Someone offered Erin McKeown enough money to record an album. Now she pays forward.
Erin McKeown wasn’t sure if she would make another album – too expensive, she said, with little chance of breaking even. Then, last spring, she received an unexpected check in the mail, a gift from a friend that was enough to fund the recording of “Kiss Off Kiss,” McKeown’s 11th studio album.
“I had the dumbest thought when it happened, which was that I should make a record with this money,” said McKeown, who performs at Club Passim in Cambridge on Saturday. (She prefers not to specify the amount of the check, but notes that it was within the annual IRS donation limit.)
After considering other options for a few months, the western Massachusetts singer-songwriter asked Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin to start a band and produce an album for her. At Thanksgiving, McKeown was in Portland, Oregon, recording 13 songs inspired by a brief relationship from his past. The album with which she emerged is a rock collection full of hooks, with lyrics that are alternately barbed and ironic.
The track list includes “On / Off Heart,” which McKeown co-wrote with Lori McKenna. McKeown has known the sought-after Stoughton singer and songwriter from Nashville for over 20 years. Their collaboration was part of an idea McKeown had to co-write songs using a single phrase as a starting point. The project fizzled out at the start of the pandemic, but the song with McKenna matched the theme of “Kiss Off Kiss” and contrasted their distinctive styles.
“She’s so forward thinking and she keeps them simple,” says McKeown. “I also write very simple songs, but our language is different. I come from a jazz and blues background, and she comes from a country-folk background.
In the spirit of the bonanza that paid off for “Kiss Off Kiss,” McKeown is letting listeners pay what they can on his website for the digital version of the album. She also comes up with a barter plan, an idea she discussed with a friend: send her something in the mail and McKeown will exchange for a digital copy of the album. “Our typical thought of what someone might send was cheese,” she says.
McKeown plans to redirect all digital sales money to $ 500 micro-grants for “deserving individuals who add value to their communities through service.” There is an email address for nominations on the McKeown website, www.erinmckeown.com/kiss-off-kiss.
“Hopefully we can raise enough money to make four or five, and people can use them however they want,” McKeown says.
Recording “Kiss Off Kiss” was just one of McKeown’s activities during the pandemic. She also taught an online course as a “professor of practice” at Brown University, her alma mater; worked as a census taker until a dog bit her; and toured in August as a guitarist in indie rock band The Mountain Goats. She and Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle bonded years ago through mutual friends, and asking her to perform on tour seemed like a natural solution.
“She’s really smart,” says Darnielle. “Smart” might be a derogatory sounding term, but it does some really smart things – great phrases that stick to your skin. And she has great hooks and a lovely smoky voice.
Whether McKeown will make other albums remains an open question for now, given the financial instability of a musical career, but she has plenty of other ideas. She envisions a “musical memory” and plans to write a second musical to follow up “Miss You Like Hell”, her 2016 project with playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes.
“Make no mistake, I love this album,” McKeown says. “And I love doing little rock songs.”
Follow Eric R. Danton on Twitter @erdanton
At Club Passim, 47 Palmer St., Cambridge. October 9 at 6 p.m. Tickets $ 25. 617-492-7679, www.passim.org