Erin McKeown (Photo: Shervin Lainez)

The “Women’s Voices” concert series returns to the Jamestown Arts Center with singer-songwriter Erin McKeown taking the stage on Saturday, November 19. (Thanks to Newport Live, we’ve got two pairs of tickets to give away to the show. To enter, e-mail Ken Abrams at mrabrams11@gmail.com by 5PM Wednesday November 16. Please put “Erin McKeown tickets” in subject line.)

McKeown is a singer-songwriter who has certainly paid her dues. They grew up in a small town in Virginia and started playing guitar in high school. “I learned to play guitar at biology summer camp and got really excited about writing songs and performing,” said McKeown in a recent phone interview. Later, they enrolled at Brown University and became a resident artist at AS220 in Providence.

“I found myself in the northeast for college, part of the late 90s coffeehouse singer-songwriter culture, and basically have been doing that for 25 years,” explained McKeown. “I was busy touring and making albums; I play a lot of instruments, I’ve written a lot of different types of music and toured all over the world in any configuration you can imagine.”

McKeown brings strong musical credentials to town, having shared the stage with musicians including Anais Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, Jason Isbell, Lake Street Dive, and Joan Baez among others. Over a 25-year career, they’ve played well-known music festivals including Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, and Newport Folk.

Lately, McKeown has shifted their career direction somewhat and is mainly composing music for theater. “Now what I do is basically write bigger and longer things than albums, theater projects, or semi-staged longer compositional projects. It really made a lot of sense for me to make that transition and the pandemic accelerated it.”

McKeowns’ career shift began about a decade ago. “About ten years ago I was asked to join in on a musical project with a really awesome playwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes. The musical took a long time to make, seven or eight years,” they said. That project Miss You Like Hell is currently being performed across the country. “This month there are four different productions happening,” McKeown added.

McKeown offered some insight into their songwriting process. I asked how composing for a theatrical production was different from the traditional singer-songwriter approach to writing.

“I think it has more to do with a narrative point of view and a kind of specificity,” McKeown observed. “I’m in a weekly songwriting group with a bunch of other singer-songwriters, I’ve been in it for years and years, we have a prompt once a week. It’s good for everybody’s creative practice. It’s firmly in the singer-songwriter world, so the narrative viewpoint is sort of omniscient observation on life in general.”

Writing for theater is different. McKeown says there’s a lot more to consider when say, writing a song about a tree. “When I’m writing a song for a show, I need to know everything about where that tree has been, what that tree wants out of its tree life, how it relates to the other trees … I need as much information about that particular tree and that particular situation as possible. General observations don’t make a good theatrical song.”

“My singer-songwriter career was somewhat solitary, it didn’t have to be, but that’s the way it ended up. I was very rarely writing for a band, I was mostly writing for myself to play all the instruments when it came time to record it. Theater is more inherently collaborative, it takes a lot more people to get a room going,” added McKeown. “I used to joke that all it takes to be a singer-songwriter was a guitar and a  restaurant to stand in the corner. To get even the most simple theater project going you need an actual room, and at least two people.”

McKeown doesn’t tour as much these days, and it is thankful for every live show.

“What’s really nice for me right now is that after years of playing 100 shows or more, I play once a month if that. This fall feels busy to me because I have like three gigs,” joked McKeown. “That’s on purpose because it’s allowed me to be really excited and really joyful about playing my own shows. It feels great for me, it doesn’t feel like work, it doesn’t feel like a burden. It’s been joyful for me, to put my performing and my songs in that context. We can all make a little magic together.”

Click here for more information and tickets to the show.

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music, the arts and more for What'sUpNewp. He is also a contributor to Providence Monthly, SO RI, Hey Rhody and The Bay magazines. Ken DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse,"...