Erin McKeown is nothing if not surprising: the quiet girl wearing the Fluevogs and an impish smile is also the Brown-educated multi-instrumentalist who writes gorgeous, literate pop songs and looms much larger than her petite five-foot frame when she’s performing onstage.
But today her surprises have nothing to do with music. As she and her fellow artists prepare for the photo shoot in a suite at the Holiday Inn, one of the publicists is having trouble remembering the name of the Mets’ Class A minor league baseball team in Brooklyn.
“The Cyclones,” murmurs McKeown.
“Oh, are you from New York?”
“No. I’m just a sports fanatic.”
McKeown, who probably would have gone to college on a field hockey scholarship if not for a newfound love for songwriting, enjoys all sports, but none more than baseball. Add the Baltimore Orioles to Judy Garland, ornithology, cinema, Tin Pan Alley and Django Reinhardt on her list of passions.
Her diversity of interests has carried over to her first two albums, especially her most recent, Grand, which is stylistically all over the map.
“I really think I’ve gotten it out of my system to need to have 10 different kinds of things on one record,” McKeown says. “I think I’m finally over it. … Sonically, I can tell what I want [the next album] to sound like. It’ll probably be more of an extension of the Distillation sound, which was like pretty raw, and a lot more space. I could just see it be a really intricate record, with a lot of instruments.”
She also says it will be a much more personal album after the more detached Grand. Her debut, Distillation, was filled with lines like, “Something about success that lies / Something about success / That lies, lies next to me / In a strange bed” and “Untie these strings, from my heart / And when they’re gone / Well, I fall apart in your hands / And I am undone.” But Grand mined Arthur Miller short stories, Igor Stravinsky anecdotes and the ever-present Judy Garland for inspiration.
“Some personal things that have gone on have made me want to put the best of myself in my songs again, instead of stuff from someone else’s. What I discovered most about Grand, is that the songs that are more emotional—whether they’re about me or someone else—are easier to play. It’s easier to find a way to do those every night. It’s like a self-fulfilling energy. I actually felt “Slung Lo” do its job. I’ve been tired and frustrated, and I’ve sung that song and felt better … even if it’s for three minutes.”
McKeown has only recently returned from her first headlining tour in Ireland after two trips opening for The Be Good Tanyas. The theatrical atmosphere at some of the venues suited her cinematic style particularly well. But her favorite place to play was a little black-box theatre in Cork, which also had space for people to dance and drink.
“I feel more like a musician when people are dancing than any other time,” she says. “ There are many ways to experience music, but one of the most primal is so that people can dance. You can’t really dance without music. I always feel I’m really doing my job when people are dancing. When I was in university, I used to drum for African dance classes and it always felt like what a musician really should be doing.
“When people analyze songs or listen too much to the words or think too much about concepts of albums and things like that, it’s getting a little too far away from what you make music for in the first place. … You don’t have to think when you dance. If people are just staring at you, you wonder if there’s a connection. But if people are moving their head or dancing, you know that they’re listening.”
And they’ll be listening for a long time to come.