By Gregg Shapiro
The first new album of all-original material in four years from out jazz-rock-folk musician Erin McKeown – “Hundreds of Lions” – is cause for roaring. The plucked strings and woodwinds of “To A Hammer” gets things started and transitions into the piano-driven marvel of “Santa Cruz,” confirming that McKeown is back and better than ever. What follows are some of McKeown’s most memorable compositions, including “The Foxes,” “All That Time You Missed,” “The Rascal” and the evocative “(Put The Fun Back in) the Funeral.” McKeown spoke with BTL about touring with “I Kissed a Girl” musician Jill Sobule, words of wisdom and our animal instincts.
You’re currently touring with Jill Sobule. What can people expect from that show?
(Laughs) It’s going to be a show. We’re not just going to do two separate sets. It’s not going to be a traditional co-bill in that way. I don’t think either of us was interested in that. I think it makes a lot of sense for us to be touring together. Creatively, economically, timing-wise, I think it’s wonderful. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am about that. We’re doing 40 shows together or something. We’ll certainly do things on our own, but there’s going to be a planned flow to the show that’s going to include a lot of things together and some things that we’re going to come up with specifically for this show.
Do you think it’ll be along the lines of the Jill and Julia Show she’s been doing here in Chicago with Julia Sweeny?
I don’t know. I’ve heard about that. She’s told me about it and I’ve actually heard Julia talk about it. But I haven’t actually seen it. So I can’t say for sure. But I think that the sensibility that both Jill and I bring to it is one of “this should be an entertainment experience and it’s really not just some haphazard pairing.”
Your first album, “Monday Morning Cold,” was released 10 years ago. Would you say that it’s true that time flies when you’re having fun?
Yeah, actually. Success doesn’t come out of a vacuum. So for me those last 10 years are all requisite preparation.
“Hundreds of Lions” is your first album of all original material since 2005’s “We Will Become Like Birds.” Were these songs being written during that four-year period or were they all written in one creative burst?
No, they were written in that four-year period. Each album is like a little collection of time, and some albums have more time in them than others. And for me, the more that goes into a collection of songs the better it is. I feel very lucky that creatively that was able to happen.
“(Put the Fun Back in the) Funeral” is sure to get a strong response from listeners. What can you tell me about the genesis of that song?
That was probably the first song that was written for this record. There are three verses in that, and each verse describes an experience I had. They say things come in three. It seemed to me that I needed to collect these three experiences in one song. So, the first was that I had an uncle of mine pass away suddenly and found myself at his funeral, which is always a surreal experience. Then shortly after that, I went to Europe on tour (with) a band and I was the only woman on the tour bus. And I felt very claustrophobic. It felt very claustrophobic being in that situation on a lot of levels. And then that was the spring that Terri Schiavo was dying. So those are the three experiences. The “I can’t breathe” (in the song) was the sense of the world closing in on you, and I was imagining myself in the box in the ground – as well as in this bunk on a bus and also just Terri Schiavo trying to die and all these people just drowning or suffocating her with their politics. The emotional feeling of “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” it was just a very visceral set of experiences for me.
You mentioned labels earlier and if ever there was a “righteous babe,” it would certainly be you. “Hundreds of Lions” is on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label. How did that come about?
Ani’s been my hero since I was starting out as a writer. From the beginning, she’s always been an artist I have looked up to and loved and respected. I was very fortunate very early in my career; she became a fan of (my CD) “Distillation” and invited me on tour. Since then we’ve had a wonderful relationship, touring and collaborating and being friends – and I’ve always valued it. I think being on Righteous Babe happened really organically. They’ve always been generous to me and always considered me family. They were one of the people we went to when we had this album finished, and I think they’re the perfect home for it. I could not be more thrilled with the association.
Woven throughout the opening song “To A Hammer” are what sound like adages, such as “to a blind man each day looks the same” and “a train only follows its rail.” Are these words of wisdom that were shared with you by an elder or did you come up with them on your own?
Well, I think there’s a couple of things at play there. The actual line, “to a hammer everything is a nail,” was shared with me by a friend who was my age. We were speaking about a situation I was dealing with, and sort of apply that anecdotal band-aid to a much more complicated situation was very interesting to me.
I also find that particular adage vaguely insulting to the person you say it to. You know what I mean? “Of course you’re going to act that way, you’re just the hammer.” Which also brings up that adage, “dumb as a bag of hammers.” But I think what I was looking for was a classic feel for that song. I was looking for that sort of barroom-raise-your-glass classic waltzish (song). I’ve never heard anyone say “to a blind man each day looks the same” and I’ve never heard anyone say “a bank counts more than the change” or the lines about salt and marble. Those all came from me searching for a classic voice to what was a very specific feeling for me.
They’re the kind of sayings that could become a part of the vernacular, they’re so spot on.
Good! I hope so. Maybe I should encourage that by making bumper stickers (laughs).
Or T-shirts. There is also an animal theme to the album – from the title, which comes from the song “The Lions,” to the song “The Foxes”
Animals have always been important to me. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence, although I wasn’t thinking of it at the time, that the last original record I made was called “We Will Become Like Birds.” But I think that for me, “Hundreds of Lions” is about how close we are to animals in our behavior. We put on a lot of clothing that says, “Look at us humans, how civilized we act and what rules we follow.” And I think underneath that are very much animal instincts, and they’re not very far underneath.