Erin McKeown Erin McKeown takes a break from songwriting to reinterprets American standards on Sing You Sinners. The 29-year-old artist reflects on the inspiration for the new melodies and mood used to remake some American favorites.

Erin McKeown

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Singer Erin McKeown is 29 years old. She studied ethno-musicology at Brown University, lives in rural western Massachusetts. She usually records her own songs - a blend of rock, pop, folk. On her latest album, she's done something out of character - she's turned to standards and to swing.

I asked her how she came to record the song, "Paper Moon."

Ms. ERIN McKEOWN (Singer): We were on tour together, and we're in the back of a van, driving on a back road in Santa Cruz on a way to a gig. And a friend and I were passing a ukulele back and forth and just playing songs for each other to pass the time.

And he played me "Paper Moon." And I, for whatever reason, had never run across that song. And to run across the song as common and popular as that in such an organic way to me is really astounding, actually. But, I thought something about the lyrics of that song have made a lot of sense to me like, please, do not wake me from this dream - like, please, don't tell me that what I'm staring at is just a facade or a "Paper Moon."

(Soundbite of song, "Paper Moon")

Ms. McKEOWN: (Singing) It is only a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea. But it wouldn't be make-believe if you believed in me.

We did about six different versions of it, and that's - I think that's one of the great things about these tunes is that they lend themselves so well to that kind of thing. But we did a version that was, you know, a pretty straightforward swing version. We did a version that I called the game show version. It was like (Singing) da, na, na, na, na. Da, da, da…

You know, and then we did a bluegrass version and we did a waltz. And we basically like, you know, beat up that song till it was not recognizable. And we had all these versions, and it still wasn't interesting enough. And the drummer on the record, Allison Miller, just started playing this calypso beat. And we ended up with this - what I think is a really unique version of it that I wouldn't have expected - certainly not, all the way back the first time I heard that song on a ukulele in the back of a van.

(Soundbite of song, "Paper Moon")

Ms. McKEOWN: (Singing) Without your love, it's a honky-tonk parade. Without your kiss, it's a melody played in a penny arcade. It's a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phony as it might be. But it wouldn't be make believe if you believed in me. But it wouldn't be make believe if you believed in me. But it wouldn't be make believe if you believed in me.

BLOCK: There is one song on the CD that you wrote yourself, and that's the song, "Melody".

(Soundbite of song, "Melody")

Ms. McKEOWN: (Singing) Oh, Melody! Why won't you come and visit me? What a pleasure it would be to have a little melody.

BLOCK: When I took you to the band to record, I remembered telling them I want you to think of a saloon. I want you think sarsaparilla. And then I want you to think of a whole bunch of dishes and utensils falling down a set of steps, musically.

BLOCK: And they looked at you and said…

Ms. McKEOWN: They were like, right on. We get it.

(Soundbite of song, "Melody")

Ms. McKEOWN: (Singing) Oh, please don't make me beg and plead. Don't you know how flat my songs would be without a melody. Why won't you get next to me? Oh, what a comfort you would be. I just need a little melody. Oh, melody. I'm not asking for a symphony. Oh, pretty girl pretty please - can I have a little…

I was thinking about how could I say something a little naughty? How could I say something a little forward without being blatant about it, which is really fun as a songwriter to try to add that layer of mystery to it. I mean, it's pretty clear what the song is about. But how to say that in a not-quite-blatant way was really fun, and I think that's what I'm thinking about when I was writing the lyrics. And I think that's something that is really great about all these old songs, is that they often do that. I miss that in contemporary music, sometimes.

BLOCK: You do a Cole Porter song, just one of those things that I think of as a pretty, peppy, up-tempo tune, and you turned it into something completely different - a whole different feel.

(Soundbite of song, "Just One of Those Things")

Ms. McKEOWN: (Singing) It was just one of those things, just one of those crazy flings. One of those bells that now and then rings. Just one of those things.

BLOCK: There's no way I would recognize this song from the beginning here.

Ms. McKEOWN: That's fantastic. I'm glad to hear that. One of the brilliant things about Cole Porter for me is that his tunes have this amazing ability to be both incredibly ironic, flippant, and incredibly sad at the same time. And it depends on how you read them. If you think of some of his other tunes, it's the same thing. If you just say these words out loud, you know, without a musical accompaniment to them, there's at least two interpretations of it. There's like, you know, it was just one of those things onto the next lady at the bar.

If you change the context of it, you, all of a sudden, realize it wasn't just one of the things at all. It's really super painful. You're going to have a hard time getting over this. And in this context, that's how I sing it. It's like I'm not trying to convince myself that I can get past this thing and honestly can't.

(Soundbite of song, "Just One of Those Things")

Ms. McKEOWN: (Singing) It was just one of those nights, just one of those fabulous flights - a trip to the moon, gossamer wings. Just one of those things.

BLOCK: You know Erin, so many singers have done standards albums. And I wonder, when you thought about jumping into that pool, did you swallow hard and say, you know, I know this is well-traveled ground, but I'm going to go there anyway?

Ms. McKEOWN: I didn't think about it at all. If I had, I probably wouldn't have done it. I did it because I love this music. I did it because I wanted to make a spontaneous record, and I thought these songs really suited that plan. I think some people make standards records because they don't have enough of their own material. Sometimes I think people do it because they think it lends them some kind of legitimacy or respectability.

And for me, I actually thought after I made this, like this is a side road of irrespectability for me, because I've been so focused for so long on this like, Holy Grail of you've got to write your own songs. You got to create new music all the time. For me to take a side road into something that's older, something that's sillier, would be taking away from this grand purpose of my career. But I actually - I needed that. I needed to get away from the seriousness of what I was writing about.

(Soundbite of song, "Too Lonely")

Ms. McKEOWN: (Singing) You promised me you'd come back. I promised to wait. But I was a little too lonely, and you were a little too late.

BLOCK: Erin McKeown, thanks for coming in.

Ms. McKEOWN: My pleasure. Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Erin McKeown, that's spelled M-C-K-E-O-W-N. Her new CD is called, Sing You Sinners. You can listen to a few songs from it at

(Soundbite of song, "Too Lonely")

Ms. McKEOWN: (Singing) …little too lonely. You were a little too late.

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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