Angela Easterling photo by Sandlin Gaither
Angela Easterling Shares Her Perspective As Witness
Angela Easterling recently released her new album, Witness, as the culmination of many years of work and a project that took into account her recent experiences of living through the pandemic and welcoming her third child. Though she had an album ready to release before the world shut down, she decided to rethink its songs and content in order to speak more directly to the current world through her trademark personal storytelling. The result is a varied collection that ties together many themes of being a witness and bearing witness to the experiences of this world, whether the highs or the lows, as well as to the things that feel out of our control.
Easterling’s honesty and perception shine through her detailed lyrics and the attention each song received in terms of musical development derived, in part, from the fact that she recorded the songs in small batches over time. She was also able to record all the songs on the album with her live band for the first time in her home state of South Carolina. I spoke with Angela Easterling about the determination that carried her through songwriting and recording over a long period of time and the ways in which this album’s differences make it unique and timely.
Americana Highways: Did you get a chance to celebrate your album release?
Angela Easterling: We had a CD release show here in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I live, at one of our favorite local places. Lots of friends and family came out, and it was packed. We played all the songs off the album and that was really fun. Maybe I’ll do something personal to celebrate when I can stop to think about it. I’ve just been going, going, going the last few weeks. Maybe I’ll go have a “me” day!
AH: I know it’s great to mark such a big effort by having an event just to make it feel real.
AE: Yes, and it was great to do it with family and friends, because a lot of those people had heard earlier versions of the songs that I’d brought to shows. They are a big part of that. These are the folks that kept us going through the pandemic, musically, and have supported me so much over the years. That was really special. As a writer, I have a hard time moving my brain on to the next thing until the next thing is officially out. But now I’m starting to think, “What’s next?”
AH: I knew that the songwriting for this album stretches over a long period of time, but I also wondered if the development of the songs had a longer period, too, like through live play.
AE: It’s been seven years since my last album, but in the last seven years, I’ve also had two babies, as well as having an older son. With my previous albums, I used to go to Nashville, and spend a couple of weeks recording, getting everything done at once. With this one, I haven’t been able to do that. This was more like writing a few songs, trying to find a time to get into the studio, getting into the studio, doing as much as we could.
It’s interesting because that sort of resembles the way that I recorded my first album, whereas back then it wasn’t that I didn’t have time, it was that I didn’t have money. Back then, I was scraping together money here and there, and I even traded this guitar with a guy for some studio time! But with this album, we put together a little home studio which we can do a little bit with, which helps some. That cuts back on the time chunk of the studio.
I was planning to release this album in 2020, and it was done, aside from song order and mastering. But I had a baby due in May 2020, so was planning to release in the Fall. Then when Covid hit, all of our shows got cancelled, and all of the money went away. I wasn’t able to put an album out without being able to tour. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
In the meantime, though, I wrote and recorded several more songs, and I liked them a lot better than some of the other ones that I had. I felt like the album was taking on a little bit of a different direction, but it was one that I liked. I was picking and choosing towards the end of last year. It has been a long time. It looked like it was going to be five years, but because of Covid, it turned into seven years. It feels really good to have it done and have it out, since we hit so many snags along the way.
AH: It must! I’ve talked to a few people who have said that the album that they are releasing now feels like the work of a couple of albums combined. A lot of people had recorded an album, but wrote new songs in the meantime, and felt more like they wanted their release to reflect their current feelings, so switched songs out.
AE: Absolutely. I’m going to do something with these other songs, whether releasing them as singles or an EP. But a lot of them were more lighthearted and didn’t suit how I felt after the last few years. I didn’t want to put out a Debbie downer album, but with so much serious stuff going on, it felt like, “This is what it needs to be about to feel like I’m doing something relevant.” When you’re writing about stuff that’s current, it’s really hard to sit on those. You want to go ahead and share those right away.
AH: I think it’s really amazing that you kept your focusing on writing and recording these songs over such a long period of time and stayed goal oriented with so much going on in life. Was focusing on small groups of songs the way forward for you?
AE: When I had maybe two to four songs that I thought were good and ready to go, we’d just book a studio day with the band and go in. This is also the first CD of mine that I recorded in my home state of South Carolina with all the guys who I play with in my regular band. That part made it a little bit easier, having a shorthand with people. Some of these songs were ones we’d played live before, but some were new to them that day, recording. It was a mix.
I’m not really a patient person, and that’s something I really struggle with. I’m like that kid in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who says, “I want it now!” [Laughs] My own ambition to be productive is one of the main things that keeps me going. I just feel like I have to be creating and doing something, even if it’s slow, and even if it’s overwhelming. With my songwriting, sometimes taking care of three little kids, and dealing with my website, and booking my shows, and everything else that goes into being an independent musician, including driving to my shows and playing my shows, makes me wonder: How am I going to sit here and be creative and come up with something new?
One of the main things that I do is to take the expectation off of myself that I’m going to make something whole right now. I say, “Let me just start with the kernel of an idea and get something down in this little period of time.” Then I can always come back to it. But if I don’t do it at all, I’m just not going to have anything. So whether it’s one song, or half a song, or two songs, at least I’m making a little bit of progress. You do wind up getting the album done that way. It’s not the ideal approach, but it’s better than nothing!
AH: A substantial group of people seem to make albums that way. It also can give a different perspective on each song to work in smaller groups of them. Each song might get a little more attention that way or a different shine to it.
AE: That’s true. I think, when you do it this way, something that is both good and bad, is that it can be eclectic. We looked at each song individually, little by little, and we recorded each song the way that we thought it would sound best. Then, when we put everything together, we realized it was a little crazy, because there was a folk song, and a rock song, and a bluegrass song, and a country song. [Laughs]
Fortunately, when we sent it to Jim DeMain in Nashville to master, my partner and producer Brandon [Turner], said, “This album is really eclectic. We just need it to sound like the same person.” He was able to give that some gloss. These songs were recorded at multiple studios over two to five years, so that’s hard. Interestingly, it’s all the same musicians playing, though! We wondered if people were going to mind that it’s all over the place, but based on responses, they actually seem to like that about the album. Each song does have its individual moment, but that makes it harder to have a cohesive sound.
AH: I think people are more open to variety on albums these days, probably influenced by streaming. Also, a lot of people are allowing themselves to combine genre sounds more, which is probably part of it. For me, when I listened to the album, I felt the variation gave the album a lively feeling. There’s also a lot of experience conveyed on the album, and that creates a kind of cohesion, almost like the songs are chapters of a book.
AE: That’s one thing I was thinking when I put the songs in the order that I wanted them. I knew they’d sound different to each other, but I was placing them in the order with a bit of a story so they could kind of flow that way. That’s why I decided to put “California” first, and then “Home.” There’s a bit of a storyline. I really found my love of performing in theater when I was 11 or 12 years old, and I still love theater and the idea of telling a story. That’s one thing I’m always drawn to in the music. I always try to do that if I can.
AH: Does it make you think of your own life or experiences differently to have included them in songs?
AE: It’s very therapeutic, that’s for sure. I’m an extrovert on stage, but in the rest of my life, I’m kind of an introvert. There are things that are tough to talk about, or tough to talk about with your family, but you just need to put them out there in the world and have them acknowledged. The song “Baby Bird” was one that I wrote about a very difficult miscarriage that I had been through. I wrote that song when I went through a really dark time. I didn’t want to talk about it, and have people coming up to me asking, “Are you okay?” I really wanted to be left alone, but I still needed to acknowledge and share. That’s what we do as humans. The only way I knew to do that was to write a song about it. If there’s somebody that it resonates with, that’s a powerful thing.
AH: There’s a lot on this album that I’m sure will resonate with people. Even though the song “California” is very personal, the idea of having these youthful experiences and going through difficult things is relatable.
AE: It’s giving up on a youthful dream and saying, “I don’t know if I’m going to be happy going in this direction.” That is a hard thing to do.
AH: Is “Half Way Down” a newer song from the collection?
AE: Actually, “Half Way Down” is the oldest song that I wrote and recorded for this album.
AH: It seems so timely.
AE: Unfortunately, it is. I wish it wasn’t. I wrote that song after the shooting at the Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, in the late Fall of 2017. I recorded it in January of 2018 and was going to release it as a single. The day I put that song out on Bandcamp, it was the day of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school [in Parkland, Florida]. That afternoon, the shooting happened. I hadn’t even heard that it had happened since I was getting ready for my son’s birthday party.
I would love, for that song, to someday never have to sing it again. I would love for it to not be relevant. I would love to just pack that song up and send it on its way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to quit.
AH: I feel like that song is really powerful and speaks to our human experience that’s so common, unfortunately, right now. I think the way you speak about it is unique, too, so it meant a lot to me to hear it.
AE: Thank you. I’m not in politics or in charge of anything. But as a mom, every day when I pack my kids up and send them to school, I feel so helpless about this current situation. I feel helpless about the ability to keep them safe at school. But the only thing I know to do about it is write a song about it and put it out there. I hope people hear it and think about it. We process and we go on with our lives, but unfortunately, in this situation, something needs to be changed.
AH: As it says in the song, “Nothing ever changes, no one’s asking why.” Putting it on an album called Witness makes sense, too, because these are just realities that you’re experiencing.
AE: I totally have a position on this, but in the song, I just want to relate my feelings about it as a person, as a mom, and as an American. I try not to be preachy. Sometimes when you do that, it doesn’t really get anywhere. I wanted to frame it in such a way where people who might have different political beliefs could still hear it and still feel the sorrow of the situation that we’re in right now.
Thank you for chatting with us, Angela Easterling. Find our more information about Angela’s tour dates and music here: https://angelaeasterling.bandcamp.com/album/witness and here: https://www.angelaeasterling.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Video Premiere: Angela Easterling “Witness”