Susan McKeown

Susan McKeown has just released a tantalizing new CD, Belong. It blends folk, acoustic blues, country kickin’ beats and slippery jazz to make a perfect blend for your lazy Sunday morning.

“Keep your wits about you somehow/it’s gonna be a cold winter/you’ll find your place to belong,” warns McKeown as the fiddles and acoustic guitars provide warmth to the track. Tracks like “Our Texas” and “On the Bridge to Williamsburg” are traveling songs that reveal the restless spirit of a fiercely talented storyteller.

Like so many artists nowadays, McKeown produced the album through funding through PledgeMusic, which allows artists to reach fans for their support.

“Once you’ve achieved the target, the pressure is off and you feel that validation,” McKeown says during a recent chat.  “I thought it was important for me to send some videos and blogs along the way during this recording process to give people a sense of what was going on in the studio. That worked well, because fans posted that on their Facebook pages and it built interest in Belong.”

Opening with “On the Bridge to Williamsburg,” a duet with Irish singer-songwriter Declan O'Rourke, Belong is a showcase not only for McKeown’s pristine vocals, but for other musicians at the top of their game.  James Maddock (from Wood) and banjo and accordion player Dirk Powell (Irma Thomas, The Raconteurs, Joan Baez) join McKeown for “Everything We Had Was Good,” a break-up song about ending well.  Erin McKeown guests on “Fallen Angel.”

I spoke with McKeown about making her new CD. Here’s how it went.

How was the experience of doing a pledge drive for album funding?

It went well, I met my goal. It was the second time I did this thing -- the first time I did it was with Kickstarter. It has its pros and cons. It’s great that it gives you recognition as an artist. It has changed the way you get compensated as an artist. My albums usually take $20,000 to make and some people spend more than that.

Most of the people that funded me knew me anyway. I was able to reach out to people in my mailing list and Facebook pages. Some people go directly to the website. If people love you and follow you, they will follow you through whatever channel you raise funds on.

In some of the lower amounts, you are simply asking them to buy it in advance.

Is there pressure to deliver when you know people have already paid for the album in advance?

Quite the opposite. It gives you confidence and liberty to pursue this project in accordance with your vision. It’s a vote of confidence, and not pressure. You feel the unconditional love and support.

How would you describe your sound and the music of Belong to someone who has never heard your music?

Trying to describe your music is difficult, so you have to refer to people they know. I embrace a wide array of music. Joni Mitchell meets Emmylou. In other albums, I would say Joni Mitchell meets Luka Bloom.

I also draw on traditional music, not just traditional Irish but also African and Mexican Mariachi.
So, how did a nice girl from Ireland get mixed up in all this American roots music?

After I finished my album Prophecy in 2003, the Brooklyn Academy of Music asked me to work with a genre, so Jack Ward, a wonderful banjo player, brought me these wonderful bluegrass CDs. I love watching the changes between culture and generations -- how did the Irish music make its way over to the States, and then how did it change once it came on these shores?

How does being from Ireland influence your music?

There has always been a great sense of longing as I look to Ireland, and it permeates my work because I’ve been pining for the land I left behind in the past.

Now I think embracing this American music is reflective of the fact that I found a great life for myself here in the East Village of Manhattan. People are so supportive of what I do and there’s this great community of fans and musicians around me now.

I loved “Lullaby of Manhattan.” How did that come about?

“Lullaby of Manhattan” goes back to the blackout of 2003. I was asked to lend my voice in the Irish section of the New York Tenement Museum. It made me think of the ghosts of an apartment and the years going by, and how the walls hold onto those experiences of the people that dwelled there. Life is messy, and that is reflective in the lyrics as well.

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