Interview with Erin McKeown + "CIVICS"
Last year, Erin McKeown released MANIFESTRA, a compelling album that mixed together guitars and governments in a decidedly head-on manner. While these can be notoriously tricky waters to tread, McKeown’s gift for inclusive storytelling and her knack for melodic and percussive magnetism invite the listener into conversation instead of a debate. Looking to take the concept of civil engagement further, McKeown then recorded CIVICS, a companion album of the 11 songs from MANIFESTRA reinterpreted in a nuanced, solo acoustic fashion. According to McKeown, “CIVICS whispers where MANIFESTRA shouts.” Choosing to record these performances inside of a marble-tiled library proved to be quite the aesthetic (and poetic) final touch.
NoiseTrade: What sparked the idea to break down these songs and record CIVICS as a companion album to MANIFESTRA?
Erin McKeown: My songs usually exist in at least two versions: the idealized band/album version that comes first and the more economical/practical solo version that comes later with touring. Since the MANIFESTRA batch were orchestrated to amplify the message in each song, I was curious how the messages would react to the solo treatment. If the song were played more intimately, would you hear the song rather than feel it? Would the songs feel more like songs than messages or vice versa?
NT: How did you land on recording CIVICS at the Field Memorial Library in Western Massachusetts?
McKeown: I've driven by the Field for over a decade now. It's such a curiosity; a large, ornate building stuck in the middle of a tiny, very rural town. It’s all marble where everything else is clapboard. It isn’t often open, but one time I happened to drive by when it was, so I stopped just for curiosity’s sake to have a look. The instant I stepped inside and heard my footsteps echo, I knew I had to do some recording in the space. At the time, I didn’t know for what project, but I filed the sound of the building away in my mind for the future.
NT: Do you feel that the stripped-down performances of these songs shape the lyrical content or your vocal delivery differently?
McKeown: I think the most fundamental differences in the CIVICS versions are the guitar parts. They've got to cover what the bass, keyboard, and drums are doing in addition to being a guitar. The parts I am playing on CIVICS are so different from MANIFESTRA that I inevitably sang the songs differently, emphasized different lyrics, and found different emotional shades to the songs.
NT: The mixture of music and politics can often end up being a shouting match with only one participant. What has shaped your ability to bypass that route and instead create an open dialogue through inspired storytelling?
McKeown: That is very well put! I can certainly fall into the trap of shouting: "if I just say this LOUDER, you'll understand". But I live in fear of creating a bad song with a good message. That does no one any good! So I rely on my primary instincts as songwriter and performer. I need to tell stories first, to craft a dramatic arc, to find an image that will stick with the listener long after the song is over. Through years of touring and writing, I’ve built up a toolbox of effective, adaptive ways to make people listen. In the case of MANIFESTRA, the work was to stick to the song first and let the politics follow. With CIVICS, I found that there was even more power in being quiet.
NT: One of the songs on the album, “Baghdad to the Bayou,” has a pretty unique origin story, as it was written - correct me if I’m wrong - over text message with Rachel Maddow as your co-writer?
McKeown: That's right! I was in Alaska with Thao Nguyen and we ran into Ira Glass in a diner in Anchorage. Ira and I became fast friends, and shortly afterward, he invited me to perform at a benefit to raise money for the 2010 deepwater horizon spill cleanup. Rachel was also on the bill for the benefit. Since she and I have known each other for years from Western Massachusetts, Ira asked us to collaborate. She was so busy that the only way we could communicate around her travels was by text. It’s a unique song, one that probably leans more to being a better message than song. However, the message is so important, and Rachel is so amazing, that I am going to give myself a pass on it not being the greatest song ever.