Erin McKeown

When "Distillation" arrived in the Designer Magazine offices earlier in the year we were stunned to realize that the album had been released 3 years previously in the States. A raw, uncompromising effort, which couldn't have foretold what was to follow with the release of her full UK debut release "Grande". Luscious full bodied pop songs that are strong enough to stand up to bare acoustic performances when the occasion demands it. We caught up with Erin McKeown on a fleeting visit to the UK to find out her story.

Q: In the UK you're still very much a cult concern with a very devoted group of fans. If we could just fill in our readers with a bit of background to start with. You started playing music so early on, it was when you were just three I believe?
A: Yeah, but I wasn't very good at it though so it's not impressive. I just did piano lessons because you were supposed to do in the same way you would take gymnastics or something. Then I played Clarinet in the middle school band, I don't know what you guys would call middle school but it's aged 10 to 14, and then I started playing guitar when I was 13 just for fun. I didn't see myself as a musician at all until much much later.

Q: It was the very tradition classic route then?
A: It was very traditional. I'm sure that some of what I do is influenced by all that and then maybe I take easily to other instruments because I started playing so young. But I don't know, that would be my guess. I like to learn new things whether it's instruments or knowledge or whatever.

I like to mess around with structures, but you have to know the structures before you can start messing around with them. That was one of the things I enjoyed about my music education was to actually know music scales and to actually know music history and to know how to actually play my musical instrument whatever it was. In my opinion with music you have to know absolutely nothing or a lot and in-between you have to worry.

Q: Even though you started off the classical route when you got to your teen years you started a high school band with 3 guys, which I believe wasn't the best experience to start off with?
A: I got misquoted in something that ended up in my press kit about whether it was fun to be in a band with 15-year-old boys. And I had a nice time in the band I was in at high school, I just wasn't a very good guitar player at the time and it was like a Southern Rock Power Trio, by that I mean Jimi Hendrix and Cream. I was the forth person in that band and "Born Under A Bad Sign" doesn't need a rhythm guitar - I was just like the extra wheel so that was where I wasn't so happy with it.

Q: And then you started your own thing?
A: I've always written stories and poems and then without realizing it I started writing songs

Q: So how did you cope with the fact that the music industry is still one of the most male dominated industries still in existence?
A: I think a lot of things are still male dominated and I think you're right. Although I was at the BBC yesterday and nearly everyone I met and worked with was a woman. And it's always been like that whenever I’ve been to the BBC, it's mostly women.

I think I kind of slipped through the back door though. I just took one gig at a time and things got more intense with one gig leading to another. Then I thought I need to record something to sell to the people at the gigs, so I made my first cassette. Then I thought people don't play cassettes so I’ll make a CD...and then more people came on so I made another CD. Each thing kind of came at it's own time and I feel that's a very important thing. People get into trouble in the music industry when they get involved in things they don't understand. I've been fortunate enough to move along slowly enough to learn about each thing as it comes.

Q: "Distillation" was a really raw album, basically no more than a collection demos, but the quality was still there in a scene like the singer songwriter scene where strangely enough the one thing that is lacking is songs.
A: It's nice of you to say. I hadn't always wanted "Distillation" to come out over here because I couldn't find the right label and I'd pretty much resigned myself that "Distillation" would not come out over here. When I signed up with the record label for "Grand" it was for the whole world and then they found that "Distillations" rights were available over here and they wanted to put it out. It's an appropriate introduction for what I do, sonically it's a little smaller and I think the next record will be richer.

Q: And "Grande" obviously takes those raw ideas and wraps them up in a fuller production?
A: The things that I've been listening to more have fuller production. I'm always on a quest to do better things with drums. I learnt a long while ago though that I’m not capable of copying things. There was a period where I wanted to sound like Jimi Hendrix and I would sit there with my record player and try to find if I could do it. Maybe now I've been playing for 10 years I could do it, but at the time I’d only been playing for 2 years and it was the best thing that could have happened to me cos I figured out I’ve got to do my own thing.

When I was making "Grande" I was listening to lots of good pop records so that was my attempt to make the kind of record I was listening to. Now I’m really interested in beats and the bottom end, I love electronic music so I’m currently exploring that area with ideas for the next record.

Words: Alex McCann
Photos: Karen McBride -

"Grande" is out now in all good record stores
Erin McKeown looks set to return to the UK early in 2004
For more info

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