An interview with MYLH composer Erin McKeown

An interview with MYLH composer Erin McKeown

Could there anything better than diving into seeing a new show for the first time (or a favorite again) than to have a new lens or context on what you’re seeing? As the talented composer behind the production, in tandem with playwright Quiara Alegria-Hudes, Erin McKeown is a jaw-dropping musician, writer, and producer. According to her bio on her website, erinmckeown.com, she is “known internationally for her prolific disregard of stylistic boundaries. Her brash and clever electric guitar playing is something to see. Her singing voice is truly unique —clear, cool, and collected. Over the last 20 years, she has performed around the world, released 10 full length albums, and written for film, television, and theater, all the while refining her distinctive and challenging mix of American musical forms. Her first musical, Miss You Like Hell, written with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 2018. It was nominated for 5 Drama Desk Awards, including Best Lyrics, Best Music and Best Orchestrations, and The Wall Street Journal named it Best Musical of 2018.” She is also a Professor of the Practice at her alma mater, Brown University, and, as we learned, about to hit the road for a fall tour which includes Escondido’s own The Grand Ritz on November 5! We were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Erin about the production and about her upcoming engagements in a recent Q&A:

Why did you initially get involved with writing the music and lyrics of Miss You Like Hell?

MYLH is an adaptation of Quiara’s play 26 Miles. Sometime in 2011, she decided she wanted to turn it into a musical, and she began looking for female composers to work with. A childhood friend of hers knew about my music and passed her my 2009 record Hundreds of Lions. Quiara dug it and wrote me an email through my website. The coolest unexpected email of my life, and the rest is history.

Why do you think this musical is important today?

On a political and activist level, I think MYLH is important because it tells a unique story of one family’s experience within the usually monolithic discourse about immigration. I think who beatriz is challenges a lot of assumptions about immigrants. She is joyful, playful, despondent, resilient, humorous, many many more things than the usual stereotypes. The more stories of individuals we see, the more nuanced (and successful) our conversations can become. On a metaphoric level, the people that Olivia and Beatriz meet on the road represent the best of Americans – kind strangers, courageous neighbors – and serve as a reminder of who the American people actually are. And then theatrically, I feel so proud to be part of a work of art that gives opportunities for all kinds of actors to be onstage. More of that, please!!

We know you can’t choose a favorite – but are there particular songs that you think are most impactful?

I’ve always loved all the versions of “Yellowstone” you hear in the show. Yes, the song is funny and sweet and a little absurd – an R&B slow jam about a national park – but it is also radical in its message of welcome. Everyone belongs outside! National parks are sacred spaces! I also love all the version of “Lioness” in the show: the prologue, the prayer, the big version in Yellowstone. It ties together everything Quiara and I wanted MYLH to be: feminist, rocking, spiritual, galvanizing.

What themes or elements of the show do you think will resonate most with audiences in today’s climate and a post-pandemic world?

I don’t know yet! It’s too soon. I think we are all figuring things out as we carefully step back into the world. I hope that a post-pandemic world encourages our audiences to listen more generously to stories different than their own and to find common ground in those stories. If the pandemic taught us anything, I hope it’s that we are all dependent on our neighbors and that when we need help, our neighbors will be there.

What advice do you have for artists who are interested in getting involved in singing and songwriting?

Firstly, remember that songs are not precious. You will write plenty of them in your time, and some will be better than others. You’ll like some more than others. But none of them are so special that you should pause in your daily practice of making. Secondly, keep your day job as long as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that. “Fulltime artist” is a misleading term. You are always an artist, and putting too much financial pressure on your creative output is never good for the work.

Do you have any new or upcoming projects that you’re excited about sharing with us?

Yes! I’ve got a new record arriving in September. If you liked MYLH, you might dig it. And happily, I’ll be playing at The Grand Ritz in Escondido on November 5. Love to see folks!

Is there anything else you’d like to share or say that we missed above?

We were fortunate enough to develop and premiere MYLH at La Jolla Playhouse. I want to thank them for making us so welcome in the San Diego area. I spent a lot of time out here in 2016 and had a magical time in your communities. I’m so excited our show is continuing in the area, and I thank everyone for coming.

Erin McKeown can be found on social media on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Check out her work on Spotify.

Thanks so much to Erin for your thoughtful reflections on this show and on your work – we can’t wait to see your songs come alive in Miss You Like Hell, opening July 30 at Kit Carson Amphitheatre!

Grab your tickets now:

Miss You Like Hell (July 30-Aug. 14)

Tickets for The Grand Ritz (Nov. 5)