Exploring the whimsical nature of song

Classical teachings provide traditional structures to unconventional sounds
By Katie Emerick
Homer Tribune

Photo by Nancy Palmieri - Erin McKeown brings her whimsical sensibility and playfulness — along with a soaring vocal range — to the Down East next Thursday.

Photo by Nancy Palmieri - Erin McKeown brings her whimsical sensibility and playfulness — along with a soaring vocal range — to the Down East next Thursday.

Erin McKeown contends that she’s incapable of copying things. That’s not to say she’s without influences, however, with “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” Ani Difranco and Greg Brown all standing as inspirations to the multi-instrument songstress. Like many children, McKeown grew up writing stories and poems, fueling an ever-hungry imagination that has continued to guide her work through the release of seven albums since her debut on the music scene in 1999.
Raised in Fredericksburg, Va., McKeown began playing classical piano as a young girl and writing songs in high school. It wasn’t until studying ethnomusicology at Brown University that she made the decision to pursue music as a career, and went on to make two albums before graduation. For the past 10 years, McKeown has been an intriguing and growing facet in the singer/songwriter community. Her unique voice and guitar style has been likened to that of Cat Stevens and Jeff Lang. Her repertoire of releases has explored a variety of genres, flowing from folk to rock to pop; Each effort maintains a whimsical sensibility and playfulness.
Vocally, McKeown holds a timeless quality that is distinctively jazz with its effortless range, soaring emotion and controlled vibratos. From the song “Blackbirds,” off her 2000 album “Distillation,” to the collection of jazz standards McKeown released on “Song for Sinners,” it’s clear that the genre holds a special quality for the artist.
And while her sound has been categorized in so many different ways, McKeown is one who’d rather have her music defined by the way it makes you feel; which may reveal why jazz has such an appeal. Its form is based off the exploration and improvisation of emotion.
It’s McKeown ability to experiment with arrangements that makes her a compelling artist in contemporary songwriting. She likes to explore and expand musical structures. Her classical training at an early age gave her the understanding of traditional structures and music history needed to create in a way that is still comprehensive. On her most recent release, “Hundreds of Lions,” McKeown took a unique approach to her orchestrations. Recording the record independently gave her the luxury of time — and the space to be innovative. Working out of an old farmhouse in rural New England, she laid brass and woodwind tracks early on in the project, rather than layering on the parts later in the recording process as is traditionally done. Combined with McKeown’s soulful vocals, they serve as an unconventional backbone to her songs.
Infused with synthesizers and orchestral strings, “Hundreds of Lions” has attained a polished finish, while still maintaining the funky edge typical of McKeown. “Santa Cruz” is an energetic pop song for the more rock savvy appreciator. Backed by a driving, stripped-down rhythm section, McKeown weaves the piano and electric guitar together in a call-and-answer type format. She builds movements that sweep and dive as she sings.
Stoutly left-wing and an activist, McKeown’s music doesn’t dwell in political expression. Instead, she uses her songs as a reflective space to detail emotions and experiences that make up the human condition. She is a poet and an essayist infusing her writing with a whimsical lyricism both honest and theatrical. In the song, “The Lions,” McKeown sings: “She and I were circus loves, cannonball, somersault, split/ we were made to smile in sawdust and mean every word of it/ nothing turned us on more than to turn every eye…/but in the moment before the curtain dropped, I wondered/ why am I always the bottom and never the top?”
Following her unique sensibilities, McKeown is a do-it-yourself musician, evidenced by her string of independently released albums, including her most recent project promoted through a four-part series of live Internet performances from her living room.
Appreciated by fellow musicians and audiences alike for her quirky sense of musicianship and driven dedication, McKeown carries her theatrical nature to the stage whether solo or backed by her band. She appears as the quintessential artist — intelligent, thoughtful, colorful and wonderfully carnival-esque.

Erin McKeown
When: 7 p.m., Thur., April 29
Where: Down East Saloon
Tickets: $20
This is a no-smoking show.

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Posted by on Apr 21st, 2010 and filed under Music. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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