The un­likely new queens of coun­try

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Music -

He­len Brown meets the an­i­mal­mad English twins who be­came the toast of Nashville

Their ac­cents may be more “hoorah” than “yee-hah”, but last au­tumn Cather­ine and Lizzy Ward Thomas be­came the first Bri­tish coun­try act to top the UK al­bum charts. Now the 23-year-old twins from the sleepy Hamp­shire village of Liss are gear­ing up to sup­port Tom Petty and Ste­vie Nicks when the rock le­gends play Hyde Park in July. No won­der they’re “a bit dazed”.

“We love Ste­vie Nicks,” gush the sis­ters, when I meet them at their pub­li­cist’s of­fice in north London. “Fleet­wood Mac and the Dixie Chicks are our favourite bands. When we were grow­ing up our par­ents were in a Sev­en­ties cov­ers band. Mum was the singer, she was Ste­vie Nicks.” The whole­some sin­cer­ity of their en­thu­si­asm is ir­re­sistible. They’re ridicu­lously like­able and to­tally lack­ing in the diva-es­que at­ti­tude that was once stan­dard is­sue in pop stars their age.

“It’s cool to be nice now,” they grin, and they’re right. Mod­ern mu­sic’s most suc­cess­ful stars – Tay­lor Swift and Ed Sheeran – have built their brands on their ac­ces­si­ble re­la­tion­ships with their fans, smil­ing and wav­ing even at the haters as they sen­si­bly ex­pand their prop­erty port­fo­lios. “One mo­ment of rude­ness could ruin your ca­reer,” says Lizzy, the self­con­fessed “more spon­ta­neous, ex­tro­verted” blonde. “If Ed Sheeran had an off day and flipped out it would go vi­ral, it would be on the in­ter­net for­ever. It would be a disas­ter.

“Our mum told us never to swear in in­ter­views,” she adds. “She said never dis­cuss religion or pol­i­tics. And she told us to be our­selves.”

“But,” laughs Cather­ine, the “more cal­cu­lat­ing, in­tro­verted” brunette, “how could we be our­selves and not swear?” A pause. “But Mum’s right,” she con­tin­ues. “When it comes to religion and pol­i­tics, we aren’t ex­perts. We like tea and knit­ting and bak­ing.”

So we’re never go­ing to catch them get­ting em­broiled in tabloid scan­dals? “No!” says Lizzy, ap­palled. “That’s one of the things we like about the coun­try mu­sic scene – peo­ple are just so po­lite!”

Over the past five years, coun­try mu­sic has seen a surge in pop­u­lar­ity in Bri­tain. It’s partly driven by fans of Tay­lor Swift’s pop hits dis­cov­er­ing her coun­try back cat­a­logue, and partly by so-called nu-folk acts such as Mum­ford & Sons bring­ing ban­jos back into the main­stream. The launch of the an­nual Coun­try2Coun­try mu­sic fes­ti­val in 2013 brought big hit­ters in­clud­ing Car­rie Un­der­wood and Brad Pais­ley to London’s O2 Arena. Dolly Par­ton head­lined Glas­ton­bury in 2014 and by 2016 Amer­i­cana had its own UK chart.

“Coun­try used to be a dirty word here,” says Lizzy, clearly ir­ri­tated by the long-stand­ing Bri­tish snob­bery against “songs about cow­boys and trucks and dirt roads”. She thinks it’s re­ally al­ways been a guilty plea­sure and that we’re fi­nally com­ing out of the closet. “We grew up lov­ing it,” says Cather­ine. “Our granny would sing us Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline – great, deep, emo­tional songs.”

The girls were raised in ru­ral bliss on an old live­stock farm. Their fa­ther is a for­mer am­a­teur jockey who now runs an up­mar­ket re­movals busi­ness. An ad­ven­tur­ous spirit, An­thony Ward Thomas at­tempted to cross the At­lantic in a two-man ped­alo (aged 58) last year, to raise money for a chil­dren’s hospice, but was res­cued af­ter suf­fer­ing heart prob­lems 600 miles into the voy­age. Their mother is a painter who spe­cialises in large oils of horses.

At con­vent school the twins were nick­named “Scruff One” and “Scruff Two” be­cause they of­ten went rid­ing be­fore lessons and had to walk through a muddy field to get to the bus stop. At home they were “al­ways singing, har­mon­is­ing”, of­ten with their brother Tom who is six years older and now an ac­tor. They be­gan play­ing gui­tar in their early teens. A Cana­dian cousin in­tro­duced them to the Dixie Chicks and their love of the Texan band’s coun­try pop in­spired them to take a song­writ­ing course at school.

One of their teach­ers had con­tacts in Nashville, sent out a demo tape of their singing and the day af­ter tak­ing their fi­nal A-level exam the girls were on a plane to record their UK chart-top­ping de­but al­bum, 2014’s From Where We Stand. The Amer­i­cans were charmed by their

‘Coun­try used to be a dirty word in Bri­tish mu­sic – but we grew up lov­ing it’

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