The UK Country Music scene is currently undergoing something of a surge in popularity. The US artists are getting more airplay over here and, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, were touring quite extensively.
Along with that, a large number of UK artists have been forging their own way into the scene with their own unique take on the Country sound. Acts such as The Shires and Ward Thomas are getting considerable mainstream success, but there are many acts following in their footsteps who are also fully deserving of accolades and mainstream success of their own.
Metal Plant Music Americana’s Andy Hawes recently caught up with one such act, Geoff Meads and Victoria Mills from Cambridgeshire duo Tennessee Twin via the wonders of online video conferencing.
Can you tell us how Tennessee Twin came into being?
Victoria: I’d wanted to put a Country band together forever and I kept running it past people in my various bands and they were like, “Meh…don’t really wanna do it.” So eventually I thought, well, what if I theme it, and go for the whole ‘Highway 65’ Nashville TV show tribute thing? And that sparked interest in people.
But then I thought I need somebody to front it with me – I need a guy who plays guitar and sings. And it suddenly hit me that Geoff was the perfect person – we’d known each other for twenty-odd years at that point. But he’d never done Country so I thought , well just ask him. And he came back straightaway, “Yes!” So the band started and then about three months in, he said that we should really also go out as a duo just to get out there and get the songs played. Then within about six months we started going “Maybe we should write something!” And it all went from there, really.
So you recently won a song writing competition linked to British Airways and Nashville with the song ‘Wings of Red, White and Blue’. How did that come about?
Geoff: Well, we were rehearsing a load of other stuff and we just happened to see this advert for the competition which was organised by The City of Nashville’s tourist board to celebrate the beginning of British Airways doing direct flights from London to Nashville.
The whole competition was solely to promote those flights. So we just said “do we fancy a crack at that?” We hadn’t written anything in ages and we thought it would just be one song – a ‘kick-off’, you know? We didn’t think it would come to anything. It was one of those ‘it’s got to be under three minutes’ kinda things – no space for a middle-eight, intro or outro.
Victoria: Yeah, two verses and two choruses… We sent it off on the very last day of the deadline.
Geoff: Yeah at 11:45pm the day that it had to be in! That was January 2018 and about four or five weeks later I was going to an 80s gig with a mate of mine and I had a quick look at my phone as he drove us to the gig, and there was an email from the City of Nashville, saying “You’ve won! Come to Nashville!” So were like, “Ok!” Thing was, winning wasn’t the main motivation – the motivation was just to get a song written. We even thought “Maybe we were the only ones who entered!” It was utter disbelief! (MPM: it appears that several quite big names in the UK Country scene also entered the competition, so Tennessee Twin winning this is really quite some achievement!)[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=598ay4epkAE&w=560&h=315]
Who are your biggest music influences – inside and outside country music?
Victoria: Obviously Ashley McBryde for both of us is a big influence. (MPM: check out the review of Ashley’s latest album elsewhere on the site – it’s a stunning album) Vocally Jennifer Nettles (Sugarland) is right up there. I’ve also got to thank Leann Rimes because when I was much younger and she was first on the scene, I realised that what she was doing was what I wanted to do.
Also Crystal Gayle, because when I was a little girl she was my first introduction to country music. And we are actually friends with Jay, her band leader now which is really nice and is a great connection. Outside of Country music, my influence is Andrew Lloyd Webber. I think he’s an absolute genius.
Geoff: I think for me, from a Country point of view, it’s Chris Stapleton. He’s one of those few people who proves that, that with a very minimal set of instrumentation you can create, firstly, a really big sound, and secondly a huge atmosphere. It’s a combination of the voice and the guitar sound and the band, who you never think about but who contribute hugely to his sound. Brad Paisley I love because he is the most amazing guitar player but he also just seems to be a wonderful human.
His song writing is also tongue-in-cheek without being cheesy, which is a really fine line. I like Charlie Worsham as well. He’s another one who captures that Southern atmosphere in a way that makes it accessible for anybody. He’s not an ‘A-lister’, but is hugely respected by the ‘A-listers’. Outside Country, I played Rock n Roll for many years so people like Buddy Holly, and for song writing, the early Beatles Merseybeat sound.
How does the song writing process work for Tennessee Twin?
Victoria: It varies. Geoff is more confident and will just say “Oh, I’ve had this idea” and he’ll start playing through it whereas I don’t really do that, so we reached the point where I said, “You write a lyric and I’ll take it away and write some music to go with it. I’ll bring it back and we’ll confer to finish it.” We’ve done that a few times now. But the last one we sat and did together. I write on the piano and Geoff writes on guitar which causes issues sometimes.
Geoff: Where it causes issues is that most of the time we perform with a guitar and two vocals but there are certain chords that you can play on piano that you can’t on guitar and vice-versa. So if you write on piano it then becomes a case of, well how do we take this to the place it’s going to be when we perform it solely on guitar?
Victoria: Yeah, I’ll find a really nice set of chords and he’ll just go, “No that won’t work when we play this just on guitar.” (laughs)
Geoff: Also, in the writing process, a lot of what we do is quite mid-tempo, but those songs often either slow right down or speed right up in the final arrangement depending on what we end up doing with them. We also like to try and perform those songs a few times as a kind of rehearsal to break them in – like at open-mic nights. Once you’ve performed or live-streamed a song a few times you get a better idea of where you might need to take it when you produce it with a band. That was certainly the case with the latest single. We actually had to record that all remotely as it was all done in lockdown, so we had no instant communication with the band, which was interesting.
Victoria: It’s going to be a legacy of the time because it’ll sound quite different from the rest of the album.
Geoff: The other thing is when we’re writing we’re very conscious of the fact that it’s both of us singing so the songs have to either be like a conversation or something we’d both say to each other. But occasionally a song will come along where you think, “No, this is definitely a song for one or the other of us.”
I realise that this is like asking ‘do you have a favourite child’, but do you have a favourite Tennessee Twin track? If so, what is it and what about it makes it your favourite?
Victoria: It is a difficult question. We talked about it and were wondering whether we would answer it with our favourite one to play or the one that goes down the best with audiences. We concluded that ‘Alice’ from the first EP (‘Tips in a Jar”) is the one that seems to go down the best with audiences. It is a very accessible song.
Geoff: It is. And it’s also the one that, when we send sample tracks out to people on the ‘press list’ that we’ve accumulated, they always choose that one – so presenters, etc, will tend to choose it for a first play. And we thought that was brilliant – it’s quite an endorsement. But then we were talking to a DJ over a beer and he said, “Well, the reason I played it first was that I wanted to know is it a cover of THAT song ‘Alice’?” So we thought, “Oh…ok…didn’t think of that! Maybe they play it out of curiosity” – they just want to know is it a cover of THAT song? (laughs)
I must admit that ‘Alice’ was the track that grabbed me most from that first EP. So much so that after the first play I immediately played it again. It’s a great track![youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAiopvZZL7U&w=560&h=315]
Victoria: It is quite a ‘folky’ track, I think… I also like singing ‘Two Heart Rendezvous.’ It’s a nice challenge because we are singing in harmony pretty much throughout.
Geoff: With the two of us you can get stuck in a formulaic kind of way of arranging the vocals if you’re not careful. We’ve been conscious of that and have been mixing them up a bit to avoid that. With ‘Two Heart Rendezvous’ we put that out as a single last December and it wasn’t an immediate hit but people have grown to love it over time. There will be a couple of songs on the new album which just feature one of us.
Victoria: Yeah, Geoff has already written his and I’m going to write mine so we don’t even influence each other in the writing of those particular tracks. I’m going for a 1990s Faith Hill vibe on mine, I think!
Geoff: Probably with lots of piano and lots of chords I can’t play live! (laughs)[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wS322bAZVSU&w=560&h=315]
Can you tell us a little about the latest single ‘Every Story’? I really like it – it’s a bit different from some of the songs on the EP. It’s more up-tempo with bigger guitars…
Geoff: Yeah had we all been in the studio together, we’d have probably gone all ‘90s rock’ with it! It was a challenge because we knew we had the lyrics right from the beginning, although it took a while to get them right.
Victoria: It’s quite an uplifting melody but the lyrics are not particularly uplifting…
Geoff: Yeah, it’s more about ‘cautious lessons’…
So how did the lyric idea come about?
Geoff: Well, it started, as do many songs with me, when I was in the shower! (much laughter!) The two lines that came out were ‘a beach on a rainy day in California’ and ‘a gospel church without the sound of Glory.’ We originally wanted to say, ‘Don’t take everything at face value.’ What you see, there’s always a back-story – there’s a reason why that person is suddenly acting that way, etc, so we wanted to explore that idea a bit. The reaction has been good – people have liked the arrangement, the vocals, etc, but it’s the storytelling in it that has provoked quite a reaction.
Victoria: It reached number 7 in the Country singles chart last week, which we were surprised and pleased with.
Geoff: We were the only British act to crack the chart that week and were up against some pretty big-hitters and A-listers as well. Often you release something and it pops into the chart for a couple of hours on the strength of pre-orders , but this one did seem to just continue selling and it stayed in the chart for quite a while.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V17zhgzYPZQ&w=560&h=315]
Lockdown is really affecting the live music scene. What have you been up to during the lockdown?
Geoff: We’ve kinda gotten used to it now and we’ve been doing a lot of live streams. On average we’ve been doing two live-streams per week. Four streams in a week was our busiest.
We’ve gotten together with two singers, one in Warrington and one in Exeter and we’re doing a weekly stream every Sunday. We’re on episode 14 now and we have guests on. We’ve got Lonnie Donegan’s son Peter Donegan – a very good singer songwriter – on this week. There’s been quite a lot of Country events – songwriter rounds – that have gone over to streaming and we’ve just got it down now.
We also do the Friday morning video – The ‘Sofa Sessions’. We just released episode 50 of that, with a new song every week. It can be a bit of a treadmill, but we really like doing that and so many people tell us how much they look forward to it.
Victoria: We were really lucky to jump into the live stream thing quite quickly through the ‘Live in the Living Room’ series. We really enjoyed that and could quickly see that it was the future really with regard to working through lockdown.
Geoff: Weirdly, the lockdown thing with all the live streaming has given us the opportunity to play to people all over the world; people who would otherwise never have had the chance to see us.
Victoria: It’s definitely given us more followers than if we’d have been doing regular gigs.
What’s next for Tennessee Twin going forward?
Geoff: Well, we had plans to be back in Nashville in November but I think we know that’s not going to happen, at least not until sometime in 2021. We were supposed to be in Denver again in September but that whole event has been cancelled and has gone online.
We’re working on the album which will either be out at the end of 2020 or in 2021, depending on how things go with coronavirus, with our ability to get to the studio to record, the availability of the band, etc.
MPM: Well, thank you very much for giving us your valuable time and for sharing your story with us. We wish you well with the recording of the new album and continuing success with the live-stream shows. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to see you actually out on the road again before too long.
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Interview by Andy Hawes for MPM Americana