Activist retreats in Louisiana helped Erin McKeown get in touch with her protest self.

Photo of Erin McKeown

This week, Erin McKeown is in the middle of South by Southwest; two weeks ago, she was feeling out of place when her hotel at the end of the night was a resort that she booked cheaply without realizing what it was. "The Stanford men's basketball team is here," she says by phone, amused. She's on tour in support of her recent album, Manifestra, which got attention for "The Jailer," which deals with issues connected to those who enter the U.S. illegally, then for "Baghdad to the Bayou," which she co-wrote with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.

For the Massachusetts-based singer, these songs and Manifestra channel interests that were focused by her participation in the Air Traffic Control/Future of Music Coalition artist activism retreats in New Orleans and Tucson. McKeown doesn't consider herself a protest singer, preferring to couching political commentary in satire such as on her anti-Christmas album, F*ck That! "I think other people write protest songs better than I do, but I had to try," she says.

Part of the challenge was making a connection not just with the spirit of protest but the music of it. When she saw the lyrics to Fela's songs written on the wall of the theater when she saw the Broadway play on the Afrobeat pioneer, she connected his music to protest. She thought about LaBelle's "Who's Watching the Watcher" - "That's my favorite protest song ever. Ever ever ever." - she realized there was a place for her in the tradition.

The retreats helped her get over herself. "I wouldn't have had the courage to give a try to this," McKeown says. "The peer pressure of sitting in a room with people who are more accomplished activists and certainly more active activists than I was when I started going to those retreats - the peer pressure was great for me. The piece of me that thought that I couldn't do a good job, or that I'd be called to the principal's office went away. If Lateef the Truthspeaker can do this, if tUnE-yArDs can do this, if Antibalas can do this, I want to do this."

"Baghdad to the Bayou" is the product of a happenstance encounter with Ira Glass of "This American Life" in a diner in Alaska. He was in the process of organizing a World Wildlife Federation benefit after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and he asked McKeown if she could write a song with Maddow, who she knew. "We really literally wrote it through text messages," McKeown says. "Text is like tiny poems. It's the perfect limitation." 

Their collaboration began with McKeown quizzing Maddow - where are you today? What are you seeing? At the time, Maddow was in regular motion, one day in Louisiana on the Gulf Coast, the next in the Middle East. "It's sort of a meta-song about her travels." Like "Who's Watching the Watchers," the song puts power on notice that we're paying attention:

From Baghdad to the bayou

In the desert or Plaquemines

For every gallon spilled

We want to know where the payoff is

In the strip mines or the Lower Ninth

Fallujah to Lafourche

For every gallon drilled

We're gonna organize for truth

To start the musical conversation, McKeown asked Maddow what she was listening to - songs by Townes Van Zandt, Shelby Lynne, Steve Earle and M. Ward. "Smart, singer/songwriter-oriented roots music, which was the right instincts for the song," McKeown says. "Baghdad to the Bayou" doesn't sound like any of their songs, but Maddow's list identified a sensibility that McKeown could work with. "The music's not much, but it doesn't need to be with a song like that."

Tonight Erin McKeown plays The Palm Door (40 Sabine St. in Austin) as part of SXSW. The organ player in her band is also the organ player for the Boston Red Sox.