As Country duo The Shires get ready to embark on one of the biggest tours of their stratospheric career, we caught up with Ben Earle to geek out about his Martin Guitars, talk about how Country is becoming "cooler" and the impact The Shires are having on the Country music scene here in the UK.
YOUR 2ND ALBUM ‘MY UNIVERSE’ HAS RECENTLY ACHIEVED GOLD STATUS AND YOU’VE JUST RECEIVED A CMA AWARD (CONGRATULATIONS) – MAKING THE SHIRES THE FIRST UK BAND TO EVER RECEIVE ONE. HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE IN THE BAND THESE DAYS?
We are loving every second of this incredible journey. When [Crissie Rhodes and I] first got together we couldn’t have dreamed of achieving everything we have so far, and especially so quickly. It feels like we are riding this incredible wave that just keeps going and going. We’ve had so many amazing experiences in such a short time, and it’s been so great to share them together. We barely knew each other when we signed our record deal, having only met eight months before. Now we feel like brother and sister!
"IN THE EARLY DAYS OF THE SHIRES PEOPLE THOUGHT WE WERE A BIT CRAZY FOR THINKING WE COULD BREAK INTO THE MAINSTREAM AS A COUNTRY ACT"
THE SHIRES HAVE BEEN CROWNED THE FASTEST SELLING UK COUNTRY OUTFIT OF ALL TIME. THAT MUST BE QUITE SURREAL?
It’s funny, in the early days of The Shires people thought we were a bit crazy for thinking we could break into the mainstream as a Country act. It is very surreal the sheer number of records we have sold, but we are also so proud that we stuck to our guns and what we believe in musically.
THE UK COUNTRY SCENE IS SLOWLY CREEPING INTO THE MAINSTREAM, AND ARGUABLY THIS COULD BE ATTRIBUTED TO YOUR SUCCESS OPENING UP THE DOORS FOR MORE ARTISTS. DO YOU FEEL ANY RESPONSIBILITY OR ANY PRESSURE WITH THIS?
The success of our first album Brave definitely showed that it can be done. It’s really great that some of the upcoming UK Country artists say we are a big influence for them. When we started there really wasn’t anyone to look up to, which was as exciting as it was scary. We were in uncharted territory. There’s a great community that we are so happy and proud to be part of. The only pressure we feel is from ourselves to keep being the very best we can be. It always comes back to the songs and the music and we’ve made a real commitment to never forget that.
TO MOST OF THE UK, COUNTRY MUSIC WOULD CONJURE UP STEREOTYPICAL IMAGERY OF HORSES, BEERS, PICKUP TRUCKS ETC. HOWEVER, YOU’VE STATED THAT “COUNTRY MUSIC IS COOLER NOWADAYS” – DO YOU THINK THERE’S A SHIFT IN THE COUNTRY MUSIC SCENE TO MAKE IT MORE RELATABLE TO A WIDER AUDIENCE?
Country is definitely cool now! Nashville especially is a really vibrant, exciting place to be. It’s a real melting pot with people from all over the world now. You can really hear it in the songs and has definitely made Country a lot more relatable, especially in the UK. Even though there are so many styles coming through, there’s still a core of honesty and storytelling running through every song. It’s a really exciting time for the whole genre.
TO ME YOUR MUSIC FITS INTO A WIDE RANGE OF GENRES. IT’S BEAUTIFULLY HEARTFELT, BIG CHORUSES AND JUST AMAZING SONGWRITING – WHY DO YOU THINK THAT YOUR BAND HAS RESONATED SO WELL WITH THE COUNTRY MUSIC SCENE IN PARTICULAR WHEN IT COULD QUITE EASILY FIT INTO A NUMBER OF GENRES?
Thank you, you’re very kind! We are Country through and through, especially in the way we approach our songwriting. The UK Country fans are so passionate and proud and really took us into their hearts. Looking out and seeing so many happy faces singing every one of lyrics back to us is so incredible, and so moving for us. We pour so much of ourselves into our music and it means so much to us. The fact that our songs mean so much to so many people as well is so humbling.
LET’S GET GEEKY ABOUT THE GUITARS YOU USE! AS MANY COUNTRY ARTISTS TEND TO, YOU USE MARTIN GUITARS. CAN YOU TELL ME WHY YOU CHOSE MARTIN GUITARS IN THE FIRST PLACE AND WHAT GUITARS YOU’RE CURRENTLY USING? IS IT STILL THE MARTIN HD-28E RETRO AND A 000-18E RETRO?
Every Martin I have played has such a distinct personality, and they really inspire me when I’m songwriting. I pick different guitars when I’m writing depending on the kind of song I’m going for. The HD-28E Retro was my first ever high end guitar. I played a few in the Westside showroom in Denmark Street and was blown away. Even though they were all the same model, each guitar had a unique ‘voice’ almost. Obviously they all sounded very similar, but I just kept on coming back to one. It was a big purchase for me at the time, but I just had to have it. Martins in general just feel right for me as well and almost feel like an extension of my body. I’ve played other makes of great guitars and while I appreciate they are nice, they just don’t suit my playing. Martin HD-28E Retro Electro Acoustic Guitar[/caption] My HD-28E Retro is so deep sounding and perfect for the more acoustic songs, whereas the 000-18E Retro is great when I need the guitar to cut through in the louder songs, like Friday night or My Universe. They are beautiful guitars and still feel excited every time I pick them up. They make me want to play!
EVERYBODY HAS TO START SOMEWHERE THOUGH, WHAT WAS THE FIRST GUITAR YOU EVER OWNED? I HEARD IT WAS A FAITH VENUS? DOES IT STILL GET ROLLED OUT FOR RECORDING?
Haha, yes it was a Faith Venus. That is sitting in my Mum’s house in Somerset right now. I’ll never forget that pain of learning to play, as I’m sure most guitarists won’t. It was a great first guitar and perfect to learn on. I might restring it next time I’m down and give it a play, as I haven’t played it in ages. I got a Takamine a year or two after that which I’m much more sentimental about. It came on a huge journey with me, from getting signed to Island Records as a solo artist at the age of 17, being dropped at 20, then the terrible, frustrating years before The Shires where I almost gave up. That Takamine was there with me all the way and I wrote some great songs on it. I don’t think I could ever part ways with it.
NICK OLIVERI (QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE) ONCE SAID THAT SOME GUITARS HAVE MORE SONGS IN THEM THAN OTHERS. DO YOU AGREE? WHAT’S YOUR GO-TO GUITAR FOR WRITING?
I recently bought a 1952 D28 which has become my go to guitar for writing. It’s obviously a very special guitar, that some collectors would buy and very rarely take out of the case. Mine is in extremely good condition for its age too. I really believe that a guitar should be played though and feeling all that history in my hands is so inspiring. The sound of Brazilian Rosewood is amazing too, and the songs I’m writing at the moment definitely have quite a classic feel to them. It’s beautiful and I feel very lucky to have it. That being said, I have a £30 half size nylon, toy guitar that is so bad that it’s great. It’s my go to guitar if I’m writing something a bit upbeat or happy. The intonation is terrible and the action is awful but it just has this unique quality that is so much fun. I chuck it around the house and my 9 month old son River pulls at the strings and plays it like a bongo and still it soldiers on. Shows that you don’t necessarily have to spend big bucks to get something you love and that inspires you.
"THE AURA PLUS SYSTEM HAS HAD A HUGE IMPACT ON OUR LIVE SOUND"
HOW ARE YOU FINDING THE FISHMAN AURA PLUS PICKUP SYSTEMS IN MARTIN GUITARS? WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT THESE PARTICULAR PICKUPS?
The Aura Plus system has had a huge impact on our live sound. The pickup and imaging is out of this world. You can get the sound exactly as you want it. Our sound engineer jokes that he has to do very little to the sound of my guitars on the desk as they sound so great already. The guitars they used from the models of the images are worth hundreds of thousands and you can really hear that in the sound. The fact that you can blend these images with the pickup sound gives you such great control. I find myself often turning the dial more towards the image for fingerpicking and more pickup for heavy strummed songs. It’s really personal preference though, and the Aura Plus gives you that flexibility to get the sound you want quite precisely but most importantly quickly. When you’re stood on stage you can really trust in the pickup system and focus on performing.
YOU’RE A FAN OF ALTERNATE TUNINGS SUCH AS DADGAD & DADF#AD. OBVIOUSLY, YOU CAN GET REALLY RICH CHORDS AND SOUNDS FROM THESE TUNINGS, DO YOU FIND THE MARTIN GUITARS ARE PARTICULAR RESPONSIVE TO THESE TUNING STYLES?
A Martin Dreadnought in DADGAD sounds amazing - my HD-28E Retro is tuned to that most of the time. I love DAGDAD particularly because it gives you a really full, warm and rich sound. It’s great writing in different tunings as you can fall into habits really quickly when writing. I think it’s really important to keep challenging yourself as a writer.
YOUR GUITAR COLLECTION MUST BE GROWING! WHAT’S THE NEXT GUITAR YOU’VE GOT YOUR EYE ON?
I’m really into vintage guitars at the moment and would love a pre-war Martin, like a parlour guitar. There’s some great guitars on a website called replayacoustics.co.uk. I’ve got my eye on a 40’s D28 on there too!
YOU’RE JUST ABOUT TO EMBARK ON A HUGE TOUR ACROSS THE UK, AND YOUR FAN BASE IS GROWING CONSIDERABLY WITH EACH GIG. LOOKING FORWARD TO IT?
There’s nothing better than look out into a crowd of people all happy, singing your songs back to you. We really do have the best fans in the world. It’s still amazing for us, that every tour is just getting bigger and bigger. We’re playing a lot of places we haven’t before on this next run which is really exciting too.
THE SHIRES HAVE JUST SECURED A RECORDING CONTRACT WITH AMERICAN LABEL BIG MACHINE LABEL GROUP AND ITS IMPRINT DOT RECORDS. WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE BAND? NEW ALBUM? TOURS ACROSS THE US?
We have already started on writing for album three which is going really well. We’ll definitely be spending a lot of time in the US too, especially Nashville which is like a second home for us. We try not to look too far ahead though, as we always want to be focused on what we’re doing right now. So we’ll just focus on making the very best music that we can, and see where the next few years take us. It’s been an amazing ride so far! Thanks to Ben for taking the time to answer our questions! Learn more about The Shires at www.theshiresmusic.com. 'My Universe' is now available everywhere.