of their teens when they became country crossover stars.
“I watched the faces of fans, women mostly, and knew they felt the vulnerability of the lyrics. It was a magical moment.”
Cartwheels tells the sad tale of someone who refuses to accept that a relationship is over, who longs to be noticed, but is only ignored, who “bends so we won’t break”. It’s both heartbreakingly sad and sonically beautiful, a gut-wrenching tear-jerker whose stripped-back sound leaves nowhere to hide.
“All of our lyrics are personal,” says co-vocalist Catherine, “but Cartwheels was the most brutally honest we’d ever been. No one wants to admit they’re that needy, that they’re prepared to do anything to save a relationship they know deep down is broken. Being able to share those emotions with an audience is incredibly powerful.”
Cartwheels was written two years ago, at a session in Nashville during the campaign for 2014’s ‘From Where We Stand’, the duo’s unexpectedly successful debut album, begun for fun while they were at school and released as an experiment on their own label.
After a debut EP caught the ears of some of country music’s biggest stars, among them 20 times Grammy Award winner Vince Gill, From Where We Stand was completed and recorded in Nashville, but remained distinctively British.
Its Number 1 selling follow-up has roots in the country music capital, but only insofar as it was where Ward Thomas clicked with their current co-writers – Brit Jessica Sharman and Rebekah Powell, the Nashville-bred daughter of revered hitmaker Monty Powell. With Cartwheels written, Ward Thomas returned to Britain, where their songs were all over the radio and where they spent much of next 18 months on tour.
The remainder of the new album was written and recorded in London, produced largely by Martin Terefe (KT Tunstall, Jason Mraz, Shawn Mendes), and partly by Jimmy Hogarth (Amy Winehouse, Paolo Nutini, Sia). Cartwheels wasn’t just the first track in the bag, it inspired what was to follow.
“It established our new sound,” says Lizzy. “Lyrically, it was much more grown-up than anything on our debut. Sonically, it was a move away from country to lots of other influences we grew up with – Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, KT Tunstall, some Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift’s Red album. We’re still influenced by country, we still adore the Dixie Chicks and Kacey Musgraves, but this isn’t just a country album.”
In fact, the title track is among several on the album to shrug off country entirely, although the 22 year old twins’ beguiling harmonies remain their calling card.
Lose Me is a fast-paced pop song that rocks out. The glorious Almost Easy adds strings and electronics to the mix. Bewitching ballad Who I’m Not is set to shimmering orchestration. Boisterous lead single Carry You Home is simply a storming pop song.
“Touring our debut definitely made a difference,” says Catherine. “The tighter you become as a band, the more comfortable you are with experimenting. After two UK tours, festivals and playing to 55,000 people in Hyde Park, we had more confidence in who we were as musicians and what we were capable of. That gave us the freedom to explore.”
The biggest change, however, was that the teenagers became adults. With their co-writers, they were four young women, sitting in a room, pouring their hearts out. They didn’t think in terms of genre, but of stories, emotions and coping mechanisms. They wrote about situations they had either experienced themselves or seen their friends go through. In extraordinary couplets they captured everything from deep friendship to deep despair, from loneliness and heartbreak to the joy of moving on, from feeling like a failure to the pleasure of heading to the hills to de-stress.
The gorgeous Guilty Flowers is the tables-turning tale of someone who was cheated for being cheated on. The fun, faux-bitchy When It’s Not Me is a topical take on judging others, told from a small town perspective, but applicable to the wider world. As incisive and affecting as the title track is standout Almost Easy, about dreams ripped to shreds when a relationship ends.
“A friend of Rebecca’s had just been through a bad break-up and she described the plans she’d had as like pots on a shelf she wanted to smash,” says Lizzy. “It’s not just losing someone that hurts, it’s losing the person you became when you were with them, your ‘best self’ as we call it. The future you thought you had and the person you thought you were going to be.”
Cartwheels the album, contains a cartwheel of emotions and each song suggested its own sound.
“Almost Easy lent itself to being more contemporary sounding,” says Catherine. “We could hear strings on it; the same with Cartwheels. Rather than put strings everywhere, the songs had to call for them, to lift them to another level, not be a distraction. Songs like Carry You Home and Boomerang, the party track, have a bigger, ballsier, punchier sound. Proof, which is the only love song on the album, is sweet and summery.”
Ward Thomas haven’t just developed as a duo, but as individual singers and musicians too.
“We have different voices that suit different sorts of songs,” says Catherine. “We call Lizzy the trumpet and me the French horn. So we have both stripped back songs such as Where The Sky Is and Who I’m Not, which work well with my lower range and softer melodies, and upbeat belters like Boomerang and Lose Me that play to Lizzy’s strengths.”
Producer Martin Terefe was chosen for his work with KT Tunstall amongst others, although only in the studio did the sisters discover that he had co-written Other Side Of The World, the first song they performed together in public as kids. Terefe helped them find the sound that suited each song, including using a blanket to muffle the piano on Who I’m Not. The sessions were completed with Jimmy Hogarth, who recorded several of the songs straight to tape, with live band and vocals.
Another tour is about to begin and Ward Thomas can’t wait to introduce fans to their new songs.
“Our only worry is that blanket,” laughs Lizzy. “Heaven knows how we’re going to recreate that piano sound on stage, but it’ll be fun finding out.”