Everyday Alchemy: Celebrating Erin McKeown’s Distillation at 10 Years
Everyday Alchemy: Celebrating Distillation at 10 Years:
Tara Murtha writes about Erin McKeown’s up coming tour celebrating where it all started.
I never understood the idea that hindsight is 20/20. Time collapses even years lived fully into a headful of scattershot snapshots that say more about how we felt than what really happened.
Nostalgia sweet, hindsight so dear. Objects now are smaller than they appeared.
So I’m glad I got to know Erin McKeown’s catalogue backwards. Searching for new music online one day, I stumbled across “28”, an as-yet-unreleased track that later graced Hundreds of Lions, on Daytrotter.com. I listened to it over and over, enthralled with the way the electric guitar knit its own metallic atmosphere then opened just enough for McKeown’s voice to slice in sideways, sharp then soft.
Always eager to spread the love, I earnestly advised my music lover boyfriend he should really check out Erin McKeown. He laughed, dashed from the room, and returned with Distillation on white vinyl from 2000.
So I listened to a decade in reverse, Hundreds of Lions first and Distillation last. I’m grateful, because I can hear Distillation in a way I can’t hear say, Ani DiFranco’s Dilate or Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville anymore. Listening to it doesn’t feel like a heartache punched into my chest ten years ago; it doesn’t remind me of myself as someone else, a young girl bursting with courage and drunk on drama.
To me, Distillation just sounds what it is: Erin McKeown coming out her little corner of the world swinging.
Sonically, the album is beautiful. Recorded in a farmhouse studio on weekends while Erin was still in college, the woodsy warmth radiates through the songs. Close your eyes and listen, and after just the first plucked notes of “Queen of Quiet”, you’re not in the year 2000 or the year 2010 but in that cozy cabin, Erin standing there with her trusty green Gretch. Then you hear the first words Erin chose to introduce herself as an artist here and abroad:
“I’m the kind of lover who won’t blow your cover, what kind of lover am I?”
Talk about an aural fixation. Suddenly, people from all over the world were turned on to Ms. McKeown’s music via the little record that could, and Erin got to fly all over the world singing it for them.
In trying to answer the cheeky trick question, fans found different answers, of course. The genre police struggled to categorize a woman who writes slick loops of literate lyrics and can also wail on an electric guitar like a … musician.
The flutters of old-time swing and jazz that pop and sway through the songs—some written in high school, for chrissakes–really had ‘em gob-smacked.
So some said quirky, or eccentric. Or as one fan put it, “Emerson on Benzedrine.”
True, Distillation bubbles with vim and vigor. After “Queen of Quiet” dies down, “Blackbirds” raunchily rattles alive with that now-signature bluesy riff and only gathers more momentum from there.
Ever restless, Erin has of course reinterpreted “Blackbirds” over the years, even morphing it into what she jokingly refers to as her “Allman Brothers-style jam encore,” letting it all hang out, scissoring way wide open then closed over and over as the crowd claps along.
It’s fun to go back to Distillation and listen to the original “Blackbirds”, tight chords corseting the song into such pretty disciplined shapes, the woodsy warmth still rising through. “La Petit Mort” and “Fast As I Can” are still fan favorites and typically get to come out and play at concerts.
So what I’m most excited to see Erin play at the Distillation anniversary shows are some gems that have organically slipped off set lists now crowded with favorites from six albums–like the elegant, elegiac “How to Open My Heart in 4 Easy Steps”, a hymn to heartache that makes my throat physically tighten and feel like it’s bursting with birds.
Erin has said that Distillation was originally going to be called “Mistakes I’ve Made in My Sensitive Years”, and that she wrote and recorded Distillation back when she didn’t know how to make a professional record. If only all of our mistakes bloomed into something so gorgeous, we wouldn’t need hindsight at all, would we?
Of course, there’s no reason to be down on nostalgia since it can be sweet, distortions and distillations and all. Here’s to trying for 20/20 in 2020, to slipping on Hundreds of Lions or Distillation or any record of our lives in between, and listening.
Tara Murtha is a writer living in Philadelphia
Erin Performing live at Jamm’n Java
8 North Carolina Stage Company Asheville, NC
24 Passim Center Cambridge, MA
8 One Longfellow Square Portland, ME
9 Iron Horse Northampton, MA
17 Highline Ballroom New York, NY
20 Lincoln Hall Chicago, IL
22 Rex Theatre Pittsburgh, PA
23 IOTA Arlington, VA
24 World Café Live Philadelphia, PA
Click Here to View Up To Date Tour Schedule. West coast dates will be added soon!