In a year full of unknowns and uncertainties, we have of course seen many artists postponing album releases for obvious reasons. But there were also those who had put out new music just before the global pandemic hit, including The Shires with their 4th studio album “Good Years“, and the duo had to put all their promotional plans, including an extensive UK tour, on hold. Who knew at the time exactly how devastating the entire year and beyond would be for touring musicians and their fans? With the aforementioned tour moved back yet again to 2022, Ben and Crissie have recently announced they will be performing an online event, to be streamed on 10th April, tickets available here https://stabal.com/stabal_media/the-shires/.
It was great to get the chance to catch up with them via Zoom to find out what we can expect from the show and how they have been passing the time during lockdown. I loved the chat… both informative and a lot of fun, who’d have thought that origami could almost reduce Ben to tears?
1. LH It’s been a bit of a year, so to speak, since you put out “Good Years” hasn’t it, the timing was pretty unfortunate I’m sure you’ll agree!
BEN (laughing) Yeah!!
LH It must have been a rollercoaster of a couple of weeks with so much planned then “bang”… can you remember what went through your minds at the time?
CRISSIE It was a really crazy time, not knowing what was going on. We came off a five-week tour with Young Voices, singing with thousands of kids all over the country in massive arenas, and were on a high from doing all those shows. I think we touched base at home for about a week and then it was on to trying to promote the album with various engagements planned, for radio, TV, in-store signings… and the C2C festival. I think we rehearsed for one full day, and then the next day we had to announce to the boys that it wasn’t going ahead, we’d literally been told overnight and they thought we were joking! I felt so surreal, we all packed up our gear and wondered what was going on… we managed to do one show to promote the album then that was it.
LH In Leeds I think?
CHRISSIE Yeah… but even that was strange, we can usually sign CDs, say hi to fans afterwards, but we weren’t allowed to go near each other!
2. LH So lets focus on more positive things… specifically your online concert on 10th April… how does it feel to have announced something that definitely WILL be going ahead in these uncertain times?
BEN It’s great!! I think during these lockdowns people’s experiences of live streams sometimes hasn’t been great if I’m terribly honest, in fact sometimes they’ve been rubbish! When we were approached by Stabal that was my initial reaction anyway, possibly Chrissie’s as well, but we saw the level of the stuff they’ve done and it’s much, much better, they do it really, really well. That’s what its about for us, we want to play but we wanted to do it properly, give the fans something they deserve. I wouldn’t want to pay ANY money to watch a boring version of what I already have, it would remind be how rubbish it was that we can’t go to actual shows at the moment. But with Stabal the quality is absolutely incredible, they are a relatively new company and we’re excited to be on board. One thing about this pandemic is that it’s made it easier to work with people globally, or even remotely in the UK. I was writing with someone from LA yesterday, and that wouldn’t ever have happened I think. so doing a show like this, and doing it properly, is great…. and it stops us from getting rusty!!
CRISSIE While we can’t go out on the road now, the best we can do is bring or set into everybody’s living room! It really excites me!
3. LH So is it going to be with your full band, the guys you go on tour with?
BEN No, so that’s another thing, we do have a few of the guys but again when we were approached to do this we felt there was no point trying to replicate what we do on stage… you can’t capture that in my opinion, no one can, it’s never going to be the same feeling. We have the tour to come, so we wanted this to be more intimate, with cameras close to us and some more striped back arrangements… “All Over Again” for example, will be just guitar. We’re going to tell a few stories behind the songs too, “All Over Again” was the first song we ever wrote together, in my tiny flat in St Albans, so playing it acoustically will take us right back to a snapshot of that moment which we’d forgotten about!
So it’s going to be a different experience… maybe more like what people fell in love with when they heard us on the earlier albums.
LH Yes, I must say I still love your acoustic Green Note EP and remember seeing you at the Water Rats before it got renovated, early on in your career, squashed into that little back room they had!
4. LH And logistically, how challenging is it putting this show together… can you even meet up rehearse for example?
CRISSIE Ben and I got together initially to rehearse our parts. Wasn’t it just lovely, Ben, to sing together again? Before all of this I don’t think we’d spent more than three weeks apart! And then we got the band and rehearsed with those guys as well… that was just so exciting especially as we’ve changed some of the arrangements. We had all the covid tests to make sure we were good. We honestly couldn’t believe we were all together after a whole year!
BEN And I’d been looking after my kids most of the time… my 4 year old had just gone back to pre-school and I said to Crissie “Right, I’ve got this two hour window, my Mum’s doing the childcare but I have to pick up River at this certain point…” And as Crissie said, it’s so weird, you have to wake up, do the test… I can’t get used to that, I’ve got a small nasal passage maybe or something! But you have to do all that, and it was great to sing again, so uplifting and absolutely lovely! Most of my days have been spent cutting up cucumber and grating cheese, forcing kids to try to eat something.
LH The glamour!!
5. LH You mentioned earlier that you’ve only played one show, over a year ago, to promote the latest album… so which of its tracks are you most looking forwards to performing after all this time?
CRISSIE “On The Day I Die”…
BEN I was going to say the same!
CRISSIE It’s completely different to the album version, which we love and will be really fun to do when we do a big live show, however there’s going to be times when we still want to play the acoustic version of it. It’s just everything that I love about what we do, really intimate, the two of us singing and Joel will be playing some mandolin as well.
6. LH Will you be doing any more of these down the line do you think?
BEN No more online ones planned, but we really want to get out later in the year and do more shows. We did a mini-acoustic run, I think it was two years ago, at venues we wouldn’t normally play like at a couple of stately homes. Just four of us on stage playing acoustically, we’d jump in the back of a transporter… and they weren’t small venues, maybe 400-600 people but after playing the bigger ones it felt really intimate. It’s funny, as our first gig was playing at The Horn in St Albans to 40 people, for me to say 400 people is tiny… but we could see every face in the crowd, I love doing that and I think we’ll definitely look at that type of thing, obviously rules and regulations permitting.
LH What about festivals, there seem to be a few of them hopefully happening this year… are we likely to see you at one of those maybe?
CRISSIE I’m not sure, I think we’re uneasy as to whether they’re happening or not… we’re hoping, but if we’re not going to be playing them then we’ll be at them, absorbing as much live music as we has because it’s been weird without it!
7. LH And I guess a lot of people are wanting to know if you’ve managed to remain creative on the songwriting front during lockdown… Ben mentioned earlier about writing with someone yesterday so I guess the answer to that is yes! Are we likely to get some new music from you this year maybe… or in time for the tour next year…
BEN I think so… there’s nothing definite yet… I’m always writing. I don’t want to say this year but at some point. There will be new music. Yes. (we all laugh!)
LH I was wondering if the tour may end up being be a double album release one…
BEN I don’t think there’ll be another album by then, that’s what I’d like to work towards, everything willing, but all the stars have to align for that. But why not? Why hold everything back? I love how in the 60’s people were just releasing song after song after song… we love writing songs and making albums, so why not just put another one out there ready for the next tour, yeah!
LH I like that positivity!
8. LH You’ve forged very strong connections with the Nashville music community… how has working with the writers, musicians and producers there influenced your music?
CRISSIE We record with a guy called Lindsay Rimes who’s actually Australian but lives out in Nashville. He’s got a foot in the door with the Nashville scene but understands we still want to keep our British sound as well. We have a lot of players from Nashville on the songs as well, but a lot of what you hear is created by Ben and Lindsay.
9. LH And of course you continue to work with, and champion, the amazingly talented artists her in the UK… including during your recent series of Apple Music’s “London to Nashville ” radio shows. How fun has it been to be involved with that?
BEN We were really worried that we wouldn’t have enough UK artists at the start of the show! It was something we both really wanted to do and to make sure it WAS London to Nashville, not just a focus on the US. We were initially asked to do 12 shows, now that’s 24 and we don’t know if it’ll go further… and we were like “but are there 12 artists?”. People started sending us songs too which was great, asking us “can you play this artist, can you play that?”. There’s a definite UK sound now and I love that, and there’s so many great artists out there! Like Crissie said to me, it’s great being fans again, you get so wrapped up in your own music, it’s been really wonderful doing that show!
CRISSIE Yes I love that Apple Music have given us that platform, they saw what we were doing in the UK and wanted us to represent more UK artists.
LH Yes, I think the UK country music scene has really exploded in the last few years, I’m so glad that lockdown has given you a chance to listen to all the talent we have around now! You have already collaborated with quite a few of them, but having listened to some others recently are there any you’d like to work with in the future?
BEN Yes! I think i’m writing with Emma and Jolie next week, I’m really excited about that. And I’ve written a song with Megan O’Neill (I know she’s Irish technically but we claim her!!), “Strangers Before We Met” , that was written about 4 or 5 years ago, Crissie and I both loved it but for some reason it didn’t make the album and then Megan messaged to say she’d recorded a version. Again, it was like a snapshot of all those years ago, it was all so different…
You asked about how Nashville has influenced our writing and recording and I love listening to that older stuff ‘cos you hear the naivety, especially in my writing, and the way we both sing. There’s a few great artists I want to work with!
CRISSIE Ida Mae are a fantastic duo too… we’ve only sort of just discovered them… they had a new EP out recently which we featured on the show. On first listen I was like “Oh my God, I’m going have to go back and check out their music” because it was so raw, it’s like you’re at a show of theirs, hearing them live, but they’ve put that in a recorded process. I’d love to make a bee line and go out and watch them live!
BEN Definitely, they’re incredible.
10. LH So, apart from music, what’s been going on in your lives during lockdown? Ben, you’ve obviously been busy with the kids, but outside of cutting up cucumber have either of you taken up any new hobbies?
CRISSIE (laughing!) We have had utterly different lockdowns, Ben and I! Having children and not having children makes a big difference! I’ve been loving life at home! I’ve renovated a lot of my house, I moved so I had quite of things to do which has kept me busy! Spring and Summer last year I did a lot of gardening, I’m still learning, but I’d never had the option to do gardening before, we’ve never been home long enough so that’s been quite nice! Just hanging out at home a lot…I quite like it! I’ve been loving cooking as well, ‘cos obviously when we’re on the road we don’t get that option.
LH Ben have you been doing anything creative with the kids, artwork or anything?
BEN Ha even simple origami defeated me! When River was in nursery the online work was to make a paper boat and I just couldn’t… I was almost in tears actually! But my youngest is really into cooking, he’s only two, and I love cooking! We cook almost every day, we made sausage rolls today. One of my favourites is American pancakes so we’re perfecting those… two days ago I found a little trick, if you whisk the egg whites, make a meringue almost, and fold it into the batter you get the fluffiest pancakes!! Yeah, lockdown has been challenging at times but the connection I’ve had with the kids has been incredible…
CRISSIE And your eldest is picking up on your songwriting…he’s quicker than us I think! Unbelievable!!
LH I’m sure he could set up a zoom call easier than me….kids just seem to ” get” technology automatically!
11. LH One final question before I go, and that’s do you have any messages for your fans ?
CRISSIE Just that we cannot wait till we can all be back together again… and strange as it may sound, ‘til we can all be squished up against each other in a live music setting again. Or just out in the rain at a festival perhaps!
BEN I’d just like to say sorry for the emotional wreck I’ll probably be at that first show! I can’t actually imagine what it will be like… I have thought about it, and even that makes me well up! I didn’t realise how important it was for me. I sometimes struggle with a bit of stage fright, almost like a fight or flight thing, but not being able to do it is like losing part of your identity. So yeah, sorry for everyone who’ll see me as a blubbering wreck! Probably not just the first show either, but the whole 25 days of the tour!
LH I’m sure you won’t be alone in your reaction! You’re going to have to go back to getting tour fit too, I think it’ll be quite exhausting!
CRISSIE Oh yeah, I’ve already had that with this online show as soon as it was mentioned! I’ve been singing with the piano a lot but it’s not the same as a working voice… our songs are so high as well! Straight away I got on a Skype call to my vocal coach, she ran me through my range and was like “Oh you’re absolutely fine with that! Get some cardio done, some abs and core work and do vocals every day”.
LH Well, that’s everything I wanted to cover, thanks for your time it’s been really good fun! I’m even more excited about your online event next month now after what you’ve told me today… and hope to see you again in person before too long!! Bye for now!
B&C Bye and thanks!
Interview conducted by Lesley Hastings (twitter.com/lesleyhastings)