Erin McKeown loves the juxtaposition of sinners and gospel exhortation. The prolific 28-year-old Massachusetts-based singer and guitarist, whose songs often touch on both themes, also has a deep appreciation for Judy Garland, which is why it’s not so surprising that she starts off her new album with the urgent and preachy “Get Happy.” The inspiration behind that cover—the original was made famous by Garland in the movie Summer Stock—isn’t so obvious, however: McKeown was watching a DVD outtake in which the usually polished Garland falters mid-note and the song falls apart, just before the star pulls herself together and gains control of the melody again.
“The outtake was Judy Garland fucking up,” says McKeown, “and you never see her fuck up. In her personal life, yes, all the time, and I think that’s dominated her legend. But it was nice as a working musician to see how she made a mistake musically and how she corrected it. That really connects with me.”
McKeown has recorded in genres ranging from orchestrated pop to folk to electronica, and a few albums back released Grand, which paid homage to Garland. With her latest, Sing You Sinners, McKeown tried to forge a collection of jazz standards that encompass cheeky suggestion, divine celebration and heartbreak without being overbearing on any one aspect. Rather than just a tribute to or an emulation of these standards, the collection is more about McKeown’s personal philosophy and preference.
“I think that I’m certainly drawn to things that are sly and mischievous, and that’s my own taste in art and my own personality,” she says.
There may be only one original tune on the album, but McKeown has taken the standards and given them her own spit and polish. Her rendering of Fats Waller’s playful tune about smoking reefer, “If You a Viper,” is centered on her banjo in contrast to Waller’s barroom piano version. The more familiar “Paper Moon,” first made popular by Ella Fitzgerald, is propelled by McKeown into a sweet calypso number just as subtle as the original, but with a more festive tone beneath the provocative whisper.
“I’m totally enthusiastic, but I’ve never been a cheerleader,” McKeown explains. “And to extend that high school metaphor, I think I’ve always been the one that got good grades but was high out of her mind. I sort of enjoy that duplicity of being able to carry through something classic but in a troublesome way.”
McKeown’s lone original on the album, “Melody,” is a window into how well she executes that approach with her own material. First, the song has a sultry ragtime flavor perfectly in place alongside the antique standards. And with the coy line, “Oh, melody! Come on and sit upon my knee, I promise not to be naughty. Can I have a little melody?” it’s clear that McKeown appreciates the age-old practice of double entendre. Though “Melody” is mostly about McKeown’s love for musical arrangement, the playful innuendo that nudges the listener is not unlike that found in many ’30s and ’40s tunes that rode the fine line between innocent fun and bald suggestiveness.
“That line always makes me think of that uncle at the Christmas party, you know what I mean? You would go sit on his lap and it would be a little weird but he wouldn’t do anything,” McKeown laughs. “I don’t think it would be as good a song if I went ahead and said all the things that could happen.”
McKeown is currently touring with the same basic lineup of musicians with whom she recorded the album, including Allison Miller on drums and pianist/organist Sam Kassirer. Though this isn’t her largest tour, she calls it her most ambitious because the album’s songs require a heightened level of musicianship and crafty creativity to reinvent live.
“These aren’t intellectual, orchestrated pop songs,” she says. “They’re kind of raw, funny and strange old tunes.”
Sing You Sinners was recorded in four days, which McKeown says helped give the album the energy it needed to come alive.
“And sometimes it did fall apart when the tape was rolling,” she says. “You know it happens all the time when we play live, and I love that about it. To me that’s just more interesting. I fuck up chords all the time, I don’t have the most outstanding voice in the world, but I think audiences appreciate that sense of vulnerability and that mystery of what could happen at any moment.”
Erin McKeown plays the University Theatre Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 8 PM. Amy Martin opens. $15/$13 in advance/$2 off for Missoula Folklore Society members.