Growing up in Virginia, Erin McKeown thought she’d become an ornithologist. Then arriving at Brown University in Providence in the mid-'90s — and finding a home, literally, at nonprofit community arts organization AS220 — she switched her focus to ethnomusicology. Since then, she’s been a “guinea pig” at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, collaborated with a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, played the Newport Folk and Bonnaroo festivals, has had her songs featured on “Gilmore Girls” and “The L Word,” and is now writing her own musical while teaching at an Ivy League school.
“I’ve just been a fly on a wall in some cool places,” says McKeown, 42, after sharing stories about how she ended up in a photo with best-selling writer Roxane Gay and found herself at dinner with the creator of “BoJack Horseman.” “I occupy a really interesting position . . . where I’m not that famous, but successful enough to get into these rooms.”
It’s actually right on brand that she’s got two events happening at once in Providence.
The musical “Miss You Like Hell,” a collaboration between Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegría Hudes (book, lyrics) and McKeown (lyrics, music), is being produced by the Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence through March 29. Meanwhile (switching hats), the percussion-heavy folk-rocker plays a concert at Providence’s Goodwill Engine Company Saturday.
Nominated for five Drama Desk Awards, “Miss You Like Hell” deals with immigration through the story of a mother and daughter attempting to reconcile. When it received its New England premiere in Cambridge last year, the Globe said the play “has a timely tale to tell and a compelling reason to exist.”
We caught up with McKeown, a 2020 professor of the practice at her alma mater, to talk politics, theater, and Ethnomusicology 101.
Q. You were a musician first. What got you into theater?
A. I got a cold e-mail from Quiara in 2011 saying she heard one of my records and it sounded like a musical she wanted to write, and would I be interested in talking. And I fell in love with the project. It wasn’t something I was looking for, it was just one of those things where you do something — like be a singer/songwriter for a long time — and you leave these breadcrumbs.
Q. What album had she heard?
A. An album called “Hundreds of Lions” (2009). And “Miss You Like Hell” doesn’t sound anything like that anymore. It evolved throughout into its own thing, but that was the starting place.
Q. Can you explain what the show’s about?
A. It’s about a mother and daughter who take a road trip together, and they’re trying to put back their relationship after an estrangement. And what becomes clear once they get on the road is that the mom is undocumented, and she’s in a citizenship process that’s not going well. That forms the ticking clock of the musical. They’re traveling westward toward an immigration hearing and they know that they may not have a lot of time left with each other.
Q. How did that connect to your album?
A. I’ve always been really interested in percussion and propulsion. I’ve always written from a place of having a motor, essentially. And I think she felt that forward motion, and felt that it was a natural fit for a story that would take place in a car. Which in theater, is the hardest thing to stage, because it’s an enclosed static space, so how the music treats motion, and how you stage motion, becomes crucial.
Q. So the album wasn’t political.
A. No, it was a record I made about a breakup [laughs].
Q. When did you write this musical?
A. Musicals take a long time, which I didn’t know before we wrote one, and this went from 2011 to 2018. The situation for undocumented folks has been really difficult for a long time, so that, in some ways, hasn’t changed, but obviously things are worse now.
Q. So as you were writing, and immigration really came into the forefront in the news — did that impact the writing?
A. The first production of the show opened in November 2016, two days before election. So that was just heavy. [Laughs] That’s all I can say. We scheduled rewrites between that and our next production, which was spring 2018. So it certainly was on our minds.
There’s no quote-unquote message to the musical — people come in with that they bring, and we hope they leave with a more open heart. But there’s no message other than look at these two human people and their important story.
Q. What kind of reaction do you get from audience members?
A. For a lot of folks, it functions as a catharsis. There’s a lot of crying. As much as immigration is a heart-rending issue for a lot of families, the relationship between mothers and daughters is also deep and complicated. So both of those things happening at once is a lot [laughs].
Q. I love that you lived at AS220.
A. It was like being in the center of the coolest ant farm you can imagine. I’d get up to go to breakfast, and someone would be like, “Hey can you help me finish this mural?” Or “I need someone to hold a light for this film I’m making.”
Q. Were you into theater as a kid?
A. I was into sports and science. I went to nerd-kid science camp [laughs]. I grew up in a small town in Virginia. When I went to Brown, I thought I was going to become an ornithologist. Then once I got to Brown — Providence in the ‘90s was such a great experimental and fertile arts place — I was like, “Wow, OK. I don’t want to be a scientist at all.”
Q. [Laughs] What did you end up majoring in?
A. Ethnomusicology, which is like sociology and anthropology of music, how and why people use music. In some ways I’ve done nothing with that degree, and in other ways it makes total sense what I’m doing now.
Q. In what ways?
A. I really love the communion of a bunch of people in a room together. All these people have to work to get this show happening, all these people had to buy a ticket, get to the theater. The collective work it takes to get to that moment always moves me.
Q. You started making music 20 years ago. Did you start out playing in Boston?
A. My first record came out when I was a senior at Brown. I made it in western Mass., which is where I live now. My first forays [in live music] were Boston cafes. When I finally got a gig at Club Passim, that was the biggest deal. That has remained my home in Boston for shows.
Q. You said there was no message in the musical, but what kind of message do you get out of it, personally?
A. I’d say the play reminds me that you can find family anywhere. This time is fraught, it’s really crucial and dangerous in a lot of different of ways. I want to feel like I’m doing something that matters and has an opportunity to help people. I think “Miss You Like Hell” is something to be proud of in that sense.
At Goodwill Engine Company, 41 Central St., Providence, March 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets $20, www.stores.emporiumofpopularculture.com
MISS YOU LIKE HELL
At Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Court, Providence, through March 29. Tickets $15-$38, 866-811-4111, www.thewilburygroup.org