Erin McKeown is a singer-songwriter whose music doesn't fit comfortably into a specific genre. She has been compared to folkies such as Dar Williams, as well as to alt-popster Bettie Serveert. And she is happy making music that defies popular conventions.
McKeown began playing piano in early childhood, and later taught herself guitar from a library book. It wasn't until she was attending Brown University that she began performing. She had planned to study biology, but her real interest was in musical theater.
"It was through playing the guitar with my friends and just hanging out that I sort of began to see myself as more of a musician," she told Paste in a 2003 interview. "It was a very, very gradual thing, though. I left high school still thinking I was going to be a scientist."
"Science could still be the right path for me, you never know," she told Tower Records in an interview published on the company's website. "I am the type of person that reserves the right to drop everything and try something new at any time! However, I realized I wouldn't be taking any more science classes when I noticed I was no longer even making it to science class at all! I just got preoccupied with music!"
She began playing open-mic nights and local venues in her freshman year. Her first attempts at songwriting were validated with placements in various contests and polls. Buoyed by the approval, McKeown worked to start her own label, TVP. In 1999 she self-released her debut, Monday Morning Cold. Her sophomore effort, Distillation, was also released by TVP. Signature Records soon picked up distribution.
McKeown joined the short-lived Voices on the Verge, a sort of songwriters-in-the-round group, in 2001. Other members included Beth Amsel, Jess Klein, and Rose Polenzani; three of the four shared the same management. The women recorded a single album, Live in Philadelphia, issued by Rykodisc. The group, however dissolved after a three-month tour, reportedly on an amicable note.
McKeown signed with Nettwerk in 2003. Her first release for them was Grand, a song cycle inspired by the audio diaries of Judy Garland. The record also included songs based on an Arthur Miller short story, as well as songs inspired by Tin Pan Alley recordings. The result was sort of an odd cabaret pop that critics found both refreshing and confusing.
"The success of each song on Grand," wrote Mark Baumgarten in Willamette Week, "hangs on McKeown's ability to inhabit it comfortably with her voice. She shows off her range with the riot-grrrl vocals of 'Cinematic' or the sass and brass of 'The Taste of You.' Her willingness to use her voice in these different ways is what ultimately gives the singer the freedom to shed labels."
Defying convention and easy categorization, McKeown expressed frustration with the usual genre definitions. "Who wants to be in a box?," she asked Paste in a 2003 interview. "I get really annoyed with the music industry because it's organized by genre. I totally understand the need to organize something, and you obviously have to have a way to talk about music. But the current way of defining genres as rock or pop or country or R&B, I find really useless."
McKeown's process in creating music is almost organic. "I work at home where I have a keyboard, and a bass, and my drum machine set up along with my four track…. I'll either whip up a little beat on my drum machine, or I'll pull something from a program or off the internet, and I'll just get a drum beat going," she explained in an interview with PopMatters.
We Will Become Like Birds, released in 2005, was the fourth studio album recorded by McKeown. She chose to work with Tucker Martine (Modest Mouse, Bill Frisell) on producing the project, and elected to record in New Orleans. Piety Street Recording, a former mental institution and post office in the Bywater neighborhood, was their base of operations.
"When Grand was finished, I felt like I had taken everything out of my closet, gotten everything out of the corners of my house and put it out," McKeown told Willamette Week. "Everything for [We Will Become Like Birds] is coming from a new and fresh place, which is extremely exciting."
On her website she explained that she had first visited New Orleans in 2004. "I was lucky enough to be shown around by a good friend who lives there. It felt like a gift, to get to know this incredible place. New Orleans has the unique quality of being both a hugely sad and an ultimately joyful place. That's how I saw it anyway, and that's how I saw my album as well."
Critics were kind, if guarded with their reviews. "McKeown takes a few steps away from the jazzy pop and Tin Pan Alley wanderings that made 2003's Grand and 2000's Distillation so plucky and adorable," wrote Houston Chronicle critic Sara Cress. "Birds opens, instead, with a plugged-in guitar and continues the whole way through as a bouncing pop album about a flailing relationship and its own participants trying not to break further."
Geoffrey Himes wrote in the Washington Post that although "once pigeonholed as a folkie singer-songwriter, McKeown has evolved into an alt-pop composer who resembles Rilo Kiley and Bettie Serveert more than Dar Williams." He added, "When her words become as emotional as her music, she may well become a major pop figure."
But pop stardom is not McKeown's expressed ambition. "The best thing I can do in my job is not to pay any attention to [the critics] and to just keep touring and making records," she told Shane Harrison of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "The goal with each record is modest: to be better than the one before it."
Monday Morning Cold, TVP, 1999.
Distillation, TVP, 2000; Signature Records, 2000.
Grand, Nettwerk, 2003.
We Will Become Like Birds, Nettwerk, 2005.
For the Record …
Born in 1977 in Northampton, MA. Education: Graduate of Brown University, studied biology and ethnomusicology.
Self-released debut Monday Morning Cold, 1999; released Distillation, 2000; picked up for distribution by Signature Records, 2000; member of short-lived group Voices on the Verge, 2001; signed with Nettwerk, released Grand, 2003; released We Will Become Like Birds, 2005.
Addresses: Home—P.O. Box 514, Greenfield, MA 01302. Record company—Nettwerk America, 8730 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 304, Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Publicist—Press Here Publicity, 138 W. 25th St., Seventh Fl., New York, NY 10001. Website—Erin McKeown Official Website: http://www.erinmckeown.com.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, August 4, 2005.
Houston Chronicle, July 10, 2005.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 23, 2005.
Paste, December-January 2003; Q3 2003.
Toronto Star, June 30, 2005.
Washington Post, July 15, 2005.
"Erin Knows How to be a Lady," BBC Leicester, http://www.bbc.co.uk/leicester/music/2003/11/erin_mckeown_review.shtml (August 12, 2005).
"Erin McKeown," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 10, 2005).
Erin McKeown Official Website, http://www.erinmckeown.com (August 12, 2005).
"Erin McKeown," Tower Records, http://www.towerrecords.com (August 12, 2005).
"Hope Is the Thing With Feathers," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/interviews/mckeown-erin-050815.shtml (September 5, 2005).
"New Time Religion: Erin McKeown busts out of songwriter school …" Willamette Week, http://www.wweek.com/story.php%3Fstory%3D5082+%22Erin+McKeown%22+interview+music&hl=en (September 5, 2005).
"Where the Heart Is: Transplanted singer Rose Polenzani …" Bay Windows, http://www.baywindows.com/news/2003/03/20/Arts/Where.The.Heart.Is-396075.shtml (September 5, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview on National Public Radio's (NPR) Morning Edition, August 25, 2003.
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