The Anti-Joni: Erin McKeown may be a singer-songwriter, but she ain't no folkie.
The McKeown Question
Erin McKeown, who plays the Crepe Place this week, is many things, but she is not a folk musician.
By Paul Davis
Formidable songsmith and multi-instrumentalist Erin McKeown is adept at many genres—swing, ragtime, blues—but one thing she does not play is folk, even though the description is often applied to her music (along with the variation "folk-punk," the sort of catch-all generic term that suggests much but describes little). "I think anyone who's ever been to a show of mine wouldn't use 'folk' to describe my music," she says. "There was a time I fought that description really hard, since the way most people feel when they think about folk I have little to do with."
But McKeown doesn't worry about such things too much anymore. "At this point I don't really care," she notes with the affable charm that runs through her entire body of work. Now that she's turned 30, McKeown says, such generic quibbling doesn't seem worth the trouble.
Lately McKeown has had much reason to look back and take stock of the ways she has changed over the past decade, partly because of hitting the dreaded three-0 and partly due to the release of Lafayette, a live set that shows McKeown and a crack six-person band returning to, and revamping, songs from her impressive five-record discography.
"It's a nice moment to look back and have a new perspective on what you were doing when you were younger. I'm not interested in the same things I was 10 years ago. When I was 20 I was mostly interested in playing busy. My taste now is a little more sparse."McKeown's music draws from ragtime, blues, acoustic indie pop and a host of other influences from traditional American and rock. The most pervasive influence in her music comes from swing and jazz, a fact that has never been clearer than in her Tin Pan Alley-referencing, all-covers set Sing You Sinners, released earlier in the year. Even when going in more straightforward rock directions, McKeown's vocal phrasing owes much to jazz. She notes, "The rhythm of swing has always been really natural for me. It's one of those things what I play always has—if it isn't rock, it seems to turn into a swing song."With a set of traditional swing covers and a career-spanning live album behind her, McKeown is ready to move on. A musical polymath, McKeown has plans to move even further away from the traditional American music blueprint with her next studio album, which she plans to record early next year.
"I'm less interested in traditional American forms like blues and jazz now. I'm more interested in more atmospheric, more cinematic ideas and emotions, which is something I think happens when you get older," she says. "I've always listened to a lot of music without words and electronic music, and in the last years I've become friends with people who play horns and violins and do [drum machine] programming. Whatever I do next, I want to change the palette from a rock/traditional jazz and expand that, without sacrificing any of the energy."
Even if McKeown's next studio record sounds like outtakes from orchestral dirge masters Godspeed You Black Emperor!, the lazy "folk" appellation will likely still follow her around, which McKeown finds amusing."I think the Internet is a giant pool for information and once something gets in it never goes away," she laughs. "The more people click on things the more those things continue to come up. I was on a show in Atlanta recently, only on for a minute and a half, and when the guy came on the air, of all the things he could say to me, the first thing was, 'So I heard you won a high school talent competition'—that was in 1995. That must have just been found on an Internet search, but now that it's back out there I'll probably have to live that down for another decade!"Which may be true—the redundancy of information on the Internet can guarantee the strangest descriptions and pieces of trivia will come back to haunt you. But so long as McKeown continues on her iconoclastic trajectory, her ever-expanding fanbase will be around to set the record straight.
ERIN MCKEOWN performs Wednesday, Nov. 14 at 8pm at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 831.429.6994.
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