Interview: Carla Easton (Teen Canteen / ETTE)

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This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper in January 2017.

There’s a state-of-the-art recording studio in an old Leith warehouse. It’s called Tape. The building used to be a brothel, a cork factory and a whisky bond, and in keeping with its colourful past, it’s now a digital / analogue hub whose stash of rock ‘n’ roll equipment has links to Fleetwood Mac, ABC, Abba. Glasgow indie-pop grrrl-gang Teen Canteen recorded their debut album there, and channelling their love of classic girl groups – not to mention Tape’s vintage fetishism – they recorded it in mono.

“We wanted to reference old girl group records and Spector records with the album. We were trying to build a new wall of sound,” says singer, keyboard player and songwriter Carla Easton, who is joined in Teen Canteen by Sita Pieraccini (bass), Chloe Philip (guitar) and Debs Smith (drums). Her Spector-esque references ring true, and Easton’s abiding love of girl groups – The Ronettes, The Cookies, The Shangri-Las – resonates throughout her work.

Teen Canteen trade in epic indie-soul (their debut, Say It All With A Kiss, was released in September), while her solo(ish) psychedelic DIY-disco project, Ette, is a titular nod to the suffix adopted by her favourite troupes (The Chordettes, The Bobbettes, The Marvelettes). Homemade Lemonade, Ette’s debut LP – as aided and abetted by Joe Kane of Dr Cosmo’s Tape Lab – came out via Olive Grove in July.

Releasing two debut LPs within one year is no mean feat. “It’s been great, it’s been a brilliant year, and I’m so happy with the response to both records,” she says. “The Ette one was actually a kind of happy accident – I never intended to record an album’s worth of material, but Joe and I were enjoying ourselves so much we just kept doing it.” Around the same time, Teen Canteen wrapped up their crowd-funded calling card, so both LPs were released within months of each other. “People have been in touch to say that they own both, which is really nice,” she says. “I think they sort of work hand in hand with each other.”

It’s testament to Easton’s songwriting clout and versatile aesthetic that both albums shine in their own right, with neither eclipsing the other. Both play out like fizzy (power) pop-fuelled celebrations of life, love, and cheerleading the sisterhood, but there are stylistic divergences, too – Ette is more experimental and synth-led than Teen Canteen. “Both albums were very different in terms of recording atmospheres,” Easton adds. “The Teen Canteen album was done in this pristine, design-led space in Edinburgh – Tape – whereas the Ette album was done in a wee garage in the West End of Glasgow.”

Teen Canteen’s music has evolved – live and on record – since their formation in 2012; did Easton consciously set out to write a separate, stand-alone batch of tracks for Ette?” It just kind of happened with some songs I wrote last summer,” she offers. “Usually, when I write a song, I’ll do a wee demo of it, and send it to the rest of Teen Canteen, and we’ll all come together with ideas and parts. But I’d been working up the demos a bit more than usual, with vintage drum machines and synths and organs, so they just felt a wee bit too finished, as ideas.” And lo, the Ette songs were born. She worked them up in the studio with Kane. “It was just different,” she says. “Although now, if I write a song, everyone’s like – you know – Is that Ette? Or is it Teen Canteen? And I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing now,” she laughs.

That’s as maybe, but Easton has always seemed quietly assured and determined. Her teenage band with Pieracinni, Futuristic Retro Champions (those lively vintage vibes again), shared bills with The Vaselines and Kate Nash, and explored music’s kinship with visual art – a theme which still abounds in her work. Futuristic Retro Champions’ single, May The Forth (2010), featured artwork from Turner Prize winner Martin Creed (whose own band also played at the single launch), and Easton credits her former Edinburgh College of Art advisor, the late Paul Carter, with encouraging her to make music as well as art. Her postgraduate study at Glasgow School of Art followed a similar path: she sought out tutor Ross Sinclair, also a musician, who would go on to provide the artwork for Teen Canteen’s debut LP.

“I’d always been a fan of Ross – Paul Carter introduced me his work, and I love his music as well as his art,” Easton says. “So when I was at Glasgow School of Art, I had a tutorial with him – I think we ended up just sitting chatting about music, rather than any work I was actually making. So this felt like a nice way tie all that up, to have Ross involved with the album somehow.”

Among other sonic endeavours, Sinclair played drums in Sean Dickson’s Bellshill indie rabble the Soup Dragons – a band whose allies include Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Duglas Stewart of BMX Bandits. Stewart is also a vocal supporter of Easton’s work – so much so, he recorded one of her early songs, Fireworks, for the 2012 LP, BMX Bandits in Space.

“That song kind of kick-started the whole of Teen Canteen,” Easton says. “Duglas has always been really supportive, and I was a fan of BMX Bandits growing up, so it was a real confidence boost.” She recorded her own version of the song for Homemade Lemonade. “I think it’s quite nice to have that to sit alongside the BMX Bandits version,” she says. “And also, it was nice to do it because the cover of Homemade Lemonade is a photo of my eldest niece, Zoe, and Fireworks was written about her, shortly after she was born…”

Much of Easton’s work is similarly embedded in family and friendship. Teen Canteen bassist Debs Smith is a childhood friend, and her brother, Murray, co-runs indie label Last Night In Glasgow, which released Say It All With A Kiss. They’ve just teamed up for another LP, The Christmas Effect: a live recording of an all-star gig Easton and co staged last week to raise money for Scottish Women’s Aid and the Scottish Refugee Council. The Christmas Effect leads on from Easton’s charity nights, The Girl Effect, which also raise money for Scottish Women’s Aid (and which, naturally, sing the joys of the girl group…)

Does Easton feel a responsibility to raise social and political awareness through her art? “I feel that with everything going on at the moment, if you’re in the creative community, you can use a voice to raise awareness,” she says.

Having helmed two debut LPs and a charity album in 2016, you’d think Easton might stop to catch her breath, but 2017 kicks off with an Ette gig at Celtic Connections and a new Teen Canteen EP. “This time,” she says, “we’re recording in stereo.” Sometimes, there’s a lot to be said for coming at things from different angles.

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