- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

Songs can come from the most unusual places. Stray conversations with strangers. Dreams. The New Yorker magazine.

Erin McKeown, a young singer-songwriter who plays Arlington’s Iota Club and Cafe tonight, was flipping through the estimable glossy a couple years ago and happened on a short story by playwright Arthur Miller, “The Performance,” about a Jewish-American tap dancer who performed once for Adolf Hitler in early-‘30s Berlin.

Miss McKeown assumed Mr. Miller had adapted the story from a real source. It was written almost journalistically, without literary artifice. “I totally thought it had really happened,” she says in a phone interview from her home in western Massachusetts.

“The outrageousness of it and the absurdity never made a dent on me,” she adds. “That, to me, was so much fun. I just loved being fooled like that.

“Maybe I’m sort of a naive art watcher, but I think it’s a nice variation on being entertained,” says the 26-year-old Fredericksburg native and graduate of James Monroe High School. Miss McKeown converted that sense of entertainment into “An Innocent Fiction” for her third album, “Grand,” a quirky cycle of folk-rock songs with touches of jazz, new wave pop and, she’s proud to note, electronica.

“I understand that my music is often seen as traditional or old-sounding in a way,” Miss McKeown says, “but I’ve never thought of it in that way. It’s just what I do.”

Don’t be surprised if she tackles hip-hop or R&B; in the near future. “I try to make things that sound like fun to me,” she says. “I think that would be a direction I’d be heading in for my next project.”

Eclecticism comes naturally not only to her, she says, but to us listeners, as well. “It just comes from an enthusiasm for a lot of music,” she says. “Most people vary their CD shelves; they have a lot of different music from a lot of different times.”

Of course, eclecticism comes with a price: the lack of a marketing hook for major labels.

Miss McKeown overcame that hurdle by starting her own label, TVP Records, on which she released her debut “Monday Morning Cold” in 1999 and, the following year, “Distillation” (later released on Signature Records).

“Grand,” meanwhile,” was picked up by the independent Nettwerk Records, the label that discovered Sarah McLachlan.

Miss McKeown didn’t start taking music seriously as a vocation until she left Fredericksburg for Brown University; here in the Washington area, she was a typically high-achieving young girl, with a variety of artistic interests: painting and drama as well as music.

“When I started playing guitar, music became more of an interest,” she says. The guitar, preceded by the piano, followed by the banjo: “I play a bunch of instruments,” Miss McKeown says, though not boastfully.

She’s quick to add that, at Iota tonight, her last gig with accompaniment for the balance of the year, she’ll be bringing along two ace band mates, a guitarist and upright bassist.

“I’m not one to toot my own horn,” she says. “They will blow your mind.”

WHAT: Erin McKeown, with Stephen Kellogg

WHERE: Iota Club and Cafe, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington

WHEN: 9:30 tonight

TICKETS: $12

PHONE: 703/522-8340


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