Erin McKeown has made straight-ahead pop records (the irresistible Grand), an authentically swinging collection of standards (the absolutely essential Sing You Sinners), an “anti-holiday” album (the hilarious and NSFW F*ck That!), and covered plenty of ground in between. Yet, as varied as her catalog is, it’s extraordinarily welcoming.
You wouldn’t necessarily expect an artist who is so searching to be so much fun, but one of my favorite things about McKeown’s songs is that, not infrequently, I can hear her smiling as she sings. The result is a rare combination: a songwriter of great earnestness who also has a terrific sense of humor.
McKeown’s crowd-funded new album, Manifestra, is a dizzying ten-track blend of political blues and party songs, featuring radio-friendly handclaps, a New Orleans-style funeral march, and a jam she co-wrote with Rachel Maddow.
The Rumpus: For someone who is just thirty-five you have been at this for a long time. What strikes me in listening to an early album like Grand—which I love—and the new album—which I love even more—is that you’ve developed such a variance in your musical choices. Every new song is a total surprise. You seem completely unafraid to try anything. (For instance: Manifestra’s title track could be categorized as spoken word!) I know this is a very broad question, but is there a difference in the way that you approach the writing and the recording process now, as opposed to early on?
McKeown: I am really pleased to hear each of my songs described as a total surprise. This is what I want! As a listener, I like a wide range of sounds. As a consumer of culture, I like a wide range of emotions to be touched in art. It’s funny but on the other side of it, I do feel that people that are trying to sell culture would like to see a narrower range of expression from their content-makers. Easier to sell I guess.
My approach to writing and recording now is pretty much the same as when I started. Except now I worry even less about what people will think of what I made. And I am not drunk.
There was a wonderful essay in yesterday’s New York Times by the rapper K’Naan in which he was very honest about what happened in the making of his third record. He heeded the “advice” of his advisors and tried to write for a broad, young, American audience.
The result, for him, was inauthentic and he was basically saying he was ashamed he did it.
As artists, we’ve all faced a similar quandary, but rarely do you hear someone be so open about it.
One final thought: I think I have come across as “unafraid” because I really cannot control what comes through me in my writing. Like the song on Manifestra says, “That’s Just What Happened.”
Rumpus: If the process is the same, do you think the choices that you make now—the choices of what songs you’ve included, and maybe the way that you’ve recorded them—do you think that those are any different than when you started? When you’ve felt the pressure that K’Naan talks about, how has that manifested itself?
McKeown: I certainly know the consequences of my choices better now than when I started. When I’m recording something now (especially because I produce my own music now) I might consider how hard it would be to replicate a song on stage. But then again, I didn’t let that stop me with a song like “The Jailer” which is pretty impossible to play solo, and difficult to do with a band. And unfortunately (or fortunately) it’s the single so I’ll be playing it a lot.
My main motto is “Oh well, I’ll figure that out when I absolutely have to.”
When I began writing songs, there was a pretty direct line between what was happening in my life and what I wrote about. So my first album was really all about my failed attempts to make a particular relationship work. I didn’t realize at the time that if I wrote about something, I was going to have to talk about something. A lot. Ad nauseum. So, I learned how to have a little bit of distance when I explained songs and a little bit of distance when I wrote them. I think this is more interesting any way in art.
I am noticing that both these examples, like K’Naan’s, have to do with the business of music, rather than the experience. I would say, as I’ve gotten older, I have gotten a lot better at finding the pleasures of making music despite the business of it.
Rumpus: “The Politician,” the lead track on Manifestra, is a perfect example of what makes your music so special. It’s ostensibly about political malfeasance, but it could just as easily be taken as being about the way we all sometimes behave “politically” (read: corruptly) in our intimate relationships. Are the dual meanings a happy accident, or did you draw it up that way?
McKeown: I wish I drew it up that way!
“The Politician” is a good example of the craft part of writing, as opposed to the blind-inspiration part. There was a song that I liked a lot called “Sissyfuss” by a band called Surprise Me Mister Davis. It had an amazing drum groove and a really killer guitar sound and it was just… nasty. I knew I wanted to make a song that would make me feel the same way and let me play some dirty electric guitar. So I built a little track in garage band, which immediately adds its own flavor. I like garage band for writing because you only have crayons and there are only five crayons in the box. Your choices are limited and I find that to be very good for me.
For a long time, the song had dummy lyrics:
baby when i call you up on the telephone
ring ring ring in my room
when it comes to love, you ain’t got the time
And each verse was a variation on that. Knocking on the door. Knocking on the floor. Sounds and looking for a lover who wasn’t around.
They weren’t very good lyrics. But I really liked the potential of the music. So when Manifestra started to take more of a political shape, and I became more conscious about what I wanted the whole album to be about, I thought there was a corner that needed discussing. Malfeasance, as you say. Hypocrisy. A sense of dissatisfaction with being caught. There is also a deep strain in the record about god and spirituality and I wanted to touch on the piece where often politicians use “god” to excuse their actions.
Rumpus: As you know, and as all the people who have had the good fortune to be stuck in traffic next to me while I’m blasting it, my favorite song on the record is “Histories.” It’s shamelessly catchy – the claps, the piano tinkling in the background, those sweet strings. I can’t imagine that people aren’t going to be bugging you to play this beauty every night for the rest of your life. So I was surprised to learn about the way the song came about. Can you tell us a little about that?
McKeown: There were 10 songs recorded for Manifestra, but I threw one of them out once I really knew what the record was about. It was a song about an ex and it had evolved into some weird reggae thing and it just felt like I was looking back rather than forward. So I threw it out for thematic focus, but was left with not enough time.
So, needing a song, I took a piece of the drum part from the song I threw out and started messing around with it in the computer. I always write from rhythm first, so if I need a song fast, I have to start there. Then I just threw some electric guitar at it. It sounded good! But I still had no idea what the song would be about.
I sent it to my friend Joe Brent, who had done strings on some other songs for the record, and I asked, “What does this feel like to you?” and he responded with these grand, arching, aching string parts. Like a movie, like a triumph. I almost cried when I heard them.
Somewhere in there, I started to understand what the song could be about. The ache of nostalgia even for things we don’t like, the commitment to keep moving despite that ache. It made me think of how I relate to my privilege—as a white person, as someone who grew up upper middle class. How I have to acknowledge how I was raised, what I used to think, how I used to act, how much I’ve learned since then. What kind of memories live in us, and how can we do them differently despite our histories.
All of Manifestra is about taking these personal itches, hitches, aches, irks, hopes and then casting them outward. So the last step was thinking about the histories that live in our social structures and how do we change them?
Rumpus: I read an interview where you described Grand as “like driving on a sunny day,” and We Will Become Like Birds as a record “to help [you] make it to the other side of a breakup.” Can you sum up Manifestra?
EM: “Internal change becoming external action.” I used to call it “electric political gospel” but that felt problematic and not quite right.
Rumpus: Do you feel like the album has a cornerstone track? Is it “Jailer”? I would have thought it was “That’s Just What Happened,” because of the way that song (to my admittedly fallible ear) echoes a New Orleans funeral march, the mourning breaking into celebration.
McKeown: “That’s Just What Happened” is a favorite of mine personally and I’m excited to see how it goes live. Also, like “Manifestra,” it came to me in a dream. But really, everything for me comes from “Manifestra.” It was an incredible gift of a song; it really describes an important moment in my life. I feel like it contains everything on the album in one song. Like it lays out the terrain of what I want to say sonically, lyrically, emotionally and the rest of the songs just fill out the details.
I had a couple songs kicking around before “Manifestra” but once I wrote that, I knew what the album would be.
It’s funny; I usually hate title tracks. Too obvious, I think. But there wasn’t anything else this record could be called. It really is a manifestra.
Rumpus: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the process of writing a song (“Baghdad To The Bayou”) with Rachel Maddow. How did that come about? I will be honest and tell you that I love Ms. Maddow and find her hilarious —but also not rock and roll at all. That’s part of why I like her so much, in fact, because she seems completely at home with not being hip.
McKeown: Yeah, she is not hip at all, and I think she would be fine with both of us saying that. It is rather adorable and endearing, isn’t it? It’s funny because my main awkwardness around writing the song had little to do with the method (we wrote it by text for practical purposes) or even that Rachel has a self-described “nuclear weapons grade” singing voice. The only really weird part for me was making sense of the person on the TV at the same time as the person who I am friendly with and do something so friend-intimate with as text. I guess I have been on the opposite side of that equation more often than not: someone is more familiar with the image of me than my actual person.
I understood for the first time how disorienting that is!
Rumpus: You’re on the board of the Future of Music Coalition. What does the Coalition do?
McKeown: FMC has been around DC for more than a decade now, and they formed to fill a really specific need. So many policy decisions that effect musicians are being made without any input from musicians at all. Mostly, the people in “the room” are paid lobbyists representing interests that could afford to pay them. No wonder policy isn’t being made that helps smaller, independent musicians or those unaffiliated with a larger entity. FMC was founded by a musician and an experienced lobbyist who had also run a record label. What they started out doing was educating musicians about how DC works, and providing a clearinghouse of reliable information on what decisions were being made on Capitol Hill and how they would impact musicians. As they’ve grown, they’ve expanded the mission to actually getting folks in the room, creating coalitions with similar minded organizations, and basically rabble-rousing in the halls of power.