Erin McKeown talks “Manifestra,” politics and collaborating with Rachel Maddow

Singer-songwriter Erin McKeown has never shied away from politics. But her newest album Manifestra takes advocacy to a heightened level of awareness – with a songbook that blends everything from folk and jazz to rock and gospel. In an exclusive interview, the indie darling talks to us about this musical hybrid and why she decided to film her first-ever music video this year.

AfterEllen.com: What inspired your seventh album Manifestra?
Erin McKeown:
In the last few years, I’ve felt it more and more urgent to participate in the world around me in ways that are personal and some others that are more explicitly political. Manifestra is a document of internal change becoming external action.

AE: Where does the title come from?
EM:
The song “Manifestra” came to me in a dream. It literally woke me up one morning after a show. As I wrote out the lyrics, I just made up the word “Manifestra” and never thought twice about having invented a word. Thinking about it later, it describes a bright hope and a statement of purpose. It is explicitly feminist and musical.

AE: This album definitely gets political – you even have a song called “The Politician.” What were some of the issues on your mind when you wrote it?
EM:
For that song, I was certainly thinking about how many folks say one thing and do another. And when they get caught, then they invoke God. But where was God all along?

AE: On “The Politician,” you sing, “If nobody knows, tell me what’s the crime. Love the drinker, hate the wine.” What behind this statement?
EM:
That’s one of my favorite lines on the whole record. You can read it in several ways. In one sense, it’s a classic excuse for bad behavior – the power went to my head and made me do whatever terrible thing I did. On the other hand, it offers the idea that we all have redeeming qualities to ourselves and sometimes we make poor choices, but they don’t have to define us forever.

AE: You also tackle really serious issues about immigration and imprisonment in “The Jailor,” which seems to tap into peoples’ fears about the controversial issue. What are your own feelings?
EM:
I am not alone in thinking that our current immigration policy isn’t working for anyone. And I’m happy that Obama and Congress seem like they are going to take up the issue for real now. My basic stance is that anytime you create an “us” and “them,” you have lost sight of a key piece of our common humanity and everyone is diminished by that.

AE: When musicians get political, they’re often criticized. But you’ve always had political themes running through your music. Do you feel a certain responsibility to speak out about issues you care about the most?
EM:
I do feel a responsibility to speak out, but not because I am a musician. I do it because I feel like it’s part of being a citizen and I would take that seriously no matter what my job was.

AE: You’ve collaborated with a few special guests on this album – like Sean Hayes and Polly Paulusma. They really come from all walks of life, musically and geographically speaking. What did they bring to the album?
EM:
Manifestra is a record about community and collective action, so it made sense to get some more voices on there. Each person who sings brings the weight of their own experience with them, which I think makes for a richer album.

AE: What made you decide to not only release a new album – with some very lush and sophisticated orchestrations – but also double up and release the very same album as a solo acoustic?
EM:
I wanted to hear what the songs would sound like in more reserved civic spaces. When the clatter and bluster was gone, would they still hold up? Activism is done both loudly and quietly.

AE: By comparison, the stripped-down version is very sobering (no brass, no surprising gospel bridges). How does this reflect the duality of some of the songs? Is there a hidden meaning for you?
EM:
There’s no hidden meaning there, but I do like your reading of these versions as more sober, perhaps meditative.

AE: This isn’t to say the album’s all so serious. “Instant Classic” almost reminded me of that moment when Donna Summer first moaned her famous “Oh oh oh ohs.” Might this be considered, dare I say, the sexy side of your music?
EM:
[Laughs] Maybe! I think every album should make you want to dance and think – and when both those things happen, sex usually follows.

AE: You’ve done something you haven’t really done before this month – released an official music video for the song “Proof.” Why this song and why a video now?
EM:
I’ve always wanted to make a video, but never had the financial opportunity until my fans helped raise the money for Manifestra. We chose “Proof” because it was originally going to be the radio single. We eventually went with “The Jailer” for the single because it better explains the record, but kept the video for “Proof” because it is not easy to make another video.

AE: The last track – “Baghdad to the Bayou” – has lyrics written by Rachel Maddow. How did you end up collaborating with one of the most respected liberal voices on television right now?
EM: I was on tour in Alaska with Thao Nguyen and we ran into Ira Glass in a diner. We stayed in touch, and he asked me to write a song with Maddow for a benefit he was organizing. I’ve known Rachel for years because we both live in Western Mass.

AE: So does that mean we can expect to see you on Maddow’s show one of these days?
EM:
I wish!

AE: If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?
EM:
Probably something similar where I got to travel, meet people, and have the opportunity to effect some change.

Manifestra is available now.

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