Out folk artist Erin McKeown returns to Philly

Erin McKeown has been at the forefront of literate, eclectic, folk-based music ever since she released her first album, “Monday Morning Cold,” in 1999. Since that time, her work has blossomed daringly into full-blooded, haunting orchestrated music, while personally she has grown into her position as a queer artist — all while refusing to be pigeonholed. McKeown appears at Old City’s Tin Angel this weekend.


PGN: I hear that you have a connection to Philly in an artist named Heart Harbor. What gives? How did you hook up with her?

EM: I’m producing a record for her. We got together in such a great way. She came to a show of mine in Portland, Ore., came up to me afterwards and asked if I would listen to her music. When she got back to Philly, the stuff that she sent me was amazing — full produced and certainly experimental in a way. She was very clear about what she wanted. I’m helping her refine her vision, and we’ll record this spring.

PGN: Is it fair to say that you’re a small, self-contained intelligent mobile unit since you release music under your own label, TVP, finance your own tours and invest in yourself in general?

EM: I do it only because I have to. In the pre-Kickstarter world, that self-financing thing was necessary in a kind of radical, tear-down-the-structure independent way. The music biz has become so upended that everyone is freaked out and terrified. Now, everyone does business differently, and I would gladly work with a label. No one is going to hand me a terrible record deal because there’s no such thing as a deal anymore. Besides, I have an awesome back-up plan in place: Doing it myself.

PGN: Did you ever have those quintessential mustache-twirling, cigar-chomping record-biz meetings?

EM: Actually, I always got the earnest, well-meaning, very stiff Canadians. They were very nice, nothing nefarious. I’m betting that the folks you mention still exist but they’re just not interested in the kind of music I make.

PGN: I beg to differ. So what, then, are the upsides and downsides of crowd-funding, which you used to make your last album?

EM: The upsides are that I got to know people who like my music in totally different and thrilling ways: very intimate, often one-on-one relationships. There are listeners I recognize when I play. It’s a great opportunity to be creative in different ways, as you’re making your own videos, graphics, deciding what to give funders as rewards. The downside is cash flow. You don’t really have money to do things at a moment’s notice. Such is the plight of the independent musician, period. You use the United States Bank of Credit Cards to fund yourself. Plus, I raised enough money to get my music to the people who already know about it. That’s great and we have a special relationship, but I went in the hole trying to find new fans.

PGN: Preaching to the converted doesn’t have a reach, which is weird, considering that, with each record, you’ve expanded your sound. You’ve maximized your arrangements and orchestrations since “Sing You Sinners,” a handsome progression that’s continued with “Hundreds of Lions” and, most recently, “Manifestra.” Do you feel as if there’s no going back to the stripped-down folk of your start?

EM: Did you call it a handsome progression? That’s awesome. I think that I would probably have a different career if I made the same record over and over. Creatively, I couldn’t do that, even when I wanted to. I hope that people come along for that ride. I don’t really intend to give up that handsome progression.

PGN: As a songwriter, do you say to yourself that a set of songs in your head deserves this sort-of richer arrangement or do you hear that orchestration in your head — say, bossa nova or quiet swing, both of which you’ve done — and you pen a song suiting that?

EM: I think I’ve had both of those experiences. Songwriting is still mysterious to me. That mystery is what I cultivate when I sit in my sandbox with all my instruments and a computer. When it comes to writing songs, it often feels as if I’m hearing it from the next room over, like when your neighbor plays music really loud. That’s not to say that I don’t have tricks, like I’m sure you do when you need to hammer out 4,000 words and get them out the door.

PGN: The polemics of folk traditionalism, the socially minded stuff and the political rhetoric — it’s been within you since your ethno-music studies in college. Why did you wait until “Manifestra” to truly let loose?

EM: I was afraid of failing, afraid of writing a bad song, a lousy message. There’s a long list of artists who songwrite well and without artifice. I wasn’t ready to reach that standard until then. Eventually it felt exhausting to hold back, to maintain that doubt, so I rolled over and those songs came out. As a consequence, I’ve lost fans, got others to tell me to shut up and sing, and won new fans.

PGN: Did anything change in you to make you ready, or get you ready?

EM: I’m not ever going to have kids, and I’m cool with that. The same impulse that makes people my age think they want to have children — in me, was about trying to stop talking about myself so much or even be part of that world. Plus, the world demands that right now. That’s not arrogance, as if I have a gospel that needs to come out to change the world, but you can’t ignore it either. People are agitated and want to talk. I want to talk.

PGN: How do you make it a dialogue rather than a finger-pointing, indicting rant?

EM: That’s my polite Southern upbringing coming out: diplomacy rather than blame. Plus, there’s also as much a need for negotiation as there is indictment.

PGN: It’s been a decade now since AfterEllen.com outed you, not as a “queer” artist as I know you identify, but as a lesbian — all before you were ready. Look, I don’t think it’s anybody business, that people state who they are when they’re ready, or don’t. Was it for the better or worse that it happened as it did?

EM: Thank you for paying attention and knowing the timeline. The other day I was looking up something, and I was reminded of a comment I made about being a queer artist and its consequences. I stated clearly that there had been a noticeable change in my audiences ever since that happened, and with that got a wealth of comments, criticizing me for saying that, that I had been perpetuating homophobia. It was like six years later, after I got outed, that I made those comments. Coming out helped me get over my internalized homophobia, which is why I was reticent to talk about my sexuality — that’s my journey, not one I’m ashamed of either. Being outed was not pleasurable, as I was struggling with that. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s a different world now, and I’m grateful that I’m no longer exhausted by that battle within me.

Erin McKeown plays 8 p.m. Jan. 30 at Tin Angel, 20 S. Second St. For more information or tickets, call 215-928-0978.