Here and Now: Callum Easter steps out

Callum Easter joins us for a pint to explain why he works best when kept busy and how he's ended up making one of the most anticipated debut albums of the year

Feature by Chris McCall | 03 Apr 2019
  • Callum Easter

Callum Easter is sitting at a table in Robbie's Bar, a traditional pub halfway down Leith Walk, reflecting on the eventful journey that's led him from sideman-for-hire in various bands to becoming a fully-fledged solo artist in his own right. It's a rare break in what has been a typically busy week for the singer-songwriter, who originally hails from Dunbar and now resides in Edinburgh. Kicking back is not something Easter generally has time for.

"I'm always running about," he explains. "I've found I need to have three or four jobs on the go. I do all sorts. I've probably done about 50 hours this week. I make music in the gaps. But that's become part of the process of how I record. Sometimes I play a track, I hear the vocal, and I remember recording it at 11pm in the studio after coming in from a shift. You have that feeling – you just have to get it done."

No one could accuse Easter of being a slacker. When he plays a gig, it's only him on stage. When he makes a record, he does almost everything himself. Not that he leads a solitary musical existence. Keen gig-goers in Edinburgh may recognise him from his time playing keys in The Stagger Rats. Others will have spotted him on organ duties with Neon Waltz when the Caithness band toured the UK last year. But now he's ready to step out front and centre with the release of Here Or Nowhere, his debut album. It may only be April but the record will likely feature in any self-respecting best-of-the-year lists.

Easter offers a matter-of-fact assessment of his career to date. "It's been a graft. But thank fuck it's going in the right direction," he says with a grin. He's entitled to take a moment to check how far he's come. Here Or Nowhere ranks as one of the most anticipated debut albums from any Scottish artist this year. It will be released this month on Lost Map Records, the independent label run by the indefatigable Johnny Lynch, aka Pictish Trail. Lynch was so impressed with the songs Easter sent him that he agreed to release the album without even having seen him perform live.

The Skinny joins Easter for a swift pint, or three, in Robbie's as the bar is spitting distance from the studio where he works. This small corner of Leith already has strong musical connections. Young Fathers taped their debut album Dead in a basement a few doors along. The band's Graham 'G' Hastings still uses another rehearsal room next door to Easter's. The pair are pals and regularly swap equipment and stories from the road, as well as offering feedback on one another's latest recordings. Needless to say, Easter has toured with Young Fathers as well, playing lap steel and keys alongside the trio on their most recent UK tour.

Such connections were built steadily over time. Easter, by his own admission, was a late starter when it came to music. "I didn't really begin writing tunes until I was 21," he says. "It's funny how it's worked out. This is my debut album and I'm 31 – although I was involved in making a record with The Stagger Rats before that. But it's quite late, in a way. Some folk will think: 'What's this guy been up tae?'"

While Here Or Nowhere is his first album proper, Easter has already released some impressive music over the last three years. He cut his teeth as a solo artist with the Get Don’t Want EP in 2016, following it up a year later with Delete Forever. Both mini-albums were released by Soul Punk, the label run by Young Fathers’ former producer Tim Brinkhurst. "Tim and G have been great for chatting [through] ideas with and offering bits of advice," Easter continues. "After the first EP, the quickest way you can learn is to make another quickly. Recording has been a total journey. I've been figuring out what I like and how to do it, basically."

Easter's music is sparse yet rich, utilising drum machines and organ drones in a way that brings to mind the likes of seminal New York electro pioneers Suicide. The album's title track is a case in point. A hushed vocal begins accompanied by only a few simple drone notes, before building into an unlikely torch song. Fall In Love, the lead single, is another deceptively simple pop song with a diamond tough edge. 'This world's getting ugly / You better fall in love,' Easter sings.

Before we hit the boozer, Easter gives The Skinny a tour of the small basement studio space where he does most of his work. There are keyboards, samplers and various other gizmos piled high. "I'm good at acquiring old gear that people don't need anymore," he says. But there's no sign of the one instrument that now defines his live shows. When on stage, he replicates the keyboards and drones of his recorded material with an unlikely tool – a secondhand accordion. It's an instrument most associated in Scotland with ceilidh bands and drunken wedding parties. The very opposite of contemporary music, in other words.

Yet it's proved to be a game-changer for Easter's approach to a live show. "I wasn't sure what I was doing with my live shows," he explains. "I was playing with a DJ at one point who was running the beats and I was playing into that. It was a bit over-complicated. Then I bought a drum machine and I've been playing accordion and a bit of guitar. It's a really stripped down approach.

"I'm now starting to enjoy playing solo. It makes things a bit simpler. I can jump on the Megabus with my accordion. If you asked me seven months ago, I would have had no intention of playing accordion. I passed a charity shop that was selling one for £50. I got it for £40 after a bit of chat. I started playing it from scratch. It's quite a loud thing. It's given me loads of options. You're playing keys with two hands and you've got to squeeze the fucker. It's made my playing a lot better."

Easter did have doubts about the instrument and how it could be perceived. "I was trying to fight it for a bit," he adds. "There's no accordion on any of my records. Drone wise, and some of the electronic sounds I'm doing, it covers it live with some jiggery-pokery. I'm putting a drum mic on it, it sounds beautiful." He won't be swapping any tips with traditional accordion players, however. "I'd be too scared to ask," he laughs. "My playing is primitive in comparison. I'm not moving about – there's none of the bounce you would hear at a ceilidh."

But finding unusual instruments and equipment and making them work to his benefit is central to Easter's ethos. "It's making things on a budget," he confirms. "I love watching DJs, for example, to see what they're doing. So I got some CDJs and then thought: 'What the fuck am I going to use them for?' But you can do loads of things."

This approach is already winning fans in high places. Recently, Scottish Ballet chose his song Make a Move to accompany a dance piece that will be filmed by the Glasgow-based director Eve McConnachie. "I've always known I wanted to create," Easter reflects. "I used to paint as a kid. It just wasn't an acceptable idea to be an artist. I'm not saying that because I grew up in Dunbar, but most folk... if there are no artists in your family, you don't think you can do it for a living."

Easter was a talented footballer, to the extent he took up a sporting scholarship on offer at Wofford College, a liberal arts university in South Carolina. It was during his downtime off the pitch that he taught himself piano and a spark caught flame. Returning to Scotland, he knew it was music, not football, that he wanted to pursue. "I just want to do art," he adds. "I know how much I need to cover the bases and I feel pretty optimistic about being able to do it. I'll always do it. I'll be an old boy, still doing it, I'd imagine."

Here Or Nowhere is released via Lost Map Records on 5 Apr

Callum Easter plays Leith FAB Cricket Club, Edinburgh, 6 Apr; Wide Days Festival Takeover, La Belle Angele, Edinburgh, 13 Apr; Shuffle Down Festival, Larbert, 27 Apr; The Old Hairdressers, Glasgow, 10 May; Kelburn Garden Party, Kelburn Castle, Fairlie, 6 Jul