NORTH ADAMS - Musician Julia Easterlin considers her main instrument to be her voice, and shaped her compositions and performance style to highlight that.
Easterlin will perform at Mass MoCA on Saturday, July 14, at 8 p.m.
Easterlin uses a loop pedal in her performances, which is a digital sampler utilized by musicians - most often guitarists- to create short, repetitive riffs that are laid over each other to created textured rhythms. Easterlin has been using the same technology for her own singing performances. Easterlin, a Georgia native, first used the pedal while still in high school, although did not center her work on it professionally at first while in Boston.
"When I switched to the pedal, a lot of the same principles still applied," Easterlin said. "I do tend to start with a general idea, or an emotion that I want to convey, and words and melody tend to come to mind, then figuring out the harmonic structure of a song to complement the melody and lyrics or to help me convey this feeling that I'm trying to connect with."
The pedal has one major difference, though, that has shaped Easterlin's compositions since focusing on it as her main technical tool.
"It is a bit of a limiting format, because it is repetitive by nature," she said. "It's also a little bit like a math problem. Everything has to be even and everything has to be perfectly symmetrical. It all has to line up horizontally and vertically. It's sort of like musical
The creative challenges and limitations of the pedal mean there are certain things Easterlin can't do in performance that she would be able to with other instruments - no time changes, limited chord change possibilities, no rubato sections - but it's also been a way for her to make the most of her own voice in a way no other arrangement has. She started out performing solo with guitar or piano, but the loop pedal, for all its structural limitations, freed her.
After six years of performing exclusively with the loop pedal, though, she's evolved sonically further by adding two drums and a bass player "I had a consistent feeling that I just wanted it to be a little more of a party onstage," said Easterlin. "I wanted to maintain the thoughtfulness behind the composition and the fun that I get to have with the loop pedal, but I wanted it to be a little bit more like a celebration. I wanted a fuller sound, and for me a full sound consists of having the melody and the harmony, and also the low end, the bass and the drums to enforce the rhythm in the group well, so I've been wanting to do that for awhile." Easterlin debuted the line-up at the Lollapalooza festival last year out of necessity for the venue, but they kept performing together afterwards.
"This is the first band that I've ever been a part of, at all," Easterlin said. "Even before I was doing stuff with the loop pedal, I was performing solo, accompanying myself on guitar or piano. I was solo for a very long time, and this is my first exploration with a band. Certainly performing solo for that long gave me plenty of time and a great opportunity to get a handle on what my sound is, where my writing comes from, how I do a show. Integrating other people into that was a really interesting process, and posed some of its own challenges."
"As opposed to being an organic development of a band working together from start to finish, it really was bringing people into what I do and then also having the courage to open up what I do to other people's input, which was frankly a challenge for me for a while. It was scary. It's scary to open up to people on an intimate level and I don't think that's any different when working with a band, when creating something with a group of people. It's an inherently intimate process."
After bringing traditional instruments into her mix, Easterlin has been writing songs the same way and not utilizing the loop pedal at that point in the process.
"I will incorporate the loop pedal into this next creative pursuit of mine, but I don't know that it will continue to be the core of what I do," she said, "because it's limiting and you can only go so far with it. I'm pushing for growth."
One possibility that Easterlin has considered is creating multi-vocal music with other singers. There are logistical concerns, but that's part of the appeal for the singer. Her intention is to not sit still and definitely not lull herself into musical comfort.
"That's a thing that I'm open to, but I think pursuing a solution to the puzzle of how do I do x, y and z live when it's not loopable vocals, I think that's a worthwhile pursuit. It's a challenge," Easterlin said.
"I think it's important for me to push myself and make myself a little bit uncomfortable. I don't always like the result, but I think the things I learn in experimentation, even if the end product isn't exactly what I would hope, the things I learn from that are really invaluable, and it really makes me excited to try weird stuff."
Easterlin can be found online at juliaeasterlin.com.