It was only in May last year that Christchurch’s Miranda Easten released her second single, Only One. Talking about it a year later, in the context of the release of her debut album, she all-but dismisses it with a characteristic short laugh. “I think it’s my cheesy, orphan song on the album!” That sort of honesty and pragmatism is certainly refreshing, but as Easten tells Richard Thorne, her album title, ‘Behind Unbroken Strings’ reflects a personal sense of achievement in that she is just that, unbroken and smiling behind the strings.
Giving a twist to her wholesome clear-eyed U.S. country singer-songwriter persona, Miranda Easten has lived most of her life in the verdant foothill suburbs of Christchurch. And contrary to any likely resulting assumptions, it hasn’t been an easy life, so she has plenty to be writing meaningful songs about.
Keen on pursuing music as a career when much younger, it wasn’t until in her mid-20s that Miranda found the opportunity to actually give being an artist a shot. That decision led her to studying at Ara Institute of Canterbury, though not following through to any degree. Songwriting was her abiding passion and she found the remaining course work, the technical stuff like learning about software and production skills, held no interest.
Instead, she moved to studying with Sacha Vee at her Sole Music Academy, with the specific intent of learning about being an artist, or rather determining what sort of an artist she wanted to be. An uncomplicated, acoustic guitar-wielding country singer-songwriter was evidently the gist of it.
“From there it all took off,” says Miranda, with one of her frequent brief giggles. “I dug up all of my old lyrics, some of them from when I was just a kid, and started turning them into songs!”
Asked about her vocal range, which is considerable, she replies simply, “I can sing quite low and pretty high.” It’s not false modesty, she’s a matter-of-fact realist, reluctant to make any claims of self-praise or expectation.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as a traditional pop/country singer. I don’t keep my vocals perfect, as some people do, I like to leave in some of the more ‘me’ elements of it. I know I sound kind of different to everybody else, but that’s okay.”
Released in March 2020, her first single as a solo artist was titled Cowboy Lullaby. The accompanying press described the song as ‘an honest take on how deep love can bring the simplest of everyday moments into a conscious part of our being.’ It had been recorded at Roundhead Studios in Auckland, with Greg Haver producing. She had been introduced to Haver through Vanessa Kelly, the former Deep Obsession pop star with whom Miranda had earlier formed a duo, The Manuka Set.
“We made a couple of songs together a few years ago , and were intending on doing an album, so went to Greg. But that didn’t happen. After Vanessa and I went our separate ways I kept talking to Greg and we decided to do two songs at first, and see how it would go.”
Miranda admits it wasn’t really until Haver said to her, ‘You can do this,’ that she really felt she could, and should, record an album herself. Self-confidence is not her strong hand, but in combo with the PR of Queensland-based Footstomp Music Cowboy Lullaby had pleasantly surprised with its success.
“That song did better than I thought it would. It did really well in Australia, it got to #16 on the Country chart there. It kind of took off, and I ended up doing a whole lot of Aussie media interviews and meeting all these radio stations over there. It was really cool,” she giggles again in exclamation.
There was less of a response here in NZ, but then she does naturally sing with a more mainstream U.S. country artist vocalisation.
“It’s just what comes out, there’s no intent at all,” Miranda explains candidly. “I don’t mind it.”
If anything that comparative local indifference helped refine her artistic style.
“I did maybe alter my songs slightly to better suit what Aussie and America like, and they are definitely my main market at the moment. When I look at the statistics on Spotify it’s all America and Australia, there’s hardly any NZ listeners. But it’s not NZ’s thing, I know.”
That will surely alter with any future off-shore success, but first comes the late-May release of her debut album ‘Behind Unbroken Strings’. Recorded over several sessions at Roundhead in Auckland, the 10 songs include Cass Basil and Mark Hughes on bass, Tom Healy on guitar, Stephen Small playing the keys and producer Greg Haver on drums.
That’s a class band and it’s a classy, cleanly recorded country-pop outing that always allows her versatile voice and the lyrics to be the focus. Of the album’s 10 tracks one is a lyrical co-write, eight all her own, and one a wildly surprising, not to mention brave, cover – REM’s outstanding and enigmatic Country Feedback.
“I did a paper at polytech on Neil Young, and it turned out that Country Feedback is his favourite REM song. I figured that it must be a pretty good song, and there’s a fabulous live version with Neil Young playing with them that goes on for days – and I fell in love with it! It’s crazy. The lyrics don’t make any sense at all, but I was just interested in doing it myself.
“I was told not to do it by a lot of other musicians, and I had to insist with Greg! It’s probably the song I’m most proud of on the album to be honest, I love that song so much. Travellers would run close second because it’s a very real story.”
The Travellers is a song written after she’d researched the tragic tale of a young couple killed in central Canada, a story she’d heard about on the news.
“They were travelling around and were murdered by some teenagers who were just crazy. That was a weird studio moment. I told everyone the story about it, and I think some of us cried. It was a really weird feeling and I think it’s a really beautiful song.”
That’s a rare strongly positive statement from an artist who generally seems determined to underplay her strengths.
“I try not to have thoughts about success in case I am disappointed. So I have low expectations of everything and I’m really surprised and happy when good things happen. That doesn’t sound very good, but it’s the truth! I put it out expecting the worst.”
Here she’s talking about the album’s rollicking opening track and most recent single Country Boy, the video for which enjoyed 40,000 plays in its first month online. If you haven’t already, check it out on YouTube before reading the next sentence.
“It was done in Clevedon, south of Auckland. I chose the vehicle. And the motorbike sitting up on the back of it was used for a Dave Dobbyn video one year-to the day before, so the guy who rented them was a bit weirded out by that!”
An Outward Sound grant provided earlier this year meant she could engage a Nashville PR outfit to help promote the Country Boy video, Miranda admitting that without the grant she wouldn’t have done any PR in the States at all.
“It feels great! I never thought that anyone would really like what I am doing, I was just doing it for me!”
With that outcome, she should maybe consider a similar campaign for This Old House, not a likely single true, but a song she admits to writing as an exercise, pretending herself American. It sounds authentically personal, like a part of her own or a close friend’s past.
“Yeah, it does, but there’s nothing in it at all that’s personal to me, it’s all made up! I do try to write from different perspectives, an object, or a story or something someone else has said or that I’ve seen in a movie.
“I definitely approach songwriting as a discipline. For a while, in the thick of Covid, I was writing two or three songs a day! I have hundreds of songs, a huge catalogue to choose from, though most of it’s probably crap! At the moment I probably write about one song a week.”
A week ahead of her debut album’s May 21, 2021 release Miranda returned to Roundhead where she and the band recorded live performance videos of four songs, to be uploaded in support of the album release. The first of those, Country Feedback , is out now, as is the album ‘Behind Unbroken Strings’.
“It means ‘from my perspective’, my side of the guitar. It feels like a bit of an achievement that I’m still intact despite all that’s happened.”