From 1998-2001, I was a resident artist at this amazing, visionary community arts organization in Providence called AS220. I was still in college, but I was living in the communal residency studios and getting ready to put out my first real record, Distillation. I was about to do a photo shoot with another artist for it, but I didn’t do a ton of planning, so a few hours ahead I was going through the building trying to borrow things from people.
The record was about old-timey things, and there was something sort of Hillbilly/rockabilly/old America about it. I was able to get a weird ukulele, a banjo, and a cowboy hat. One of my neighbors, an artist named Eli Nixon, gave me a set of big, droopy fishnet stockings. And then Eli was like, “Take this dress, too.”
I wasn’t that into wearing dresses, but I grabbed it and took it over to the shoot, and the photographer and I started putting together a tableaux with a stuffed chair, a fake-looking old radio, and me in this dress. The dress just seemed weird! For one thing, you could see right through it, so I had to throw on all of this long underwear underneath, which only made it look weirder, especially along with the fishnets. But when we got the pictures back, there was something compelling about the way it crystallized what the album was about, and I ended up using one of the photos as the cover.
The dress was certainly not something I would have worn anywhere else. I’m actually looking at it now, and I think it’s homemade. It doesn’t have a tag in it. It looks like a set of curtains, or maybe a dish towel or bed sheet that got turned into a dress. It’s pretty shapeless, so maybe it was originally a costume for something?
In my everyday life I often wore dumpy T-shirts and thick corduroys. When I played a show, it would be a T-shirt with a political slogan and maybe some weird pants—like a pair I had that were made out of the British flag with no relevance to my music or my life in any way; they were just colorful and interesting.
But after the album came out, I started wearing more dresses on stage—not this particular dress, but other retro-looking dresses that I wore for maybe four or five years along with fishnets and Fluevog shoes. It fit with the kind of music that I was making, and also what gender I wore to perform.
Around 2005, I started retiring that look as I headed in a more masculine centered direction and was drawn more to tailored suits and pants. I wanted to wear something on stage that felt more like what I wore in real life and something that was more in line with my lived gender.
Over the years my music has grown and changed. Eventually, the tenth anniversary of my first record was approaching. As an artist there’s something really exciting about realizing you’ve made something that’s still there and you’re still there, and I wanted to find a way to celebrate this and make it interesting for others.
I felt compelled to tour around that album, playing the tracks in the same order with the same arrangements. I envisioned it as a real effort to go back to the beginning, to reproduce the first record as faithfully as possible so if you were familiar with it, you’d be like, “Oh my god! That’s the exact guitar solo!”
Part of figuring out what the tour would look like was what I would look like. I planned on maybe fifteen or twenty dates, and when I announced the tour, there were all of these really lovely listener interactions where people sent in photos, set lists, and other memories of the first time they saw me play this record.
But when I got to the first date of the tour, and I was getting ready for the show, I put the dress on and I was sick to my stomach. I looked in the mirror and said to myself, “Oh fuck, this was a huge mistake.” My initial thought was superficial—it was just, I don’t look good in this dress. But it was more than that. It was really, I can’t see my body in this thing. It was a loss of confidence, and also loss of self.
That’s the last feeling you want to have right before you go on stage. I want to feel powerful, sleek, and in control. But I went ahead, and as I started playing, I was back in the moment of writing those songs, where I was when I first wore that dress, and at the same time realizing I didn’t want to be there anymore.
The show had two sets—in the second I was able to shed the dress for a suit and play newer songs and audience requests. But it wasn’t enough. A couple of dates in, I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the sleeves off the dress in a raggedy pirate way and then I cut a V-neck into it, too. That’s what I needed to do to get through the rest of the tour. In the ruining of the dress, I was able to preserve a sense of who I had become.
When I was younger, I told myself there was an arm’s length between me and the music I made, but now that I’ve made musicals and other works that really aren’t about me, I can admit that that my singer-songwriter songs are a reflection of my subjectivity and the way I want others to see me. Putting on the dress again made me start to realize that.
These days I’m fastidious about my clothes. I try not to wear things with holes in them. I try to wear things that fit. Most of it, I think, is about growing up. The onstage person is now an elevated version of the off-stage person I am, not in costume, nor in character.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
Erin McKeown is a musician, writer, and producer whose work cuts across boundaries and genres. To date she has released ten full length albums, and written for film, television, and theater. Her first musical, Miss You Like Hell, written with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, was nominated for five Drama Desk Awards, including Best Lyrics, Best Music, and Best Orchestrations, and the Wall Street Journal named it Best Musical of 2018. As a musician, McKeown has performed at major festivals including Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, and the Newport Folk Festivals. She is a familiar presence on NPR and the BBC, and her songs have also appeared in numerous commercials and television shows. McKeown is touring in early 2020, and she will also perform a single stand-alone show in Northampton, MA to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Distillation on March 29.