There's a whole universe of sounds on ASCAP singer-songwriter Erin McKeown's new, crowd-funded album Manifestra. Horn-drenched funk shakes hands with string-backed balladry, blazing power pop gives way to brooding spoken word. 16 musicians in total contributed. But most of all you'll hear McKeown - the vocalist, the songwriter, the tireless champion of social justice and personal expression. We sent McKeown a few questions to make some sense of her brave, beautiful new album.
Manifestra engages politics and social issues without coming off as preachy. How do you achieve that balance in your music? And do you think you've gotten better at it over the years?
I have heard my fair share of songs where the message overrides the music, and it is so uncomfortable. First and foremost, I really like a good song. Before Manifestra, I never even tried to write anything about politics or social issues (though I have always had my opinions) for fear of writing good politics but a bad song. But, eventually, my life being where it was, the world being what it is, I felt like I couldn't write about anything else. I basically got over myself and just wrote what I felt. If it strikes a good balance to your ears, then I am extra pleased.
On this album you wrote songs by yourself, in collaboration with others, even a song with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow via text message! Is there one songwriting mode that's easiest or most joyful for you?
I have learned over the years to really love collaboration in songwriting. My creative life can be so solitary that I find it truly energizing to work with someone else, especially via some nontraditional means (like text or Skype). What I need most as a writer is to be surprised. However that happens, that is the mode that is most joyful for me.
Truth be told, the only reason I don't co-write more for my records is that it makes the paperwork and rights so much more complicated with multiple writers. If some of the licensing and royalty processes were better streamlined, I would feel more free to have more writers on my records.
Manifestra is such a varied record, sound-wise. Did you go in to each song thinking "this one's the acoustic ballad!" "this one's the rocker!" "this one's the New Orleans-style blues tune!" or do the songs take shape only after you're pretty deep into writing them?
My records have always been varied, record to record and song to song. I wish I could plan them out! I would be more disciplined. I write what sounds good to me, and I like a lot of different kinds of music.
You've spent much of the past few years investigating the intersection of music, technology and policy. Has any of your thinking in that area made a difference in how you conceived of Manifestra, from a creative or business perspective?
Most definitely! In the last several years of being an advocate for an open internet and doing some of the social justice work I have done, I have had the chance to see firsthand so many artists doing inspiring and creative work around using the internet to collaborate, market, distribute music, and do effective activism. I kept a list! When it came time to make Manifestra, at each step in the process, I thought about what I had seen other artists do, what I had seen work best, and I made my decisions from there. If I had to sum up my philosophy with the making of Manifestra, it was to be detailed in images and transparent in process.
Of course your fans had a big impact on the financing of Manifestra. Has your relationship with your audience made a difference in your creative process at all?
I'm not sure if it's changed my actual creative process, but I do have a lot of faith in my audience, a faith strengthened by the fan-funding process I used to make Manifestra. I feel pretty sure at this point that my audience is gonna go down whatever road I want to travel. I don't worry so much anymore about making music that people MIGHT like. I know now there is a core group of folks who are going to get it, who trust my ear and my sensibility. Of course I always want to grow my audience, but if I don't, then I know that the audience I have built already is enough.
Manifestra was released on January 15th, 2013. Click here to listen to clips from the album and pick up your copy.
Visit Erin McKeown on the web at www.erinmckeown.com.