Well, not exactly. We're hit a stumbling block with the podcast archive. Our use of a tiny segment of Airs' 'Sexy Boy' in the intro has been flagged as a copyright infringement. We're trying to find a way around this - a way that doesn't include rerecording the intro to all 150 podcasts - but in the mean time here is the print version of the feature. Cheers Andy
The nagging jingle of the phone pulls at American funky folk queen Erin McKeown as she sleeps. The phone rings again, this time somehow a little more urgently - “Hello Los Angeles, Ennis calling”. As it turns out, 2pm Irish time translates to very bloody early in Los Angeles. Unperturbed, and well able for a nagging Irishman (even before her first cup of coffee), the charming McKeown describes what drew her to pull together her latest collection of songs.
“It was all about that word, fun. I spent the four previous records working really hard on writing my
own songs and really committed to the idea of putting new music into the world at all times. And concentrating on my own life and other people life.
“Meanwhile, this is the music that I play for myself and I play for fun. I was actually in Ireland when the idea for this came to me. I was finishing up a tour over there. I was sitting down and thinking that this is fun, it’s quick, it’s instinctive and it’s music that other people will love.”
Sing You Sinners is a collection of 13 songs of mischief and verve collected from the forgotten corners of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. It’s an album of old-fashioned covers, but one that has allowed McKeown to truly express herself and explore a unique take on the music.
“It totally frees me up to play with the music and I worked a lot on the production side of it. When you write songs, in some ways they are never done. Every time you sing them you wonder have you made all the right choices or do you want to change something.
“And, of course, these songs have been done for 70 years so they are really quite cooked. Every one of the tunes has a story to it — there is some really specific reason for each of the songs. Each of them came to me at some point over the last 10 years. You have a song like ‘Coucou’ which I found on a Django Reinhart boxset years ago. I don’t even speak French but I really liked the melody of the tune. I didn’t know what it was about but something made sense in it.
“So I would just sing it for fun and stumble my way through the French words. When I finally decided to do the record, I though that here is something that I should learn properly and make it part of it.
“Then you have a turn like ‘Rhode Island is Famous for You’, which I started singing five years ago. It was just something live, for fun, and the response was so great that it was almost the impetus of the record. People keep asking for the song so maybe I should do a whole record of these.”
‘The Great American Songbook’ is a term that has become somehow fashionable in recent years. Everyone has had a shot at it."
For McKeown, Sing You Sinners is as close as she can conceive to ‘The Alternative American Songbook’.
“For some reason or another, there are 40 or so songs which have been recorded over and over again. There are so many other songs which were recorded at the same time which were just as interesting, just as vibrant, just as well written and were just as vital as ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Beholden’, which is a fantastic song, but we have all heard it.
“My own taste flows towards the more obscure things anyway so I was fortunate enough to have a deep knowledge of this music. It also leaves me in a better position to make a mark on these songs for people who haven’t heard of them already. You’re not thinking of how Ella Fitzgerald sang it or how Miles Davis interpreted it.”
Despite its success, this kind of album is not likely to become the norm for McKeown.
“It is a one-time gig for me. People have been asking is there another one coming up next and what’s next is already done. It is a group of original songs and I will probably be recording them this summer. They are mostly done and I will be playing some of them on this tour.
“They are, I think, more intimate and smaller than some of the pop songs I have written over the last couple of year. I learned a lot on this album about working quickly and not over-thinking things in the studio.
“I have been coming to Ireland at least once a year for the last seven or eight years. I first came over with a friend of mine and we just travelled around and played gigs in pubs an things like that. I have been coming over and releasing records for the last five years.
“I can’t claim any kind of affinity with Ireland, other than I like being there and there’s something about my music that people really dig. It’s a cool feeling.”