As musicians, we yearn to create, whether it’s through composing, crafting an individual sound or flipping a beloved piece on its head to make something that’s never been heard before. We long to bring into being ideas that have not yet lived, and to share stories that have not yet been told. In doing so, we create something that speaks to our shared experience, something that helps make sense of our world. But sometimes our educational institutions can muddle the realm of creation and recreation, preparing students to replicate that which already exists rather than feed the yearning to foster personal creativity.
re/CREATE, the new interview series from 21CM, provides a glimpse into the minds of musicians who create sounds unique to their own voice while celebrating the artists and traditions that have most influenced them. Join 21CM and host Joe Brent each month as we celebrate some of the most innovative musicians of our day who pay homage to the traditions they love, while creating music from the heart.
In this episode, Brent interviews Erin McKeown, an internationally renowned songwriter, performer and multi-instrumentalist. For her re/CREATION, McKeown performs Liz Phair’s “Explain It To Me,” along with Joe Brent and Andrew Ryan.
JOE BRENT: Do you remember the moment that you were exposed to Liz Phair’s music?
ERIN McKEOWN: I do. I didn’t grow up in a house that had cable, so I would go to my friend’s house that had this thing called MTV. After school I was watching MTV with my friend and the video for [6’1”] – “I kept standing six-feet-one” – came on and I was like, who is this?
JB: Obviously Liz Phair’s music has been hugely influential on a lot of people. Can you talk about how she’s affected you?
EM: My primary experience with her is musically, of course, in the sense that her music is not very far from a demo – a lot of her early music especially. There’s a casualness to it, a roughness to it that was really different than the music I’d grown up hearing. I think that not-so-pristine, not-so-perfect relationship to music was the most influential part about her for me.
But then also to see her as a woman in the music business at the same time, in the context of who she was – she was wearing more clothes, she was singing about things that most women weren’t singing about. And she was singing about them in this low part of her voice. There’s a spot where it’s just a little bit too low, and you can make the note, but you might not make it perfectly. There’s something really emotive in that space. To me, that’s the Liz Phair range.
JB: It’s rawness by design.
EM: Yeah, it’s just out of reach. To get that low quality, you might have to hunch or produce it in a different way in your body.
JB: Classical orchestrators have been working that way for hundreds of years, trying to put the instrument at the register where it’s at the most interesting spot. It’s not necessarily the prettiest tone all the time. It’s like she’s orchestrating with her voice.
EM: She is. And, cocktail trivia: I had to raise the key to get it in my voice.
JB: You can tell a lot about a person by the way they talk about the other artists they like. So what are some of the artists, maybe some working today, that affect you in the same way – in what they represent and how you’re able to bring that to your own music?
EM: I’m thinking of the most recent music added to my phone. There’s a band called the Como Mamas – three women from Mississippi who are on Daptone [Records]. It’s all sacred music from the South. I’m really interested in gospel music. I’m interested in what happens when people are singing for another purpose. In this case, these women are singing in praise.
The other thing I just added is a brass band from Providence, R.I. called What Cheer? Brigade. They do some eastern European music and they do some original music, some New Orleans brass music. There’s no singing in it at all. Those guys are a party band. If you want a parade, a party, if you want music for a protest – you call those guys. So that’s what that music is for. They’re playing for these social experiences.
The above interview has been edited for clarity and length.