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MSN Entertainment's Guide to the 2013 Academy of Country Music Awards
Sunday, April 7, at 8p.m. ET/PT on CBS

Academy of Country Music Awards

Thompson Square / Anthony Baker

Two by two: Thompson Square's second chapter

The ACM-winning duo discuss their sophomore CD, life on the road and their inner 'idiots'

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

When they set out to make their second album, married couple Keifer and Shawna Thompson of the pop-country duo Thompson Square found themselves in a significantly different place than when they'd recorded their self-titled debut album two years earlier. In that time, they'd scored a double-platinum-selling, No. 1-charting hit with "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not," opened several major tours, earned two Grammy nominations, and claimed both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music trophies for Vocal Duo of the Year, among other awards.

For the couple, married for 14 years, the second album needed to represent their newfound confidence and reflect their growth as artists honed, in part, through long stints on the road playing arena shows as the opening act for Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum and, currently, Luke Bryan. They also wanted it to be more personal. So for that second album, "Just Feels Good," which hit retailers March 26, the couple helped pen five of the 13 songs, with Keifer co-writing a sixth. The result is a solid and entertaining work, more upbeat and feel-good than their previous set, and punctuated by autobiographical songs like hit lead single "If I Didn't Have You" as well as "That's So Me and You," plus one they didn't write, "Home Is You," for which the couple tweaked a few lyrics to make it more true to their lives.

In an interview with MSN Music, they talk about the pressure to top their initial success, why their music blurs the lines between pop and country, their chances of repeating their win at this year's ACM Awards, trying to maintain a normal life on the road, and how to enjoy being "the idiot that you are."

MSN Music: With all the big successes you had on your first album, did you feel extra pressure to top yourselves beyond just the usual sophomore jitters?

Keifer Thompson: I think so. As an artist you're supposed to grow and show that growth and maturity. You learn a lot, hopefully, when you're out there on the road. I think that's what this album [shows]. We said exactly what we wanted to say. And it's an album we wanted to have a lot more fun on. We learned in the live show it's not necessarily about ... ballads. I enjoy singing ballads, but when you go to a concert, you want to have some fun. Shawna and I like to turn the guitars up to 10 and rock out. We didn't have a whole lot of that on that first record, and wanted more of that on this one for that live show.

What other goals did you set out to accomplish, musically, with this album?

Keifer: Most importantly it was to make a better album than the first one. The first album introduced how Thompson Square sounds and [on] this album we really wanted to introduce who Thompson Square was. Sonically, we wanted to grow a little bit, stretch out a little bit without losing who we were. A lot more focus went in on this record.

Shawna Thompson: A lot more focus on the writing, too. We had a lot of songwriters come out on the road with us. We just wanted the lyrics to be meaningful and be real, and we can absolutely say with complete honesty that every song on this record is real to something that we've experienced or been through.

Did being the reigning ACM and CMA vocal duo of the year give you an extra boost of confidence as you were writing and recording this album?

Shawna: Absolutely. We actually used our ACM trophy as motivation. We had it in the studio with us. We had it up on the console for just about the whole time we were recording just as a reminder that there's a certain standard needed to win an award like that and to try to keep up with that standard. It was really important to us to make a record that reflected that.

Keifer: We don't ever take it for granted and take it very seriously. When you do win one of those awards, it means everything to an artist.

How do you like your chances for adding another one on the April 7 ACM Awards show?

Keifer: I think our chances are really good, but you just never know what's going to happen at an awards show. There's upsets all the time. We had a really good one [ourselves last year].

Other than the ACM award on the console, what else was significantly different for you between recording the first album and recording this one?

Shawna: We experimented a lot more on this record with different sounds and beats.

Keifer: We had a lot more fun. There's no monkey off your back [the second time], certainly, but it's that feeling of "OK, we made it through three singles. We're doing good. We're here to stay. Let's relax a little bit and have some fun with this."

Contemporary country music has so many different styles incorporated under its umbrella now. Where do you draw or blur the lines between country, pop and everything else you've been influenced by?

Keifer: I'd be surprised to find someone with just one genre of music on their iPod nowadays. The Internet has opened up a whole gamut of [ways] for fans to find good music. Our iPod's all over the place. We didn't go in [the studio] and say, "We'll push it this far," or, "We don't want to go this far." We just kind of left the gates open. The reason why it's country is because it's all rooted in traditional country music and stories.

Shawna: And the lyrics. That's what country music is all about, true stories and love and heartbreak.

Keifer: As much as I love crying steel, you don't have to have all that on there to define who you are as an artist, especially as a country artist, and especially nowadays. The songs are there. The stories are there. The voices are there, and the honesty and our lifestyle. ... Country music is who you are, not what something might sound like.

You have a novel coming out June 4 based on "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not." What's that all about?

Shawna: We collaborated with Travis Thrasher, who's done a couple of books with other country artists. It's just a simple little love story about a couple who shared a love of music and they are best friends, and quite possibly might become more than that. I don't want to give too much away

Keifer: It's not based on us, though.

Shawna: It's completely fictional. It's loosely based on the song.

In your current single, you wrote the line "This life would kill me if I didn't have you." What is it about life on the road that's so difficult sometimes?

Keifer: We just bought a house, and we've been in it maybe six or seven days in three or four months. You're just gone all the time. ... The reason me and Shawna are doing Thompson Square is because in the very beginning we decided that our marriage was the most important thing in our lives, and [wondered] how do we couple that with following our dream. The only answer was to form a duo.

Shawna: The hardest thing for us is just being away from family. That's one reason why we bought a place down in Alabama, so when we are home, we can be with our families. [The couple also has a residence in the Nashville area.] That's [also] one reason why we bought our dogs [was] to have a sort of normalcy on the road.

What has it been like so far touring with Luke Bryan?

Keifer: It's a big party. It's so much fun. It's our first middle slot on a major tour, and being able to carry all the production and have our own 18-wheeler for the first time, it's just really exciting stuff. I feel like a kid again playing my first gig.

You've been out on some big tours now between Luke and Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum. What have you learned from each of them that you're now applying to your own show?

Keifer: We like to do ballads, and Lady A had a lot of ballads in their show. We saw with all [their] sold-out shows that that's OK to do that. It doesn't have to be on 11 the whole time. With Jason, his crowd is just going crazy all night long, so that definitely pushed us to bring the energy level up in our own show. And then with Luke, what we've learned so far is it's OK to laugh at yourself and be funny and just enjoy being the idiot that you are.

Shawna: Luke's definitely not afraid to show his personality, and that's what's endearing about him. We learned to go out there and just show, literally, who we are and not be afraid of it.

Keifer, I think you just called Luke Bryan an idiot somewhere in that answer.

Keifer: [laughs] No, I called myself an idiot. I meant that in the most endearing way. I think all of us are just a little bit goofy, and Luke's no exception to that, [or] guys like Blake Shelton. They just are who they are no matter how big they get. That's what makes them so special.

Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.

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