Singer-songwriter Tim Easton comes from a spiritual place… namely, Joshua Tree, California. We asked Easton, whose “Burgundy Red” won the 2010 Independent Music Award for Best Americana Song, about logging hours as a street musician, his love affair with Alaska, and his two new albums, Beat The Band and Since 1966, Vol. 1.
Talk a bit about your experiences busking through Europe.
That would be a long, long book. I did it on and off for around seven years, and it’s not difficult for me to get pretty emotional about it. It was the best of times, it was the best of times.
Where’d you play?
There’s not a lot of places I didn’t play, but I guess I was pretty much on the Western European trail with a little Eastern European after the wall came down. I started off in London, but soon found myself in Ireland, where street musicians were often so close that you had to belt it out or else pack it up and starve. I busked in Holland, Belgium, Paris and much of France for a full year, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and then Czechoslovakia when it was still called that. I was even a street musician in Yugoslavia just prior to their most recent war. Periodically, I would come back to Ohio but eventually I’d find myself off on another romp through Europe.
I used the same black Gibson J-45 that I play now. As far as songs go, I played a decent amount of my own songs right off the bat, that were modeled after country blues stuff, sprinkled with a ton of J.P. Olsen songs, who was a songwriter that inspired me from back in Ohio. The covers I did were mostly Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Hank Williams Sr., Beatles, Stones, and the occasional tune that was influencing me at the time like a Ween song or an R.E.M. song or a Velvet Underground song.
How did it go over?
Don’t get me started. It was the greatest time in the world. I was a street musician on the Charles Bridge, in the actual region they call Bohemia, right after the Berlin Wall came down. People were falling in love and lighting their joints off of policemen’s lighters. The best beer in the world — remember, these folks invented the stuff, was twenty-five cents a glass. There were nights when I slept on park benches, and there were nights in warm beds. I never starved.
How did busking inform your later experiences?
Well, I’m getting a bit misty now just talking about it with you. Honestly, I could take any heckler or bar drunk and just laugh it off these days. That’s not necessarily a good thing, because then you find yourself accepting potentially brutal gigs. It thickens your skin a bit. Lyrically, I mine it for lines all the time. Traveling informs all writers.
You spend a lot of time in Alaska. Any musical reasons why?
A great follow up question to my answer about rough audiences, although Alaska has bars in it that even Nick Drake could stomach because sometimes it is just so crazy that you inherit the good side of all the crazy and just roll with it. Not to say all Alaskan audiences are like this. They have theaters and wonderful venues there too. I just happened to have played truck stops on the Yukon River as well because I’m into the people and characters you find on the frontier of America. Alaskans are the greatest, most interesting, least bitchy Americans I know. Their musicianship, especially in the bluegrass vein, is very, very good. Imagine if you had all wintertime in a cabin to get your mandolin chops together-it would help a lot.
There are a ton of songwriters there as well. You could do a whole piece on just the great songwriters up there. Meg Mackey, James “Junior” Domek, Evan Phillips, Matt Hopper, Melissa Mitchell… the list goes on and on.
You’ve released two full-length records this summer – Beat The Band in June, then an acoustic album, Since 1966, Vol. 1 in July. Why two?
I suppose it’s simply because I can. A record company would never permit this kind of music business confusion but the fact is when I record it is fun to have a band and when I tour I have to play solo acoustic, most of the time, in order to make ends meet. This way, when I play a solo acoustic show and somebody wants to buy a record, I’m not selling them something totally different from what they just saw on the stage.
I basically want to have both sides represented this year. Business norms can’t shut songwriters off from doing what they do. At least, that’s not the way I see it. I suppose a lot of money might slow you down a bit! Writers write and move on to the next thing. Wait ’til next year when I release a double album called “Not Cool.”
What’s one song on each of your new albums you really want people to hear, and why?
On Beat The Band, it’s the song “Did Your Mother Teach You That,” which was cut at Club Roar in Nashville with Jesse Newport on the dials, and mostly because it was a tune I had written after hearing these mean preachers on the radio, but it changed so much from inception to production. There’s a town near Joshua Tree called Yucca Valley and for whatever reason the NPR station goes out in that town and one day these preachers came on and they were just downright mean. I had written it as a minor key bluegrass number and then the band got a hold of it and turned it into what you hear now. It’s a different sound for me, and that’s what I enjoy about making records. That track is the sound of a band changing a songwriter’s perceived sound.
On Since 1966 I can’t really narrow it down. I guess it would be “Festival Song” although I know I’m going to re-cut that with a Keith Moon style drummer someday and knock it out of the park. It feels good to put out an album of just the most basic essence of a song there. One instrument and one voice. If you can’t sing it like that in a club, then what is it doing on an album?
What’s a lyric your particularly proud of?
On Beat The Band it’s the title track with the lyrics
“The air in this city tastes like somethings going to die
and the sweet sound of ammunition cuts through the night
Still you kneel at the alter like you knelt before the boot
of the man who took everything that he could take from you”
How do you typically write songs, words first, or melody?
Well, I think they both arrive at the same time, but nobody admits it. When you are writing lines, often your brain is in a musical mode that goes back to the cave songwriter days. You are writing in a way that permits you to sing it later. I am constantly writing lines down with no song in mind, but actually, deep in my mind, there is a song. I’m just not singing it at that particular moment.
Do you revise a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
I think every songwriter would say “both” here. Every now and then one comes out fully formed and ready to go out of the gate, and those are usually the ones that the songwriter will always remember.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
J.P. Olsen is not only underrated, he’s basically unknown. Today, he records under the moniker The Malefactors Of Great Wealth. He was in a band called The Beetkeepers, and another one called Burn Barrel. He is a film maker living in Brooklyn who is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and I’ll stand on Townes Van Zandt’s grave and say that. Well, maybe I’ll stand next to his grave, because it would be uncool to stand on somebody’s grave and say a word.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
“True Ways” or “Don’t Walk Alone” by J.P. Olsen. The documentary he made, by the way, is called Narcotic Farm. It’s a true story of the Federal Prison in Lexington, KY where they tested drugs on willing inmates. Amazing story, with the soundtrack by MC5’s Wayne Kramer, who was imprisoned there at one time in the ’70s.