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What Matters: Erin McKeown on Stolen Cardboard, Greek Gods and Telling Tattoos

Debbie Millman has started a new project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an ongoing effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer 10 identical questions, and submit a decidedly nonprofessional photograph.



Up next: Erin McKeown, a musician, writer and producer known internationally for her prolific disregard of stylistic boundaries.



What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

I love to play tennis. And the older I get, the more I love it. It’s genuinely the thing that makes me happiest. I’m glad I know this.


What is the first memory you have of being creative?

When I was a small fry, I used to steal the cardboard from my mom’s freshly opened panty hose. It was perfect for making things! One of my first creative memories is using many of those clean, white cardboard rectangles and a set of watercolors to make a tiny model of where I imagined the Greek gods might live. In my mind there was a multi-floor mansion on top of Mt. Olympus where each god had a room designed specific to their particular power and personality.


What is your biggest regret?

When I was first starting out in the music business (a very different business than now), I was given multiple high five-figure album advances. Instead of making expensive albums in cool places, I should have bought a house.


How have you gotten over heartbreak?

I feel so fortunate to be a writer. For all the well-documented difficulties of the writing life—sporadic pay, obscurity, long hours of painful work, vulnerability, rejection—writing is the best medicine for heartbreak I know. My albums Distillation, We Will Become Like Birds, and my newest, Kiss off Kiss, are all projects that I made to help me get over heartbreak. It really works! Also, you gotta have a heart to have heartbreak, so I feel fortunate to have a heart too.


What makes you cry?

National anthems of any country, but especially the U.S., and especially at the Olympics.


When I think of Cal Ripken’s 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gehrig’s streak.


Every episode of Call the Midwife. Every one of them!


How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

A very, very short time! I need to work on staying with it longer.


Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I believe very strongly in a power greater than myself, to use a phrase. This power is very real to me and has very real influence and benefit in my life. However, even given that, I don’t have any beliefs about an afterlife. I wish I did! I might find death less scary!


What do you hate most about yourself?

I have self-esteem issues up the wazoo! You pick the target, I have hated it about myself at one point or another: my appearance, my voice, my sexuality or gender presentation. I find it very hard to trust and believe in my own worth without external success or approval. I want to be liberated from this!


What do you love most about yourself?

I really, really love my tattoos. Each of them marks an important time in my life, and I feel like they make so much of my inner life visible to the outer world, something I feel I often have trouble doing on my own. They are both beautiful and scarred, elegant and also transgressive—qualities I love about myself.


What is your absolute favorite meal?

Something with meat and tomato sauce. Followed by a lot of cheese. Then several types of pie.

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