didn’t have to come up with a theme for their third album. As 24 year old females who have fought their own way to success and as sharp-eyed songwriters who have long looked outwards for inspiration, they tapped in to the zeitgeist without even trying.
Restless Minds, the follow-up to 2016’s chart-topping Cartwheels, finds the Hampshire sisters on scorching form. Observational and opinionated, it documents their coming of age in an era of anxiety and the impact of social media on a generation for which ‘the truth’ has become a tenuous term. There are songs on the album which touch on women in the workplace and #MeToo, others explore mental health issues and a couple relate to their own relationship as twins growing up and growing apart.
“As soon as we started writing the album, it became obvious what the themes would be,” says Catherine. “We were discussing current issues for us as twentysomethings, in a world that’s scary because it’s changing so quickly, but is also creating lots of exciting, new opportunities.”
“We both believe there is a strong correlation between social media and the rise in mental health issues. We’ve seen it with our friends. We’ve all found ourselves sucked in by stories.”
“We couldn’t help but address social media and the subconscious competition it creates,” adds Lizzy. “There’s a fake reality that everyone our age is falling for right now. Scroll down, see my page, look at my perfect life!”
Sonically, Restless Minds is every bit as bold. While Cartwheels saw Ward Thomas reach beyond the so-called UK country of From Where We Stand, the DIY debut they made in their teens, Restless Minds goes far further. Country influences still surface on some songs, far less on others. Harmonies still play a large part, but both pushed themselves solo to adapt to punchier sounds.
“We’ve never consciously tried to be country,” says Lizzy. “We love country, but what we’ve always set out to do is simply write songs with a sound that suits the content. Cartwheels was quite warm and soft, as are a few of the new songs. But most are more upfront and forthright because we’re singing about subjects that we’re passionate, sometimes angry about.
“The country artists we listen to now are the ones mixing it up and moving the genre on – Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves in particular. But we also love Lorde, Cardi B, Haim and Julia Michaels. Our tastes have changed since we were teenagers. On Restless Minds, for the first time, Ward Thomas worked with a host of pop writer/producers, as well as previous collaborators including longtime friends Jessica Sharman and Rebekah Powell and Cartwheels producer Martin Terefe.
When it was suggested they write with people like Ed Drewett (One Direction, Little Mix) eyebrows were raised, but Ward Thomas were happy to be proved wrong.
“We were a bit nervous at first, but it worked out so well,” says Catherine. “Ed co-wrote three songs on the album – Changing, No Fooling Me and Rather Be Breathing. He was so much fun and so full of ideas and seemed genuinely thrilled that he wasn’t being called in to try and write a ‘hit’.
In fact it was long time collaborators Jessica Sharman and Rebekah Powell who helped shape the astonishing, anti-fake reality anthem and first single Lie Like Me.
“Lie Like Me was one of the first songs we wrote and its perspective on social media was something we took into a lot of writing sessions,” says Catherine. It’s deceptively sweet, flirtatiously upbeat, guitar-led backing took Ward Thomas into new territory and sharpened their tongues. The lyrics are among the most incisive they’ve ever written, every snappy couplet a biting indictment of lives faked online.
Ditto the wonderful, widescreen No Filter, also written with Sharman and Powell which shifts back and forth from stately to dreamy with piano, percussion and electronics and was inspired by an awkward photo shoot. “We were lying on the floor, with people moving our arms and our hair, touching up our make-up and tucking in our clothes to make us look slimmer,” says Lizzy. “Then they all stepped away and told us to look natural, as though that pose was our actual perfect selves.”
“Again, it’s about fake reality – the filter/selfie thing – but it could also be about women at work or even in a relationship. Every woman has experienced being treated differently to men. We know as female artists that if we put our foot down at work, we’re sometimes seen as being difficult. If a male artist does the same, it’s because he knows his own mind.” Musically, Restless Minds never stands still. Ironically, it was with proven pop writers Rachel Furner (Little Mix, Craig David) and Steve Robson (Olly Murs, Paloma Faith), that Ward Thomas wrote It’s Not Just Me, one of the album’s most country-influenced songs, from which the album title was taken. The funky Same Love grew out of a WhatsApp group the duo set up with family and friends the day following the Las Vegas shooting in order to open a debate. One More Goodbye is a highly emotive stripped-back ballad either about separation or the end of a relationship.
Rachel Furner is a new co-writer for Ward Thomas and one who like Jessica and Rebekah they now call a friend. “Rachel is a similar age to us and a country girl – we had so much in common. We discussed anxiety and the pressures on people our age, whether in this industry or not. We all left our egos at the door and expressed exactly what was on our minds.”
I Believe in You is a fun, feisty, banjo-led stomper about blocking out bad news to take time to breathe that has already become a Ward Thomas live highlight, compete with audience participation. The jubilant, kick drum-driven, soon-to-be radio staple Never Know is an arms-aloft rocker that they call their ‘ranty song’ and which secretly features a dog growl reversed.
“Never Know is a turning-tables track,” says Catherine. “It’s about fickle friends or partners or maybe bad bosses – people you thought had your back but keep letting you down – and how much better you feel when they’re out of your life. It’s so satisfying when they want you back, but you’ve already moved on.”
Restless Minds was written between London, Nashville and Hampshire, where Ward Thomas borrowed a thatched cottage with a piano from a family friend and locked themselves away with co-writers to drink tea, eat scones, open up about their feelings and sometimes write songs, up to three a day when the scones finally ran out.
The album was produced in London, partly with Martin Terefe (Shawn Mendes), partly with the fast-rising Brit Joe Rubel, who’s recent work you can hear across Ed Sheeran’s ÷ and Tom Grennan’s ‘Royal Highness’. Talking of Sheeran, his classically-trained elder brother Matt arranged some of the strings on the album.
“We’ve never worked so hard on songs in our lives,” says Catherine. “Once you’ve had a No.1 album, the expectation is immense. We went back to re-write choruses and re-record vocals, which we never did on Cartwheels. We had to prove that we’ve progressed and, fingers crossed people will agree.”