Out Of The Woods
Erin McKeown extends her stream of consciousness to craft a smart, evocative new album.
Erin McKeown’s plugged in on a deeper level than many of her peers. She not only markets her music online but also lobbies policy makers to preserve a free and open Internet. She directs these activities from her rural cabin between Northampton and Becket.
“It’s not like I don’t have running water, but it’s pretty rustic,” McKeown says of her home, where she has webcast her “Cabin Fever” concert series since 2009. She usually sings in her living room with guests like Sonya Kitchell and Ryan Montbleau, although—speaking of running water—McKeown once broadcast from a stool in the river next to her yard, with guitar in hand and feet in the current. “It was such a stupid idea,” she says, “and it was so fun.”
The Skype-styled series began before the rise of Kickstarter or PledgeMusic as a sort of telethon to raise funds for her 2009 album, Hundreds of Lions. For her terrific Manifestra, out Jan. 15, McKeown turned to PledgeMusic, raising enough in money six days to pay for the album and more by offering packages like signed records, fantasy baseball consultations and house concerts.
“I have 600 [packages] to make, and that’s far more than I ever expected,” says McKeown, 35. “It’s a good thing that the last job I had before being a musician was working in a warehouse for a music distributor, more than 15 years ago. So I know a thing or two about shipping.”
The singer/songwriter knows something about recording as well, having made several albums that bridge folk and pop with gospel, electronica and swing jazz. “I’ve never thought what I did was folk music—maybe in the broad sense that I’ve always been part of a community of musicians,” says McKeown, who majored in ethnomusicology at Brown University. “But a long time ago, I got past any desire to fight about it.”
McKeown’s genre-bending sound reaches maturity on Manifestra, poised to stand as one of the first great albums of 2013. It’s her second self-produced effort, recorded with her usual touring musicians: drummer Marc Dalio and saxophonist Matt Douglas, as well as bassist/cellist Jeff Hill and keyboardist Erik Deutsch, who favors a Wurlitzer electric piano. Mc-Keown plays a hollow-body electric guitar. A string trio arranged by violinist Joseph Brent also colors the moody, playful and provocative album.
“I used the exact same palette for this record, except that I turned up the distortion,” says McKeown, who launches a U.S./U.K. tour at the Brighton Music Hall on Jan. 17. “Manifestra just has an edge and a snarl to the sounds more than the last record. I don’t know why, except that’s what my ears were hungry for.”
The concept of change seeps into the album, as well as a search for truth, trust and justice. There’s even a New Orleans–flavored cabaret tune called “That’s Just What Happened.” She says the first lines of the song “Manifestra” came to her in a dream, much the way the track’s title popped into her head. “I never doubted it, like ‘Do I mean manifesto?—no, it’s a manifestra,’” McKeown says. “Opera’s in there; manifesto’s in there; and I love the word fenestra, which means window. There’s a kind of opening in it for me.”
McKeown increasingly opens up to politics in her even-toned voice. She targets immigration policy in “The Jailer.” She seeks accountability on interconnected battlefields in “Baghdad to the Bayou,” which she co-wrote with longtime friend and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who texted imagery from trips to Iraq and Louisiana. McKeown recalls being on Maddow’s talk show after Hurricane Katrina as a personal turning point. “I remember leaving that session thinking, ‘Man, I really want to be able to do this like her,’” she says. “I want to be able to articulate and have conversation and dialogue about this kind of stuff. It was a real motivator.”
She has since stepped up her political activism, particularly on issues affecting musicians. McKeown has visited Capitol Hill, currently serves on the board of the Future of Music Coalition and just completed a year as a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “It’s this concept of ‘How do I get in the room where these discussions are?,’” says McKeown. “A free and open Internet allows me to craft this pretty unique form of expression.”
Erin McKeown plays the Brighton Music Hall on Jan. 17.