Nov 142018

In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.

erin mckeown cover songs

After almost two decades of critically acclaimed albums, singer-songwriter-guitarist Erin McKeown just added another hyphenate to her resumé: “theatrical composer.” She wrote music and lyrics for the new Public Theater musical Miss You Like Hell in New York. Variety wrote after seeing the show, “Erin McKeown makes an impressive stage debut with music that is eclectic and appealing.” Here’s a taste, two-time Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega singing McKeown’s new song “Mothers”:

Though other people are singing her own songs right now, McKeown has been doing the reverse for years. Just last fall, she recorded an amazing “Jenny” cover for the I Only Listen the Mountain Goats podcast, and her 2006 standards album Sing You Sinners remains one of the best examples of the form. So in honor of the new musical – the cast album comes out this Friday – we asked her to tell us about her own favorite cover songs.

She’s a deep student of music, and her expertise shows; we’ve done a bunch of these now, and I don’t think anyone has picked any of these songs before. Read on for Erin’s picks.

The Bad Plus – Heart of Glass (Blondie cover)

Erin says: “When we’re thinking about ‘cover songs,’ jazz or instrumental music sometimes gets left out. But the idea of ‘covering’ a song was the engine for developing what we think of as jazz today: take a ‘standard’ and then take it apart, recontextualize it, reharmonize it. How far can you take that song until it becomes a new song? To be honest, I didn’t know that ‘Heart of Glass’ was a cover when I first heard it. I love The Bad Plus for the amazing amount of textures and feels that they can make with just three instruments. And for their insouciance! It was about three minutes in when the groove coalesces again that I realized what the song was. I recently saw Blondie perform the song live, and I still prefer The Bad Plus version – the mark of an extraordinary cover.”

Lucinda Williams – God Don’t Never Change (Blind Willie Johnson cover)

Erin says: “It’s been such a joy to listen to Lucinda Williams grow older – both in her songwriting and her voice. I am along for the ride! I can’t remember how I stumbled onto this song, in this version, but I was shocked that along my musical way I had never encountered it before. Lots of folks have sung it for a very long time, but there’s something about the way Lucinda sings it, at this point in the life of her voice, that gives the song sense for me. I think it’s really hard to sing the same lines over and over again and keep it interesting, but if you know how to do it, it’s transcendent. Like prayer.”

Courtney Barnett – Everything is Free (Gillian Welch cover)

Erin says: “When I first heard ‘Everything is Free’ in its original version, I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t grasp its mix of sarcasm and truth. Is it good or bad that everything is free now? It took me years of listening to it to finally understand. And honestly I think the collapse of my own personal economy from streaming helped me to understand the core pain of the song: No matter the futility of trying to make a sustainable job out of music, I’m gonna do it anyway. Sometimes I think the answer to people not valuing music is a kind of ‘musicians’ strike.’ Let’s just withhold this precious gift! And then I remember this song and realize its never going to happen. We’re stuck.”

Los Lobos – I Will Go Sailing No More (Randy Newman / Toy Story cover)

Erin says: “I’m never into covers that are made to be showy tourism – look at this white, acoustic artist play a hip-hop song on the guitar! How unusual! For me, the best covers stretch the skills of an artist and help me hear the song in a new way. There doesn’t have to be some trick element to the match. I am a huge Los Lobos fan – for their mixing of genres and languages, for their rhythmic motor. It actually makes perfect sense to me that they’d do a whole album of covers from Disney movies. Both Disney and Los Lobos are all about storytelling! I adore Randy Newman’s writing, and in this case I think his song helps deepen my understanding of Los Lobos.”

Shoshana Bean & Cynthia Erivo – I Did Something Bad (Taylor Swift cover)

Erin says: “This cover just delights me to no end. I’ve never encountered artists who are more precise and consistent musicians as musical theater performers. Maybe this makes me basic, but I also think Taylor Swift is a fantastic songwriter, and I love her albums. To hear her emotionally exacting songs performed with the clarity and precision that Shoshana and Cynthia possess slays me. Watch them go from emotional point to emotional point, working together to project fierce pleasure and self-assurance.”

Buy the Erin McKeown-penned ‘Miss You Like Hell’ cast album, on Ghostlight Records, here.

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