At the 1997 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, New York, singer-songwriter Andrew Calhoun was manning a booth for his company, Waterbug Records—an artists’ co-op representing some of the most accomplished songwriters in the folk underground—when nineteen-year-old Erin McKeown introduced herself and played him a few songs. “I have to say,” Calhoun recalled in a recent interview, “she taught me more about the structure of music than anyone before or since.”
Six years later McKeown’s third full-length CD, Grand, provides further evidence of her youthful sophistication as a writer, singer, and instrumentalist. Stylistically, Grand is like a hip vintage clothing store; it evokes the heydays of swing, cabaret jazz, and Hollywood musicals, as well as the late ’70s new-wave rock of Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello.
McKeown plays up the retro associations by referring to herself both in song and on her Web site as the Lady:“If you want to be a lady,” she sings over ragtime guitar picking, “well then, have a look at me/Folks line up for days just to have a look-see.” All this could easily come off as a campy game of dress-up, but McKeown exudes a genuine love of classic songcraft that makes the music feel like her own.
McKeown was involved in musical theater at Brown, and Grand makes frequent references to the worlds of stage and screen, starting with the mildly punk “Cinematic.” The CD’s one cover, “Lucky Day,” is a 1920s standard adapted from the repertoire of Judy Garland, whose audio diaries also inspired McKeown’s “Cosmopolitans” (“Advice, agents, and taped late-night whiskey/Tiny cups for a tiny lady”). McKeown wrote the melancholy closing track, “Vera,” for an opera her friend Shawn Wallace ’92 is writing about Dylan Thomas. The song takes the form of a letter from Igor Stravinsky to his wife as he looks forward to a theatrical collaboration with Thomas (the project was derailed by Thomas’s death from alcoholism). As this suggests, McKeown is no navel gazer—she approaches the lyrical craft in the manner of a playwright or screenwriter, building characters and scenes.
Throughout the CD, McKeown skillfully plays electric and acoustic guitars, piano, organ, and a bit of banjo and accordion, backed by crisp and uncluttered band arrangements. But the centerpiece of the music is her soft, fluttery voice, which is distinctive but a little monochromatic from line to line and track to track. In keeping with her material, she comes across more like a piano-bar crooner than a rock or folk singer.
The songs on Grand sneak up on the listener on repeated spins, with sly hooks and striking phrases. In the casually catchy “Born to Hum,” McKeown sings, “Once in the spring of my twenty-fourth year I had nothing to say/With a dangling promise, and a terrible past, I threw all the words away.”
The condition was clearly temporary.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers (www.jeffreypepperrodgers.com) is the author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, coming this fall from Backbeat Books.