Image courtesy of Erin McKeown, by Jo Chattman
Interview by Caitlin McCartney
Earlier this month Erin McKeown, a singer-songwriter and Brown alumna, came to campus to host a songwriting workshop and perform at the Granoff Center. Her concert was stunning, filling the space with her raw, acoustic music and showcasing her diverse array of sounds and instrumentals. McKeown is an engaging performer, telling stories and jokes in between songs, and I left the concert smiling.
The music world has always eluded me. It has always seemed like an exclusive club with no secret passcode to enter. That’s why I was delighted when I got the chance to speak with Erin a week after her performance to hear her personal account. She shared her experience of being a college student here at Brown and her current life as the prolific, full-time gigging musician (around 200 shows a year!) that she is today. We also discussed her songwriting and in particular her latest release, the cast album recording of the musical she wrote music for called Miss You Like Hell.
So how did it feel being back at Brown and playing your songs on campus?
It felt great! I've come back regularly to talk to music department classes, and one of my professors retired and I came back and played a retirement event for him, so it's not like I haven't been on campus since I graduated, but I had not been in the Granoff Center before and there's so much new construction. It was really nice to see Brown make such a visible commitment to art; not just arts and forgetting about it, but arts in the sense of different media meeting and collaborating and sort of cross-platform. I got into town a little early to do this other class and they invited me to go see the artist who was performing before in the same room, this guy named Shaun Leonardo, and I was just really inspired. He gave a presentation on his work and the activism and social practice that he is doing. It was super fascinating; it made me think about a million things and it was exactly I think what that building is supposed to be doing, so that was really exciting!
Did you find those kind of opportunities when you were here? I know you were a part of AS220 for instance, so what your main source of finding those connections or organizations, and how did those help you grow?
There were a couple things on campus that were really helpful and a couple things off campus that were really helpful. There was a bunch of open mics in the city that I would go to. There was one in the jewelry district and there was one at AS220, so when I first came to Providence those two open mics really helped me find community and they were places that weren't just music; it was comedy, it was kind of like surrealist, performance art mischievousness. It was a lot of different things and I met a lot of people in the community doing really cool things at the time that I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, so that was super helpful.
But then on campus there were a few things that were really important, I mean I played the Underground (laughing). I was sort of shocked that the Underground basically looks the same as when I was here! I played shows there with friends and I played shows at PW and I lived in the co-op, so there was an enormous amount of collaboration and conversation happening in those houses.
There was a women's focused literary magazine called The Spread that was happening. The first year that I worked on it, The Spread consisted of a tiny box full of stories and songs and poems on different pieces of paper and we also put a CD in that box of songs by women students on campus. I was a part of a group that went around to record these people, so I met a lot of people that way and I learned how to use the multimedia lab. So all that stuff was going on in a kind of less focused or underground way. I guess the difference now is that you have a building that says that stuff is inside of it, but it was happening and I did participate and involve myself in lots of stuff like that.
You play a lot of shows with various and very different audiences. What is your reason for going to these different places, how do you find them, and what do you get out of playing to different groups?
I was always that person in high school who was kind of like, a little bit friendly with every group and I certainly had my people but also I was an athlete, and I was also doing theatre, and I was also on the academic quiz team; that was just always the kind of person that I have always been and I think that is part of how I look at my audiences now, which is there's no one that I shouldn't or wouldn't play for. If I’m invited I nearly always say yes. I don't think there's been an invitation yet that I have turned down, no matter how awkward the set-up might seem. That just feels important to me and then I feel like part of what my job is, is to be a traveller, a conduit, and a connector.
So I love that two weekends ago I was at the Ohio Lesbian Festival and then I came to Brown because I am taking some of that lesbian festival with me to Brown, and my next gig was the cast album release party for our musical, the other night in New York so I’m taking a little bit of Brown with me. Musicians, especially traveling musicians, gigging musicians like me, we are uniquely positioned to carry these conversations and these feelings across different communities. I don't have any grand pronouncements to heal the country, but I do feel like, I guess I kinda wish that more people had the opportunity to traverse the different spaces.
So does that go along with writing songs, I know you were talking about reasons for writing songs, does performing your songs come across your mind while writing them too?
It is always on my mind, certainly as an older person. I think I mentioned it at the show that when I was living in Providence when I was like 18 to 23 years old, I wasn't so conscious, like the songs would just come out and for the most part they are like, “does somebody like me or does somebody not like me?” (laughing), but it gets more complicated. It certainly has been a part of my consciousness like, “who is this audience, who is this song for, and how can it be of use.” That’s the highest compliment for me about my songs is that people would find them useful. And the way that might be is a very specific political purpose or some of that might be, like people tell me like, “we danced to your song at our wedding, it was our first dance”. That is incredibly complimentary and useful, or I definitely hear people talk about how my music accompanied them through a hard part in their life and it gave them whatever it was that they needed in that situation and that feels great to me because it feels useful.
So I’m always thinking about that now when I write songs. I don’t have the same need to write a song about my drama or not-drama in my personal life (laughs), mostly also because I don't have any (laughing) as I'm old. I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way, it’s nice to be older. When I think back at my time at Brown I definitely – I cared a lot, but I'm not unusual in this, I think everyone feels that way at that age, I just cared a lot about what people thought about me and what kind of person I was going to be and how am I going to do this? and who am I going to become?. And you have to feel that way, and then you go and you do that work and then you reach a point, or I reached a point where I just really no longer care what people think of me, and I know who I am and I know what I want to be doing because I am doing it. And there is something really liberating about that.
That feels great to share you know. I know that when I was younger I appreciated seeing artists further down the road from me. It really helped me to know, “okay, that's an idea of a person I could become.” We need models and we need goal posts to reach for in terms of what kind of person we want to construct ourselves of .
Did you have a particular role model or goal in mind that you wanted to become or achieve?
I had a very specific goal at that time. I really wanted to be able to be on a tour bus and to play in theatres for about a thousand people in like fifty cities. I had a very specific goal and I have not reached that goal, but what has happened in the intervening twenty plus years is that I have actually realized that wasn't a useful goal in the sense that it didn't tell me what kind of person I wanted to become. So on a more subconscious level I was watching other artists and I was watching other, I would say 99% women, in my life who were doing things that seemed to have a helpful impact on people and that they had a certain degree of freedom in their life. Those are my goals that I have achieved.
The thing that happens to women I think, especially in the arts, is where you kinda disappear in this sort of mid-career shadow. There is a narrative of being young and new, and then there's the narrative of being kind of a wizened legend who has somehow survived, and there's no narrative in between and that happens to women in all aspects of the arts. So it's been interesting to be in that right now, and so maybe when I get into my 50s and I become a legend who has survived (laughs), I will get my tour bus and my thousands of people in fifty cities. Maybe someday it will happen, but it's no longer important to me.
I’d love to talk about your musical you did. How was that process of adapting your music to someone else's story? Because I feel like your music is more on the personal side, if I'm correct. How was trying to accurately portray someone else's work and collaborate with them so that you still had your voice in there?
Well, what was interesting is that it began as a project where it seems like I was actually going to fit pre-existing songs into someone else's story because Quiara (Miss You Like Hell playwright and also a Brown alumna) had heard this record of mine and thought, “that's what the musical should sound like,” but as we got into our collaboration it became clear that we really needed to make something new. Quiara is such a cool person to collaborate with that it would have been a real missed opportunity if I hadn't and if the project hadn't demanded something new from both of us. I just really liked being able to write about something other than myself.
Yeah, if I do have a soap box I'm not comfortable saying anything from the soap box that is not an "I" statement. That's why my music for many years has come from a personal place. I don't feel entitled to speak from anyone else's point of view except my own, but within the musical it’s your job, in a sense, to try to do that and so in that sense I didn't feel like I was speaking out of turn. It felt like it was my job within the musical to try to emphasize and understand people who were different than me and try to put something in their voice.
I found it really exciting and really fun and the challenges were always technical, in the sense that there was an enormous amount of paperwork (laughs) that went with like, I was a composer, and a co-lyricst, and the co-orchestrater, and the album producer. The amount of time that I spent looking at dots on a page and then if something was changed making those dots on the page change and making sure everybody had the change and the sort of admin part of that, dealing with the paperwork of orchestras was probably the most challenging part.
But ultimately what we were building is something – and this is something that I think is unique from my own music and my career before – we were trying to build something that anyone can do, and again it goes back to my thought of wanting to be useful but basically the musical is now a thing that exists without either me or Quiara having to be there and it's a tool that anyone can buy now. And when you open that box everything you need to put the musical on is in there and that's pretty exciting, so that makes the onerous paperwork, admin bullshit worth it, because now there's a piece of paper that can be handed to someone in Portland, Oregon that tells them exactly how to play that song.
And is that something you think you would do again?
Absolutely. I have already started writing another one and working on finding collaborators and a development path for it. I ultimately like the work of it. We were in a very unique position in that our musical was developed with really great theatres and then went up off Broadway, and I recognize how rare that is and that may never happen to me again, but it was a pretty amazing experience and I was well paid for it so I'll try again.
Yeah why not!
I think it is important to say. It’s important to think about money, it really is. It’s important to think about how you can sustain yourself, and money conservations don't have to be moral conversations. Like, it's okay to make money and you don't have to split yourself in two deciding whether you are going to make something or not. It doesn't have to be a wrenching decision. If it doesn't work with your politics, cool, if it doesn't matter to your politics, cool, but this sort of false pain around like, "selling out" is a kind of a waste of time to me.
Is that something you had to learn transitioning from doing music as more of an interest/hobby to learning to make a whole career out of it? How was that process of learning to make money and creating a job for yourself?
Yeah, definitely a learning curve for sure. I certainly wasted a lot of energy and time earlier in my career about these "moral decisions." Instead of making a decision and moving on, I labored over them and their implications for a long time and I learned through ups and downs of a career. There were times when I had lots and lots of offers of things to do and each one felt like the biggest decision of my life and I labored over it, and there were times when no offers came in. I've been deeply broke at times in my career, I've been turned down by many people that I've wanted to work with, and that changes you and you learn from it. Again I'd say the last 7-8 years these positions have become much easier and less dramatic; I also just continue to watch artists who are older than me and continue to ask questions and pay attention to people who are further down the path ahead of me and watch how they do things.
Do you think you learn mostly just through other people then?
Yes, and through failure. But yeah, I would say by looking at what my friends are doing, looking at artists who are either more successful or older than me or both, like more experienced. I don't know where else you would learn this stuff in a career like music. I think that school stuff is great for literacy, like learning to work with a score and learning to write things and for context and history; like I loved having a degree in ethnomusicology because it was just an excuse to look at different kinds of musicians and how the music is used in community. That's really great, but the actual lifestyle of being a creative, artistic, freelance person is something you have to learn through mentorship and watching other people, and through your own experience.
I mean, I think it can be facilitated, but I think the actual learning is not something that a university would do. But then you have – like when I went to the Shaun Leonardo lecture, there was a question and answer part of it and there were some students that asked some questions that are related to the stuff that we are talking about right now, and so in that environment Brown facilitated a professional artist coming in and being able to be an example for other students.
Is that something you had to actively go all-in with when you were deciding to pursue music, and how did get yourself out there? How fast of a transition was that?
It was not a quick transition, it was a sneaky transition, which is what I would recommend. It happened during my years at Brown. When I came to Brown I thought I would be a scientist, and when I left Brown I was leaving with an album that was complete and about to be released nationally, and incrementally over the five years that I was in Providence and in school, the balance between how my time worked shifted. I gradually was spending more and more time on music, gradually spending less and less time on any type of classroom stuff.
My advice is always keep your day job as long as possible until it is absolutely impossible to have it anymore. I really benefited from the discipline of the fact that when I was making my album in my junior and senior years at Brown I only had 3 days of the weekend. I had to get that record worked on in those three days and conversely, Monday through Thursday I had to get my school work done; and holding those multiple things at once was really good for me. I'm someone who a deadline really helps. I know lots of folks who are professional musicians who have really flexible "day jobs" and they keep them because they offer them financial stability, and maybe they offer them health insurance, and they also offer balance to your life. And when it becomes absolutely impossible to have another job besides being a full time musician then you'll do it, but I think that holding on to multiple jobs as long as possible is actually really, really good.
And I think that in my experience in particular, and in my experience with Brown students, there is this notion that I think people like and are interested in a lot of different things. When I went and talked to this last music class, every person there is "musician AND"; musician and chemical engineer or whatever disciplines they are doing, and I just think that's great. I think that's absolutely the best version of it. It’s a separate conversation of whether the current music business can sustain a full time career for someone, like those are separate issues; I think life organization-wise and spiritually it's really great to be doing multiple things.
I think that it's really great to have different roles and being able to have different identities with different people and to have different experiences. By the time you get to be an older person, you know how to do a lot of different things.
On another topic, your music is very instrumental, pulling from a lot of different genres, how do you think your style is structured within the music realm?
I feel like I am trying to process a lot of different kinds of music and find the connections between them. And I guess that just comes from my own personality of being kinda interested in what a lot of different people are doing or a lot of different regions or audiences; like my music taste is also like that; so I'm interested in creating music that finds commonality in a lot of different music. In general, I would say that I am interested in American music, and that is a really interesting umbrella because of all the different people that live in our country and all the different musical traditions that exist in our country, but I am interested in what American music is.
And lastly, when you’re creating an album and trying to find that cohesion, do you gravitate toward a theme or do you have an idea in mind when you set out to create an album?
I usually have an idea in mind when I set out to write something. I don't know that I have been able to achieve any kind of traditional idea of cohesion, and that's something that I'm always trying to get better at. I don't want to make my records where all the songs sound the same or it sounds bland in some way, but cohesion can also be a really great thing and I have not yet figured out what my version of cohesion sounds like.I've made vastly different kinds of records, and even within each record there's sort of a range of things that happen and I am always interested in that question, but I do have a theme when I set out to write something for sure.
For example, this weekend I leave to go to Virginia for three weeks on a writing retreat and I’m starting a new project, I don't know if it's going to be for theater or for gigging or anything. I'm just going to try to write a bunch of songs around, the umbrella is Virginia and childhood and memory, so that's the theme that I'm starting out with and we'll see what falls underneath that.
But I've made records on definitely different themes, especially the last two that I made -– these EPs that I made in 2016 and 2017, the 2016 one is called According To Us and it's about a gospel of self-identity and the 2017 one is called Mirrors Break Back and it’s about self-hatred and the two EPs kind of function as a yin and yang to each other and a dark and light. And it's no coincidence that one of them is written before Trump and one is written after Trump.
So that's the way themes and stuff work in my writing but I think I'm always curious about what is the idea of cohesion? and can I do it better?. I think I've really continued to be curious of how to marry electronic and acoustic elements together in a cohesive way. I've definitely been exploring that through the last 3 or 4 records that I've made. I always like rhythm and beats, so how can I integrate electronic versions of that stuff with things that people are actually playing and have it sit together?