Words by Ed King / Pics by Denise Wilson
“We are a live act, that’s very important.”
God love the Kitchen Garden Café, but its ‘intimate setting’ can make crossing the room a fearsome journey. Mic stands, wires, pedals and feet. The world’s most tiny ukulele. There’s danger at every footstep. I’ve never fallen into a stage before (off, many times) but if it happens tonight I won’t be too surprised.
Has to be… for the performers too, with even a solo endevour bringing you mere feet from the front row. No space for shrinking violets. No space. But Worry Dolls have an on the road confidence, embracing pan Atlantic production and a pretty relentless tour schedule. As their latest single, ‘Miss You Already’, opens their set tonight, the simple and stripped back country puts a sea of bobbing heads reassuringly in motion.
Lucky 13 on a 25 date UK tour, Birmingham is getting its second taste of the London based duo tonight – with Worry Dolls having previously played a support set across the road at the Hare & Hounds. Their debut album, Go Get Gone, was released through Bread & Butter Records on 25th January, with Zoe Nicol and Rosie Jones jumping in the Worrymobile (Jones’ near airtight/packed out car) the very next day. Amongst other things the Worry Dolls’ debut LP is a litany of travel metaphors, with the pens behind it seemingly living every word they write, and as ‘Endless Road’ gets its dual delivery off stage (the first track on the LP and the third in tonight’s set list) I think of busy tour posters and the faceless stale smell of countless hotel rooms. ‘Where I am is where I call home’, and sometimes that’s all we have.
It is also at this point I really notice the vocals, with nuances in each voice both supportive and strong. This didn’t come across as clearly on the album – prompting me to wonder why the ‘love of harmony’ was so prevalent in their promo blurb. But as track four, a challenge to “stand up for yourself”, is beautifully belted off stage, I get it. The absurdly, almost dangerously infectious ‘Bless Your Heart’ is played next (ingraining itself in my brain by the morning) and nails the lid firm on the corpse of this question. Although I have a feeling there’s more to this song than just “a nice way of telling someone they’re an idiot.”
Worry Dolls are, according to them, “not country.” But to most of the world outside of Nashville they probably are. There is a deep folk root in their songwriting and an often beautiful lament you could refer to as ‘ballad’, but as Zoe Nichol sings solo on ‘She Don’t Live Here’ I am half watching her reflection and half looking for a beer and whiskey chaser to sink into. It’s not Shania Twain wrapped in a confederacy flag, but it feels pretty country to me.
Yet despite their undeniable affinity to the genre (and travelling to the home of the Grand Ole Opry to write and record their debut album) Go Get Gone was produced by Neilson Hubbard – a man with stronger rock credits than country, who was once himself signed to Adam ‘Counting Crows’ Duritz’s E Pluribus Unum imprint.
“If we wanted to make a country album in Nashville we wouldn’t have picked him,” explains Rosie Jones. “He’s really great at finding the thing that makes an artist what they are and stripping it back and simplifying it to only what is needed. He doesn’t do big country productions, ours isn’t a big country production by any stretch of the imagination.” It is by mine. “If you go to Nashville now and you hear what is considered country… we are not country,” adds Jones. “We are inspired by country, and love the more traditional instrumentation like pedal steel and fiddle.”
Hailing from various corners of the UK, and first meeting in Liverpool, both Rosie Jones and Zoe Nicols live, eat and sleep in London. Last time I looked there were studios in the capital, so if you’re ‘not country’ why travel over 4,000 miles to write and record your debut?
“Nashville was a dream for me when I was growing up,” tells Jones, “all the music that inspired me came from there. When I met Zoe she shared that dream, so we went out there first just to experience it and we ended up doing some co-writing out there.”
“It was like going back to when we first started writing,” continues Zoe Nichol, “like when we just kids, when you just have songs pouring out of you because you haven’t got anything else in your life that gets in the way of that. When we went to Nashville I got that feeling back. Living in a place like London it gets suppressed a little because of everything else that’s going on around you.”
And that was strong enough to send you across the Atlantic? “That’s why we felt so drawn to Nashville and had to go back. It felt like such a natural thing to do, it wasn’t like ‘where shall we record our album’ – it was calling. We had those ten amazing days (on Worry Dolls’ first visit to the Tennessee capital) and wrote eight songs, then had to go back and finish what we’d started.”
Being inspired by a place and not the connotations of a place is something I can relate to, and I’m sure most people have corners of their heart that only they understand. But my initial response to Go Get Gone (and you can read my Birmingham Review of the album here) was that is lacked a certain identity; not that it was a badly produced record, and the songwriting is super in parts, just perhaps the studio didn’t give these peripatetic songwriters enough credence. When you’re half way round the world from your support network things don’t always go to plan.
“That’s completely not it,” cements Zoe Nicol. “We completely stayed true to the individual sound the two of use wanted. People were there and collaborated with us, but we made sure we protected the sound we wanted.” I feel presumptuous, rude and not 100% finished with my question. “A lot of our friends and family were worried because we’d put every single penny of our savings into the album and they thought it could go completely wrong. That we could end up with just a Nashville band playing a Nashville sound; more country, more commercial.”
So there was an element of doubt? “We were both certain it was the right thing to do,” continues Nicol, “we put a lot of research in and spent two whole months planning the trip ourselves. The producer (Neilson Hubbard) we found was completely opposite to what people might have expected.”
“Our producer was careful of that too,” adds Rosie Jones. “That was people’s fear, that we would go out there and get some Nashville band to play on our songs and it wouldn’t be us. We’ve both been instrumentalists for a long time, neither of us were ever just singers, so we were adamant we were going to do everything live together.”
I wrote in my review of Go Get Gone, ‘I believe live performances are where this body of work will really take shape’. This is the line that brought me into this room tonight. My crippling need for context is what has plonked me in front of the Worry Dolls, casting aspersions that are quickly shot down in flames. I am, at least, half right.
My music tastes range ‘from Tori Amos to techno’ (a retort I’ve used many times before) but I will never be a country music fan, apparently. Or have the same yearning for hay bales and bluegrass that some old colonials still do. Jackson Browne is as close as I get. But by the time ‘Things Always Work Out’ gets aired, somewhere towards the tail end of the second set, I am singing along to a song I didn’t think I’d heard enough to remember. And whilst I’m writing this feature I’m listening to the album, and not for the reference points.
But Worry Dolls aren’t country, apparently. So I guess it’s a moot point. And as I squeaked out in defense, when my what-happened-in-Nashville assumptions were being fervently rebuffed, getting to see music played “allows me to understand” what’s being presented more so than on a recording. So as I began with a quote from one Worry Doll, I shall close with more pertinent words from the other.
“There’s an energy that you get live, the communication is just different.”
Worry Dolls are touring across the UK until 30th April, playing their final date at The Live Room in Saltaire, Bradford. For more on Worry Dolls, including their full tour dates and online purchase points, visit www.worrydollsmusic.com