It takes a brave artist to put out a album of anti-holiday songs called F*ck That!. Thankfully, Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter Erin McKeown is both cheeky and talented enough to pull it off. Her latest effort, MANIFESTRA, features more of her trademark poetic, folk and jazz-inflected tunes. There’s also a song she co-wrote, via text message, with MSNBC news anchor Rachel Maddow (conservatives, you may want to stop reading now.) We chatted with McKeown about her new album, her approach to songwriting, her idea for a sports web site penned by musicians and more.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
When I was younger, there were five artists who really shaped me. Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Michelle Shocked, Soul Coughing, and Dave Matthews. That hero-feeling has faded, like it does as you become more of a peer and less a fan — or at least see the backside of the business. But I am still in awe and inspired by stage actors and athletes. Seeing someone do those things well really makes me want to work on my craft as a writer.
What are some of your favorite singer-songwriter friendly venues?
I don’t really have any favorites in particular. I like places with either really really good sound or really really bad sound where people are quiet but not reverent. And I like any place that has too many people in it. 75 people in a 50 person room is just as exciting to me as 1,000 people in a 900 cap.
How exactly did you and Rachel Maddow compose a song via text message?
Rachel and I were both traveling a bunch during the time we had to write our song. It was impossible to get on the phone, and for her, email access was super limited, so texting just made sense.
I asked her for her impressions of the places she was visiting, words from those places that sounded good to her, and some favorite songs of hers. I took all of that, and her own personal travel schedule, and created the song — which tries to connect many of the issues facing us around the world into a singular question of, “Are we getting at the truth here?”
People are so sensitive these days — does your activist side or political views ever turn off part of your audience?
I don’t think people are “so sensitive” these days at all. I think people are clearer than ever about finding community around their beliefs. I’m fine if someone doesn’t like what I may be saying as an activist, and I’m happy to have dialogue around that. I think the trouble is if people become too “silo-ed” in their like-minded communities.
How did your Anti-Holiday album go over? What was the idea behind it?
My anti-holiday album has been fun from the very beginning. I am so glad I did it, and hope to do something with it each year. Maybe Vol. 2 next year? The idea behind it was simple: I actually truly hate the holidays, and they usually make me feel terrible. Last year I tried to get out in front of that and find some community and humor around others who felt similarly. It worked!
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
Like anything, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
It was called “My River,” and I wrote it at age 12 for my camp counselors. Many of them were heading up to Quebec for a protest around a new dam that was being proposed. I wanted them to have something to sing. It was written from the perspective of the river.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I am particularly proud of the title track, “Manifestra.” It came to me in a dream and woke me up. I heard the first four lines and had to write them down. once I did that, the entire song just came out in about 20 minutes. I am very proud to have just gotten out of the way.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
In the song “The Politician” there is a line:
Love the drinker, hate the wine
The narrator in the song is coming up with excuse after excuse for their own behavior and is suggesting that blaming it on alcohol absolves them. But it’s always more complicated, right? I could hear the narrator say that and be pissed about the excuse, or I could also hear that and think that’s right. The narrator has a bigger issue, of which excuse-making is a only a symptom. I like the line also as a reminder that we don’t have to always be defined by our worst behavior. At the heart of it, we all have some loveable parts.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
Are there any words you love or hate?
I tend to hate three-syllable words in songs. or making two-syllable words into three-syllable ones. But as soon as I have said that, someone will probably find examples of that in my writing.
I can say confidently though, that I hate the word “rain” and I have never used it in a song.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is….
When I am working on a song, it really sticks to me. It takes up acres of land in my subconscious and that can be really inconvenient for things like driving or paying attention to what other people are saying to you.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about a song of mine called “Aspera.” Many folks have told me that it has helped them through rough times. And I know of at least five people that have gotten tattoos of it, which is a real honor.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Yes, I do lots of opinion/op-ed style writing. I have dabbled in musical theater and hope to do more. And some day I want to have a website where musicians write about sports.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I don’t really think about things like that. I just ask the universe to surprise me with interesting creative opportunities.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
I don’t know much about who is “rated” so I couldn’t really say.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
I think “Who Is Watching The Watcher” by Nona Hendryx and performed by Labelle is a perfect song. It is complicated, funky, challenging to play, hard-hitting, without ever losing its momentum and purpose. You just want to get in the groove and be moved by it.