Hite strips down
On a shelf in a dusty, old mom-and-pop music shop in Queens, Julia Easterlin saw a ukulele. She had been thinking about taking her music in a new direction for a while, leaving behind what had become her signature looper pedal and instead doing something new.
The ukulele came home with Easterlin. But it sat in her closet for two years while she continued working with her looper pedal, recording and harmonizing with her own voice on very structured, pop-informed tracks with solid bass lines and hooks she hoped other people would like. “[It] was just about how can I make this fun, how can I make this good, how can I make this emotionally effective?” she says. “I was thinking a lot during that time period about a more pop sensibility in my songwriting and everything had to be very neat and clean.”
For a long time, it worked. After studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston on a full scholarship, Easterlin began recording and touring around the country with her looper pedal, having mastered a technique of stacking looped vocals that The Boston Globe called “captivating” and a “one-woman a cappella group.” She performed at the CMJ Music Marathon, Lollapalooza, South by Southwest and the Stockholm Jazz Festival, among many others. Throughout her career she has also been recognized by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, the John Lennon Foundation, the New York Songwriters Circle, and the Gibson/Baldwin Grammy Jazz Ensembles, and premiered a piece at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Cuba.
Her experimental style—including influences from gospel, jazz, and folk music—has roots in her upbringing in Augusta, Georgia, a smaller city on the Savannah River. Her family is from that area and from Southern Appalachia, and Eastern actually had a thick Southern accent when she was younger. Growing up, her mother sang and her grandfather left her a piano. She has been musical ever since able to teach herself almost any instrument.
But Easterlin spent several recent years with the looper pedal and was itching for something else. Not just a sound change, but a name change to have the space to create something new, to feel unstuck. The ukulele began to call to her from behind the closet door. Reeling after a breakup and homesick for her native Georgia while living in New York, Easterlin yearned to connect to her upbringing so she began moving her fingers over the ukulele’s strings, imagining the folk music she grew up with on her family’s farm. “I think in the Southern Appalachian folk tradition, it’s so honest and it’s just about personal experiences and personal struggle and I just totally went there,” Easterlin says. “That was pretty much all I had left to give at the end of 2015.” She started performing with just her middle name, Hite, in order to build what she calls a more multifaceted creative empire—she would no longer be just a singer with a looper pedal, but would be Hite the musician, Hite the producer, Hite the performance artist.
And now, two years later, Easterlin has emerged with a new album as Hite, Light of a Strange Day, called “at once lovely and unsettling… a striking debut,” by John Schaefer of NPR Music. The album, produced by Shahzad Ismaily —who has worked with the likes of Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, Marc Ribot, Bonnie Prince Billy, and others— is a Southern gothic and baroque pop -inspired record that shivers magically, hauntingly with honesty and vulnerability. So much so that the vocals and ukulele were recorded in one take, mistakes be damned. “I was having a hard time imagining that level of vulnerability coming across in a real way if it was all packaged really neatly,” Easterlin says. “I was like, ‘Well, listen, if I’m going to be singing about vulnerable things, these takes might as well be vulnerable, like we might as well just keep the mistake because this album is about a year full of messes and mistakes.’”
Easterlin threw out her previously used structures, her hooks, her bass lines, her pop sensibilities and her strategies and found herself in a space of improvisation, freer form, and deeper experimentation. The song “Light,” whose music video premiered on BUST, was written stream of consciousness on Christmas Eve in Georgia while sitting in her dad’s pickup truck beneath a full moon. It appears on the album with the exact melody and words she sang that night. Easterlin brought the song “Nocturne” into the studio unfinished, hoping the ending would work itself out because she simply didn’t have anything else to say; she decided to keep it as is, its words unraveling a lover’s deceptions then trickling ukulele, strings, synthesizer, and vox into the next track. On “If You Begin to Notice,” Easterlin plays bass and strings, neither of which she knew how to play previously (and, she jokes, even while she was playing them): sometimes, she says, she gets it right. In some ways, the album is the musical equivalent of cutting off one’s hair after a breakup: a rebellion against the shapes and structures of your life that previously defined you, a deep-seated urge to usher a new experience into existence in hopes of eradicating those in the not-distant-enough past.
In that regard, Easterlin was heavily influenced by Björk for Light of a Strange Day. While the Icelandic singer/songwriter has been a favorite of Easterlin’s for years, the album Vulnicura was especially significant to her. “She’s in this interview where she just starts crying and she’s like, ‘I’m a grown woman, why I am crying about this [breakup] in this interview right now? I feel ridiculous and breakup albums are so stupid! I can’t believe I made a breakup album!’ but she was just so fucking honest about her experience, and I was like, ‘You know what? If Björk can say ‘fuck being cool’ enough to make a breakup album even though she thinks breakup albums are really stupid, then I can do it too!’” Easterlin found herself crying in the studio on more than one occasion in front of Ismaily, her producer, but believes this process made her own unguarded, emotional vulnerability transfer into the album itself.
Easterlin’s radical change in process ended up being an act of self-care, of creative and personal regeneration. She doesn’t feel homesick anymore. “I felt like I had disowned some of what I was from and [am] reclaiming it now through the way that the folk tradition ties into my work on this album,” she says. “It just feels really grounding and it feels really true and I feel unembarrassed about it, which is a good feeling.”
Hite has a residency at C’Mon Everybody in Brooklyn, will be at the Blackdome Music Festival on June 24, and at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn on July 30.