Easther grew up in a musical family and played classical violin and piano through the formal grades. She recalls writing her own songs from an early age, “around nine or 10”, under the influence of the perennials of the time: Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Neil Young. She may have had access to a piano and violin at home, but had to buy her own guitar.
A period of teacher training led to her first job – in Hawera in 1980 – and the money to buy a much sought-after drum kit. Weekdays she would teach school, learn to play the drums in the evening and, at the weekends play guitar and sing at The Commercial in Palmerston North. Easther then secured a teaching job at Titahi Bay, packed the drum kit in to her VW Beetle, and moved down the line to Wellington.
The early 80s were a fertile time for music in the capital, partly due to the National government’s work schemes. Musicians were employed as musicians through the local council PEP programme, earning a decent living wage in return for playing gigs throughout the city and region. One of these groups was the Hot City Cats, a five-piece swing band with Easther on drums. In 1981 she quit teaching to concentrate on her music. The bass player in the Hot City Cats was Rob Mahoney, who later introduced Caroline to Jon McLeary, and her next gig was with the first lineup of his arty agit-pop band The Spines.
Another casual meeting of musical minds in Wellington saw Easther perform with a short-lived 1982 live version of the post punk Beat Rhythm Fashion, centred around the brothers Dan and Nino Birch. Less than a year later the band played its final gig at the Clyde Quay tavern. In 2018 BRF was resurrected and Easther recorded drum tracks at the Surgery in Wellington, with founder guitarist Nino Birch in Melbourne Australia and bass player Rob Mayes of Failsafe Records working out of Japan. They then hooked up for a New Zealand tour in 2019 to promote the album Tenterhook.
Post BRF and The Spines, Easther sold up and moved to Dunedin with a boyfriend who was studying at Otago University. This was 1983, shortly after the Flying Nun label was founded in Christchurch, with much of the catalogue was coming from the fertile Dunedin music scene.
in dunedin, it wasn’t long before the drum seat in The Verlaines became vacant.
There was a kind of musical chairs among the local bands and it wasn’t long before the drum seat in The Verlaines became vacant. After a chance meeting over the counter at the Governors café where Jane Dodd was working, Easther became a Verlaine for six months of live work locally and around the South Island. The demand for crash cymbals in the arrangements, and the overall volume of the playing, was the beginning of lifelong hearing issues for her.
By 1984 Easther was back in Wellington, “a nutty mad musician” for a bit of “rest and recuperation”. She got a day job at Wellington Newspapers but still dabbled a bit in music with the quirky rock group Circus Block Four, including recording an unreleased album.
In 1985 Alan Galloway was forming the group Let’s Planet and needed a like-minded musician and drummer. Easther answered the call. The band went on to record four albums over the next 20 years – Favours (1991) Loving Tongues (1994), LaGloria (1998), Bounce (2007) – and played support for Paul Kelly, REM, Throwing Muses, The Proclaimers, Split Enz and Crowded House.
Since 2000 Easther has moved out from behind the drum kit to front the band on vocals, acoustic guitar, and keyboards with ex-Sneaky Feelings Martin Durrant playing drums.
But a drummer needs to eat, so in 1986 Easther took a year-long journalism course, while playing a weekend residency at the Oaks with Dave Murphy’s The Juke Jivers. Towards the end of that year Martin Phillipps called, needing a drummer for his new Chills line-up, a recording session and UK and European tours.
Easther agreed to join The Chills full time after her journalism course but also committed to regular rehearsals in Auckland. In early 1987 she flew to London with the band and their first UK gig, at the prestigious Dingwalls. The next show was up the motorway to Scunthorpe, in a nightclub, playing between DJ sets. However, The Chills were on a roll at the time. They supported Hüsker Dü and The Sugar Cubes, played Glastonbury, The Town and Country Club, the New Music Seminar in New York (including a gig at The Bitter End, during which the PA broke down). Then it was back across the Atlantic to London’s Point Studios for two weeks of 6pm to 6am sessions recording The Chills’ debut full-length album Brave Words, with Mayo Thompson. They also fitted in a John Peel radio session.
All the while Easther was homeless and couch surfing.
Life on the road in the Chills was tough and tiring.
The Chills then embarked on further European, Australian and New Zealand tours to promote Brave Words. By 1988 Easther was ready to leave. The band may have had critical acclaim, an album that sold well, and seemed continually poised on the brink of success, but life on the road was tough and tiring. And continuous exposure to loud noise was having a severe effect on her hearing. Her last show as Chills drummer was in Christchurch, March 1988.
Back in Wellington, Easther returned to working with Let’s Planet in a less pressurised and quieter environment and one over which she had more control. She started working at Wellington’s Slow Boat Records and there met Barry Saunders, on a break from The Warratahs and looking to form a different group. With Alan Norman on piano, accordion and vocals, Caroline on drums and vocals, Saunders recorded the album Magnetic South in an old theatre in Greytown in 1998. The trio – then duo of herself and Barry – continued to play “special occasion” shows including support for tours by Bob Dylan and Joe Cocker.
The next working band for Easther was Hobnail Boots in 2001, and this collaboration continued through the albums The Fortune Horses (2007), Baggage (2012), String Things (2015), and Blue Sky Song (2017), although the “Boots” in the name disappeared, as did the Irish pub songs from the repertoire. The group toured nationally, but on a small scale.
Easther’s solo album ‘Lucky’ is
“a bit of a diary about the small things that make me happy.”
For over a decade, on and off, Easther worked on a solo album. Recording started at Monkey Studio in Wellington, when she laid down drum tracks from her basic acoustic outlines and arrangements. As she says, “I was never in hurry to get it out, it is just honest songs about life. The album is a bit of a diary about the small things that make me happy, and about the people and places I love … nothing too pressing”. The album is called Lucky.
By taking her time with the recording, she managed to get on board many of the musicians she has worked with over the decades. Contributors include the Let’s Planet family, Hamish Graham, Paddy Burgin, Dave Berry, Alan Norman and Barry Saunders. When it came to putting all this together she called on David Long to play on and produce the album, bringing his skills as a film music composer and musician to the project. “He knew how I wanted it to sound and he realised it.”
A new group, Caroline Easther and the Cinnamon Girls, was formed to support the album release in April 2019. (It can be heard at Bandcamp.)
Other musicians now have a chance to help colour Caroline Easther’s songs. As for her work as a drummer, she says, “I would love to be compared to Levon Helm, someone who feels the backbeat.”