When working on her new album Manifestra, Erin McKeown had a "really fucking awesome" experience — getting to write "Baghdad to the Bayou," with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
The background? McKeown and Get Down Stay Down frontwoman Thao Nguyen were on tour together when they ran into This American Life host Ira Glass and his partner in a diner in Anchorage, Alaska. ("Totally crazy," she says.) The four had breakfast, and McKeown says she and Glass stayed in touch.
Later, as Glass was working on a post-Deepwater Horizon oil spill benefit for the World Wildlife Foundation, he thought of the 35-year-old singer-songwriter as the perfect person to match up with someone else he'd already roped into the project — Maddow.
The two women were longtime friends, having met during Maddow's days as a local radio DJ in McKeown's western Massachusetts hometown, so agreeing to write a song together for it was easy.
Actually composing it was less easy.
"The only way we could do it was by text," McKeown says. "We couldn't get on the phone, and e-mail was too hard 'cause she was traveling a bunch and so we texted back and forth. ... I love limitations in writing songs. The fewer tools I have, the better."
McKeown would text Maddow, ask where she was that day, what were some of the images she was seeing. "I basically took her travels, and they formed this sort of road map for that song. And then it [became] a kind of kitchen sink of here's this happening and this happening, all over the world, and what unites all of it ... is this collective desire for truth."
Which, McKeown says is the same thing Maddow does on her show.
"She really just wants people to tell the truth and she has different ways of getting people to tell the truth. Sometimes with humor, sometimes with just outstanding academic rhetoric. But she's after that type of transparency and truth — it's like, if you're evil, just say you're evil," she says, laughing.
"Baghdad to the Bayou" isn't the only song on Manifestra, her seventh studio album, that McKeown uses to get people to push boundaries. "Histories" starts off talking about family, and how we're each raised a certain way, with certain values. As we age, we start to question that background and consider new ways of doing things.
"In my cells I carry how they raised me," McKeown sings, "but every day I have to choose to do something different."
That song, she explains, ultimately asks how do we create community and how do we make change on a larger level.
McKeown admits fully to using the soapbox she has to address issues she's passionate about. And she recognizes a certain power in the format that comes easy to her.
"[Music] lives in a space that kind of defies precise articulation, that is still very real and very visceral. And in some ways you might not be able to describe what a great song makes you feel like or makes you want to do, but it's doing something.
"Applying music ... to political process, is a really useful tool when it's done well because it isn't gonna bang you over the head with something. And it's not gonna clearly tell you one way or the other how to think. It's gonna appeal on a more subtle, cellular level."