November 3, 2008
“What is it with lesbians and pie?” – Erin Mckeown interview
Erin Mckeown is a supremely talented singer-songwriter and a cult favourite on the queer folk scene (despite not being folk).
We caught up with Erin before her performance as the headline act of the York Lesbian Arts Festival 08 and chatted about pie, politics, and how baseball could cure America of homophobia…
Interview by Georgia Rooney and Milly Shaw. Words by Milly Shaw.
“I want Obama to win, for a lot of reasons – not just because John McCain scares me,” she says. “I don’t know what it’s like at all to have a government that I’m proud of. I’m serious! Eight years is a long time.”
Eight years ago Erin was 23 years old and already a veteran on the tour circuit. Now at 31, Mckeown has five albums, two EPs and numerous soundtracks and compilations under her belt. And between writing and producing music she tours continuously, playing around 200 live shows a year.
Erin and Ani
For the uninitiated, Erin is a singer-songwriter who breezes effortlessly from jazz to folk to rock to swing. Not only does she possess formidable guitar, piano and singing talents, she’s also smart, devilishly handsome and happily embraces her queer audiences – all of which might explain why she’s often mentioned in the same breath as occasional tour-buddy Ani DiFranco.
“It’s flattering but I just don’t understand it,” says Erin about the comparison. “It’s always an honour to be compared to someone who’s really good at what they do. I guess I don’t know what people are trying to compare.”
Musically, DiFranco and Mckeown really don’t have a lot in common. While Ani DiFranco is most definitely a folk artist, Mckeown isn’t so keen on the term. She even said “Folk’ is maybe a term that’s outlived its usefulness” in a recent interview. Does she really think that? “Did I say that recently?” she counters, shocked. “It’s astounding to me that you can say something three weeks ago to someone else and have it brought up!”
She takes a couple of thoughtful spoonfuls of soup. “I think I don’t know what that term means,” she says slowly. “And I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know what that term means. I’m not that keen on genre terms like folk or jazz or rock. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, it never has.”
But people need categories. “Oh yeah,” nods Erin. “People need to talk about music in some way – besides whether you like it or not. But I’ve always thought that you should categorise music on how it makes you feel. If you imagine you could walk into a record store and see a section called ‘break up’. Or ‘sunny day.’ ‘Car ride.’ ‘Your mom just died’. You know what I mean?
So where do her own records sit in this store? Erin’s got it all planned out already. “I made a record called We Will Become Like Birds and it was made to help me make it to the other side of a breakup. And I made a record called Grand that was more like driving on a sunny day.” And what about the jazz covers record Sing you Sinners? Erin grins. “That’s for a cocktail party!”
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Unsurprisingly for a musician who creates such a diverse range of music, Erin Mckeown has many influences. “I may not know exactly what I’m working on, but I’ll be drawn to music like that,” she explains. “I just bought the new Rachel Yamagata record, she’s an American singer-songwriter. And Juana Molina’s new album too. Have you heard of her? She’s from Argentina and she makes the most amazing organic electronic music.”
Influences often go beyond music, and we’ve heard a rumour we want to set straight. Can it really be true that Erin Mckeown cites Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as an influence?
“Do you know it?” laughs Erin, obviously pleased. “It’s a book that I read over and over again, once every few years. I think I got it when I was 12 or 13. I guess the book is smart, and silly, and humorous, and you’re aware of it being good writing but it’s not… that’s what I take from it.”
It’s the second day of a new tour of the UK and Ireland when we meet Erin, and she’s doing it solo – no band, no roadies, just her and her guitar. So how’s it going? “So far so good. I think when you’re travelling by yourself you end up being more open to meeting new people. Everybody gets lonely, so it opens you up to hanging out with people you don’t know.”
In fact it turns out touring alone is a bit like watching sports: “I really like sports, a lot, and I love baseball more than anything. I don’t have a television, so if there’s an important game and I don’t want to listen to it on the radio sometimes I’ll find myself in a sports bar, sitting next to someone who would not be my friend probably otherwise. But here we are, completely cheering the Red Socks together and having a whole conversation. And I think maybe it’s better that way.”
Living in America
Erin is unapologetically liberal and left-wing, and she’s very aware of how this puts her at odds with many of her fellow US citizens. “Sometimes when I’m in the Midwest of America I feel like I’m in a foreign country,” she admits, laughingly. “I travel a lot, and I go to a lot of places that are less diverse.” But in a sense where I live is not diverse,” she quickly adds. “Mostly white, very left-wing, a lot of gay people. So in a sense I live in the equivalent of the Midwest. It’s just the values are different.”
Erin grew up in Virginia and now lives in Massachusetts, both liberal pockets of America. But there are bigots even in a left-wing, very gay neighbourhood, as Erin explains when we ask if she’s encountered much homophobia. “I can only think of one [homophobia incident] and it’s so ridiculously comical, it’s nothing like the violence that some people have experienced,” says Erin, almost apologetically, as she begins the anecdote.
“It was in the parking lot of Wholefoods, which is overrun with gay people anyway. I was shopping with my girlfriend, and we put our groceries in the car and we were making out in the car. And this guy in a van wanted our parking spot, and he came and banged on the window and told us to move.
“But we were like [shrugs] ‘whatever.’ And we wouldn’t move. So he came back again and said ‘You lezzie bastards!’ And my girlfriend got real mad and got out of the car, and went and banged on his car. And everyone in the parking lot is like, are you guys ok? Do you want to make a complaint?”
She laughs at the absurdity of the situation, then, straight-faced, adds “The lesson of it is, is that no matter where you live, there are… and there are people who are frustrated by parking lots.”
‘You really ought to know what’s going on’
Perhaps surprisingly for a musician who holds such strong political and social views, Erin’s music tends to be more inward-looking and reflective rather than overtly political. “I don’t write overly political songs,” agrees Erin. “It’s not my style to go and talk about Iraq or whatever on stage. There are other people who do that better than I do.”
Erin’s political awareness has developed over the last few years, and she puts that down partly to the company she’s been keeping. “I’ve been around people who I admire and who are so articulate and who really want to know more.” Anyone in particular? “I did quite a bit of touring with Ani DiFranco. It was great to watch how she puts her version of politics and music together. I was also given an opportunity to go to Capital Hill on a lobby day that the Indigo Girls led around a bill that was being passed about nuclear power.”
Is it the role of musicians to talk about these topics? “I think it’s every citizen’s responsibility,” says Erin without skipping a beat. “If you’re a musician you’re often given a microphone and a stage, but I really think that anyone who participates in a democracy should be educated and have political views. Musicians are sometimes criticised for having political views, but it’s all political. You really ought to know what’s going on.”
Erin is stylish. She has a beautiful new tattoo of a stylised tree on her forearm, and in publicity shots she’s invariably impeccably dressed. It’s a silly question after such highbrow conversation, but we still want to know – does she always dress up for her shows?
“It’s not a silly question at all!” she smiles. “Yeah I always do. I learnt a long time ago that when you’re going on stage what you’re doing is you’re making a show. And why would I make a show wearing what I’ve worn all day? People want to see a heightened reality of yourself. And dressing up is part of that. I have a rule for myself and for people in my band – no jeans on stage. I don’t believe in that.”
I want to talk about the suit she wears on the album cover. Was it tailormade? Erin looks levelly at me. “That particular suit” – here she pauses, dramatically – “is the most expensive thing I own. Besides musical instruments, or a car. It fit perfectly the first time I put it on, which is why I bought it. That’s unusual.”
Now it’s my time to pause. You’re quite short, I say hesitantly. Erin nods. “Exactly.”
Erin Mckeown is as dedicated as she is ambitious. While most musicians seem to lurch blindly from one project to the next, three years ago Erin conceived four albums at once.
Of those four, she’s so far released three: the live record, the jazz standards record and the first of a series of archive collections of demos.
The final record, of new original music, has just been recorded and should be out in 2009. It still has no name, to Erin’s own surprise: “This is as late as it’s ever been in the process where I haven’t named an album.”
Of all her recent album, it seems that ‘Small Deviant Things’ – the demos album – is the one that Erin is most excited about. She breaks off from talking about her next project, writing a poetry book, to explain how that album came about. “I do a ton of home recording, and I play a lot of instruments, and these are the demos I’ve made, when I’m first writing a song. They never made it to an album but I love them.”
Small Deviant Things is certainly a charming record – the tracks might not be so polished and Erin’s voice not as nuanced as on later albums, but the songs themselves are bright as buttons and sit snugly with more recent tracks during live performances.
Time is getting on. We’ve finished our soup and spring rolls, the bill has been settled and we have time for one last question. So we make it a stupid question: Because this is for Lesbilicious, we want to know what else is delicious. What’s Erin’s favourite kind of pastry or pie or dessert?
Erin looks at us with good-humoured exasperation, saying “When did pie become such a double entendre in the lesbian community?” We are bewildered. What does she mean?
It turns out that pie can mean a lot more than pie. Erin kindly explains how it works. “If you’re trying to pick somebody up – maybe this is only in my lesbian world – but if you’re trying to pick someone up you ask them out for pie.” Really? “Yes. And then you go and have some pie.” And do you literally go out for pie? “You do. it is actual pie. It’s midnight diner pie.”
But we don’t have midnight diners in Britain. Erin pauses. “Maybe you could have a midnight kebab or something instead?”
Erin Mckeown: musician, poet, charmer. And her favourite kind of pie is rhubarb, if you fancy your chances.
Erin Mckeown’s live record Lafayette is currently available from Amazon for £10.98. Small Deviant Things is a limited edition available only from live gigs. Tour dates and further info from ErinMckeown.com
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