Ward Thomas would like to invite you into their home, an idyllic Hampshire cottage where much of their fabulous fourth album was recorded. Step into the sitting room, which doubles as both their studio and an impromptu laying place for the half a dozen hens which saunter in and out.
On the table there’s the well-worn microphone which captured the twins’ intimate vocals and the Logic-loaded laptop that they try not to move in case the sound cuts out. Go through the garden to fields where a friend shot all of the album’s artwork, then past their pet Shetland pony to a nearby estate where the video for sun-soaked, lead single Sweet Time was filmed on a shoestring.
Lockdown may have forced Ward Thomas to finish the aptly-titled Invitation in isolation, but it was always intended to have a homespun vibe. For the first time since making their debut while still at school, for their most personal album yet, Catherine and Lizzy went DIY.
Having fulfilled their three album deal with Sony by the age of 25 (surely a record) and become the UK’s first country act to reach No.1, the pair had nothing to prove, except to themselves. Invitation will be distributed by eastwest, their future major label home, but it was written and recorded entirely independently, with every decision taken by the duo.
“We’re not the types who need a big team,” says Catherine. “We write with friends and we’ve always known how we want our songs to sound. For this album in particular, it felt right that we took charge. It’s not only incredibly personal, it’s also the last album we’ll make while living together. It’s both the end of an era and a new start.”
While last year’s Restless Minds looked outwards to issues including social media and mental health, Invitation captures 12 months in the lives of Ward Thomas, from love, loss and long-distance relationships to self-acceptance, support networks and their own imminent separation.
“Restless Minds was quite a serious album for us,” says Lizzy. “Now we’re in a different headspace. We’re more positive, looking forward to the future and all its possibilities. We poured our personalities into these songs. As we’ve got older, we’ve found it easier to open up.”
The pair’s imminent move from the rented cottage they’ve shared for the past few years, where so many songs have been written over countless cups of tea, to their own respective homes fuelled the positivity that flows from Invitation.
“I’ve bought with my boyfriend just down the road, so I’m keeping the chickens,” says Catherine. “Lizzy will be in a village not too far away. We’ll still have the same friends and go riding together, but we’ll be making lots of different decisions. It’s exciting. The album definitely captures that feeling of finding out what the future holds. We can’t wait to be able to meet up at the pub.”
A busy few months before lockdown saw Ward Thomas tour arenas in the UK and Europe with Jack Savoretti and James Blunt, both of whom they recorded with last year – the former on a cover of The Killers’ Human, the latter on the country-tinged Halfway from Blunt’s Top 3 album Once Upon A Mind.
Already Invitation was underway after a session in Nashville in November spawned the sensational, ‘70s-sounding Open Your Mind, a lyric from which inspired the album’s title. ‘I’m sending invitations/To everyone around/It’s a celebration/Won’t leave anybody out’ begins a funky interlude mid-song, although the words took on new meaning when lockdown arrived.
“It became a nod to what’s going on in the world,” says Lizzy. “One day we’ll have that party and see everyone at once… when we’re allowed to again. But it’s also about having time to reflect, to see the bigger picture and grasp what’s important. We’re not being preachy. It’s aimed at ourselves as much as anyone else.”
Seeing the positives in life is a recurrent theme, from Sweet Time’s nudge to finding magic in the moment to the gorgeous Meant To Be Me, an ode to no regrets. Acapella interlude Dear Me was written when Catherine learnt to stop doubting her life, while the stripped-back, vintage Taylor Swift-style Hold Space is about being there for friends in trouble without trying to interfere.
Always musical magpies, Ward Thomas took the opportunity of being their own boss again to spread their sonic wings. You’ll hear hints of Haim in the funky guitars, nods to Kacey Musgraves’ multi Grammy winner Golden Hour and, on the Bond theme-like My Favourite Poison, a new, cinematic dark side to the duo.
Lots of the lyrics are transparent. Both Painted Legacy and If There Were Words deal with death, in a positive light. The former is about the twin’s uncle, a single dad, who passed away suddenly last summer. The legacy he left is four fantastic children, including the cousin who introduced Ward Thomas to country music as kids.
The latter is about a close family friend who died in the autumn and the devastation of a parent losing a child. But it’s also about being there for each other, even in silence, to help shoulder the grief.
The frisky, banjo-accompanied Wait Up is simply about coming home late, in Ward Thomas’ case typically from a gig, hoping someone has stayed up to welcome you back. Both Don’t Be A Stranger and the strings-drenched Someday nod to Lizzie’s long-distance relationship (her other half lives in Africa) as well as not taking each other for granted.
By the time lockdown began all of the songs were started, but few completed. Almost all of the vocals were recorded at home and produced remotely, often with the respective co-writer. With Sweet Time, that was Jonathan Quarmby (Lewis Capaldi, Tom Walker), a new addition to the Ward Thomas team.
“Rather than get in producers, as a label would do, we just asked writers who we knew were on the same wavelength,” says Catherine. “Jonathan was a joy. There was no tinkering because he understood the song and the mix of country and current that it required.”
As lockdown lifted, Invitation was completed when Ward Thomas went to RAK studios to watch socially-distanced strings be recorded and huddle together in the vocal booth. Then it was home to Hampshire to shoot Sweet Time’s video outdoors on bicycles.
“We did our own hair and make-up in the truck on the way at 6am,” says Catherine. “And our own catering,” adds Lizzy. “It was a real family feel of a shoot.”
“Natural and organic,” says Catherine, butting back in. “Just like the album.”
“If we couldn’t do something ourselves or with help from our friends we just left it,” says Lizzy. “It’s our new attitude. Don’t stress because the world right now is tough enough. Just do your best and be kind and always look for the positives in life.” (by Lisa Verrico)