Singer-songwriter Carla J Easton talks to Fiona Shepherd about taking inspiration from other women in pop and learning to embrace her own sound for her solo album Impossible Stuff
One of the joys of the current Rip It Up exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland (along with the accompanying book and TV series) has been its capacity for unearthing some of the lesser told stories of Scottish pop, such as kilted teenybopper Jackie Dennis, who found fleeting fame in the late 50s, and Scotland’s first girl group, The McKinleys, two sisters from Edinburgh who performed the rollicking pop of Sweet and Tender Romance, featuring a guitar solo from a young Jimmy Page, on Ready Steady Go! in 1964.
This August, surviving sister Jeanette sang the song for the first time in 50 years (with Emma Pollock on co-vocals and Kate Lazda of Kid Canaveral on guitar-slinging duties) as part of Since Yesterday, an Edinburgh International Festival concert celebrating the unsung female musicians of Scotland, which was organised and curated by Carla J Easton, solo artist, frontwoman of Teen Canteen and Glasgow-based gun for hire, who has written with Belle & Sebastian and plays keyboards for The Vaselines.
“Jeanette’s one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” says Easton. “She turned up aged 77 with a big high Madonna ponytail and a leather jacket and said ‘I wish this was six years earlier so my sister could have been part of it’. I wish I’d started this six years earlier so that Sheila could have been part of it!”
“This” refers to the Since Yesterday documentary-in-progress Easton has been working on with filmmaker Blair Young, which spotlights Scotland’s girl bands from the McKinleys onwards, taking in post-punk outfits The Twinsets and The Ettes alongside crossover pop successes such as Strawberry Switchblade through to 90s riot grrrls Lungleg to build a rich, but so far untapped narrative of Scotland’s “sonic sisterhood”.
“I’d started collecting records by Scottish all-girl bands,” says Easton. “I’ve got quite an obsessive nature and wanted to find out more so it’s been incredible as a musician to sit down and hear these women’s stories and relate to them. In no way is it intended to victimise anyone, it’s a celebration.”
Easton has her own story to tell as part of that girl group lineage. Brought up in Carluke in South Lanarkshire, she has been immersed in music since childhood, learning classical piano from the age of eight and playing saxophone in the school band.
“So I was that person walking to school with a saxophone case in one hand and a big art folder in the other,” she says. “When you’re in a small town that makes you stand out, and I just wanted to blend in, so I gave it up. I find it hard to play classical now. I think my confidence in playing dropped a wee bit. I would never describe myself as a pianist, I would say I’m a synth player.”
Easton began writing songs in her teens but didn’t join her first band until she was in her 20s. Even then, it took her a few more years to step out and sing her own songs when she formed all-girl quartet Teen Canteen in 2012.
“You don’t really set out to form a band based on gender, you just ask those around you,” says Easton. “But there’s a big link between who’s in the audience and who’s on stage and if you see someone that looks like you on stage then it normalises it and it means you can do it too.”
She remembers the revelation of seeing the massed, mixed-gender Polyphonic Spree at T In The Park as a teenager but took time to find her own voice, discouraged by comments made about her accented style. “Maybe it’s a bit of a Marmite voice, some people like it and some people don’t,” she says. “But I remember the first time I heard a Carole King song, and it blew my mind a wee bit because the piano was so upfront in the mix and I played piano so that was cool and her voice is not a typically perfect voice, it wasn’t what I’d been used to hearing growing up. In a way she just sounds like my friend singing at me, she makes me want to sing along with her.”
Easton is a great supporter of the initiatives Girls Rock Glasgow and Girls Rock School Edinburgh where experienced female musicians run workshops and summer schools encouraging girls and women to pick up instruments and rock out freely – especially now she has her own positive experience of being mentored, by Grammy Award-winning songwriters no less.
Easton was the only European songwriter to be picked for a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada last spring, where she began working on the big, bold pop songs which would form her newly released second solo album, Impossible Stuff. At the suggestion of veteran songwriter Don Henry, she took the rest of the year out, moving back home to Carluke to set up a home studio and concentrate on developing her songs, before returning to Canada on the heels of Creative Scotland and Help Musicians UK funding, this time to the Montreal studio of Howard Bilerman, who produced Arcade Fire’s influential debut album, Funeral, and egged her on to realise the symphonic sounds in her head.
“We were tracking the album and Howard said ‘shall we just get a sitar player in for this one track?’ ‘Shall we put this really rare analogue synth on the end of Lights In the Dark for two bars?’ They had a 400-year old pump organ in the studio which was such a beautiful piece – why would you not use it, or make a choir with your friends, or double track handclaps? They had two drumkits as well which is a thing the Wrecking Crew used to use on Phil Spector records. I just thought ‘let’s do it, let’s make a big sound. Don’t worry about how to do it live, just make the record as though it’s the last creative thing you ever do.’”
Impossible Stuff is out now on Olive Grove Records. Carla J Easton plays the Aberfeldy Festival, 3 November