Erin McKeown reveals how she went from ornithologist to ethnomusicologist to musician and playwright capable of making Lin-Manuel Miranda cry.

Wheat Field

Erin McKeown

MUSICIAN / PLAYWRIGHT / ACTIVIST

2018

MUSIC / SONGWRITING / ETHNOMUSICOLOGY / QUIARA ALEGRÍA HUDES / THE PUBLIC THEATER / BROWN / LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA / RACHEL MADDOW / IRA GLASS / CHRISTMAS / MARY GAUTHIER / JUDY GARLAND

If there’s a theme that has resided just below the surface of this season of Design Matters, an undercurrent pulsing with life, it’s this: feeling.

Many of the artists, designers, musicians and authors featured this year have focused on the art of eliciting a response, be it emotional, cathartic or contemplative. Their reasons? Some stated and some unstated; perhaps it comes down to the fact that in the cycle of perpetual distraction that is the modern era, feeling, really feeling, can often feel like a lost art.

Feeling, it turns out, is exactly musician Erin McKeown’s focus. Maybe it’s because of the role that music played in her early life: She has said that growing up, she indulged in music that made her feel more than she was capable of on her own—happier. Angrier. More vulnerable. As she channeled her favorite artists’ emotions, she’d envision herself performing on a stage—but figured she’d become a scientist when she grew up. Raised in Fredericksburg, Virginia, McKeown’s parents enrolled her in piano lessons at a young age, and she didn’t really take to it in a cathartic or meaningful way, as some musicians do. Rather, her creativity manifested in the form of stories that she would write, and ironically it was science that eventually led her down the winding path to her craft. Around the age of 12, she got hold of a guitar. While attending a science summer camp, McKeown’s counselors were going to protest a new river dam that was slated to be built. She felt they needed an anthem, a rallying cry—so she combined her writing abilities with her newfound instrument, and penned her first song: “My River.” While it never went beyond the ears of those within protesting range of her counselors, it was the inception of a career.

Her early tunes as a teenager followed the lines of classic rock. But then she discovered the likes of Ani DiFranco, and her mind expanded with possibility. Still, there was the matter of becoming a scientist. McKeown attended Brown, where she majored in ornithology—before changing course and sliding a bit closer to her passion by studying ethnomusicology. As she worked toward her degree, her music began to spill over into her life in a more pronounced way: She took a gig as artist-in-residence at the nonprofit Providence arts center AS220.

At Brown, she focused, presciently, on such arts as Vaudeville. In its inception in France, what would evolve into Vaudeville emerged as a bit of a rebellious means of getting around the theatrical monopoly of the dominating Comédie-Française. Similarly, McKeown released her first album, the folk collection Monday Morning Cold, on her own label, TVP, while she was still a student in 1999, music industry be damned.

Her first studio album, Distillation, followed shortly in 2000, and in 2003 McKeown released Grand—replete with a medley of varied sounds, from rock to electronica. It was perhaps with this album that critics (and everyone writing about McKeown since) began pointing out her incredible versatility, and the vast arena of styles that she plays in. This has led to a delightful array of surprising releases: We Will Become Like Birds (2005); a collection of standards, Sing You Sinners (2007); Hundreds of Lions (2009, released on DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records); the hilarious F*ck That! Erin McKeown’s Anti-Holiday Album (2011).

In an industry that thrives on delivering polished branded identities and the predictably (and lucratively) safe, McKeown bucks all of it. Moreover, she does it with a sense of ease—her varied styles and approaches never feel contrived or invented for the sake of invention; rather, as a listener, you get the sense that she’s doing the rare act of purely playing whatever she wants to at that moment in time.

It’s unsurprising (and well along the Vaudeville lines) that she left labels behind and sought to crowdfund her album Manifestra in 2013. It reached its goal in a mere six days. She followed it with According to Us (2016) and Mirrors Break Back (2017), both released on her own label. In her journey through the music industry, she arrived back at the place where she started—a place of her own creation, and her own control.

After seven years of work with Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, she formally expanded her output even further and premiered the musical Miss You Like Hell, a pressingly relevant story of an undocumented mother and her daughter.

Feeling. McKeown infuses it and embodies it. And she delivers it.

She sees music as utilitarian—like design, its natural setting isn’t in a museum, but in use, in real time, serving a purpose in the real world. Music, she has said, is about how it’s used—and she derives no greater joy than hearing that a song of hers was useful to a listener. Further, she believes that a record store should be organized by the emotions each album conveys and the situation it is best suited for—there should be a road trip section. A funerary section. A sunny day section. A break-up section.

Reflecting on her career, she seems at peace in her journey, with her early victories and celebrity giving way to the person she is today.

As she said in an interview with The Interval, she maneuvers her career on a couple simple criteria: Do I like the person that I’m working with? And does this bring me an opportunity that feels creatively challenging? “And that’s what I make my choices from. Because I’ve lived with and without money, and I have lived with and without recognition of what I’m doing, and I’m fine.”

As for what the future holds for her output, it’s likely what it seems to have been all along: McKeown playing whatever she wants to at that moment in time. And that is an infinitely thrilling premise.

Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


Albums by Erin McKeown:
Mirrors Break Back
According to Us
Manifestra
F*ck That! Erin McKeown’s Anti-Holiday Album
Hundreds of Lions
Sing You Sinners
We Will Become Like Birds
Grand
Distillation
Monday Morning Cold

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman