At the center of Erin McKeown’s Hundreds of Lions, the song “The Lions” brims with bright piano, cathedral spire atmosphere and traces of carnival-noir pop as Erin sings, “There’s a risk, there’s a twist, in anything worth doing,” with a voice clear and strong as glass ribbon.
Indeed, the whole Hundreds of Lions project — from the experimental production techniques to the decision to record independently, without initial label support—is a risk, with a twist that finds Erin collaborating with Righteous Babe Records.
It’s an alliance that has been in the stars a long time, as Erin and Ani’s creative paths have crisscrossed ever since Ani first heard Distillation—the only other album Erin recorded independently—and invited Erin on tour back in 1999. In the decade since, Erin’s built a catalogue and career that influences a whole new set of songwriters in the way Ani’s music first inspired Erin.
The decision to create Hundreds of Lions independently allowed Erin to spend an unprecedented, luxurious amount of time nurturing new songs to life. Some simmered for three years as Erin traipsed through the American songbook with 2007's Sing You Sinners and the live recording, Lafayette, released later that same year. Independence also gave producer (and longtime musical partner) Sam Kassirer the freedom to produce his vision of a watershed, modern Erin McKeown album, with Erin’s voice as its center.
With no label exec to watch the clock, Sam and Erin retreated to a farmhouse studio tucked in a pocket of rural New England and experimented. They squished acoustic sounds through synthesizers. They programmed electronic squiggles to mingle with orchestral strings recorded in a country church down the street. Brass and woodwinds, traditionally last, were recorded very early on so they built the core of the record instead of just being layered on top.
They tried it all then whittled away what didn’t work. The result is a record that’s lush but focused, that soars and dips, with lyrics that dismantle the elegance and danger of desire. Just after “The Foxes” breaks out a sunny, swishy singsong chorus — reminiscent of the glittery pinwheel pop of 2003’s Grand—the moodier “(Put the Fun Back in) The Funeral” follows, a dark river of smothering murmurs and the hiss of subway grates.
Erin’s fans heard the album played in its entirety in the finale episode of Cabin Fever, a four-part series of internet house concerts she staged to raise funds for the making of the record. Even though the motive to go back to indie roots was (like Righteous Babe) born out of creative necessity, it still costs money to release a record these days. But instead of just passing he proverbial hat, fans purchased “tickets” to virtually attend exclusive concerts streamed online live from in and around Erin’s remote riverside cottage, where she was joined by friends and musical guests such as Sonya Kitchell, Kris Delmhorst and Garrison Starr. Fans threw Cabin Fever parties, requested songs, and mingled in real-time online, a modern twist on old-school house parties.
Working outside the system has had its challenges— requiring patience, a healthy sense of adventure and a willingness to figure out how to stream a concert from the center of a river—but now Erin’s got the record fit to bookend the first ten years of a dynamic career of a unique American artist.