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Erin McKeown (Courtesy of the artist)

Song Premiere: Erin McKeown, 'The Jailer'

Nov 19, 2012

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Bob Boilen

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Erin McKeown's music is a bit hard to describe. It is music and lyrics with meaning so it makes me think, but it's also playful and so it makes me smile. I'll have another chance to hear it soon, since Erin has made a new record, called MANIFESTRA. The album, her seventh, was funded by her fan base via PledgeMusic and will be out on January 15. Today we premiere her song, "Jailer."

It's no secret that Erin McKeown's politics fall far left of center, but I think that they are what makes the songwriting so challenging and Erin so successful. Writing about politics without being didactic, without being strident, is tough.

Erin McKeown tells us about the inspiration for the song, which looks at immigration:

"Last year, I took a trip to Nogales, Arizona to see the wall being built between the U.S. and Mexico. I was struck by how it appeared to be a violent spine rising out of the beautiful desert. While standing next to it, I asked our guide, a local charter school teacher, why the wall was made of long columns of steel set close to each other, not a solid surface like other borders I'd seen. "They built it so the water could get through," he said. This got me thinking about the toll a wall takes on the hearts of those it divides and on the soul of the builder of the wall."

MANIFESTRA also includes a songwriting collaboration with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on album closer "Baghdad To The Bayou." She wrote to tell us how the collaboration happened:

"The first time I interviewed Erin McKeown, I botched it — I kept jumping in to finish her sentences, and to quote her own lyrics back to her (as if she didn't know them already). Erin played a song in studio that day, and at one point she stopped short in the middle of a line, and I took it upon myself to scream the rest of it out loud from across the room. This does not constitute a good interview technique! But it did start a very fun friendship. And when Erin asked if I might want to collaborate on a new song for a Gulf Coast wildlife benefit we were both doing, I said yes — provided we could keep my weapons-grade singing voice out of the mix. We started texting back and forth about it, and I realized that the experience I had in Louisiana covering the Deepwater Horizon disaster might reasonably become some lyrics. I texted her the prose, she texted back the poetry, and a song was born. A great Erin McKeown song that rather inexplicably has a little idea of mine in it. I've never had an experience like it — I feel like I won the music fan lottery.

Erin McKeown's album, MANIFESTRA, comes out January 15.

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