"I’d like to eventually be known for the originality of my songs, for sure. Musically, I want to push some boundaries. That’s certainly what I’m aiming for, whether I’m successful or not is not my place to say. It’s what I respect when I go to see someone play, I want to feel like I’m watching a musician who could pick up any instrument and get an idea across.”
Erin McKeown is a wonderful American singer-songwriter from Fredericksburg, Virginia. She is at the forefront of a growing group of musicians blending sounds from various eras and cultures and refusing to be limited by rigid musical categorisations.
Categorising her sound is near impossible – pop/rock, folk, jazz, swing, bluegrass, blues, funk, trip-hop, Tin Pan Alley, beat poetry, cabaret… - she draws from them all and is always expanding her sound to create a unique eclectic brew all her own. She has described her own music as “oddball pop cabaret rock”, while in music stores I tend to find her under “folk”, even though she herself has said she would put her music in the “Rock/Pop” section - but then as Woody Guthrie and a few other luminaries have said and Erin herself can be heard to say on an old live recording - “it’s all folk music.”
I’ve heard and read of many comparisons made in attempts to pin down her sound, most of which don’t sound anything like her. Some have compared her to Björk, some to Ry Cooder; some even to Dorothy Parker. I also see similarities with Andrew Bird (especially circa The Swimming Hour), and in recent new upcoming artists, Nellie McKay, who has actually supported Erin in concert. Erin calls herself “a cross between Django Reinhardt and G. Love”, which is closer but not entirely it. She is for me quite unlike anything else before her and it's easier to imagine people in the future comparing other artists to her, than vice versa.
"Don't let anybody tell you that Erin McKeown is the 'next' anyone. She's the very first Erin McKeown, and she's great." – Dar Williams
Born in Boston, Massachusetts on 15 October 1977 and raised in Fredericksburg, Virginia, she started playing piano at the late age of three, and has since picked up many other instruments on the way. She played clarinet in the middle school band between the ages of ten and fourteen, and for fun started playing guitar when she was thirteen.
Her road as a performer started in a cover band in high school. She wasn’t very good on the guitar yet, and being a fifteen-year-old female rhythm guitarist in a band of teenage boys playing Jimi Hendrix, Cream and other classic rock she often felt like the extra in the band, so the natural course was to eventually strike out on her own.
She didn’t know she could sing at the time - it was much later that she discovered she could - but writing her own songs seemed the natural progression. She had always written stories and poems, so she started writing songs at seventeen, and entered and placed as semi-finalist in the Modern Rock/Alternative Category in the Songwriter's Association of Washington DC's Mid-Atlantic Song Contest in 1995.
For most people, music heard as teenagers become the foundation of their taste for the rest of their lives, but Erin has no recollection of hearing any music during those crucial years growing up in Virginia, and by the time she belatedly started to catch up at college – the first record she bought was Cyndi Lauper "True Colors" on cassette - her references were arbitrary and disconnected. The advantage of having no conventional set of influences means not only that her own style is impressively distinctive, but also that her ears are still wide open.
She admires people who plays many instruments and can do many different things on the instruments in terms of styles and genres such as pop, folk, rock and jazz, so she works with that in mind, unafraid to try new instruments and sounds. She tries to bring as many into her music as she can, and instruments that she can now play that I’m aware of include bass, drums, mandolin, banjo, piano, organ, accordion and clarinet. Most of all she can play the guitar. Django Reinhardt, who some regard as the best guitarist ever, is a big influence. She says she currently prefers piano, because she feels she can improve and finds it more challenging to play. And she wants to learn the violin next.
Back then Erin had many interests growing up. When the time came for college she decided to attend Brown University and major in biology, as she wanted to be a scientist, specialising in ornithology. However, in her first year of college, she realised she wouldn’t be taking any more science classes when she noticed she was no longer even making it to class at all as she just got so preoccupied with music - so she switched to ethnomusicology with a speciality in musical theatre, vaudeville and blackface minstrel shows. She says that if she hadn’t become a musician she would’ve liked to go into theatre, not as an actor but more on the production side.
However a musician she did become, and she started going around to local places and playing open mikes, so by the time she finished her first year of college she was hopping the bus, travelling and playing shows. She also toured during the academic year while taking five classes, a situation she called "insane". Somewhat dismissive of her studies' influence on her music - "I always felt like I got though college by the skin of my teeth" - she does feel she got exposed to many more kinds of music, and seeing other instruments played in class was also influential.
“I like to mess around with structures, but you have to know the structures before you can start messing around with them. That was one of the things I enjoyed about my music education was to actually know music scales and to actually know music history and to know how to actually play my musical instrument whatever it was. I've had the freedom to try out different styles, really quite luxuriously, and to be exposed to a tremendous amount of influences without committing to any of them."
She played live in venues she booked herself, and started recording on her own and selling collections of her songs at her shows. She became an "artist-in-residence" at AS220. It was also while at Brown University that she launched her own start-up label TVP Records and made her recording debut in 1998 with the Monday Morning Cold cassette. This collection of demos and live material was re-mastered and re-sequenced for CD release the following year.
After graduating from Brown, she caught the attention of Signature Sounds president Jim Olsen, who signed her to his label. She started performing with the travelling songwriter's collaboration Voices On The Verge, alongside Jess Klein, Beth Amsel, and Rose Polenzani, releasing a live recording with the group. Meanwhile, a songwriter friend introduced her to Dave Chalfant, former guitarist for the Nields, who was working as a record producer. Dave Chalfant would become a key person in shaping Erin's musical vision.
"I want to make records that don't sound like anyone else's - they certainly would owe something to tradition, but be outside of it somewhat."
She released Distillation, her first proper album, in 2000, with Dave Chalfant as producer, and the album received great critical acclaim. (It is my joint favourite album, and is for me very much a classic.) On the strength of Distillation and stellar live performances, she got top honours in the Providence Phoenix's music poll for "Best Folk Artist" of 2000 and a Boston Music Award nomination for outstanding new singer/songwriter.
To make the follow-up record, Erin signed with quasi-major label Nettwerk in 2003. She reunited with Dave Chalfant to record the follow-up Grand, a very good and very different record that was similarly well-received. In 2005, she found new producer Tucker Martine to record We Will Become Like Birds, another very good album. I’ll write about her recordings in separate writeups, but if you’re looking for an album to buy as an introduction to her music, I’d very much recommend Distillation first. The three albums are very different in character: Distillation is the folkier introvert, Grand is the more pop/rock extrovert one, while We Will Become Like Birds sees her take a more straight-forward pop direction.
Live, she is astonishing. Onstage, furiously tapping her feet to the beat, she’s a musical tornado, shuffling, strumming, swinging, strutting and rocking through her inimitable collection of songs. Laid-back, funny, charismatic, charming and beguilingly feminine, she owns the stage, which is perhaps even more remarkable if you consider that she’s just under five feet tall. A brilliant guitarist with a wonderfully rhythmic style that recalls Django Reinhardt and Ani DiFranco - with her guitars that look a little too big for her small build, which only add to the charm - she is very inspiring to watch, especially for guitarists. Every time after I see her play I go home and pick up the guitar with renewed optimism. I’ve seen her both solo and with a band (her Trio) – a band, by laying down a rhythm section, frees her up for much more improvisation and rocking out, and allows her to exchange guitar and bass duties with the other guitarist between songs, but solo her personality is given more room to roam the stage. Her voice is another wonderful instrument, clear like glass, sweet and enticing, able to take on any inflections as befits the song – plaintive, bored, tongue-in-cheek, soaring, melancholy, carefree, amused, cheerful... – she has no trouble inhabiting her songs. Another great thing about her gigs is that the audience is just as wide-ranging as her music. Age-wise, I’ve seen elderly couples, teenagers and every age in between. Her fans are made up of all kinds of people, and that makes for a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere that I find in very few concerts.
For me her music has a rare honesty and integrity, enthrallingly unique and free of clichés in so many ways – structure, instrumentation, lyrics and production. She has a great flair for melody and rhythm and is always on a quest to do better things with drums (the drumming on her albums are always beautifully recorded). She’s not held back by conventional genres and categories and is eager to attempt and experiment with anything that suits the song - but unlike many other experimental artists her songs remain short and focused. Drawing from music both old and new and switching and surfing between styles and genres with ease, she has a great ability to recreate the sounds and moods from bygone eras, and a great understanding of the power of subtlety, ambiguity, and the unsaid which is so rare these days -
“I don’t say it, I imply it.” – “Queen of Quiet”, from Distillation
and that gives her grace. Her lyrics are poetic and literate, and she often chooses fascinatingly unique subjects to explore in her songs, where she often writes and sings in character to stunning effect. Her music is not existential or angsty – there lies beneath her happiest songs a tinge of sadness and her saddest songs, hope - while wit and humour shine through in her music and her performances. Most of all her music is imbued with a wonderful warmth, helped immensely by Dave Chalfant’s natural, organic production on her albums. It all sounds so natural and effortless, though from what I've read Erin isn't nearly as prolific as some songwriters, and admits to often labouring over each song - but with great results!
Oh, and many of her songs make you dance:
“I feel more like a musician when people are dancing than any other time. There are many ways to experience music, but one of the most primal is so that people can dance… I always feel I’m really doing my job when people are dancing. When I was in university, I used to drum for African dance classes and it always felt like what a musician really should be doing. When people analyse songs or listen too much to the words or think too much about concepts of albums and things like that, it’s getting a little too far away from what you make music for in the first place... You don’t have to think when you dance. If people are just staring at you, you wonder if there’s a connection. But if people are moving their head or dancing, you know that they’re listening.”
Erin says she gets much of her inspiration from movies, books and other forms of art. She loves musicals (especially Guys and Dolls - "Adelaide's Lament" is one of her favourite songs), cinema and theatre. She also loves all sports, especially baseball, and probably would’ve gone to college on a field hockey scholarship if not for her love for songwriting.
She says she is not in a rush for fame – one of her best songs “Fast as I Can” alludes to her ambivalent feelings towards it. She has said her chief problem with the music industry in general is the lack of patience, and as she imagines music to be something she will do for the rest of her life or at least the next twenty years, she is prepared to think more long-term. She carefully guards her privacy, and demurs whenever she’s asked about her upbringing - her family "isn't interested in having a public life". Her desire for balance is so strong she wavered before declaring music her full-time job.
And Erin considers it most important to remain a fan as well as an artist:
“I learnt a lot about artists that I loved by collecting bootlegs. When I’m a fan of someone I want all the information about them. I don’t have time anymore to scour for bootlegs the way I used to. But I definitely went through that and if I had more time I would get myself proper taping things and follow the bands that I like. I like that and I want people to do that with me.”
She positively encourages her fans to tape shows and trade them- there’s a section on her official website that allows her fans to trade live recordings, and she has also made many mp3s of her music available online. She supports the downloading of music, though she wants to be paid for her work, but feels there are intelligent solutions to the problem.
“I’ve learned that despite whatever’s going on, I have to remain a fan of music. Lately, I’ve been making a real effort to reach out to people I’ve been fans with. I mean, I’ve been trying to send fan letters and music to my idols to let them know I’m a big fan. And I’ve received things in return, which is exciting. If you’re going to be creative, you need to assemble a group of people who do what you do as support. If I get excited about someone’s performance, I’m gonna tell them in the same way someone tells me — I respond to everyone who writes me. I get so excited when I hear back from someone I’ve written. I’ve been enjoying sending and receiving packages. It really brightens my day, especially when you’re exhausted and working really hard.”
If you can’t already tell, I think her music is quite special.
Monday Morning Cold – demos and live material 97-98 (cassette) (1998)
Monday Morning Cold – demos and live material 97-99 (CD, with different tracks) (2000)
Queen of Quiet EP (2001)
Born To Hum (single) (2003)
We Will Become Like Birds (2005)
Her music also appears on:
Waterbug Independent Artists Sampler ’99 (1999) – “La Petite Mort, or The Story of Estelle’s Funeral, Recounted”, an early version of "La Petite Mort" from Distillation
Voices on the Verge – Live in Philadelphia (2001)
Wonderland: A Winter Solstice Celebration (2002) – a great cover of “At The Christmas Ball”
Her official website is at http://www.erinmckeown.com
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