‘This is who I am’
At a crossroads, Erin McKeown lets her inner activist sing
Erin McKeown has never been one to play it safe. In a career that spans 14 years, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from western Massachusetts has released eight full-length albums, three EPs and performed an average of 200 shows a year. Her music is frequently labeled “genre bending,” which makes sense when we consider that among her recordings she has released a pop gem (“We Will Become Like Birds,”) an album of old standards (“Sing You Sinner,”) and an anti-Christmas EP (F--- That”)
Even though she was constantly moving forward, a couple years ago McKeown felt that she had come to a crossroads in her career.
“I’m 35 now and the music business has drastically changed since I started doing this,” McKeown said. “I had to ask myself why am I doing this? I reached this point where I didn’t want to write about my break-up, talk about where I was from and drive alone all over the country.”
McKeown knew that as a longtime activist, her music needed to be more of a reflection of her political and personal selves. That realization resulted in her new album, “Manifestra,” her first fully independent record, made by money raised from fans and released on her own TVP Records.
On “Manifestra,” McKeown deals with serious issues like the death penalty, immigration and the war. But she never lets the message overpower the music. In addition to her jazzy, pleasant voice and muscular guitar work, she uses layered vocals, complex rhythms, lush strings and bright horns to accentuate these lyrics. The disc is full of gorgeous melodies (“Proof”) and humable choruses (“The Jailer”). Protest music never sounded so good.
McKeown will celebrate the release of “Manifestra” with a show at Memorial Hall, 51 Bridge St., Shelburne Falls, on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. The show is the eighth annual benefit concert for the Academy at Charlemont.
The title track, which came to McKeown in a dream, opens with her speaking the line “ Humble, like the child of god she wants to be” over a percussive guitar line. She later sings the chorus: “Every day, give me the strength of a thousand beams/Every day, carry me and lift me and hold me.”
“The Jailer,” with it great bluesy guitar riff, was inspired by a trip that McKeown took to the United States/Mexico border, where a wall is being erected. “The Politician,” which has an upbeat tempo, asks, “If nobody knows, tell me what’s the crime?”
In an effort to place more focus on the lyrics, McKeown released a companion disc with the CD that features all of Manifestra’s songs performed acoustically. The disc was recorded at the Field Memorial Library in Conway. Some of the videos from the recording sessions can be viewed on McKeown’s website at www.erinmckeown.com.
McKeown knows that the marriage of politics and music can be tricky and she admitted to having some reluctance about taking her writing in this direction.
“I have always cared about politics and policies and issues that affect arts, but I never knew how to use my music in the purpose of those things,” she said. “ A lot of the musicians I admire did, but I felt they did it better so why should I try?”
Attending artist conferences sponsored by the activist groups The Future of Music Coalition (for which she is a board member) and Air Traffic Controller inspired her to let go of her worries and write about the subjects she cared about.
One of the songs off “Manifestra” that is gaining attention is “Bagdad to the Bayou,” a song McKeown co-wrote with MSNBC political commentator and former Northampton DJ Rachel Maddow. The idea for the song came from “This America Life” host Ira Glass, whom McKeown met in a diner while touring in Alaska.
“He asked me to participate in a benefit he was doing for the World Wildlife Foundation. He had already booked Rachel to speak and thought if I could get her to write with me, it would make the benefit more special.”
McKeown said that even though she and Maddow are friends, it was still a thrill when the commentator agreed to the project. Because of Maddow’s schedule, they wrote the “Bagdad to the Bayou” through a series of text messages.
The song, which has a swampy New Orleans sound delves into topics like corporate greed as it asks, “who is watching the watcher?”
McKeown was reluctant to use the song on “Manifestra” fearing it was gimmicky but later decided it would fit well. She recruited Anais Mitchell, David Wax Museum and Sean Hayes to sing with her on the album’s version.
In addition to worrying that she didn’t have the knack for writing political songs (“bad political songs are excruciating”), she also feared she might lose some of her audience.
“I realized if I lost some people, then I’m not sure why they were there in the first place. This is who I am,” she said.
It turned out she had no reason to worry.
“People have actually come up and said ‘thank you for doing this,’” she said of her experience at shows. “They want culture to be part of these political discussion and I feel grateful for that.”
McKeown admitted she has lost about some of her audience but it has nothing to do with politics. The problem? Babies.
“People my age are hunkering down and having children and not going to concerts and I noticed it on this past tour,” she said
This point was driven home when she recently did a 6 p.m. in-store concert and it was packed with people with children.
“I’ll have to hang on until my audience comes back and then I’ll be classified as a legend,” she added with a laugh.
Hopefully, McKeown’s local audience won’t have any problem getting to this show as it promises to be a one-of-a-kind. “I’m happy to be doing a show like this for my CD release, it’s community-minded and unique,” McKeown said. She will be joined by Dave Chalfant (who teaches music at the academy) on bass and Jason Smith on drums, while some of the academy students will join her for a few songs.
Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 on the day of the show for adults; $10/$15 for students and seniors. Advance tickets are available at Elmer’s, 396 Main St., Ashfield; World Eye Bookshop, 156 Main St., Greenfield; Boswell’s Bookshop, 10 Bridge St., Shelburne Falls; Turn it Up, 5 Pleasant St., Northampton and 8587 Main St. in Brattleboro, Vt. Tickets can be purchased online at www.charlemont.org
All seating is general admission.
For more information, please contact Nora Bates Zale at email@example.com, or 413-339-4912, ext. 111.
Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org