Ivy leaguer, folk pop chameleon, musical author, new media guru, with an increasing amount of toes being dipped into activism, Erin McKeown‘s lyrical inkwell often runneth over. So goes the reason why the veteran multi-instrumentalist has spun turn-of-phrases that range from bubbly, Feist heartbreak to political, MSNBC journalist collaborations. In the wake of her eigth effort, Manifestra, on the porch of her Massechusettes home, we talked her pre-Zooropa love for Bono lyrics, the difference between true and close rhyme – the former being boring – how to feminize ‘manifesto’ like a champ and a plethora of other things that make her aggressively kaladoscopic verse and chorus talents tick, her love for Monty Python absurdity notwithstanding.
You studied ethnomusicology at Brown? How has that effected your lyrical process?
Maybe it’s unleashed my inner-desire for cleverness. Or for like puns, or burring little jokes and references and things that add this extra layer of ha-ha to something. So even if I might be writing about something that’s heavier, I’m adding a layer of entertaining or clever language in a way that an old-style vaudeville act song might do. That has always been a part of what I do. I probably was exposed to it first with my studies of ethnomusicology.
What would you say are the most important tenants of a successful lyric?
I don’t think it has to make sense. I would say that that’s like second or third or fourth down the list. To me the actual first thing would be the sound. If you just define a group of words that somehow sound right together, that’s a first tenant for me. If message-wise they make sense, that’s great. Or they make sense within themselves. But if it just sounds good, and it’s the next right thing for the song – that’s the best lyric for me. Sometimes shit that makes no sense is a great lyric. But form a sonic standpoint – how does consonance work in a line? What vowels are being used? How does it feel when it’s sung. How does it look when it’s on paper, but how does it feel when it’s sung? Vowels and consonance succeed better when they’re sung vs. when you see ’em on a piece of paper. And it’s also different from singer to singer.
What’s the earliest, visceral moment you can remember as a songwriter when you fell in love with a certain lyricist or lyric?
I was in the grocery store today and overhead the song “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” It’s a classic from the late 60s by a band called Procul Harum. I don’t know where I heard it as a 10 or 12-year-old. But I remember my piano teacher got me the sheet music for it and thinking then the words were great. And they’re not real specific. You’re not really sure exactly what’s happening. But there’s somewhat of a story there. And just a lot of really interesting words that are thrown in. And then the main thing there, “a whiter shade of pale on things” – ’cause what the fuck does that mean? – but it just sounds right. And I would say also probably early U2, I was really into. I always had U2 lyrics – which are not necessarily known for being fantastic – but I have actually always said at least up to Auchtung Baby that Bono made really great lyrics and that maybe he got lazy after that.
And how has that evolved? What kind of lyricists do you admire these days?
I don’t know if I could name anyone off hand. I’m getting ready to write a musical. And so I’ve been thinking about and listening to what’s happening in contemporary musical theatre right now. And most of it I don’t like because I think lyrics need to occupy a place in between telling directly what’s happening and being totally obscure. And I think like contemporary musical theatre lyrics for the most part are not song-like enough for me. They’re too much of like the delivering of information, without doing that poetically. So I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff and trying to think about how you can still make something that’s very singable and song-like first. But that is also delivering information the way that you need to in a theatre piece.
I don’t want to lose a great rhyme. There’s a long-running argument in musical theatre about a true rhyme or a close rhyme. And people get into really heavy camps about this. And say that in musical theatre you really have to true rhyme everything. So ‘you’ and ‘blue’ have to rhyme. So that people aren’t distracted by that and just get the information. And then there’s another camp of people which I am squarely in which is that that is boring to listen to. And like you can deviate form a true rhyme into a close rhyme or even an abrasive rhyme that is fun, that will let the listener know that they’re listening to something that is crafted but not distract them from the information.
What would you say of your own lyrics in your catalogue that are most important to you?
I’m sitting on my front porch right now and I’d probably have to go and look at iTunes to think of what songs I’ve made. There are some songs that are kind of in the earlier part of my career where I was doing more things that were more vaudeville, jazz-oriented that were kind of more showy on a lyrical front. Like here’s an interesting rhyme or phrase. And so there’s a song of mine called “Melody,” that I would probably put in that category. Another song of mine called “The Little Cowboy” [LISTEN] that I would put in that category. But then like later stuff, and things that I’ve been working on more recently are – a song like “The Jailer” that comes form my newest record. Which I was really trying to ride that line between delivering information – in this case like politics with something that’s still singable. And so I really like that song for that reason.
While we’re talking about your new record what does Manifestra mean? Is that your way of feminizing manifesto? What were you trying to do there?
I was trying to do anything really. I hadn’t realized I made up a word. That song I wrote really really early in the morning. I’ve written hundreds of songs, but very, very few of them I’ve written the way I wrote that song. Which is basically like I dreamed the song and it woke me up. And I was woken up by hearing that first line – both the music and the lyrics. And so I was not staying at home, I was staying at a venue that I played the night before. And I just went down into the venue space – it was like 6 a.m. – and just wrote out the whole thing. And the word ‘manifestra’ was in there, and I didn’t think twice about it. I probably was thinking ‘manifesto’, but it just, in that sort of like half-sleep state, ‘manifestra’ just got put down on the page. And later I thought about it and I thought ‘well that’s kind of a cool word’, so I’ll just let it be.
But to me it’s like related to ‘manifesto’ because it’s a statement of purpose. But it’s got a feminine feel to it. And then it also reminds me of the word orchestra. Which is a word I really, really like. There’s something about the way that word is put together I really like, and not a word that you would think of being sung. Or-ches-tra – three syllables. I’m sometimes not a fan of three-syllable words. Or taking two-syllable words and making them three-syllable words. I think that’s terrible when people do that.
There’s a rumor that you’re a nerd for Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. How is that an influence on your writing?
In a similar way that Monty Python has had an influence, which is just sort of an irreverent, clever, absurdist, but at the same time making like really true observations about humans. And those are the things that I’ve tried to do – that’s what I’d like to do with my music. Which again is make something that’s pleasurable but has some substance. Pleasurable. Even silly. But still have some substance.
We heard of your love for categorizing music, explaining society’s need to group moods, and your own, saying, “Imagine if you would walk into a record store and see a section called ‘break up’ or ‘sunny day’? If you could place all your records in a store accordingly, what records would go in which sections?
Let me see if I can work backwards. Manifestra would be ‘Righteous Political Rally’ section. I have an album about how much I hate Christmas, so that would just be in the ‘Fuck You’ section. Hundreds of Lions would be ‘Breakup’. I have a standards record that would be in a ‘Sunday Afternoon Drinking, White Glove, Big Hat’ section. There’s another break-up record in there – We Will Become Like Birds. So that’s a another one for the ‘Breakup’ section. Grand which sort of inspired that comment about my record store is ‘Top Down Sunny Day Driving’ section. And Distillation, which is the first one, would be the ‘College Years Drug Fueled Cleverness’ section.