Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all
It’s sad, but true. As Craig Marks, currently Editor-in-Chief of Blender magazine, said during his time at Spin: “Most music journalists are not that bright or that knowledgeable,” and far be it from me to claim special status.
Erin McKeown is a whipsmart perky post-folk rocker whose 2003 album Grand struck several chords in my heart. But she’s also a graduate of Rhode Island’s Brown University with a degree in Ethnomusicology. So as I prepared for our conversation about her shiny bright new record, my feelings didn’t just approach trepidation. They’d moved in, raised a family, and bought a house and business on Main Street.
In the simplest terms, ethnomusicology is the study of people making music. To be a little more precise, it’s the study of music, the people who make it, the instruments they use, and the complex of ideas, behaviors, and processes that are involved in the production of their music. Naturally issues such as race, class, gender, and sexuality are all important in modern ethnomusicology. Eek!
Dialling Erin McKeown’s digits, I felt a little like a student nurse popping in to collect Florence Nightingale’s bedpan. But not to worry.
“Ethnomusicology with a great big capital E,” confesses McKeown, “was just a really easy way for me to get through college doing things I already did. In fact, I was kinda blown away to find out that there even was such a thing.
“You see, I went to a school that didn’t have any formal requirements, so that the minute you get there it’s just free form anything that you want. And then at the end of your second year, they say: OK, so now what do you want to concentrate on? And I just looked at all the classes I had taken, and started trying to find something I would be closest to finishing. And it turned out to be ethnomusicology because I had already taken lots of different music classes, and some anthropology classes.”
For all her erudition—which is plenty—McKeown didn’t enjoy formal education at all. She does, however, love learning, music, art, and communication. Likeable and engaging, she speaks very clearly and carefully. Almost peculiarly precisely. Her conversation may feature the occasional inevitable redundant question mark, a handful of like‘s and one or two kinda‘s; but it’s virtually apostrophe free. I think the key word here might be discipline.
Consider her new album: We Will Become Like Birds. It’s a disciplined, mature work that marks yet another step up in a career that’s been built upon progression and evolution. It’s also something of a concept album at heart, but unlike Grand, which was at least informed by the all-pervading presence of Judy Garland, We Will Become Like Birds is a much more personal statement.
“There were two ideas behind this record. One I couldn’t help, and the other I very much planned.
“The part that I planned was that I wanted to write a set of songs that were personal. Yes, my previous record was about Judy Garland. But Distillation, which came before that, was a very personal record and I wanted to get back to that kind of songwriting, I wanted to take a break from talking about other people and I wanted to explore some more things about myself
“The part of it that I couldn’t help was that at the time that I wanted to write more about myself, I ended going through a really bad break-up. So that ended up being the subject matter.
“But I don’t think when you write about yourself it has to be self-pitying, or depressing, or sad at all. Or confessional, which is a word that I completely hate, and that is often thrown about with singer-songwriters. So I had this experience in my life that I wanted to write about in a positive manner.”
Hence, We Will Become Like Birds. In brief, the point is that if it doesn’t kill us, it’ll make us stronger. That we can learn from our pain and grow, become better, become more. This record is swollen, positively replete with the imagery of birds, of flight, of elevation, and of hope. So much so that after a couple of plays even an expatriate Englishman (we don’t really have American literature in the UK) like myself is driven to think in terms of an Emily Dickinson poem that uses a bird as a metaphor for hope.
“‘Hope Is the Thing With Feathers’?” Erin McKeown is stunned, almost speechless. “I don’t know that poem at all. That is sounbelievable. I am going to have to look it up as soon as we get off the phone.
“A long time ago, I was on a path to become a scientist, a biologist. And the type of biology that I was most interested in was ornithology. I spent a lot of time with birds and I spent a lot of time studying them, and I just felt an emotional connection to them. And when I started to write all these songs, this metaphor of flight, and sky, and rising up made a lot of sense to me from my own emotional background. I wanted to write about a very sad thing in a hopeful manner.
“But if I had known about the Emily Dickinson poem, maybe I would have not written my record!”
Enough with the birds already. Let’s talk Latin for a moment.
“Aspera! Per aspera! Per ardua! Ad astra!”
We Will Become Like Birds introduces itself with half a minute of slightly misleading six-string expectation setting that sets the basic pattern for “Aspera”—an excellent, uplifting piece of gently paced indie-pop that lays out McKeown’s principle theory from the off:
“I will be brave ... my spirit will stay ... through this trouble we are born ... per ardua ad astra”.
Through adversity to the stars. Erin McKeown took five years of Latin and she suspects that, regardless of my own education, I’ll recognise the expression that forms the centerpiece of her song, and album.
“It’s a Latin phrase, of course. ‘Per ardua, ad astra’. Being from the UK perhaps you’ll know that it’s actually the motto of the Royal Air Force. I heard it in a poem on the radio, and because I had studied a lot of Latin in my past, the Latin kinda perked up my ears. The translation, of course, is ‘through struggles, through hardship to the stars’, and again that just felt like something that resonated from where I had come from and the experience I was going through at the time.”
Thanks to my English heritage, I’m able to tell McKeown that the Royal Flying Corps (the precursor to the RAF) took its motto from Sir Henry Rider Haggard’s novel The People of the Mist.
“It’s also apparently the motto of the state of Kansas”, she responds. “Which is much less poetic than the RAF and has much less to do with my album.
“Actually, I was a Latin nerd. I’m not necessarily proud, or not proud of it, but I was; and I really do think that as a writer I have been really deeply influenced by spending so much time with Latin. You can learn so much about the discipline of sentence structure from Latin and, of course, translating anything from any language is a really great exercise—especially for a writer.”
The song that follows “Aspera” is “Air”. Anchored by a synthetic drum loop, it’s a beat-based, poetic groove that extends both the album’s musical range and the flight-hope metaphor:
“Evolution is what you choose ... I am made to fly, you are made for flight ... so let’s become like birds”
McKeown was happy I’d picked up on the artificial drumming on both “Air” and a second track, “Beautiful, I Guess”, and happy to slip in a little light ethnomusicology:
“I love that question. I wish people would ask more like that.” Clearly she loves to talk about the mechanics of her craft.
“Those two songs are examples of, like, the residues of how I write. Which is that I work at home where I have a keyboard, and a bass, and my drum machine set up along with my four track, and what I’ll do is I’ll either whip up a little beat on my drum machine, or I’ll pull something from a program or off the internet, and I’ll just get a drum beat going.
“Sometimes I’ll think of one and I’ll write it on my drum machine, other times I’ll find one that I find really inspiring and I’ll just get it going, over and over again. I’ll start to play bass over it, or my keyboard, and I’ll turn my tape recorder on and just mess around until something starts to stick, and then I’ll feed it into my four track and try to build on top of it. All of the songs for this record were written that way
“That’s been my method for the last couple of records. I’m not very much interested in playing guitar anymore. Obviously, I’m proud of being good at it, and I do it an awful lot, and it’s the main instrument I play on stage, but if I have a choice I prefer not to play it these days. So in my writing, I’ve been writing on other instruments, and it’s been really fun.”
Erin McKeown takes drum loops from the Internet. I use it for research. One thing I was surprised to learn while researching McKeown was that when people include her on mix-tapes, they tend not to group her with Dar Williams, Jess Klein or any of the other usual suspects, but with Le Tigre, Rilo Kiley, Tegan and Sara, and Sleater-Kinney.
“That’s reallycool. That means my evil plan is working. Because I don’t want to be in the company of Dar Williams or Jess Klein. And that’s not anything to do with them, because they are both friends of mine; it’s just in terms of how I see my music, so that makes me very happy, it’s very exciting to me. Especially as those are of four of my favourite bands.”
Unsurprisingly, Erin McKeown is something of a mix-tape geek herself. She loves her iPod and has just been asked to contribute a celebrity playlist to iTunes. It includes music from Postal Service, Four Tet, Ida, Sea and Cake, Liz Phair, and Bjork. It also includes a track from Blonde Redhead’s album Misery Is a Butterfly—a title that reads like a direct response to Emily Dickinson’s bird.
When I tell McKeown that someone out there in the wonderful world of blog expressed his admiration of her “relentless vision and amazing talent”, she’s obviously embarrassed. But pushed to comment on the vision thing, she agrees.
“Yes. I would say that I have a relentless vision. It’s one of the few things you can have. There’s so much about being a writer or a creative person that you can’t control. Whether it’s where your songs come from, or how they will be received. But at the core of it, you can keep trying after something that matters to you. And I have a goal to grow further on each record, and I have a goal about how I want to feel when I play music—which is hopeful. And I try to enthuse everything I do with that vision.”
Though flawed in parts, We Will Become Like Birds is clearly blessed with McKeown’s vision. In the notes that accompany her iTunes playlist, McKeown says of Bjork’s “Triumph of the Heart” that she always thinks it’s important to notice what song an artist chooses to end an album with. If “Aspera” defines the base concept behind her album, closer “You Were Right About Everything” appears to be every inch the strong, necessary, and beautiful confessional moment she says she detests:
“I was fragile, too scared and delicate / You kept trying, I’m the one that quit / Worn out by the baggage that we bring / You were right about everything”.
A third song, “We Are More”, however, is the mid-album pivot around which the whole record revolves.
“I really like where that song came from,” says McKeown. “It’s the last one I wrote for the record, a blatant expression of hope.
“The inspiration for ‘We Are More’ came from an artist called Joseph Cornell. He was famous for making these glass front boxes, and he would fill them with a strange assortment of objects.
“His work was, to me, all about memory and how do you remember things? By assembling these boxes, he was making a choice about how something could be remembered and presented. And in terms of a relationship ending, I think that’s really important. How are you going to remember this relationship? And how are we—as the two people in the relationship—going to look back on it in the future? Will we be bitter? Or will we still love each other?
“Or will it be a more ambivalent feeling? Or will we completely forget about it?
“I wanted to remember this relationship by all the great things that happened, and all the lovely things. And not the hard parts or the bitter parts. So ‘We Are More’ is a song about remembering the relationship that the record chronicles and putting forward the statement that we had grown as a result.”
Which is back to per ardua ad astra again?
“Exactly. That feeling of hope and trying to take something negative and collecting it in a way that it no longer seems negative.”
“You hate the words of war but baby /Face it! That’s what it’s been for us / We were never good fighters or very good soldiers / But through this we are more”.
With every album, Erin McKeown becomes more. Give her another couple of broken hearts, and the sky might be her limit.