Despite writing and touring incessantly over the past decade, American artist, Erin McKeown tells Paul Fennessy how she has become revitalised of late.
With a disregard for the stereotype that the debut is the best, Erin McKeown’s work is perceived by critics and fans alike as improved with each new release. In addition, a new sense of vibrancy surrounds her, given that she has recently ditched her solo stage performance and instead, elected to incorporate a stirring six-piece band into her live show.
A further incentive for fans to catch her Dublin performance is that she will be previewing several of her new songs on the night. She describes these efforts as being distinguished by their indistinguishable nature: ‘‘I did a record of covers from the thirties and forties and before that I did a record about birds and flight, so I’m not trying to cover anything with these new sets of songs. There’s no time period or there’s no set theme.’’
When she appeared in the late ninties, with only an acoustic guitar and a cluster of vaguely political lyrics for company, critics quickly categorised her as a folk artis, a label McKeown resents. ‘‘I’ve never been comfortable with that term, because I felt that it never fully described my music.’’
Perhaps in an attempt to escape compartmentalisation, she confounded critic’s expectations last year when she released, Sing You Singers, an album consisting entirely of jazz cover versions.
“You know when they had mines and they’d throw the canary down the mine to see if it would die. Artists are kind of like that’’
Given that Sing You Singers was drastically different from all of her previous albums; did she therefore set out to perform another extreme u-turn prior to the conception of her most recent material? ‘‘I think that the times when I write the best songs are the times when I don’t think at all. I find that if I just write all the time for any reason, then something will reveal itself.’’
Indeed, she is constantly emphasising the importance of writing lyrics and it’s clear that she considers herself as much a writer as a musician. Not only does she extol the virtues of people like Annie Proulx and Douglas Adams, but she admits to feeling a compulsion to chronicle the times in which she is living, using a suitably opaque metaphor in the process: ‘‘you know when they had mines and they’d throw the canary down the mine to see if it would die. Artists are kind of like that. They’re sort of a litmus test and the reflection of what’s going on in the world.’’
Despite disapproving of the term ‘folk musician’, she certainly shares a similar outlook of political disaffection with those contemplative sixties troubadours: ‘‘Everyone in the U.S is incredibly dissatisfied with the government and everyone is hurting economically. It’s not [just] a news story, it is actually happening.”
Whatever you make of McKeown’s political views, one issue that cannot be disputed is her talent. Judging by her confidence and sheer joie de vivre, she is only just beginning to ascend to her musical peak.
Erin McKeown plays The Sugar Club on October 25, Tickets €20.