There must be a trick, an illusion to what actually happens when Massachusetts singer/songwriter Erin McKeown plugs her guitar into an amplifier and thumps a microphone to test its juice. In those instances - that time between the plugging and the thumping, really, there have to be some things that cosmically reconfigure to explain for what comes next in procession. Something has to be happening under wraps or behind the scenes to help rationalize the spark and boisterous energy that hangs onto every one of her strums and every one of her lyrics. The 28-year-old, who carries enough elegant swagger in her stories of wishful thoughts and hopeful dreams to include her name in the hat with the best working writers of similar ilk - Laura Veirs, Devendra Banhart, Neko Case and Josh Barren and Chris Ziter of The Essex Green.
Taking time out from recording her upcoming album of old-time standards, McKeown checks in with Daytrotter, while a Boston Red Sox broadcast crackles in the background.
First of all, give me the low down on that rad tour bus/van (what would you call it?) that you travel in. What's it called? Where'd you find it?
Hah! The first question is about the van? Not about the music? Or the writer? Should I be offended? ... My van is a Dodge Sprinter and I love it dearly. I have had it a year and do all my touring with it. It's the perfect size for my trio, plus a tour manager. I first saw Sprinters in Europe, and when they started becoming available here, I scooped up a medium-size red one.
How long have you and Alli (drummer Allison Miller) been playing together? Where did you meet each other?
Alli - drummer fantastico -- and I have known each other for a bit, but really only started playing together in Nov. '05. We originally met at a photo shoot (like rock stars do) but reconnected through some mutual musician friends. Our musical connection was immediate and has just kept getting tighter and tighter.
How are you able to get such a full and complete sound from just two people? Your guitar sounds kind of magical. Are you in love with it?
Of all the musical combinations I find myself in, I think the duo is by far my favorite. It feels dangerous to me, immediate and volatile in the best possible way. There is an inherent edge in the number two, and there is absolutely no safety net in that situation. These are my favorite conditions to make music under. I also like the flexibility of the duo in terms of musical size. We can shift from intimate to triumphant in the space of a note. Technically, Alli and I can make as much sound as we do by giving the illusion of other instruments. Sometimes Alli's kick drum will be filling in and being musical in spaces where a bass player might usually work. Sometimes my guitar is acting more like a keyboard or a synthesizer -- making longer, thicker sounds. We try to stretch the possibilities of each instrument without playing too much, by using space, and picking our dynamic moments with care. And of course none of this would be possible if both people aren't at the top of their games musically. I won't toot my own horn, but will say that Alli is by far the best drummer I have gotten to work with. Anything I can imagine, she can do, plus she still has room left in her brain to throw even more ideas back at me. And that's another thing I like about the duo. I can fully concentrate on what Alli is doing, I am listening and reacting only to her, and vice versa. I have been playing guitar for so long that sometimes I don't even think about (my guitar). It's probably been about five years since I did anything radical to my sound, so I have had time to really explore it to the point that it's consistent with how I think and how I write. At this point that sound is an extension of my brain. It's great to get to that place with your instrument and your sound -- the possibilities just continue to be apparent.
You mentioned that you're a big sports fan. What kinds of sports are we talking here? Do you play or just spectate?
I love baseball best. In fact, I am listening to a Red Sox game as I write these answers. I like pro football, soccer, and some basketball, but I don't own a TV, so keeping up with sports involves the radio or the Internet, which brings me back to baseball. Baseball is perfect for the radio, so that's why I have become so attached to it. As for sports I play, right now I run a lot and do yoga. I wish I had the kind of schedule that would allow me to be on a team of some kind where I live, but sometimes I think of leading my band as playing on a team.
Are people really made for flight as you seem to suggest in "Air?" What do you know about this? It sounds like you may have done some research?
I was on my way to being an ornithologist when I went to college. I had spent a lot of time with birds in high school and growing up. Birds are really interesting in terms of how they have evolved for their specific purpose in the world. They have hollow bones, a heart that pumps blood in a certain way, they can breath in and out at the same time, they don't have a bladder, the list goes on. I thought all those things made great metaphors for people, so "Air" draws that comparison.
What kinds of things do you occupy/surround yourself with on tour?
Being on tour takes up a surprising amount of your time. So I think actually the best thing I have learned is not to expect too much out of my day except for the show and the hang with the musicians I am out with. So its books, music, and maybe a little exercise.
When did you first start deeply falling for music? Were there any points in your life that really stand out?
As far as being a profession, music definitely snuck up on me. Like I said, I was really planning on a different life. And then somehow I wasn't going to be a scientist anymore. I was at Kinko's making flyers and bugging agents to let me open for their clients. Also, I am more in love with music and playing it right now than I ever have been.
What's shaped you most as a person?
Two really important places in my life. The first was the summer camp I went to in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It was a biology camp, but also where I learned to play guitar. I would write little reports on snakes and plants then sit around singing songs with my friends. The second place was AS220, an arts co-operative in Providence, R.I. I lived there for three years as a resident artist in a community with 10 other artists of all sorts -- actors, writers, musicians, painters, video artists. We shared a kitchen and bathrooms and all worked in the club on the first floor. At all hours of the day, someone was doing something crazy and art-oriented. It was while living there that I made the decision to put art first in my life.
Alli's got her belt buckles, what do you collect?
Right! I forgot you guys talked about that. Well, probably books and funny instruments. That is certainly what I have the most of in my house. When I was a kid, I had all the usual suspects -- rocks, coins, stamps etc., etc.
What's a song have to have for you to be interested in it?
I love this question because, with so much other music in the world, why is it that songs grab us so much? What is it about the form? For me, it's the size and arc of it all. I want to be in a different place at the end than the beginning. That could be harmonically. It definitely should be emotionally, or some other way. Also, the first thing my ear hears is rhythm, so the song has to have some kind of inherent rhythm that interests me, that moves my gut. Also, the singer -- I like real voices, voices with cracks or unusual approaches.
What was growing up in Boston like? Or have you not always lived there?
I grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which is more or less a little southern town, though not as much now as it used to be. I liked growing up there. Life was fairly simple and I had no complaints really. I think Virginia is one of the most beautiful places I have been, and I wish I could be there more often.
How did you determine that you wanted to make your next record a cover record of old chestnuts? Who are you covering and how did you choose the songs? Do they say something different to you than modern songs?
I had a couple options for my next record. I am almost done with a new set of original songs, but I have also been aiming for a "standards" record for the last 10 years too. A new set of original songs just seemed a little heavy to me right now, and I wanted to make a fast album. So, the "standards" project came together. It's funny, I couldn't even tell you the writers I covered. I need to track that down. I just kept following my ears to song-after-song, with an emphasis on the lesser known ones. Therefore, the writers are lesser known. It'll be funny to look at the list of writers, because I can guarantee there is no Gershwin, Berlin, Loesser, Porter, Rogers and Hart, etc. in the bunch. There is a certain lightness in the melodies of these older songs. They don't get bogged down like modern melodies. And when they do, they pick themselves right back up quick. I just find them incredibly EASY in all facets.
What are you afraid of?
Rubber snakes. Not real ones. Rubber ones.