Erin McKeown wasn’t sure she would ever make another album — too expensive, she says, with little chance of breaking even. Then last spring, she got an unexpected check in the mail, a gift from a friend that was enough to fund the recording of “Kiss Off Kiss,” McKeown’s 11th studio album.
“I had the dumbest thought when it came, which was that I should make a record with this money,” says McKeown, who performs Saturday at Club Passim in Cambridge. (She prefers not to specify the amount of the check, but notes it was within the annual IRS gift limit.)
After considering other options for a few months, the Western Massachusetts singer-songwriter asked Steve Berlin of Los Lobos to put a band together and produce an album for her. By Thanksgiving, McKeown was in Portland, Ore., recording 13 songs inspired by a brief relationship from her past. The album she emerged with is a rocked-up collection full of hooks, with lyrics by turns barbed and wry.
The track list includes “On/Off Heart,” which McKeown co-wrote with Lori McKenna. McKeown has known the Stoughton singer and in-demand Nashville songwriter for more than 20 years. Their collaboration was part of an idea McKeown had to co-write songs using a single phrase as a starting point. The project fizzled when the pandemic began, but the song with McKenna fit the theme of “Kiss Off Kiss,” and contrasted their distinctive styles.
“She’s so forward-thinking, and she keeps them simple,” says McKeown. “I write really simple songs, too, but our language is different. I come from a jazz and blues background, and she’s coming from a country-folk background.”
In the spirit of the windfall that paid for “Kiss Off Kiss,” McKeown is letting listeners pay what they can on her website for the digital version of the album. She’s also offering a barter plan, an idea she discussed with a friend: Send her something in the mail, and McKeown will trade for a digital copy of the album. “Our typical thought of what somebody might send was cheese,” she says.
McKeown plans to redirect any digital-sales money into $500 micro-grants for “deserving individuals who are adding value to their communities through service.” There’s an e-mail address for nominations on McKeown’s website, www.erinmckeown.com/kiss-off-kiss.
“Hopefully we can raise enough money to do four or five of them, and people can use them however they want,” McKeown says.
Recording “Kiss Off Kiss” was just one of McKeown’s activities during the pandemic. She also taught a course online as a “professor of the practice” at Brown University, her alma mater; worked as a census taker until a dog bit her; and went on tour in August as a guitarist in the indie-rock band the Mountain Goats. She and Mountain Goats singer John Darnielle connected years ago through mutual friends, and asking her to play on tour seemed like a natural fit.
“She’s really clever,” Darnielle says. “‘Clever’ can be kind of a pejorative-sounding term, but she does really smart stuff — great phrases that stick with you. And she has great hooks and a beautiful smoky voice.”
Whether McKeown will make any more albums remains an open question for now, given the financial instability of a music career, but she has plenty of other ideas. She’s contemplating a “musical memoir” and has plans to write a second musical to follow up “Miss You Like Hell,” her 2016 project with playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes.
“Make no mistake, though: I love this album,” McKeown says. “And I love making little rock songs.”
Follow Eric R. Danton on Twitter @erdanton
At Club Passim, 47 Palmer St., Cambridge. Oct. 9 at 6 p.m. Tickets $25. 617-492-7679, www.passim.org