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HAPPY 10TH BIRTHDAY, GRAND!!

Ten years ago this week, my second album Grand was released. I remember at the time being highly disappointed with the June 10 release date, worried that it would consign my record to a mere drip of an entry splash. More than anything, I feared that among the Big Summer Releases by Big Names, Grand would be lost and all that I had put into the record would go to waste.

Grand was an incredibly difficult record to make. My first record Distillation had done better than anyone expected. Now I had to follow up a well-received debut record 21 years in the making with one made merely from the previous 2 years.

the board we made grand on, with judy watching over
click to enlarge

Based on the success of Distillation, I had recently signed a three record deal, and I didn’t know yet that once you make something successful, the music business would prefer you make the same thing again. An early version of the album was rejected by the label, forcing me to write and record two more songs on short notice. The pressure from the record company broke my close relationship with Grand’s producer for five years (we’re cool now, thank god). A final cherry on top: when I flew to LA for the album shoot, I landed to find that the stylist had gotten my measurements wrong and had shopped for someone 5′ tall but a size 8. Nothing wrong with those proportions, but they just aren’t mine.

So when the label proposed June 10, I felt like it was another sign that the record was doomed.

post Jools taping

Though it has taken me years to see this, in the end, everything about Grand has turned out just fine. In fact, better than fine. Grand has sold more than any other record I’ve made and by a long shot. That summer of 2003, I played Glastonbury, Newport, and Bonnaroo. That fall I did late nite TV in Ireland and got to be on Jools Holland with Elbow and a young Amy Winehouse. These turned out to be once in a lifetime experiences, and hindsight has made me incredibly grateful for them. And for lots of folks, Grand is the record of mine they heard first. Maybe there are other things I’ve done since that they like, but nothing holds a candle to that first sense of discovery.

So I guess the lesson of Grand is that time takes time. And that you can worry and struggle all you want, but it doesn’t sink into the DNA of the sound. No one but me and those closest to me at the time knew how hard that record was to make. Ten years later, I get to enjoy it like everyone else.

And it also turns out that June 10 has an even more important connection to Grand then just being its birthday. June 10 is also the birthday of the album’s patron saint and thematic guide, the lovely Miss Judy Garland. Believe it or not, I didn’t notice this until years later.

In the summer of 2001, I was staying with a friend in West Hollywood. One afternoon on the way back to her house, I passed a bookstore. No place special to be, I wandered in and found myself thumbing through Gerald Clarke’s then-new biography of Garland, “Get Happy”.

a page from my journal in late 2002

To say that book changed my life would be an understatement. I knew nothing about Garland beyond an ambivalence toward “The Wizard of Oz”. But reading that book, I became fascinated with Judy, and thus began a two year obsession that culminated when Grand finally came out, on what would have been Garland’s 81st birthday.

In between, I listened to every Garland album I could find. I watched every Garland movie available in the days before Netflix and the iTunes store. A friend even tipped me off to the home recordings Judy made in preparation for a never completed memoir.

Though songs like “Cinematic”, “Cosmopolitians”, “How To Be A Lady”, “James”, “Starlit”, “Vera”, and “Lucky Day” make explicit references to Garland, her spirit hovers over every note of the entire album. “A Better Wife” is about a brilliant artist and friend of mine that died way before his time. “The Taste of You” and “An Innocent Fiction”, inspired by the Arthur Miller short story “The Performance”, owe everything to my understanding of vaudeville as Judy knew it. The most popular songs on the record, “Slung-lo” and “Born to Hum”, came from tanglings with my record company. Not that they were evil studio bosses working me to the bone, but I certainly could relate to Garland’s frustration within the rigid machinery of MGM in the 30’s and 40’s.

second or third draft of the lyrics to “cosmopolitans”
click to enlarge

Somehow, when I realized that Grand and Garland had the same birthday, I exhaled a little. Grand is perfect the way it is and came out at exactly the right time. The struggle to make it seemed less epic; the sense of disappointment I carried around the record dissipated; the thought that somehow I hadn’t made enough of a record just left me. Not that I don’t worry about other more recent records I have made. Of course I do. But I am glad to know that eventually, given enough time, I can simply love that little record about the lovely Miss Garland. And wish them both a very happy birthday.

I usually disable the comments on my website, but for this post, I’m allowing them. Please share your Grand stories below!!

Thanks to the WayBackMachine, you can also read my original introduction to the record, tracklistings, and watch the website intro   from June 10, 2003.


11 Responses

  1. Bill Bell says:

    10 years! Gosh where have the years gone? Grand is still one of my all time favourite albums. I still hear the influence of it on female artists to this day. It set the tone (excuse the pun) for the next half a doz years worth of singer song writes. A truly remarkable album.
    There is nothing in the songs that belies the obvious anguish of making it at the time. Happy birthday Grand.

  2. Sandra says:

    I love Grand! It’s my favorite album of yours, although I love them all. My second fave is Distillation and then Manifestra. I discovered Grand and Distillation 2-3 years ago at the same time thanks to an iTunes suggestion because of my love for Ani DiFranco. I hope you take it as a big compliment that you’re now my second fave to her…a huge accomplishment after searching almost 20 years for a singer songwriter that could hold a candle to her. I love your voice, your prose, your slightly punk rock approach with the tip of your hat to old school female rock. I almost forgot Sing All You Sinners. I got a coworker to play that at a dinner party. :). Ah, and the Santa Is An Asshole album. Fantastic! Anyway, rock on Erin. Happy birthday Grand. I enjoyed reading about Judy Garland and the multiple influences on the record.

  3. Donna says:

    I adore How to Be a Lady, discovered when I heard it on The L Word, and have grown into a big fan of your music – I’ve seen you live twice and your Manifestra show in Pittsburgh was a highlight of the year fro me musically. It was really fun to read about the influences on Grand, the record that started it all for me. Here’s to 10 more years!

  4. Sarah says:

    I have always admired the retro, Broadway quality of your voice. When my friends ask me to describe your music I usually can’t put you into a typical genre- which is an incredibly good thing in my opinion. So I always find myself referring to past divas like Anita O’Day, and Judy Garland. There is something natural and wild about your voice that cuts through the din. I usually end up telling my friends- put some chocolate by the speakers and watch it melt, that’s Erin McKeown.

  5. Terry says:

    Born to hum and How to be a lady are two of my favorite Erin songs. Grand initially took a little while to grow on me as I expected it to be more like Distillation, but in the end it helped me understand and appreciate much more deeply your incredible range of musical styles…. and I was then ready to completely fall in love with all the rest leading up to Sing You Sinners (my true favorite).

    That said, this is a fantastic album, and it’s always in my regular shuffle rotation. Keep up the wonderful work and I’ll keep buying your albums and catching your shows. Until next time….

  6. Laura says:

    Congratulations on the 10 year anniversary, Erin! I had just turned 16 when I rushed out to buy ‘Grand’, after discovering ‘Distillation’ a year or so beforehand. I absolutely adore both albums, and they have been a constant through a number of personal struggles in my life. Absolutely beautiful music.

    I was lucky enough to come and see your show at the Green Note in Camden, London UK a few years back, and it still remains one of my favourite gigs. Your music definitely played a part in encouraging me to write songs and teach myself guitar. Ultimately, heartfelt thanks to you and your work.

    I do hope you come back to London! X

  7. valerie says:

    my husband and i danced to lucky day as our first dance at our wedding. we’ve seen you perform almost every time you’ve come up to portland (maine). you’re right–we discovered you through grand, but have enjoyed following you since.

  8. Steve Champion says:

    The year is 2003 and yours truly being from the South East of England my musical sound-scape was predominantly centered on electronic stuff, retro mod-stuff (Kinks et al) and other scrags an bobs of noise.

    Always had an open ear (am into Jim Hall, Villalobos, Baez … blah) but didn’t have any exceptional hopes for that weekend’s Jools Holland. Just tuned in as normal. You never know…”summink’ll cropup”.

    POW!

    Erin whoosat?! Sod it. Didn’t catch it “oh well, I’ll catch up on my video recording”. Except my cruddy, and since ritually slaughtered, VCR decided otherwise and chewed the bloody tape up..

    Fast forward a good few years and after shed loads of searching, found E.M. on the interweb.

    To summarise (yes, an ‘s’ and not a zed my friends!); thank goodness for Erin and her music. Not for making one episode of Jools H better; but for all the truly heartwarming tunes and humor through the years.

    Cheers,

    SC

    P.S. Be good to one another (everyone is fighting a tough battle).

  9. Graham Ward says:

    It was my introduction to your music, thanks to your supporting Richard Thompson. As usually befell support acts, you had to sell your own merchandise, so I have a signed copy from a very good night in Manchester. Still a very fine album indeed.

  10. Johanna says:

    I am just happening upon this post and I feel compelled to respond. Grand was an album of such resonance for me as a college student! I came upon it through Peter Mulvey and Voices on the Verge, as I saw you perform with both in Northern California. I was independently obsessed with Judy Garland and the MGM musicals of the 40’s and 50’s, and Grand was the modern soundtrack of that obsession. It showed me how relevant Judy is to modern musicians and women. What memories it brings me! Singing along with Slung-Lo on the frequent drive from San Francisco to the East Bay, listening to and being so inspired by Civilians in my dorm room, feeling overwhelmed by Cinematic and New York City as an NYU summer student. Thank you for these memories! Thank you for your work!

  11. Julie says:

    Wow, it is nice to learn about the back stories of Grand. My daughter Isabelle is 10 and Grand was her first cd that she always asked for. And you were her first music show when she was around 6 years old after bumping into you at Sip. She loves to sing and I think part of that is due to Grand and meeting you.

    Thank you for your music and all that you do for musicians.

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