Erin Rae McKaskle
Tucked into the plains between Milwaukee and Green Bay, Appleton, Wis., is the sort of Midwestern college town that’s easily overlooked. What a shame. The place is a hidden gem, stocked with a liberal arts college, a music conservatory, and a scenic stretch of the Fox River. Every summer, hundreds of bands head to the city’s downtown for the Mile of Music Festival, Wisconsin’s own version of South by Southwest. It was there, in an 80-year-old monastery once inhabited by Franciscan monks, that Erin Rae McKaskle recorded her newest album, Putting on Airs.
“If we’d decided to do it in Nashville, we would’ve worked for a few hours a day, then gone out to see our friends play,” she says, “It wouldn’t have been as immersive. This way, it was almost like camp. We slept there. We’d wake up, eat breakfast together around 9, then work from 10 a.m. until 11 at night.”
The result is an album that’s both geographically and musically distanced from Nashville’s old-school country influence. Born and raised in Tennessee — first in Jackson, where she grew up watching her parents perform folk songs at coffee shops and country fairs, and later in Nashville, where she began playing gigs of her own as a teenager — McKaskle has long since secured her country credentials. Soon Enough, her breakout release, blended fiddle, pedal steel, and Telecaster twang into a sound that doubled down on her Southern roots. Her voice, though, always seemed to hint at something broader, evoking the cascading melodies of Joni Mitchell one minute and the dreamy swoon of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval the next. McKaskle’s band was top-notch, but her vocals stole the show.
That voice takes center stage on Putting on Airs, whose songs reshape the lush, lilting influence of 1970s singer-songwriters into something modern. It’s music for Sunday afternoons, for the first days of fall, for rainy mornings spent inside. Although McKaskle began writing the album in her East Nashville home, she also credits the band’s touring schedule — both in America and abroad — for widening her tastes.
“We were all in the car together, listening to the same music,” she says of her scaled-back lineup, which currently revolves around guitarist Jerry Bernhardt and drummer Dom Billett. Driving from show to show, the friends made use of the car stereo, where they played deep cuts by Wilco and albums by indie songwriter Michael Nau. Along the way, they developed a shared appreciation for left-of-center song arrangements.
“We were keen to take the first idea that came to mind and put it aside for a second, and explore other territory,” says local producer and ace guitarist Dan Knobler, who coproduced the album with Bernhardt. “If that other territory felt weird just for the sake of being weird, then we’d come back to the first idea. We normally found something weird that worked, though, or something in between.”
Playing a big role in the recording process was the building itself. The Refuge Foundation for the Arts is located in a 3,500-square-foot abbey whose former inhabitants include the monk whose work inspired The Exorcist. The organization’s purpose is philanthropic: to provide a space for artists to live and create. Rae, Knobler, Billett, and Bernhardt spent days there, sleeping in the dormitories and tracking songs in various corners of the property. Billett recorded his drums in The Refuge’s wood-paneled conference room, while Knobler and Bernhardt placed their guitar amps inside the chapel. They recorded each amplifier’s sound with two microphones — one placed inches away from the equipment itself for a drier signal, and the other hanging dozens of feet away, to capture the ringing natural reverb of the sanctuary — and adjusted the volume levels accordingly, heightening or decreasing the sense of sonic space. The effect is stunning on songs like “Mississippi Queen,” a knockout ballad layered with harmonies, Mellotron, and a voice that sweeps and swoons.
McKaskle is eyeing a February 2018 release for Putting on Airs, although two songs, “Wild Blue Wind” and “Like the First Time,” have already been released. Still an independent songwriter in U.S., she’s taking her time, looking for the right label. In the meantime, she’s juggling a handful of side projects, including an album of cover songs and spoken-word stories with her father, as well as a harmony duo with tour mate Coco Reilly. She is also writing new songs, being careful not to rest on her laurels. Because that would be nearly as bad as putting on airs.