Songwriters in Seattle Monthly

Songwriters in Seattle Monthly - August 2017 by Char Seawell


“Playing a real song is like keeping a wild animal for a pet: gorgeous and terrifying, it lives in your house, but it is never really yours…” Kristen Hersh – Rat Girl.

Pacific Northwest singer/songwriter Erin Jordan, inspired by this favorite quote, has sought that “real song” through the eyes of a poet first and then tamed the words with piano and guitar. Jordan remembered, “When I was in high school the two things I really liked to do and felt I was good at were singing and writing poetry and short stories.” But even before then, Erin was drawn into her own musical world by songs of mystery. “I remember being very affected by music during my childhood. One of my first memories of really liking a song was hearing “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac in the car when I was six or seven and imagining that the song was being sung by a witch. I had no idea what Stevie Nicks really looked like! I also remember hearing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon when I was nine and having the song stuck in my head for weeks. I thought it was super creepy!”

Like many other songwriters, family influence was instrumental in her development as a writer. “My dad listened to a lot of music I still really like – Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, The Doors, and a lot of classical music. I was also involved in school musicals and community theatre starting at an early age and loved show-tunes, so I would say I had a lot of positive early life experiences that helped me form the relationship I have with music today. As a result, she reflected, “I realized I really wanted to write my own songs when I was a senior in high school.”

This writing muse, however, was blocked by the lack of an instrument. “I had a strong desire to write my own songs, but my earlier stints with piano lessons and flute had not worked out so well. I really wanted to learn to play guitar. There was a guitar class at my school, but all the ‘punk rock guys’ took it, and my silly high school self was too intimidated to take it. I was very shy and really lacked self-confidence. I knew I would figure the whole ‘how to become a singer-songwriter’ thing out when I went to college.”

In what would become a self-fulling prophecy, Jordan did in fact begin her songwriting career in college as her dreams of playing guitar came to fruition. “I met a kindred spirit a week into my freshman year who helped me pick out my first guitar at the local pawn shop and taught me how to play it. Playing guitar came very naturally to me, and I soon started writing my first songs and playing them at open mics in my college town.”

Surprisingly, her new skills on guitar positively affected her previous lack of success on piano. “I majored in Music Education, and passing a piano proficiency exam was a graduation requirement. So I had to learn piano whether I liked it or not! Learning piano the second time around was much easier since I understood how chord structure worked from playing guitar and taking some music theory classes.”

Erin’s shyness and lack of self-confidence that hampered her high school experience were challenged head-on after her graduation from college. Armed with her newfound instrumental and songwriting skills, she began performing seriously in Chicago. “I played a lot of open mics – which was great for getting over stage-fright and meeting other musicians to play with. I started playing at bars and coffee shops in Chicago, solo and as part of a duo.”

Deepening her skills as a performer, she expanded into becoming an open mic host at “a dive bar called The Inner Town Pub. Having to perform an opening set every week and run the PA for everyone really helped to boost my confidence as performer and member of my music community. On the weekends, I went and played in other towns in the Midwest. I played at a lot at Border’s Books. I have since dropped almost all of those songs from my repertoire, but those early days of ‘being a musician’ were a really magical and exciting time.”

Now fully immersed in her career as a music educator, songwriter, and mother to two children, Jordan’s songwriting process has evolved from those early times of magic and mystery. “My writing pace is very slow these days because I have two young children. I try to go out to my practice space in the garage and work a few nights a week after they go to sleep, but if I don’t it is not a big deal. I never force a song or try to write when I am uninspired.”

Though Erin’s love of words is expressed in her passion for poetry, instrumentation has moved to the front stage of the writing process. “My songs generally start with music first. I write an instrumental part on guitar or piano. Sometimes lyrics come right away and sometimes I have to put the instrumental part on the back burner to simmer until I am inspired to write the lyrics that are a match for that song. I try to always carry my journal with me so that when the muse visits at an inconvenient time, I can at least write down my ideas. I also have a mental list of topics or characters I want to explore.”

Like many creatives, Jordan shares a love of creating but not so much a love for the business end of the music industry. “I am naturally an introvert, so dealing with the business end – booking shows, promoting the shows, selling merch, collecting the money, asking people to sign my email list – has always been hard for me.”

In addition, because Erin is a storyteller, finding venues that encourage listening from the audience is a struggle. “I am really into lyrics and love the storytelling aspect of songwriting. That said, not everyone wants to hear your story. Some people at the bar want to drink and talk to their friends. Some people at the coffee shop want to do whatever they are doing on their laptop. I have always found it to be challenging to keep on playing and trying to make the connection with people under all circumstances. I guess that’s why I’ve learned a lot of covers to slip in. Lure them back in with “Wild Horses”… I know I am going in the right direction when I looked out and see people who are engaged and talk to them after the show.”

Other personal challenges affect her songwriting life as well. “Right now, having a family, being a music teacher, and still writing and playing shows is definitely a balancing act, but I make it work.” And there is an upside to being a mom and a working songwriter. Jordan reflected, “I know I am doing something right when my six-year-old requests a song and then interrogates me about what the lyrics mean for 15 minutes. Kids are always honest.”

As life has changed for her personally, Jordan has also evolved as a songwriter. Initially, Erin’s songs were more personal. “I used to write more based on personal experience, but I have to say, I’ve gotten bored with myself over the years! I really like writing from the perspective of a character. Of course, there is always a piece of me in that character – a big piece of me.”

Now she is inspired by characters in history. “I love infamous characters, because there is a little piece of them in all of us. Some people I’ve written songs about have been Tonya Harding and Joan Vollmer, the wife of William S. Burroughs who died in a tragic game of William Tell. I am also inspired by mythology and novels I’ve read.”

As for her future endeavors, “For the past six years I have been working on a song cycle based on Greek Mythology. I would like to finish that and record it. I have also been working on writing a musical based on the story of Echo and Narcissus that contains some of the songs in the song cycle. I am a music teacher with Seattle Public Schools, so it would be great to workshop it at a local high school since it is such a teenage story.”

As a songwriter and as someone who works with young musicians as a career, Jordan’s advice to would be songwriters is simple and straightforward. “Write what you want to – develop your own style by doing what seems right to you. Songwriting is a great break from having to follow rules all day!”

But that process does not happen in a vacuum. Erin has found that her best resource is “going to open mics and meeting other musicians. There are plenty of people in every local music community who are great resources on performing, booking shows, touring… anything you’d want to know. There are lots of people in Songwriters in Seattle who could tell you anything you want to know!”

Whether tackling poetry, a song, a musical, or any project that comes her way, Jordan has not let the second half of her favorite quote from Rat Girl deter her from her vision. It reads, “It is an honor to stand next to this Beast, and at the same time, you know it can kill you.” Jordan has stared down that Beast, and she is still standing, fearless and prolific, drawn to the mystery, the myth, and the poetry of the human experience.


"Gateway to Temptation" is the first release by Seattle quartet (Erin Jordan and) The Whiskey Romance. It's a wonderful and delectable debut. The music here has a bad part-of-town/other-side-of-the-tracks (and on "Porque Tu No Me Amas", south-of-the-border) feel that evokes what the Doors called "the darkness on the edge of town"... it reminds you that there are disturbed places near where you live, places that are haunted by the living. One of these places is a bar where Erin Jordan and her crew are the featured entertainment. It's a dive, a place where the drinks come easy and the broken hearts easier. A place where any lost soul might wander in, a place where the band sounds like it stumbled over from the cabaret down the street after they got kicked out for playing Patsy Cline songs. It's easy to peg the basis for the pieces on "Gateway..." as roots music. But who's roots? None of us are old enough to remember a time when cabaret was popular or when country wasn't. But the key here is not the roots, it's the result. EJ & the WR tap into something timeless: we'll always be looking for love and, when that's lost, for solace. When you're broken you can drink yourself into oblivion or dance the night away with a tempting stranger. "Gateway to Temptation" is the soundtrack for both. It follows that the sound on this disc is sexy, sultry and (frequently) sleazy. We say the damnedest things when our hearts are on our sleeves (or when we're three sheets to the wind). Luckily Erin's voice is perfect for this, by turns heartbreaking and coquettish, needy and vengeful. The band's secret weapon is Jeremy Butkovich's oboe. Not only is it an amazing counterpoint to Jordan's vocals it provides a chain that runs through the songs that makes them otherworldly. This band isn't from around these parts, and the oboe makes you think that they may not be from this side of the dream veil. This is a remarkable collection that I highly recommend. Honestly I don't know how you can get through the one-two punch of the opening song ("Black Widows" and "Jane") and not be seduced. Here's to seduction! Cheers.

The Seattle Weekly

Self described as a "hobo cabaret," The Whiskey Romance creates an atmosphere somewhere between a gin joint and a jug-band hoedown with their crowd participation mandatory shows and lively performances. Vocalist Erin Jordan channels Pink Martini's China Forbes and commands her soaring vibrato over the band's collection of upright bass and cantina style piano, convincingly enough that you might look around to double-check that you're still in Seattle.

Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange

Erin Jordan writes with a dark and droll pen, sings in a flapper floozy / jazz moll mode, and wields a trio of instruments (piano, guitar, accordian), but what really intrigued me about this release is the inclusion of an oboeist (Jeremy Butkovitch) as an integral band member rather than sessioneer. The oboe, like the bassoon, is a sadly overlooked instrument save for show applications, and Butkovitch's presence lends an inseparable caberatic mood that then swings into gypsy wildlands every time a violin capers in to spark things up, as in the darkly humorous Jane, musical equivalent of 50s edu-films on venereal diseases meant to scare the bejeezus out of school children who might be contemplating straying from the claustrophobic Christian path of righteousness, continence, and abstinence. The entirety of Gateway to Temptation is like the soundtrack to a high camp retro-flick of social indoctrination, witty and thematic while taking broad shots at the human animal and its unceasing penchant for delusion and self-abuse. Jordan obviously is a cynic and joins a palette of such artists as David E. Williams, Dudley Saunders (here), John Cale, and others who take the existentialist's role in a kind of stand-up capacity, executing duty with a sharp knife tempered in rapier satire. The music itself is, as said, cabaretic rock with jazz and show inflections, a kind demented progression from the old Ian Whitcomb, New Vaudeville Six, Stackridge, and other sounds of the 60s and 70s. However, Jordan's acid tongue and fangs cleave closer in sentiment to Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson but without the modernist/futurist sturm und drang, even reaching back to Kurt Weill. In other words, this is a disc for specialized, eclectic, and refined tastes My only criticism would be for an engineering job that doesn't really open up the atmosphere this group deserves. It's not a bad documentation, but the Jordan and confreres deserve better. This is a CD with antecedents that need special handling, and the form is rare, meriting every iota of embellishment and room it can be given.

Collected Sounds

South of Mainstream

(Review for Land of Milk and Honey) The title of the first song on Erin Jordan's CD is "Road to Eureka". Eureka is a lovely hippy town in California. That first song's title would have been an apt title for the entire CD. Let me paint a picture for you. You are navigatiog the roads on this CD in a VW van with mysterious smoke wafting out the side windows. Your dented and stained Kerouac book is on the dash. You are wearing a bandana and listening to music with lots of acoustic guitars and feverishly writing poetry in your journal when you stop of gas. You are camping on the beach and looking at the stars. These songs impressed me as largely about leaving the familiar and taking a chance on exploration and discovery. They are also about the strange things, good and bad, that you find on such a voyage. They are sung in Jordan's airy high voice and supported by good players who know how to stay in the back ground. The downside for me was the times, as on the fourth track, when I wish the guitarists would have taken one more pass at the tuner, and Erin would have made one more pass on her vocals to stay in tighter pitch. Fans of roots folk will appreciate these story songs and heartfelt writing.

Splendid E-Zine

Her high trilling voice bearing traces of classical training, her soft-rocking, lyric-driven songs betraying a fascination with Ani Di Franco, Erin Jordan turns in a very solid first album. The tunes on Land of Milk and Honey, traveling songs all, tell the story of Jordan's first tour out west. The darker songs here are the best -- the broodingly rocking "Road to Eureka", the violin-burnished "Too Wide", the simple but lovely traditionalism of "You Want a Girl". On more upbeat cuts, like "California Dreamin'" and "Fire Escape", Jordan's voice sounds a little too thin and breathy to make an impact. Still, there's intelligence, heart and skill at work on this debut, indicating that Erin Jordan has plenty of room to grow. -- Jennifer Kelly