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Nine Songs
The Shires

Ahead of The Shires' fifth album 10 Year Plan, Ben Earle leads Maddy Smith through his gateway into country, the whirlwind of touring with Amy Winehouse and serenading Robbie Williams

11 March 2022, 08:00 | Words by Maddy Smith

“I ended up doing a beer keg with Ed Sheeran. It was just us, a few of his friends and James Blunt. We introduced ourselves to Ed and he told us he’d bought our last album. Some people you just feel this affinity with, like you’re coming to music from the same place.”

Reminiscing on an Ed Sheeran afterparty in Nashville, Earle’s pathway has been riddled with diversions and a few bumps in the road, but alongside vocalist Crissie Rhodes, the pair have now established a steadfast position for themselves in the realm of country music.

Soaring harmonies form the framework of The Shires’ songs, showering their captivating melodies with a richness that encapsulates the essence and romanticism of traditional country. Their fifth album 10 Year Plan charts the distance both Earle and Rhodes have travelled to reach their status today. They became the first UK country band to score a Top 10 album on the UK albums chart with their debut Brave in 2015. Their second record, My Universe, broke yet another record for the fastest-selling British country album at its time of release.

Earle’s venture in the world of music has been turbulent, touring as a solo artist with Amy Winehouse shortly before she went on to attain superstardom status. Following this however, Earle experienced a number of near misses with some of his solo songwriting, which almost broke through the noise to the mainstream.

“I was working at an Apple store at the time”, Earle tells me. “One of my old songs from when I was a solo artist was pitched to and recorded by Newton Faulkner for his second album. It was featured on the C list for Radio 1, and everyone was telling me it was going to move up to the B and A lists. I thought this was my break. But then, they had a sudden change of marketing campaign and it got pulled. That felt like a punch in the face.”

“Weirdly enough, the same song which was considered for Westlife’s greatest hits album, which was having a few extra songs added. “This is it!”, I thought, this is Westlife - a band I grew up listening to! Then they told me it'd been moved to the Japanese deluxe album”, Earle laughs. “I actually wrote with Shane years later on his solo record, and he told me that song came so close to being the big single. Thanks Shane”, he jokes.

10 Year Plan reflects the unpredictability of The Shires’ journey to date. “The trick is that we didn’t really have any goals”, he explains. “Back then it was all about the songs, Crissie and I didn’t even really chat! We just made music and did whatever we could to constantly perform at shows. I’ve learned a lot from Crissie because she just goes with the flow”, he tells me. “She’s so chilled out and I’ve learned so much from her creatively, but also as a person, they go hand in hand for me. I’ve loved the last 10 years working with her.”

Their initial plans for The Shires were modest. “The few goals we had were so small - just to reach one hundred Facebook followers, which seemed impossible at the time. 10 Year Plan is ironic and it’s why I love the title because if you look back at everything we’ve done, it looks like we followed a big arc to this point. It looks like a great plan on paper, as though everything went to plan.

“My manager once said to me, ‘The easiest thing to be is who you are.’ That’s so cheesy but so true. With this record, I returned to writing just for the love of it, taking me back to those early days of being seven or eight at the piano. One night during the pandemic I sat down at the piano and “I See Stars” just flowed out - I wouldn’t ever have done that a decade ago, I was way too inside my own head. Your twenties are awful! You don’t know who you are or who you want to be.”

Earle’s Nine Songs are a grandstand for the cheesy, the joyous and the beautiful; from Avril Lavigne’s cinematic “I’m With You” to the carefree nostalgia of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” and the solemnity and intensity of Ben Folds’ melancholic “Brick”. Reflecting on the cyclical nature of his choices and the aforementioned Nashville party, Earle muses, “I’m guessing Ed Sheeran’s list probably wouldn’t be dissimilar to mine in a sense. It probably wouldn’t be the coolest list in the world, but full of songs that he just really loves.”

“Need You Now” by Lady A

“This is where everything with The Shires started for me. Lady A were like my vanilla gateway into country, but this song never gets old for me. I still listen to it now and feel the same way. Their voices together are beautiful. It set an idea for me of what The Shires could be.

“I was signed as a solo artist when I was 17 and I later toured with Amy Winehouse, Corinne Bailey Rae and lots of other big artists. But it never really worked out for me, and I was dropped when I was 20. I went through a wilderness period, wrestling with the fact that I’d been dropped, knowing that I loved writing songs but not really feeling like I fitted anywhere as a songwriter or artist. I was literally about to give up as I had a couple of things that came close, a song for Newton Faulkner and for Westlife. One fell through and the other was cut and moved onto their Japanese deluxe album. Everything came so close, but just missed.

“I ended up writing with a friend, Daniel McDougall and an artist called Twinnie, who told us that she wanted to write a song like “Need You Now”. I didn’t know the song at all, I was sitting in Dan’s shed in Hatfield and Twinnie played me the song for reference. I don’t use the word epiphany lightly, but when I first heard it, it genuinely was like an epiphany. This was everything that I wanted to achieve in music - the lyrics are so romantic and heartfelt and honest, the production is middle-of-the-road but beautiful and the vocals are really present. It wasn’t trying to be cool - it was heartfelt and honest. Twinnie explained that this is country music, and I was amazed. Until that point, country to me meant Stetsons and dead dogs and all that kind of stuff - I was hooked.

“In Nashville often writers try to be clever, but this song is so simple - “It's a quarter after one, I'm all alone and I need you now.” It really changed my whole thinking about writing and I went on a massive sprint after I heard this track, it's genius. It has always been the goal to write a song like “Need You Now”. I've seen Lady A live and they've got incredible tracks, but this one is the one which everyone has a relationship with.

“It definitely, massively, shaped the way I write, but it also gave me faith and hope that I could write the songs that I knew I wanted to write. For so many years I tried to write for Radio 1 or wherever, before I knew this whole world of country.”

“Kiss From a Rose” by Seal

“This is the first song I ever remember hearing. Me and my mum would drive around a lot and I remember a lot of Simply Red on the car radio at that point. “Kiss From a Rose” was so different that even now it’s a crazy masterpiece of a pop song, especially when you hear that oboe!

“Whilst it’s a good song, it's an even greater production. It blows my mind and the amount of vocals in there are just incredible - listening to it again earlier I realised there’s vocals everywhere. The thing I love most in music is when you can really hear everything. The song doesn’t have a classic structure and when it reaches the point where you think it’s ended, they bring in a second chorus and the oboe comes back in. It just goes on and on and it’s an amazing piece of music.

“I grew up in a classical environment, so I played the violin and piano for most of my childhood. Though I was really good at the violin, I discovered songwriting when I was 13 or 14 and so I particularly like classical instruments and classical arrangements and strings. “Kiss From a Rose” embodies all that I love.

“For our second album, we actually did a launch at Poppie’s Fish and Chips in Camden for a group of 200 fans. We went downstairs and suddenly there he was - Seal with his family having dinner! Even by meeting him very briefly, that explained the song even further to me in some way. He's one of those people that walks into a room and you're impressed and really drawn in. The song makes you feel like he’s right there with you, the rhythm is in your face, and it tells a story that feels so real.”

“Gravity” (Live at Nokia Theatre) by John Mayer

“When I was 20, my girlfriend at the time had these amazing Harman Kardon speakers. I used to stay with her and play them when she was at lectures during the day. She was a huge John Mayer fan and this song came on iTunes. I wasn't a massive fan at the time, but I used to listen to this over and over again, and I still do. You could say it's quite indulgent at nine minutes long or so, but the time goes so quickly for me.

“We played some acoustic shows recently in Glasgow. When we finished up it was pitch black at midnight. We sat in the back with a few beers, and we put this song on. He walks that line between being an incredible virtuoso, but also has great songs and that makes me feel so much emotion.

“Coming back to classical music growing up, I always had to practise a lot and there were always amazing pianists and instrumental players, who seemed like technicians to me. Instead, I always just played what I felt. I think the reason that this song, John Mayer and this version really speaks to me is because he can do all of that. He’s a talented, intuitive guitarist, everything he does is so musical and serves the song, which makes you really feel something. Whereas I've watched guitarists who just flick around a guitar, which is impressive, but I love artists who play so musically and almost so lyrically - like John Mayer. He sets this song up so beautifully and I relate to the lyrics as well.

“It’s funny, I moved to St. Albans two years before The Shires, when I was at a crossroads, thinking songwriting wasn’t going to work and I was never going to make it in the world of music. On nightly runs I would listen to “Need You Now” a lot, but also “Gravity”. On these dark, late-night runs this was something that held me up in those difficult times, it kept me going. That hasn’t changed for me - this song still sounds as fresh and as special as it did when I first heard it.”

“How I Learned to Pray” by Charlie Worsham

“Charlie Worsham is really under-appreciated, which is reiterated by a lot of country artists. The first verse features the best first words I've ever heard in my life. It's a masterclass in Nashville writing too. I come from a very musical place where you sit down and you just vibe, whereas in Nashville they get a title and you work to that title. You all sit down and consider what a title means to you.

"Another big thing in Nashville is this idea of, “How can we twist that meaning?” In that first verse, when he talks about how he learned to pray, “Please let me take the car out dad, I won’t take it over 55”, followed by, “When the wrecker pulled my freedom away, that's how I learned to pray” - I genuinely get goosebumps now.

“I've met Charlie and he’s one of the few people I fanboy over, so now he probably thinks I’m a bit weird! I see him probably once every two years and every time I say to him “I'm so sorry, I know I say this every time, but your song “How I Learned to Pray” - that first verse is absolutely incredible.” He just quietly thanks me every time. I can't get over that first verse. It's like how I’m always chasing “Need You Now”.

“In Nashville you get to know everyone in a weird way. Once you know a few people you know everyone. That’s the thing about country; there really is a proper community of artists. We've got a big festival, C2C, at the 02 and I know most of the artists there, not well, but a lot of them will have a chat and everyone's really open, there are no egos.

“Country is definitely growing in the UK, but there’s still a long way to go. In Nashville, they really set the standard, where there is this amazing community and while I'm sure there is competitiveness, it does feel like everyone's supporting each other. Here, it’s been us, Ward Thomas and a few other acts who are trying to break through with country, but it hasn't really happened yet. But I think it’s getting easier with streaming, it’s unrecognisable from when we started eight years ago. I mean, there was no real country and even the big US acts didn't really come over to the UK. Whereas now, there's a real scene and a sense of community.”

“All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow

“Growing up, I just loved Sheryl Crow. Looking at this list it was quite funny, because I have so many other influences, like Carol King, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder, but these are the songs which first came to mind. Sheryl Crow was the coolest person in the world, with the LA dream! When we first went into Los Angeles, we stayed on the Boulevard at The Standard Hotel and every time I saw the Santa Monica Boulevard sign I couldn't help but sing this song. She paints such a vivid picture in the bar facing that giant car wash, with all of the images of beers and staff and the people in the bar. She's a master at it.

“What's interesting in country is that there's so much going on, there's always a lot of parts. In a country record you'll have loads of guitars, mandolins and banjos, everything. Whereas if you listen to something like ‘All I Wanna Do’, there’s only a few instruments. There’s only about four or five elements. The vocals are really dry and in your face. It’s just really cool.

“Her catalogue of songs from that era is amazing. I saw her live in Manchester with Crissie at the Ritz. I'm not really a superfan of much, but I couldn't help myself! She’s one of the few people who I’m genuinely a huge fan of. She released a country record around the time we went to see her perform in 2013, called Feels Like Home. I was so disappointed that she didn't play anything from the country record, I think she thought no one would like it!

“She’s effortless, and I think it's something that’s quite hard. Being Brits, we're so self-aware that letting ourselves go can be difficult, particularly for me. But she's just Sheryl Crow - that’s who she is. This song is so cool to me, which is something I don't think I'm able to do in songwriting. ‘All I Wanna Do’ is one of those songs that has changed for me over the years, because growing up I was always about the song, but what I actually love is when a band is all in - when everyone has synergy in multiple respects.

“Now I appreciate that as a listener completely differently - the collaborative nature of music for me is a really inspiring thing. Music for me was always very individual, then when I first got into Nashville, particularly working with Crissie, I suddenly understood, realised and knew that actually working together is so much more fun. All the solo artists I know are just crazy because they’ve got no one to lean on!”

“The Scientist” by Coldplay

Parachutes was the first record I was ever bought by my stepdad. I remember “Trouble” obviously and “Parachutes” itself, but when I heard “The Scientist” (from A Rush of Blood to the Head) and saw the video for the first time I was in awe. The whole video is in reverse, and Chris Martin had to learn the whole thing backwards.

“Coldplay have been such a massive inspiration to me over the years. Chris Martin is, to my mind, the opposite of Nashville, which can often be quite academic - which I really like because I’m quite a right-brained, logical person as a writer. Whereas Chris Martin seems to work it out as he goes. In “The Scientist”, I think you can hear that in the piano. Lyrically, you don’t know what he’s saying, but you know what he means by it - I can’t put it that feeling into words. In songs and records, I love when they can build, when it keeps layering and layering.

“I remember first seeing “The Scientist” on MTV or T4, because the video was the first thing that I saw - gosh that’s so old school! It made sense altogether. It’s just beautiful and the dedication to learn and sing the whole song backwards? That’s just crazy! It makes you want to see them live and feel that atmosphere. I love the piano part in particular too, it’s beautiful. I think Chris is an absolute genius.”

“I’m With You” by Avril Lavigne

“When I was 14, I started publishing and I was taken to meet Mick Raymond, who at the time was at BMG. I was so confident back then as a 14-year-old - I just knew that I was going to be a songwriter and I didn’t have a doubt in my mind. I played him a couple of my songs and he sat on this chair with a stress ball in his hand, looking out the window. He ended up being my first manager who landed me the deal with BMG. I remember being given a load of CDs and one of them was an Avril Lavigne record. As a 14-year-old, walking out with around £120 worth of CDs was the coolest thing in the world to me.

“Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi” are on the same album, which are incredible pop songs, but they didn’t move me as much as “I’m With You”. Again, it's such a classically structured song, which I love. You have the intro, the verse, a pre-chorus, chorus, verse 2. Of course, then you have a massive middle eight before it drops and is followed by another chorus.

"That was always the framework for a song when I first started out and I learnt that subconsciously through really listening to these kinds of songs. I used to spend hours in my bedroom with my Sony mini disc player, studying songs for hours. Over the years, it's so fascinating how songs, especially in country music, have moved from that structure. They’re so short, without an intro, or a just very short one.

“I still love really structured songs, that's probably my right brain-ness. I find it very comforting. It’s such a beautiful song with the massive, unashamedly big, romantic chorus. I think deep down I’m quite romantic, I love anything that just says it, and “I’m With You” does just that. What else do you need to say?

“I love the naivety and vastness of her voice; I always wanted to write a ballad like that one day, with that guitar and the massive vocal note at the end. There’s so many melodies throughout the music. Again, it’s that element of starting small and building and building, like you’ve earned the right to belt out that last lyric because you’ve done all the groundwork. You’ve built it.

"I know people will think Avril Lavigne is a bit cheesy, but they're really well written songs, you know? It is cinematic and the video is great. It also came from that era of a lot of Swedish writing, when I think generally pop production jumped up a gear.”

“Brick” by Ben Folds

“I discovered “Brick” at school when I was really young, when my friend Ed had the Ben Folds Live album. I used to muck around on the piano for hours as a child and I love the piano in this song. This riff was the first one that I ever tried to learn, because it was such a satisfying, cyclical riff. At that time, my friend Ed was learning bass and so three of us kids tried to write some songs, which were awful, but I remember this song being such a huge inspiration. It felt like what I wanted to do musically.

“This is another song where the meaning has really changed for me over the years. At first it was all about the piano and the simplicity of it, but then when I got older, at 18 or 19, I started listening to the lyrics and the story of it really hit me. The image he paints is so vivid. It’s about a partner getting an abortion and he builds a really bleak picture of someone who’s really lost and alone. I never understood that lyric “It's not me you're dying for” until I was much older.

“Listening to it again now at 34, it reminds me that life is really complicated. There’s so many angles to this song and I’m sure in 10 years I’ll feel really differently about this track again. It has that magic. This version and the whole album is just beautiful. Ben Folds is just a genius. It really takes me back to the practice rooms at boarding school, when I had Ben Folds’ CD and it was such a special thing. I used to really treasure the whole album and particularly this song. It also really inspired me as a piano player when I was seven or eight, as it's similar to “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton in that, you just want to be able to play the melody.”

“In a place called Franklin, Nashville not too long ago, I was writing with someone who pointed and told me, “By the way, that’s Ben Folds’ house next door.” I am really a fan of his and I was looking at the door wondering if I should go and knock. I wish I had now!”

“Angels” by Robbie Williams

“I’m not a musical snob at all, I think my classical days really made me push against that! I did go through a Radiohead phase and a ‘cool’ phase, but I picked this song because I know every note and word of it. There was that era when I was growing up when Robbie Williams’ songs were always on the radio. The songs written together with Guy Chambers were absolutely incredible.

“I remember “Let Me Entertain You” so clearly. Again, structurally it was a very classic, ‘properly-written’ song which hugely inspired me. Everything from the strings at the end to the production makes it feel like one of those songs that you could strip back to play on the piano or guitar and it would still be an amazing song. I've heard so many stories about the writing of it. It was the busker in Ireland, they heard it on the street, they bought the rights to it and he only made £20,000. You’ll have to check out those stories! But I wrote with Guy Chambers years later and again, I don’t get starstruck much, but it was an amazing experience.

“My biggest memory of this song though, is when The Shires were invited on the Chris Evans breakfast show on Radio 2, as it was then. Robbie was on that same day and in a last-minute decision the night before, we decided to do “Angels”. We were unsure whether that was a bit on the nose - should we do it, should we not? But fast forward a day and we were literally inches from Robbie Williams performing his song, alongside ours.

“We were so nervous, but we heard him cheer us on after the first chorus, which was the biggest validation, but I made such an idiot myself afterwards. He came up to me when the show was off air and asked, “Did you write all those songs?” But the only thing I managed to say was, “Well, not ‘Angels.’” He replied, “I know, I wrote that” and just walked off into the distance. It might have gone differently, but that was my only memory of the conversation. I think I completely messed up my shot with Robbie Williams.

““I'm loving angels instead” feels like that was the first line they had and everything was written afterwards. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the case, but that’s such a powerful lyric in itself - it can mean so much to so many people. I’m always searching for this idea as a writer - trying to write something that’s really specific to you, but then also becomes universal. I've been through this journey with The Shires for the last 10 years and the times where I've failed are when I've tried to write a song for everybody, or even a love song that everyone can connect to. But actually, when you do the opposite, like Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers with “Angels”, you create something so personal.

“Those are the songs that connect on a massive scale. This, to me, is the pinnacle. If I could write a classically, incredibly well-written song like “Angels”, I’d be happy.”

10 Year Plan is out now via BMG
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