Erin McKeown is open for business. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the musician points to boxes of newly arrived vinyl stacked on the floor of the unassuming workspace in her rural cottage.
“For the last three weeks, this house has basically been a warehouse. You couldn’t walk in this room. That room was filled with packages,” she says of the living room, crowned by a view of a shallow river curling around the house. Through another window is a view of the snow-covered foundation of a small cotton mill that once stood on the site, here in a tiny town about 20 miles outside Northampton.
As if remembering accidentally, she pauses to cite another statistic amid the signs of industry: “I made my last five albums in this room.”
The balance between business and artistry is front and center for McKeown, who self-released her newest record this week after a decade spent skipping among record labels (most recently, Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records) in service of a string of albums that evolved from intimate coffeehouse folk to embrace a range of influences from pop, rock, and Broadway. The new work also reflects her emergence as an outspoken activist on issues related to Internet access and the 21st-century music business.
And so the new “MANIFESTRA” is a declaration of independence — both financially and artistically. The title is a neologism, meant as a feminization of “manifesto,” with a nod to the Latin word for window, fenestra.
“I think with the collapse of the music business and the fact that I’ve just been inching along for 10-plus years, it occurred to me that I’m never going to be Rihanna,” she says, “so what am I waiting for? Or, what am I afraid of? I don’t know what I would have to do or have to be to achieve wider acclaim, so I’m just going to say whatever I want to say.”
She kicks off the tour in support of the album with a trio show on Thursday at Brighton Music Hall.
Musically, the record is not a radical departure from 2009’s “Hundreds of Lions,” which also made use of vintage-sounding synths, horns, and the occasional woodwind to frame McKeown’s guitar and conversational vocals. But it has more political awareness than she’s shown before.
“The Politician” riffs on the familiar ritual of public figures turning to God once they’re caught in scandal, and “The Jailer” uses the border fence between the United States and Mexico as a jumping-off point to ask about “what it does to the person who builds the wall,” she explains. But she’s not auditioning for the role of Woody Guthrie.
“None of that is deep policy work or stuff you put on the placard you hold at the protest, but it describes the kind of worldview that would lead you to go march about something,” she says.
She candidly acknowledges the financial risk posed by her indie move. A successful PledgeMusic campaign raised about half of the new album’s expenses, she reveals, but “basically everything else is on credit cards. That’s the worst kind of debt imaginable.”
McKeown has developed a knack for using her career choices as teachable moments. A series of live webcasts from her home in 2009 raised money for an album but also spoke to the importance of extending high-speed Internet access to rural areas. A concert webcast last year raised awareness around Net neutrality. Even in the premiums offered to her PledgeMusic supporters, she included a barb at the minuscule compensation offered by music streaming services, promising to turn over a royalty check from Spotify for a pledge of $11.
“She’s really one of the lead artists who are able to navigate this digital music economy and also be able to have the perspective to understand and reflect on it and talk about what that means,” remarks Michael Bracy, cofounder of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Future of Music Coalition, on whose board McKeown now sits. “She is incredibly in-demand for conferences and panels and speeches and all this stuff, because she really gets it.”
As a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society last year, McKeown sat on panels addressing correlations between the local food movement and the music business, and best practices for independent musicians. She’s spoken at conferences at MIT, Georgetown University, and the University of California at Berkeley.
Her creative efforts to engage her fans easily transcend shallow marketing overtures — other pledge premiums included a two-hour consultation on the winner’s fantasy football team, and a Wiffle ball game. On Twitter, she’ll discuss the latest Red Sox trade or admit she’s hurriedly doing dishes before a visit from a reporter.
Yet, it was only when she gave up on record labels, she says, that she felt free to become completely unfiltered.
“I think that I have, for a number of years, maybe muted other parts of myself, in an effort to work with another company, for example, or try to find a wider audience. Honestly, it just wasn’t happening — so why not just do what I do?”
And why not issue a manifestra?