There are some musicians whose careers are fluid, moving between styles, instruments and bands with ease, often at the periphery, but always with a familiar sound. Caroline Easther is one such musician, a drummer, multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter whose work you may know from Beat Rhythm Fashion, The Chills and Let’s Planet, not to mention her being an early member of The Verlaines, and more recently as one of The Hobnail Boots. Now promoting her own album, titled ‘Lucky’, Caroline talked with Amanda Mills for NZM.
A musician since childhood, Caroline Easther has music in her blood, playing violin and piano from early days, before quickly becoming proficient on guitar. Then, came the drums – she bought her first kit after seeing an ad in the classifieds section of the Palmerston North newspaper, the day before leaving for a teaching job in Hawera.
“I wasn’t looking for a drum kit,” she says. “I just saw it and thought, ‘That is me…’ you know one of those things that just hit you – it hit me!”
Easther taught herself and never looked back. Her varied musical career as a drummer began in earnest when she moved to Wellington, joining Hot City Cats and then The Spines, before being whisked away to join Beat Rhythm Fashion in early 1982.
Later that same year she decamped to Dunedin, teaming up with The Verlaines for most of 1983, before returning to Wellington where she formed Let’s Planet with Alan Galloway, Nigel Clements, Tim Pike and Helen Cairney. Where she also (later) played guitar and sang.
The big(ish) time called in 1986 – Martin Phillipps invited Easther to join The Chills for a European tour and US shows. She spent 1987 touring and recording their debut album ‘Brave Words’.
Returning to Wellington the following year, Let’s Planet picked up where they had left off, opening for luminaries including R.E.M, Paul Kelly and Crowded House, and over time recording three albums, an EP and a single. They released a digital-only best-of in 2013.
That typically convoluted path has now led Caroline Easther to her first album as a solo artist. ‘Lucky’ was a labour of love, and as she admits, a long time coming.
“I sort of had it in the back of my mind to do an album one day,” she smiles. “When I first thought about it, I thought, ‘I’ll just do this when the time is right and I find the right person who I know will make it sound the way I have it in my head.’ And it was always going to be David Long if it ever happened.”
Initially planning only a small and personal run of copies mostly for family, she was persuaded to go further by her friend Ebony Lamb.
“As it came closer to being completed… I said to her about what I was thinking of doing, and I said, ‘Either I’m going to go for it and do it properly, or I’m just going to take it easy.’ She said, ‘You’ve got to get hold of yourself, and go and do it, find the courage and do it.’ She talked me into it… I’m really glad she did!”
By the time of its April 2019 release Easther had been working on ‘Lucky’ for 10 years. Recording with co-producer (and former Muttonbird) David Long, it was on and off, fitted between her work as a teacher and his writing soundtracks.
“We had a bit on an initial rush of blood to the head, and everything was fine, and then, of course, he got busy… and I’ve got my schoolwork and teaching, and getting time together was always a little tricky,” she laughs.
“I loved the process of just having all that time, at the back of my mind thinking, ‘I’m finally doing this.’ There was never any hurry, it’s not a contemporary thing, it’s not a political thing, it’s just a collection of songs that just could come out any old time.”
The classic unadorned sound of ‘Lucky’ is indeed timeless, and what she calls organic – an acoustic, guitar-driven album with pure sounds, quality recording values and instrumentation that does not date.
She describes the songs as being like a diary. There are songs about her daughter (Meg’s Song) and lost friends (Your Footsteps Falling), while the (mostly) instrumental Goodbye Little Boy is about young guys going off to war.
That’s one Easther is especially proud of for both the production and songwriting, along with I Believe You Tonight. She’s also very happy with Find Me, which highlights her acoustic guitar finger-picking skills. The luxury of time has helped bring range to the music, with the delicate balanced by intense, driving rhythms, and jangly guitars – what she calls a “…Sheryl Crow sort of feel” in the driving rhythm.
‘Lucky’ is a spacious record, the songs allowed to breathe, but she also knew the album required driving rhythms and propulsion.
“Anything You Want, it’s got that push in it. I just threw this real sort of Flying Nun jangly electric guitar on it. I wasn’t quite sure how to make the song work, and I threw that on, and it went bang, and it just all fell into place,” she laughs.
With the release of ‘Lucky’ already on her horizon, Beat Rhythm Fashion, her dream pop act of more than three decades ago, was resurrected in 2018. Dan Birch, the trio’s original bassist, died in 2011, but Easther and vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Nino Birch reunited to record a new album. Actually it was an external influence that reunited them – Rob Mayes, the musician behind lo-fi specialist Failsafe Records.
“He plays bass, and has just always loved Beat Rhythm Fashion, and Nino and he had stayed in touch for years.”
Birch sent some of his more recent songs to Mayes, who subsequently sent to Easther to add drums – lo and behold, a new Beat Rhythm Fashion album was… fashioned. Released in February this year, the new trio toured ‘Tenterhook’ in March, and Easther says she loved performing in venues around NZ that she hadn’t played in for a long while.
“It was like stepping back in time really for me,” she smiles. “It was great, playing rock again, I loved it… I do miss it.”
But ‘Lucky’ has been her passion project, and a chance for Easther to move beyond the drum kit, and stamp her own sound on her own songs. The title reflects what she considers a charmed life.
“I had… a very lucky childhood… I think I was born with a pretty bright outlook, and a pretty sunny disposition. I came off a motorbike when I was about 16, and didn’t kill myself – I got my scarf caught in the back wheel! I tumbled onto the road, and I stood up in the middle of the road… there were cars everywhere, and I thought, ‘For Christ’s sake I’m alive, how did that happen?’
“But I was alive and perfectly healthy. I think from that point also, I was lucky, I was really lucky… I feel that’s where the title came from.”
The album brings Easther’s multi-instrumental skills to the fore, playing bass, drums, piano and banjo on the album. Her Let’s Planet bandmates, Murray Costello (bass) and Alan Galloway (guitar) assisted, as did drummer Hamish Graham, guitarist David Berry, Alan Norman on piano-accordian, Paddy Burgen on pedal-steel guitar and David Long on banjo. ‘Lucky’ closes with a sublime version of I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, a duet recorded with her friend and sometime-collaborator Barry Saunders from The Warratahs. After all Easther’s musical experiences, has her career been leading to this point?
“I do think so now. I didn’t really feel like that 10 years ago, but now that the album’s made, and it’s been nicely received… the response has been unexpected, and completely welcome. Because of that, it does feel a bit like that.”
She’s been inspired to write new songs, potentially eyeing another record – maybe with a mix of new tracks and re-recordings of older material. The current focus though is on touring to support ‘Lucky’ around the lower North Island and top of the South with her band The Cinnamon Girls (Alan Galloway, Murray Costello, and Hamish Graham). She’s keen to perform more.
“I think it might just stay small… I’d love to get a good support, I’d love to go round the country with someone… that would have me… and go around the country as a duo or a band. Alan and I doing the duo thing sounds really good. We’ll see what comes up…”
Totally committed to her craft, Easther is one of the most passionate musicians I’ve ever met. ‘Lucky’ more than proves her chops as a multi-instrumentalist but ultimately, her musical drive is related to her principal instrument of choice.
“People have said I’m a musical drummer… I like to think that I am!” she laughs. “I love to drum musically, I’m not a percussionist… I’ve got a good feel, a good backbeat. I sit behind a drumkit and I feel at home in a bigger way than when I sit up front with a guitar and start singing. Drumming to me is just like my very comfortable, happy place.”