The time and the atmosphere, at least in the Northwest's literate and laid-back climate, appear ripe for the (re)emergence of the time-honored artistic endeavors of the singer/songwriter. Portland's own poet-chanteuse, McKinley, is convinced of it, believing that "people always want to be sung to, to be told a story."
Attempting to throw my subject off-guard, I throw a knuckle-ball question, "So, why did you used to sit and listen to music with your baseball cap over your eyes when you were little?" Amazingly unshaken, she has a response.
"My mom took a picture of me doing that when I was about three or four, with the intention of getting me to explain it years later," she confesses. "When I was a teenager she asked about it and I realized I was still doing it. I'd lay down on the floor and listen to XTC, Elvis Costello (whose poster adorns a wall in her practice space), Jesus Christ Superstar -- whatever was giving me chills at the time. I closed my eyes to hear better, to sort of watch the layers."
Watching layered stories says volumes about McKinley's music. Her musical roots trace back roughly five years while she was a mechanical engineering/English student at Cal-Poly. "I got an electric bass for 50 bucks and started playing," she says. "Some frieneds asked me to be in a band with them. We made just really horrible music."
Under the pressure of questioning, she confesses to having released a Bay-area tape, then coming to Portland for its comfortable size and strong jazz and classical communities. McKinley continued to refine her craft, partially by getting "really, really depressed" for inspiration while incorporating strong literate and cinematic allusions into her writing. With now-bruised credit cards in hand, she independently released an EP of the stories of her "inner world." The disc is an intoxicating mixture of organic, unhurried folk, seductive torch, and smoky, jazz/lounge orchestrations once tagged "chamber folk." Playing a regular gig at LaurelThurst Pub and select other locales, McKinley has gained a deserved reputation as an entertaining and talented artist dedicated to her calling.
Her latest offering, again simply titled McKinley, weaves the six tracks from the EP with six additional cuts. The result is a powerfully emotive, engaging, and often challenging slice of personal and well-tendered music.
"Burnside found us in July," she explains. "We did six more songs and threw them together so there was a time lag. I don't know if that shows."
One difference in the more recent cuts is the richer, more robust sound of her band (Jim Smith on cello, Marty Jennings on violin, Wendy Karden on flute, Brian Davis on drums and guitarist/producer Steve Hale). The arrangements are tighter, warmer, intertwined, yet each instrument can become a distinct character with its unique tonal moods and meanings. McKinley has also developed as a vocalist and has steadily built a comfortable stride and confidence. Words, consonants, even letters, are molded and deftly inflected to fill her curious poems with character and intrigue. The CD's closing track, "Next Feeding," which served as the title track for her tape, testifies to McKinley's growth and direction. Steady, intricate guitar bounces against a longing violin as her open, angelic vocals tenderly breeze out a tale about the need to "steal" lovers.
When hit with the music journalist's sucker punch, "Why are these incredible musicians spending so much of their time working on your songs, appearing on your CD, and playing your low-paying gigs?" McKinley maintains her composure, responding with amazement, "I have absolutely no idea. Possibly they feel sorry for me, or are amused by my naive determination. I feel like such a musical midget around them."
Guitarist Hale, still laughing, counters, "I think it's because McKinley's music has this entrancing urgency to it. We were all kind of bitten by its mystique. And she is an incredibly honest and ethical person who is really a lot of fun to work with."
Though she was able to give up her paper route, McKinley is "very far in debt." Unconcerned, she observes, "It's sort of a moot point when I think about what I've done, when I listen to it and am proud of it. I just knew that this ablum hadn't been made yet. This album I wanted to exist in the world. Every time I think that maybe I should be sensible, that maybe I'm not that talented, that music is a vicious business to be in, I hear some song that gives me chills. It could be anything, any type of music, and something big and wide bangs on my sternum and I immediately need to be working on a new song -- the song that I'm sure will be so painfully beautiful and deep and sweet and simple and loaded that it will knock me out when I listen to it."