When Erin McKeown set out to make her most recent studio album, she decided to record the new songs in a city that embodied the same spirit of “hope in a sad environment.” It was New Orleans that she had in mind, even though this was December 2004, long before the hurricane.
“New Orleans, obviously now, but I think always has had a quality of mixing sadness with joy,” McKeown says. “That’s what I wanted to bring to my record.” At the time she was getting through a break-up and writing songs that reflected “a combination of overwhelming sadness and true belief that things were going to get better.”
The result is We Will Become Like Birds, an album that showcases her distinctive vocals soaring through songs that share references, both forthright and obscure, to being airborne. McKeown says this kind of thematic cohesion was new terrain for her.
“In the past I’ve done all these records that bounce around from one genre to the next,” she says, “and I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if I went for depth instead of variety.” She says wanted to challenge herself to get her mind to stand still for 12 songs.
“I’m a person who’s full of ideas, for better or for worse, and they don’t always turn into something.” This time she says she wanted to see things through before moving onto something else. In a song titled “Air” she sings: “What I lack in guts and blood I make up for in dreams.”
McKeown may be a dreamer, but she displays guts and gusto in her frequent live performances. She tours at least half of the year and her shows exhibit her playful energy—a verve backed by solid talent.
At 28 she has already released five full-length albums: Monday Morning Cold (1998), Distillation (2000), Grand and Born to Hum (2003), and We Will Become Like Birds (2005). Earlier this year she released an EP of songs recorded live for an L.A. radio show.
At the start of her career McKeown and three other female indie artists teamed up as Voices on the Verge, touring and recording one live album. But that project came to an end in 2001. “People ask about it all the time and I’m glad about that,” McKeown says. “But I’m also glad to move on to other things.”
On a rare stretch at home earlier this year, she got two more albums into the pipeline. The first is a collection of old jazz standards that she recently finished recording and expects to release in the fall. It was “an opportunity to fully concentrate on the old-time aspect of things,” something that has been a part of her music for a long time. She says the other album will feature all original pop material, similar to We Will Become Like Birds.
McKeown grew up Fredericksburg, Va., but has lived near Northampton for the past five years. Before that she was in Providence, studying ethnomusicology at Brown. She has demonstrated talent with guitar, piano, banjo, and mandolin, but is able to play an even wider range of instruments: “Anything with strings and frets I can do something on. I can hit things, like drums. And anything with a keyboard on it I can make sounds with.” For now, she says, that excludes horns and anything bowed.
McKeown is a multi-talented musician who has made a point of paying attention to all aspects of the business: “It’s to your advantage as an artist. You’re sort of the last person to get a piece of the pie, and I think if you understand how the pie is put together you’re more likely to get a bigger slice of it.” She started out doing everything herself, “but in the end it was taking me away from my music, which was the original goal.”
One of McKeown’s remaining goals is scoring a film. She has already leant songs to television shows: “Slung-Lo” and “We Are More” were featured on Gilmore Girls and Everwood episodes, respectively. She says she would love to record specifically for film or TV. “It would be nice to have a visual element to my music,” she says.
It’s important to McKeown to stay connected to her fans, and she comes out after shows to make herself available to people who want to talk to her. “People care about my music and that’s a really lovely place to be in,” she says. She also tries to answer all her e-mail, even if it’s just a one-line thank you. “It’s not as important as feeding the hungry, but it’s a way I can give back,” she says. “I do try.”
McKeown knows what it’s like to be at the other end: “I’ve written so many fan letters in my life. I just think if you like someone’s music you should let them know.” Mostly she’s written to Olympic swimmers and speed skaters. A former swimmer who also plays hockey and tennis and currently practices yoga and runs, she counts sports as “one of the great joys of my private life.”
Despite her popularity, McKeown says she doesn’t have to struggle to keep parts of her life private because she’s very vigilant about it and comfortable to respectfully defer on some inquiries. Case in point: the tattoo on her right forearm. It’s a series of letters and numbers that are personally meaningful to her. “I don’t ever tell anybody what they mean,” she says. But It’s in a spot where I make sure that I see it.”
As a music fan McKeown always tries to meet musicians she admires after their shows. That’s how she discovered that she and Juana Molina were mutual fans and then got her to sing on “The Golden Dream,” a track from Birds. Peter Mulvey also joins McKeown for a duet on that album, the melancholy “Delicate December.” The two have been friends for at least eight years and Mulvey happened to be over at her house playing Scrabble one day when he heard a demo. Kris Delmhorst, a member of the same musical scene, joins McKeown for ethereal harmonies on the Live on KCRW version of “Float.”
McKeown recently wrapped up a tour with another friend, Melissa Ferrick. They both played a song during each other’s sets and then joined forces again for an encore. “That’s important to me. If you’re on tour with someone and you’re friends, you should do something together,” McKeown explains. Drummer Allison Miller and keyboardist Julie Wolf shared the stage as well. McKeown was excited to have “an all-lady band” for the first time and likened the experience to summer camp. “You don’t realize how much more you relax, as a person and as a musician, until you actually do it,” she says. She also enjoyed the creative boost of spending so much time on the road with musicians she really respects.
Besides a few benefit and club performances later this month and next, the best place to catch McKeown these days is at Starbucks. A quote from her is featured in the chain’s series of conversation-starters printed on its paper cups. No word yet on McKeown’s specific contribution, but be on the lookout for cup number #115.
Get more info at erinmckeown.com