If there’s a theme that has resided just below the surface of this season of Design Matters, an undercurrent pulsing with life, it’s this: feeling.
Many of the artists, designers, musicians and authors featured this year have focused on the art of eliciting a response, be it emotional, cathartic or contemplative. Their reasons? Some stated and some unstated; perhaps it comes down to the fact that in the cycle of perpetual distraction that is the modern era, feeling, really feeling, can often feel like a lost art.
Feeling, it turns out, is exactly musician Erin McKeown’s focus. Maybe it’s because of the role that music played in her early life: She has said that growing up, she indulged in music that made her feel more than she was capable of on her own—happier. Angrier. More vulnerable. As she channeled her favorite artists’ emotions, she’d envision herself performing on a stage—but figured she’d become a scientist when she grew up. Raised in Fredericksburg, Virginia, McKeown’s parents enrolled her in piano lessons at a young age, and she didn’t really take to it in a cathartic or meaningful way, as some musicians do. Rather, her creativity manifested in the form of stories that she would write, and ironically it was science that eventually led her down the winding path to her craft. Around the age of 12, she got hold of a guitar. While attending a science summer camp, McKeown’s counselors were going to protest a new river dam that was slated to be built. She felt they needed an anthem, a rallying cry—so she combined her writing abilities with her newfound instrument, and penned her first song: “My River.” While it never went beyond the ears of those within protesting range of her counselors, it was the inception of a career.
Her early tunes as a teenager followed the lines of classic rock. But then she discovered the likes of Ani DiFranco, and her mind expanded with possibility. Still, there was the matter of becoming a scientist. McKeown attended Brown, where she majored in ornithology—before changing course and sliding a bit closer to her passion by studying ethnomusicology. As she worked toward her degree, her music began to spill over into her life in a more pronounced way: She took a gig as artist-in-residence at the nonprofit Providence arts center AS220.
At Brown, she focused, presciently, on such arts as Vaudeville. In its inception in France, what would evolve into Vaudeville emerged as a bit of a rebellious means of getting around the theatrical monopoly of the dominating Comédie-Française. Similarly, McKeown released her first album, the folk collection Monday Morning Cold, on her own label, TVP, while she was still a student in 1999, music industry be damned.
Her first studio album, Distillation, followed shortly in 2000, and in 2003 McKeown released Grand—replete with a medley of varied sounds, from rock to electronica. It was perhaps with this album that critics (and everyone writing about McKeown since) began pointing out her incredible versatility, and the vast arena of styles that she plays in. This has led to a delightful array of surprising releases: We Will Become Like Birds (2005); a collection of standards, Sing You Sinners (2007); Hundreds of Lions (2009, released on DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records); the hilarious F*ck That! Erin McKeown’s Anti-Holiday Album (2011).
In an industry that thrives on delivering polished branded identities and the predictably (and lucratively) safe, McKeown bucks all of it. Moreover, she does it with a sense of ease—her varied styles and approaches never feel contrived or invented for the sake of invention; rather, as a listener, you get the sense that she’s doing the rare act of purely playing whatever she wants to at that moment in time.
It’s unsurprising (and well along the Vaudeville lines) that she left labels behind and sought to crowdfund her album Manifestra in 2013. It reached its goal in a mere six days. She followed it with According to Us (2016) and Mirrors Break Back (2017), both released on her own label. In her journey through the music industry, she arrived back at the place where she started—a place of her own creation, and her own control.
After seven years of work with Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, she formally expanded her output even further and premiered the musical Miss You Like Hell, a pressingly relevant story of an undocumented mother and her daughter.
Feeling. McKeown infuses it and embodies it. And she delivers it.
She sees music as utilitarian—like design, its natural setting isn’t in a museum, but in use, in real time, serving a purpose in the real world. Music, she has said, is about how it’s used—and she derives no greater joy than hearing that a song of hers was useful to a listener. Further, she believes that a record store should be organized by the emotions each album conveys and the situation it is best suited for—there should be a road trip section. A funerary section. A sunny day section. A break-up section.
Reflecting on her career, she seems at peace in her journey, with her early victories and celebrity giving way to the person she is today.
As she said in an interview with The Interval, she maneuvers her career on a couple simple criteria: Do I like the person that I’m working with? And does this bring me an opportunity that feels creatively challenging? “And that’s what I make my choices from. Because I’ve lived with and without money, and I have lived with and without recognition of what I’m doing, and I’m fine.”
As for what the future holds for her output, it’s likely what it seems to have been all along: McKeown playing whatever she wants to at that moment in time. And that is an infinitely thrilling premise.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Albums by Erin McKeown:
Debbie Millman: Erin McKeown doesn't like labels or categories, but I think it's safe to say that she's a musician, a playwright, and an activist. She tours with the likes of Ani DiFranco, Josh Ritter, and the Indigo Girls. She's a former fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society where she work to connect the worlds of policy, art and technology. She's deeply involved in social justice and immigration issues. Her latest project is a musical she wrote titled, "Miss You Like Hell", and it's playing at the Public Theater in New York city. She's here today to talk about the making of this show and her incredible body of work. Erin McKeown, welcome to Design Matters.
Erin McKeown: Hey Debbie, it's so nice to be here, thank you.
Debbie: Erin, is it true that your dream gig would be to perform with Judy Garland?
Erin: At one point that was my dream gig. Maybe 15 years ago, more, I was walking by a bookstore in West Hollywood and there was new biography of Judy Garland and it was up in the window. Something just told me to grab and I never knew anything about her. I didn't really even like The Wizard of Oz. it's like 2002, 2001 and I find out who Judy Garland is and became fascinated. There is something about her, the way she sings and her presence with the audience that is really inspiring to me and I just want to be next to it. It would be fun if I was her music director. It's probably not that fun because she probably was hard on her music directors. I'd love to be a guest singer in one of her big shows.
Debbie: You described her voice as strange with an odd range. I'm wondering what you meant by "odd range". What does an odd range mean from one singer to another?
Erin: The thing I like about Judy garland is that what was her wheel house, the best parts of her range where she had the most power and control and interesting texture is the same for mine. I sing in a lower register especially when I was younger. The older I've gotten, the more range I have, but especially when I was younger that was my wheel house was tinier. It's like I didn't need any translation to sing her songs. I also feel that way emotionally about her songs. I don't have to imagine that they are about something different than they're about. I try to think of any other singers that I could think like that. Another touchstone for me is Edith Piaf. Similarly, feel like I don't need much translation between her songs and how I would sing them.
Debbie: You've said that the narrative structure that influences you most is biography, the order of a life, making sense of a life lived. You've said, "I will always be interested in childhoods, family, and growing older." Over the years that I've been doing this podcast. That's also become the structure of the way I like to get to know my guests. I'm so thrilled to be able to ask you about how you became you.
Erin: Let's see what perspective I have today.
Debbie You grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and started taking piano lessons around three or four because your parents thought it would make you a more well-rounded child. But you weren't a piano virtuoso, did you enjoy playing music at that early age?
Erin: I didn't think about it as something that you would find pleasure in actually. Some of my earliest memories are like storefront like piano store. I remember being three or four and being this group lessons at the Yamaha storefront. That's one of my earliest music memories, but I don't ever remember feeling like I was expressing myself or I was fulfilled. I would think at that time what gave me the most joy was being outside. I love to be outside and Fredericksburg is a relatively rural. It's halfway between Washington DC and Richmond. That tells you everything you need to know about it. Anyway, I had a childhood that was spent outside and that's where I would have told you that I got pleasure or joy.
Debbie: From what I understand, when you were young you wanted to be a scientist.
Erin: Yeah. That grew from my love of being outside. I was raised like an upper middle class kid where I was raised by parents who had grown up working class. My grandparents on one side grew up in Italy and then immigrated here. My grandparents on the other side were, my fathers in the third generation Irish-Americans so we're Catholic. I grew upper middle class was an awkwardness around that because my parents had grown up working class. They were aspirational in moving up in class. It's that question of what do you do with middle class kids in the summer time.
Erin: I definitely did a lot of swim team and pool but then it was like camp, what camp are you going to? I went to a science camp called Nature Camp. Not a very original name but a very special place in the Shenandoah valley. I went there for the next eight summers and really found myself there. That was a science camp but also had kickball and camper talent. I had encountered talent night and lots of hikes and I loved it. I had my favorite friends there. I felt like I was mostly myself there. I thought I'd be a scientist because of that but it also ironically where I learned to play music.
Debbie: That's where you picked up your first guitar.
Debbie: I think you were 12?
Erin McKeown: It was one of those things where you, after dinner there was going to be educational evening programs. Sometimes it would be, a local forest ranger would bring in an owl. You get to look at the owl. Someone would come in and give a lecture on mushrooms or you would watch. We used to watch these great 70s documentaries about nature in our evening program. Right before evening program started there was 15 minutes of singing. I obviously knew people who play guitar but I've never really been near someone who played a guitar and I've never seen the way that playing music informally like that or the thing that a guitar does it's a little bit different than a piano. When I went home from camp after that first summer I just wanted to keep doing that. I got a guitar for that reason to keep singing these songs but it still never occurred to me to be a musician.
Debbie: The first song you ever wrote was titled My River.
Erin: How do you know that? Where have I said that before? That's amazing. It's true. Your research is correct.
Debbie: From what I understand, you wrote it for your camp counselors. Many of them at that time were heading up to Quebec for a protest around a new dam that was being proposed.
Erin: Yes exactly.
Debbie: You wanted them to have something to sing.
Erin: Do you want me to play it?
Debbie: Yes. This is written from the perspective of the river.
Erin: That's true. Anyway, it goes like that. You plugged me with your god dams, you put condos on my shore, it went on. I need to figure out ... I need to try to remember the rest of it. I can remember the first two verses of it. It's very much like the songs that I continue to write.
Debbie: Thank you for sharing that with us.
Erin: That's never happened anywhere before.
Debbie: Yay! You said that idols and heroes are important teachers and that growing up, the music you loved most was the music that help you feel more than you were capable of feeling on your. I love that. You felt that music was more vulnerable and angrier than you were. Music that made you imagine yourself on stage when, as you put it, in real life that seemed impossible. Why did it seem impossible?
Erin: Part of that comes from class, like aspirational classiness of my family of trying to contain and fit in to a more rigid idea of family and emotions I think. I don't think I had a lot of models for how to feel any of those things like beyond the boundaries of what felt acceptable. I think that's also true for a lot of people. Honestly, I think that's what music and art does for a lot of people is help them understand things and feel things that they maybe don't have practice with, and certainly, to me, less vulnerable to listen to, an angry song that it is to get angry. I certainly didn't understand at that time that that's what was happening but looking back I think that was my draw to music.
Debbie: You said that you've only had one other job aside from being a musician. In high school, you worked for a painter and sold art supplies and framed pictures in her shop. Did you work for a well-known painter?
Erin: No, not a well-known painter at all but a tremendous painter, a woman named Paula Rose, who is well-known in Virginia, art circles. Her paintings are, they're very feminist. I dated her son and that's how I met her. She needed shop girls and so I think I was in maybe 10th grade and I started working for her. She had a shop that was art supplies in the front, frame store in the middle, and then she and her mother lived in the back. On Saturdays, for the last three years of high school, I would go and work there all day. Really, I was just cooking inside like matriarchal collective. Again, I didn't realize that at that time but that's what was happening for me as I was really getting a lot of mother love and female friendship and a lesson on how to be an artist.
Again, I didn't think that's what I was doing at that time. I wasn't trying to figure that out. I still thought I'm going to college and be a scientist. I played music, by the time I was in high school I was playing music and I didn't like it and I was writing songs. I wasn't preparing for a career in music. Looking back on it, I grew up with access to a community of people who were artists even though I didn't have that model in my family.
Debbie: I understand that you're in an all-boy punk band when you were 16.
Debbie: If you were in it, how could it have been an all-boy punk band?
Erin: Sometimes ... I don't know. I've probably already early experimenting with my gender. It was called [Weesecake 00:10:39]. It was my boyfriend's band. My boyfriends in high school were fascinating, interesting musicians basically, which is probably more the attraction than they were boys. Anyway, I turned out to be gay but that's fine. I was in that band and it was really should have been a power trio, should have been in that tradition of Jimi Hendrix and Cream and those electric guitar power trios. I was very much the fourth wheel playing rhythm guitar in music that doesn't need that. You can't even hear me in the Weesecake songs. That was the experience of the band. You can't even hear me.
Debbie : Evidence of living.
Erin: Yeah, right.
Debbie: In 1995 you were a semifinalist in the mid-Atlantic song contest.
Erin: Play it on. That used to be the first line of my bio because, you know how you put the first line of your bio really is like the best thing you've done lately. That waws my very first bio since I was writing. I remember that being the very first line of it.
Debbie: You were a semifinalist. It was by the Songwriters Association of Washington DC.
Erin: I was 17. I was still in high school, I was 17.
Debbie: Did this give you some validation of your talent?
Debbie: A sign that this is what you should be doing?
Erin: It wasn't. I didn't take it as a sign of this is what I should employees doing but it definitely gave me validation. I would say like 99.9% of why I share my music with world is validation. I could just keep it to myself really but there is some impulse to show it to people. That validation just would be like, "Hey, I'm here, do you hear me?" Something like that was one of the first echoes back that's like, "We hear you". It gave me some confidence. At that time, I wouldn't really play music in from of people but I was definitely like maybe you could get up in front of your school and play a song of yours.
Debbie: You ended up going to Brown University where you studied Ornithology.
Erin: For a very short amount of time.
Debbie: Eventually moved to study Ethnomusicology. I'm sure you've spent a fair amount of time in your life explaining what Ethnomusicology is.
Erin: No problem. I got a good one for it.
Debbie: Okay, good. Okay.
Erin: Ethnomusicology is really like the sociology of music and a little bit of the anthropology of music. It's why people make music, how people make music, how they use it, where it comes from. A lot of ethnomusicology, certainly, most people when they hear about it, it's to describe the study of a foreign music. You would be a white person from America and you would go to a black community in Africa and you would study them. That's like a traditional idea or you would be somewhere where you are not, where you are foreign and you're studying. I was not that interested in that version of Ethnomusicology. I was interested in what they call the participant observer. Like applying these sociological thoughts about music to the music that I was making with the people I was making it.
Debbie: While you were at Brown you were also an artist in residence at the Community Arts Organization as T20. You also released your first album, Monday Morning Cold, which some have said is a folk record, although there is some question about how it would be categorized while you were still a student. This was in 1999.
Erin: Yeah, that was a turning point for me. Once I got to college and my time was my own. Again, I didn't have anyone telling me you have to take this kind of class, you have to take that kind of class, it's like my ... all the structures were off, all the containing was done and that's just what bloomed when I took away all of those expectations.
Debbie: What made you decide to record an album?
Erin: This is so classic like late 90s liberal arts college but the women's magazine was called The Spread.
Debbie: Nice name, good name.
Erin: I know, right. It had an audio component. I wasn't responsible for initiating the audio component. I think the women that had done it a few years previous to that had initiated that. I remember, my first freshman year I started working on it and it was going to be a box and inside the box were all these poems on different pieces of paper and there'd be a CD. we wanted to get women around campus who were writing things to be on the CD for The Spread. I volunteered to help with that and I got a recorder from the media lab, like a hard disk recorder and a stereo mic and started going around recording people that I knew around campus. I've recorded myself as well. That was my first recording.
Erin: There was a house that I lived in that had a really great sounding bathroom, like really great sounding bathroom so I kept borrowing the recorder from the media lab and setting up in the bathroom of my house.
Debbie: Where you kept with your keys.
Erin: Setting up in the bathroom of my house and just recording myself for hours. In the CD version of that album, there's a picture of me on the toilet in that bathroom. Then a picture of my amp, I just put my amp on the bathtub in a certain way and it would sound really good so the picture of the amp in the bathtub,
Debbie: You've said that you played just about any instrument you can think of, but does playing instruments come naturally to you? How do you just pick up an instrument and know how to play it?
Erin: Something changed for me. I can trace it to a certain moment. Again, my freshman year of college, an artist named Martin Sexton, an acoustic artist from Boston came down to Providence and played at a church coffee house. At that show, he whistled and a he played piano, he played his guitar like a bass, and he ... his musicality spilled over the tools that was in his hand. It doesn't matter what's in his hand, he could be musical on it. I was so inspired by that, so truly inspired that I wanted that freedom. I remember thinking that night like I want to be able to pick up anything and be musical on it. I can't play the trumpet, and that's pretty much it. I think that spirit of I just want to be able to expressive in music no matter what's on my hand has driven me and I've worked at it. I made that decision when I was 19 years old, I'm like 40+ now. I have a lot of years to fuck around with instruments and try things out.
Debbie: You regard the active singing though as the most intimate and vulnerable a thing a musician can do.
Erin: Singing is still a mystery to me. For me it is tied to childhood. It is tied to the very essence of wanting to be heard and not feeling like you're being heard and having to use that voice. It's just completely metaphorical and physical at the same time. When I talk about using my voice, I really mean both my agency as a person and the technical muscle in my mouth. When you take a voice lesson, I don't know if you've ever done that before.
Debbie: I have actually.
Erin: It's really ... I find that that process with my voice moves glacially compared to how I'm able to improve or explore on other instruments. I just think that it's ... for me, it's completely tied up to my perspective on childhood and being seen and it's fundamental.
Debbie: How do you write a song?
Erin: You hope. That's what I think. This is what I tell my songwriting students. I'll give you a little talk I give them, which is songs are not precious, and if you come at songwriting from that perspective, you're going to be fine. Like, they're not precious. You have written songs before, you will write songs in the future, and you will write many of them. In fact, hopefully you will write so many of them that you can't count, and you won't remember which ones are good, and you won't remember which one is your favorite. There will be ones that connect more with different people in different ways, but you as the writer, the less precious you are about your songs, the better it is. Right? So that's my fundamental thing I think about.
Erin: And then the other thing I say is that it's like fishing, and I didn't come up with this metaphor, I believe I heard it from my friend Mary Gauthier, who is a wonderful singer-songwriter that I met in Boston, who now lives in Nashville and is sort of in that world. I remember her saying one time that it's like fishing. So think about how you fish; you have to choose the right spot, you have to have the right tools, you have to be patient, but some days, you're not going to catch a fish even though you're in the right place at the right time. And then when you do catch one, you have to take care of it, and you have to nurture it, and you have to bring it out of the water in the right way, and that's how you do it. Maybe underneath your question is that question of, like, do the words come first or does the music come first?
Debbie: It was really more about, how does the idea come into you?
Erin: There's a hundred different ways. I've had songs that come to me in dreams, where I heard them and I saw them, and I just had to wake up and write them down, and, I mean, that's crazy and that's a gift, and I'm always thankful for it, but not many come like that. And there's songs that come from conversations. I would say songs that I wrote for the musical came from conversations with my collaborator, very specific conversations like "Wouldn't it be fun if we had this kind of song? And at the beginning we need to think about this, and at the end we need to think about this," and so they're like a crossword puzzle or something like that, and you fill in the blanks.
Erin: Then you have songs that just come because you feel like you can't help but write them. I mean, I've literally been standing in my kitchen waiting for a cup of tea to go, and I'm just noodling on the guitar, and then I just hear something, and I'm like, "Okay." You know what I mean? And again, it's like fishing, you just have to know ... You have to recognize when the little spark has started.
Erin: Another thing I like to talk about with my students is something called a container, the thing that makes the song a song. The container could be a particular chord progression that all of a sudden is more than the sum of its parts. You know what I mean? Or a particular combination of a word and a melody that feels repeatable. For me, that container is often a combination of a rhythm, a melody, and a set of words. That's it, no other instruments, [inaudible 00:20:47] some drum beat, a melody, and a set of words. Once I have that, then I get to repeat it and fill it, and that's what I mean by the container. Yeah, and I guess I ... Yeah, let's go back to the beginning, though, and say the main thing a song ... A song just happens because you're in the right place and you've prepared.
Debbie: After your first two albums, as you started to make more, by 2003 your style took on a really wide array of sounds, and you play the accordion, the piano and organ, electric guitars, drums, samples, a keyboard, and anything else you found lying around the studio, from what I remember reading. And music critic Andrew Mueller wrote this about the album: "There aren't enough songwriters to whom it would occur to write a song in the form of a letter from Igor Stravinsky, holed up in Hollywood in the 1940s, while he waited in vain for Dylan Thomas to recover from tuberculosis so the pair could write an opera together." What inspired that song?
Erin: You know what was funny, is that record, Grand, was a turning point in a way. It was the first record I made with a big label, and we got a big budget, and we went to a studio where you live, and I generally have ... It's been my experience when I've made records that I write something while the record is being made. It just happens. You're just spending all day with your music, and you're spending all day thinking about sounds, and just immersed in it, and something usually happens, and it usually is the song that, for me, ties together the whole project. It's sort of like the capstone of the arch.
Erin: And that was that case for Grand. I was staying at this farmhouse studio, and I was up late one night, not able to sleep, and there was a box set of Stravinsky recordings, which I'm not even that familiar with. Like, I appreciate classical music, but I'm not a close listener of it. And for whatever reason, I just started reading the liner notes of that box set, and it told the story of Stravinsky and Vera. And I don't know, I just thought it was ... I just thought that was wack, to be honest. Like, what a weird story, you know? Like, Stravinsky in Hollywood, tuberculosis, what? Next door to Schoenberg, and they barbecued?
Debbie: They were humans, they were people.
Erin: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, so I remember writing that song that night in the studio, and ... Yeah, that's one of my favorite songs to play.
Debbie: In almost every bio or article about you, it's noted how you have a high prolific disregard of stylistic boundaries.
Erin: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Debbie: And The Rumpus wrote that every new song you release is a total surprise, which is something I think you love.
Erin: Yeah, I mean, it's ... Well, I have a love-hate relationship with that. I think as I've grown older and have stopped giving as many fucks, I appreciate that about myself, but I certainly would have a different career if I had been able to write the same song over and over again, and I would have a different career if I had been able to write a song that was more easily categorizable. It created a marketing problem for my record label, and it created a problem for trying to introduce me as an artist to the world.
Erin: And I certainly really thought hard about that, and definitely spent some years trying to fit more into a box that could be more marketable, or at least more easily described, and I just couldn't do it, and it didn't get me ... To the extent that I was able to do it, it didn't get me anything I wanted, so I just at some point ... Especially with the way the music industry has narrowed and collapsed, it's not like there's money for me to be made there anyway, and I think, just getting older, I just was like, "Fuck it." You know? And I think it's actually my innate passion, direction, essence, whatever it is that comes out in that song by song thought, instead of "I only write one song" kind of song, is what I think has served me in greatest stead in terms of being able to do my latest project, the musical.
Debbie: I'd like to read a quote from you from 2008, in an interview in which you mused about how strange it felt that the reporter quoted something back to you three weeks after you originally said it, so I apologize for now quoting this back to you 10 years later. You said, "I've always thought that you should categorize music on how it makes you feel. If you imagine you could walk into a record store and see a section called Breakup, or Sunny Day, or Car Ride, or Your Mom Just Died, you know what I mean? That's brilliant. Think of all the sections you could have." And I completely agree with you on this one. Have you seen music categorized this way at all? I think you can on Spotify, right? Can't you do specific ideas?
Erin: That's a good question. I think those Spotify playlists are maybe an attempt at that. I mean, that really came out of my thinking of what we were talking about when we talked about ethnomusicology. Like, how do you use music? And that, to me, is the fundamental question of ... It's not "do you like it," it's not "what does it sound like," it's not "how did you buy it," it's "how do you use it?" And so that's where that was coming from for me, and I still believe that.
Debbie: So it's mood-related.
Erin: Yeah, and it's just useful. There's been a few songs over the years for me that people have responded to very strongly and have told me about. Because there's two parts to that; people obviously can hear things and have an experience, but then I don't always know that, they don't always tell me. But when people do tell me, it tends to be about "this song was useful to me because of this," and that, to me, makes the most sense. "Your song gave me courage when I didn't have courage," or "it helped me feel something that I couldn't feel," or "it allowed me to hand that song to someone to say something I couldn't say," which is useful to me.
Debbie: Your 2007 album Sing You Sinners was described as "13 songs of mischief and spunk collected from the forgotten corners of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, written by the likes of Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Fats Waller." It was your singular and sly take on the not-so-standard entries in the Great American Songbook. How and why did you choose the songs to include on this album, and what made you decide to do that album in the first place?
Erin: Well, some of it was practical, because I hadn't written enough songs for a new album. I mean, just to be straight-up honest, when I see an artist make a standards record, I immediately go to the reason why I made a standards record, which is just like, "Oh shit, you have a record due and you haven't written enough." But that can be a catalyst for a really interesting project.
Erin: You know, I had always sung swing music for fun. I'm interested in this idea of, like, what is a standard, and that also ties into the songs that are in the camp songbook, like why are those songs in there, and why are they the songs that we keep singing? And the songs in the camp songbook are standards in the same way that "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" is a standard, and by that, I mean songs that get used in lots of different contexts and can be played easily by lots of different people in different ways, and that have a structure that allows them to kind of be pulled apart or put back together again, and still maintain some sort of integrity about it. I'm not a real showoff singer, and so I picked things that weren't associated with some iconic performance of them that somehow would color how people would listen to them.
Debbie: Was the reason for your 2011 record F*ck That! The Anti-Holiday Album also because you needed to write another album?
Erin: No, that just came because I hate Christmas.
Debbie: I'd like to read your description of this album.
Erin: Oh yeah, sure, yeah.
Debbie: It's called F*ck That! Anti-Holiday Album. "It's the world's first anti-capitalist, pro-queer, suspicious of christmas-as-patriotism, sex-positive, not safe for work, multi-ethnic, radical leftist Anti-Holiday record. There is nothing redeeming about christmas in any of these 10 songs. Please note this album contains adult language and themes completely inappropriate for children. On purpose." So, tell me about what inspired you to do that.
Erin: Well, this is an example of having felt about something a long time with no desire to share about it, and then having, all of a sudden, a desire to share about it. I did not have warm fuzzy memories of Christmas growing up, and I think that people who feel that way will let you know it's always a lot worse, because it seems like everyone else is having this amazing time at that time of year, and for your own reasons, it's just painful, or helps you see your family in ways that are just painful. And I just sort of ... I don't know, I was just sad about that privately for a while, and felt like I wasn't ... This wasn't something I was allowed to talk about or was allowed to share.
Erin: I live in western Massachusetts now, and a theater company in western Massachusetts, some friends of mine, were doing a play that was about murdering Santa Claus. You know, very fun, definitely-
Erin: Yeah, it actually was, it was really sweet. It was like, you know, everything was fine in the end. But it was gently irreverent. And they wanted it to have a first act and a second act, and in the in-between, they asked me if I would play maybe some dark holiday tunes. I think I wrote three songs for that, and just felt like something broke open inside me when I wrote them, and they got such a great response that I very quickly made the rest of the record. It's one of my favorite records, and it's also the one that lost me the most fans. I'll be totally honest.
Erin: Like, that was another turning point in my career.
Debbie: What happened? Why did-
Erin: People are not into you fucking with Christmas. It's very tender for people, and I understand that, it's tender for me, but it's just tender in a different way. But many people were like, "I love your music, but I'm going to sit this one out," and they didn't come back. You know, Facebook tells me that, and I would do tours for ... I would do these anti-holiday Christmas tours, and like 12 people would come, whereas last time I played in that town, there'd be like 200 people. And people were just like ... There were people that were into it, were really into it, but a great many people who dug my music were like, "No, not for me." You know, at this point, again, zero fucks given.
Debbie: Well, you seem to have ... You've said that you don't care nearly as much as you used to.
Erin: No, I really don't.
Debbie: How did you get to that place? How did you get to that "zero fucks given" place?
Erin: Well, the bottom had to fall out. You know, the bottom really had to fall out, which is a combination of a bunch of things. The music business, different than it used to be, so the economics changed for people. I am a nonbinary, looking like female-ish person who was never interested in being photographed or marketed in any sort of way that was, like, "make men want to look at you." And I got older, you know, this was happening in my late 30s, and then my fan base had children. I can't tell you how many times I would start to notice I would come to a town, and less and less people would come in, and the next day, I'd get Facebook messages that were like, "We saw you were in town, we would have loved to get there, but we just had a baby." Or someone would come up at the merch table and they'd buy two or three CDs, and they'd say, "This is for my friend, she loves you, she couldn't be here tonight, she just had a baby."
Erin: So there's this way that many people in their 30s into their 50s disappear from culture because they're raising families, and I really try to come at that without judgment, just to say that's the way it is. But anyway, all of that added up to the bottom falling out for me, in terms of having a more viable career. It didn't stop me from wanting to make music, didn't stop me from making music, but it sort of kicked the chair out from under my financial situation, so I started teaching more, I started doing more record producing, and stuff like that that wasn't dependent on people coming to shows.
Erin: And then in 2011, Quiara Hudes wrote me an email through my website, and she said, "Do you want to make a musical?" You know, not to be too dramatic about it, but it really saved me. It really saved me. I would say that 2011-2012 was sort of like the bottom of this trough of all these things adding up, and ... Yeah, and I just got to this point, again, where all the things I did to try to get what I wanted didn't work, so, zero fucks.
Debbie: So Quiara wrote you through your website?
Erin: Yeah, there's like a ... It's still there, it's-
Debbie: That's how I reached you.
Erin: Yeah, exactly, the same email address that you wrote me at. Quiara Hudes, for folks who don't know, is a well-known playwright, and at the time that I met her, she had just won a Tony for writing the book of In the Heights.
Debbie: With Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Erin: Mm-hmm (affirmative), wonderful musical, and she had been a Pulitzer finalist for some of her other plays. She had this play that she thought should be a musical, and she went around asking her friends, like, "What's a good female composer?" I don't even think she said "composer," I think she said "singer-songwriter," you know, like someone who wasn't in the theater world whose music you like. And a friend of hers from growing up had gone to Brown at the same time as me; I didn't know her, but she knew my music, and she put me on a list of 10 artists that she liked.
Erin: And Quiara is thorough, and she went down that list, and she listened to everybody, and she heard a record of mine from 2009 called Hundreds of Lions, and she thought that record sounded like what the musical should sound like.So she just wrote me this email, and she said, "I went to grad school at Brown, I know you went undergrad there," so one Brown grad to another, that was the entry point. And she gave me a quick summary of who she was, and what she wanted to do, and asked me if I was interested, and I just said yes.
Debbie: You've described it as "the story of an undocumented woman and her citizen daughter driving across the country together, trying to repair their relationship." I would sort of describe it as the love child of Fun Home and Hamilton.
Erin: That's nice parents. I saw both of those shows in the room that we did our show in, and think of them both, actually, as spiritual parents of our show as well.
Debbie: Oh, good. Tell us what Lin-Manuel Miranda said to you after seeing your show.
Erin: Well, before I tell you, here's the context, which is that, of course, he and Quiara are very good friends, and they're neighbors, and Quiara and I have now been writing this show for seven years, so pre-Hamilton and post-Hamilton. And so I've run into Lin, like, at the apartment many-
Debbie: "Hey, Lin."
Erin: Yeah, exactly. It never-
Erin: Yeah, it's a little weird. He's gracious and very nice. Yeah, so there's already ... We already have a rapport, like when someone is ... I remember one time I was Skyping with Quiara, we were getting ready to work — we wrote most of the musical on Skype because, again, I live in Massachusetts — and I remember being in, like, my PJs on Skype, drinking a cup of coffee without a bra on or whatever, and all of a sudden, she goes, "Lin's here," and turns the Skype camera, and it's like I'm waving hi to Lin, like ... And I'm like, "Oh my God, don't look." But yeah, so ... But he did come see our show, and afterwards, he was crying, and I just went up to him, and he was like, "Fuck you."
Debbie: Because he was that moved?
Erin: Yeah. I just took that as like a, he is my peer. He is very good at what he does and he's very famous but he's also my peer. We both wrote musicals with the same person. I run into him in the hallway. I admire him. He's a hero but he's also my peer so that "fuck you" was like, hey peer, you got me. You know what I mean? That's what I love most about that moment was like, I don't need him to tell me what parts of the musical he really liked. I don't need him to be like, "Good job." I felt him saying fuck you was more like two fishermen sitting next to each other at the bank and I pulled up a trout and he's like, "Man, fuck you. I been trying forever." I had the opportunity to meet Sting in this process and another wack story for example.
Erin: I had a very similar conversation with him, again, like, "It is hard to write songs," and that was the basis of the conversation. It wasn't like, "Oh my God, you're famous." It's hard to write songs and it's really nice to find community with people.
Debbie: The musical is amazing. I am a huge theater buff and person. I see them as much as I can.
Erin: That makes it even better.
Debbie: I love live performance.
Erin: Me too. I would describe myself similarly.
Debbie: I thought it was exquisite.
Erin: Thank you.
Debbie: It's really, really good and I hope it's going to Broadway. Tell us where it's going next because it can't just be, I mean, not that there's anything wrong with the public. The public is a wonderful place.
Erin: Of course. Yeah.
Debbie: It needs to have a bigger, broader touring audience as far as I'm concerned.
Erin: I think that the way that we're going to do that is by making it available as soon as possible for as many people, to do it rather than go to some place where ... in some ways, more people can see something on Broadway because the theaters are bigger and the reach is bigger and the visibility's bigger but in some ways, that still doesn't solve the problem of someone who lives in Seattle being able to see the show, let alone do the show so I think that's our move is to get it out there, as soon as possible, for more people to do and therefore, more people will be able to see it.
Erin: What would make me totally happy, and this has already been discussed, is for this show to happen outside. I'd love to see this show on town common in Des Moines and I'd love to see this show happen in a national park, in the Cascades in Oregon or court house steps in South Dakota. Do you know what I mean?
Debbie: Yeah. Just go all the way across the country.
Erin: Go all the way across the country.
Debbie: Make a journey.
Erin: What's next for it is how to get as many people for it as possible.
Debbie: It's had a sold out run. It got extraordinarily good reviews, outrageously good reviews. It needs to be seen.
Erin: Yeah. Today's project, this hour that I have my phone off is the hour that is surrounded by the insanity of trying to get the cast album made. We just got the go ahead with the money this morning so now there's a whole machine that's going into motion to make the cast album next week and that is also the most important thing that can happen for this musical is so that the people can hear this version of it as soon as possible.
Debbie: The two women leads are in many ways opposite, Daphne Rubin-Vega is a music theater legend, having starred in the original Broadway production of Rent, which I saw.
Erin: Me too.
Debbie: Gizel Jimenez is making her off Broadway debut. She is amazing.
Debbie: What a face.
Erin: Yeah I know. She's got the biggest eyes I've ever seen on a face.
Debbie: The most expressive face I've ever seen.
Erin: It was really funny what Lynn said, "We've all seen Due Evan Hanson and we all know that Ben Plat cried an extraordinary amount and still sang." Lynn observed and I hadn't thought about this way but that Gizel is doing even more sing crying than Plat like per acreage real estate, there's more crying and singing in our show and she's magnificent at it. When I was a high school senior, we took our senior class trip to New York in the spring of 1996 and we saw Rent. I saw Daphne, who is not that much older than me, in that show and for me, Gizel; extraordinary, amazing. I'm so pleased to give an artist like that, an opportunity to shine but we made this for Daphne. We built this for her because we felt like there was no other artist that could play that role, that should play that role, that should create that role and to be honest, I don't think Daphne has had the opportunities that other people who look different or sound different, would have had, and it's a crime, given her extraordinary level of talent. She opens her mouth and the sound that she makes is unbelievable.
Debbie: Erin, would you be able to sing us something from Miss You Like Hell?
Erin: Yes. I always feel like I have to introduce this by saying, "This is Daphne Rubin-Vega's song." It is hers. It is for her and I cannot do it the justice that she does but I will try. This is a song that the mom in our show, Patrice, sings to her daughter at a crucial moment in the musical to truly impart some wisdom to her daughter and say, "This is what I've learned. This is how I have organized my life and I think it could help you." (music)
Debbie: Stunning. It really is a very special, really beautiful, really important show.
Erin: Thank you.
Debbie: Congratulations on making this.
Erin: Thank you.
Debbie: I'd like to read back to you, something that you said when asked if you had to compromise your ideals with the realities of the industry and this is what you said, "In my early 20s, when I had a lot of opportunities, a lot of money and a lot of choices to make, I had to make the kinds of choices that you're talking about where you have to decide if it feels like a compromise and if it does feel like a compromise, are you going to go through with it and how do you make a decision? In my early 20s, I struggled more with those things or felt like there was more of a morality or felt that a choice felt right or a choice felt wrong or like a compromise was difficult or not. I feel infinitely less bothered by any of those questions as an older person who has had a bunch of success and then it went away. Life gets level, which is; I make my choices based on, do I like the person that I'm working with? Does this bring me an opportunity that feels creatively challenging? That's what I make my choices from because I've lived with and without money and I have lived with and without recognition of what I'm doing and I'm fine." How did you get to this place?
Erin: So much therapy. I'm not kidding. I stopped drinking in 2008 and I feel like for me, making a choice to not drink or use drugs helped my life get level. Making a commitment to examining my childhood with professional help helps life get level. I think having a monthly budget that stays the same and is minimal, for me, that helps life get level and again, it gives me an enormous amount of freedom and takes away a lot of anxieties for me. That's what I mean by life gets level and I would say that I figured all of that out in the last 10 years. Slowly but surly, with a lot of help.
Erin: It's nice, the recognition the show is getting. It is by far the most visible thing I've ever done, to have a new musical at the Public that is written and seen by all these different folks and has now been, gratefully, nominated for a lot of awards, which is really cool, that's all just much more visibility than I've ever had before and it will go away. I've just learned that. It just will. That's totally cool and that's what I mean by life gets level. I just have a different feeling of like, I'm going to be fine, than I had years ago when I was younger.
Debbie: My last question for you will help me solve a big mystery. You once collaborated on a song with Rachel Maddox over text message.
Erin: This is awesome.
Debbie: How did that happen? How do you text message a song with Rachel Maddox?
Erin: It's such a lovely story. Maddox and I-
Debbie: Wait, you call her Maddox?
Erin: I do call her that.
Debbie: Oh God, I'm so jealous.
Erin: I've been living in North Hampton, Massachusetts for a long time and we have an amazing radio station there that's a commercial, Triple A station and Rachel was our morning DJ for years. She just did the morning show there and that was a time where I was playing more often, in more shows and was quite popular in North Hampton, the extent of my fame but she was a fan and I was a fan of hers and we would see each other and be mutual fan people of each other. When she got her Air America radio gig, she invited me to be on her show. I remember it was right after Hurricane Katrina and she invited me on to play some songs and talk about, I had a record called, We Will Become Like Birds. I had made it in New Orleans, right before the hurricane so we were talking about New Orleans and it's funny because I remember being on her show and hearing her talk so eloquently about politics and with such command of the issues.
Erin: Obviously, the thing that she's now very famous for. Anyways, we just built a friendship on that. She would have me on her show every once in a while and we just stayed in touch. Every once in a while when we'd both be back home in North Hampton, we'd see each other or go have a meal or something and oh my God, this is such a detour but, this is relevant I promise you. I ran into Ira Glass in a diner in Alaska. I don't know if you know, there's a musician by the name of Towin. Her band is called Towin and they get down, stay down.
Debbie: Yes. Yes. She's fantastic.
Erin: Wonderful. Amazing. She and I were touring in Alaska together and we were in Anchorage having breakfast and she spotted Ira Glass in the diner in Anchorage and they had just met and so we all ended up having breakfast together. Talk about like-
Debbie: What are the odds?
Erin: What are the odds? Talk about one of the great days of my life. Do you know what I mean? Breakfast with Towin and Ira and his wife at the time, who's just a fantastic woman. Just a great conversation and really fun and funny and that's how I met Ira Glass. We ended up going to his show that night. I ended up staying in touch with him. I believe e it was like 2006, 2007, I might have the year wrong but the year that the BP oil spill happened in the gulf, lots of people were trying to figure out how they wanted to help with that situation and Ira put together a benefit at town hall here in New York and he asked another songwriter friend of ours, Lucy Wayne Wright Roach, to write a song with him, just for fun for the thing. Ira Glass and the songwriter write a song, have fun and funny.
Erin: Ira had invited Maddox to speak that night and he was like, "Do you want to play music and you want to see if maybe Maddox will do that?" I was like, "Okay." I called her and left a message and was like, "Do you want to write a song together?" I got a text back that was like, "I'm in Iraq write now. I would love to but I don't know how this is going to happen." I was just like, "Tell me about where you are." She texted me some thoughts about what was happening for her in Baghdad and she just sent me a bunch of observations and I just took those observations and turned them into a song. I think I remember also asking her, "What kind of songs do you like? What are you listening to right now?" Just something to give me a scaffolding to put it on and that's how we made the song.
Debbie: Erin, thank you so much for creating so many new worlds for us with your music. Thank you for your extraordinary musical. Thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Erin: Thank you. This is a real privilege to have to get the attention that you've given to my career and my music and you've archived me in this way that feels really special and I feel really honored so thank you.
Debbie: Aw, thank you. To find out more about Erin McKeown, check out her website erinmckeown.com. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.