Every now and again some new music rolls down the pike that hits all the senses at once — a sophisticated pop gem that charms the ear, sparks the imagination and moves the heart, if not the feet as well. This is what Orlando musician Derek Engstrom has gifted us with on his newest album, Easy Living, a song cycle of personal tales of highs, lows, transitions and ultimately renewal.
The music on Easy Living would sit, well, easily on a playlist alongside the likes of Donald Fagen, Brian Wilson, Al Kooper or Paul Simon. What makes Engstrom’s music so compelling is that it’s drawn from a wide variety of sources that can’t be pinned down.
The atmosphere of Easy Living is a dreamy blend that welcomes the listener with strings, chimes, charming piano and conga flourishes, melded to vocal harmonies that comfort, tingle the spine and pull the heartstrings.
A sterling band of collaborators flesh out the album: regional heavy hitters like Anthony Cole, Rion Smith, Jorge Ito Colon, Christina Nakajima, Matt Lapham and Syoma Klochko, among others.
Prior to this album, Engstrom was the drummer and principal songwriter for the local soul-jazz group Leisure Chief, which fought the good musical fight in and around the live music circuit here in Central Florida for many years. You can hear hints of that time well spent in the overall sonic fabric of Easy Living. Orlando Weekly reached out to Engstrom for a deep dive into his new album.
How did you go from Leisure Chief to Easy Living?
I was writing a lot of jazz, soul and funk tunes. My dream was to go to New York and be a straight-ahead jazz drummer. After school I would go home and play along to Blue Note records, do my best Elvin Jones impression. Then I got into the more modern players like Brian Blade, a drummer who was writing music. On his album, Mama Rosa, he played guitar on it and that was my first instrument. Hearing that album opened my eyes to what else I could do, and that I don’t have to be just a drummer.
How did Easy Living start, what’s the story?
The writing started in 2021; I was just tired of writing the same way I had in the past and was searching for different outlets for my songs. It set me on this tangent which didn’t fit in with what I was doing with Leisure Chief. I wanted to have a linear progression that went with harmony. I wanted to have the room to ruminate. The album is a slow burn, all the songs are a slow burn.
The songs on Easy Living do unfold in a way that allows the listener to cozy up to them.
I wanted all the songs to feel like they were building up to something. It wasn’t something I intentionally did, but I did want them to have the room and repetition to forget you’re listening to it and be surprised by it.
So with songs like “Come Along,” there’s that long piano intro and then the Wurlitzer comes in and we’re still not into the song until about a minute in, and it’s a slow burn, to bring it back to that. That’s a reference to the album cover with a small fire on the corner of the house.
The cover is eerie: a Florida suburban house, palm tree in the front yard, yet there is a small fire starting on the roof.
When I sketched it, it became an amalgamation of the house I grew up in Sheffield, Lake Mary. It was important to me in creating the backstory to the record itself in its revealing of my trauma and my past and me working through it. You know, you can have all these “things,” the suburban lifestyle, and there’s still that little fire in the corner and everyone’s got it but we don’t always talk about it, but it’s there. I came up with the sketch and Janet Lee rendered it and nailed it: the idea that it’s not a perfect existence here.
"The writing started in 2021; I was just tired of writing the same way I had in the past and was searching for different outlets for my songs. It set me on this tangent which didn’t fit in with what I was doing with Leisure Chief."
Talk about your vocal performances on the album.
Honestly, it’s a first for me because I did write these songs on piano, I fleshed them out on guitar, but this is a very piano-driven record. I don’t consider myself a great vocalist in the classic ability. I do think it comes from an honest place. I want it to be approachable.
The co-producer of Easy Living was Rion Smith, of Blue Man Group and Shak Nasti repute. Did his experience make him an architect of the album’s sound?
Absolutely. His home studio, 1509, is where I recorded the record. He built it himself and he mixed and mastered my music.
I couldn’t imagine myself recording at another place. If not there, I would want Rion in the room.
On the song “Rothko’s Room,” there are references to that artist, Kandinsky and Hieronymus Bosch — this song seems to stand out a bit from the rest thematically.
I wanted a song that had a monochromatic kind of feel, like Rothko’s art. I like artists and even reference one of my childhood friends in the song, Kieran Castaño (Central Florida visual artist and “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” newspaper cartoonist). My uncle was an oil painter, so I’ve always loved artists.
Every line in the song has some sort of reference to either an artist or a painting. That for me was a tribute and a reprieve from the more personal subject matter in the record. The song stands on its own and is a breath of fresh air before moving back into the rest of the songs.
Derek Engstrom will next play Will’s Pub on Jan. 14, and there’s a Hard Rock Live show with Matt Lapham and Anthony Cole in the works for February too. Keep an eye out also for a physical release of Easy Living in the near future, but for now the newly released album is on Engstrom’s Bandcamp for streaming and downloading.