David Keenan

Hello, Katie here again, and I’m sure by now you’ve come to expect me to make a statement about how excited I am to introduce our next artist. That’s true. Excitement is my natural state, and we have a supernaturally good roster. (I’m not even using hyperbole.) But when Adam told us that David Keenan had signed on, all I typed back was, if I’m not mistaken, a ton of exclamation points. I am usually more of a “words” person, but as a writer and a music lover, David Keenan is someone who has inspired me for a very long time, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to have him at Underwater Sunshine Fest.

Cellar Sessions, City Winery, One on One, June 2018, shot by Ehud Lazin

It’s an understatement to say that Keenan’s voice is beautiful but the most phenomenal quality in his singing, to me, is how he is able to use different parts of his voice to become either percussive or at times almost slippery, gliding in and around his melodies like a woodwind. His high range almost always clips a phrase in a way that gives a sharp point, like the line or word has been chopped in half. But from a writer’s perspective, after I got over how lovely the melodies and his voice are, I became fascinated by how interesting his writing is from a rhyming point of view. Metrically, he has a handle on interesting ways to phrase things in order to hit the kinds of end rhymes and internal rhymes that one sees more often in hip-hop or poetry. For example, in the song posted above, “The Friary”:

flicking ash into a glass
friend or foe from recent past
you ignite me
traffics light invite me
floating down your street
dodging bottles as we see
got a face in the rain
He says he's Earth again…

yeah man, you took a vacation
of sleep depravation
they let you out on probation
oh meet me at the station


First…wow…Keenan’s gorgeous vocal control of the sibilance of that first line— I have yet to be able to sing “ash into a glass” without adding an extra “h” to the end of the sentence, yet he does it so articulately and smoothly that you don’t realize how difficult it is until you try it yourself. But those end rhymes! I wouldn’t have tried “vacation” and “depravation,” though I was immediately delighted— but then he kept going on multi-syllabic, surprising rhymes! This might not sound like much, but what it does is keep people guessing: it feels like something’s got to give and creates a tension that makes us feel like we should be able to anticipate what he’s going to say, but we can’t.

The places Keenan takes you and the scenes he builds, whether they are healthy and safe places or not, feel like the right place to be. Even in this song, which features “ladies of the night” and has alleys and lines about being “hopelessly in love,” you’d be hard pressed not to want to meet him at The Friary, as he requests. This narrator is literally begging to be found. And that idea, that we all want someone to discover us, to learn us, to love us, in essence – to understand us, is brilliantly expressed. Even if The Friary is just the name of a bar, it’s got the association of being a holy place, and maybe, for Keenan’s narrator, this bar is holy, too. 

Cellar Sessions, City Winery, One on One, June 2018, shot by Ehud Lazin

Speaking of “holy,” one of the other songs I fell in love with on first listen was “The Sacred Cough Bottle,” and we’re lucky enough to have footage of him playing it behind the scenes at City Winery. This is a song that really rests on his understanding and use of levels— the song starts at a relatively normal sound level, but in the middle— after the very first chorus— Keenan brings it down almost to a whisper to give us a few characters. For example—

Out there in the middle distance
An old woman is claiming to be the last living suffragette
Speaking in a nebulized voice
While she plucks a busted violin

The imagery is strong, because we get so many moments packed in a few lines: who she looks to be, who she thinks she is, how far away she is, how she sounds, and really, even that she’s plucking an instrument so often played with a bow, AND that said instrument is busted. I don’t get the impression that makes her any less worthy of Keenan’s attention and time, and I’m glad he’s decided she’s worthy of ours. One of the things I love about this song is when he makes a fricative, guttural sound in his singing, by which I mean one note punched hard and trilled. It ups the tension— which again, is just him knowing how to lead us emotionally through the palate of the song. It doesn’t hurt that you get other brilliant lines like, “Bodies are wracked in routines,” and “using one another as canvases/ happily absorbing every brushstroke/ subterranean skin pressed on subterranean skin.” He knows how to talk about the banal or even the profane in beautiful ways. That’s an incredible trait for a writer for sure, but really, it’s just an incredible way to be human. No one is beneath interest or without value or worth in these songs. The fact that Keenan’s guitar and vocals are dripping in beauty is a nice complement to the writing.

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Keenan has been consistently putting EPs and singles out for years, and I’d recommend you go back and listen through them all: the most recent record came out on July 4th of this year, and is called A Corner Boys Lament/Origin of the World. I’m especially partial to Evidence of Living— I love “Two Kids” and “Keep the Peace, Prepare for War.” But the trick with Keenan is that every song is worth a good listen, and they make it almost impossible to remain passive in the experience as a listener. You wind up involved every time, either with his characters or his voice, which, after all, is the thing that all great music has in common. It makes us need to take it in and make it a part of us. It makes itself a part of us, indispensable and inextricably woven into who we are as human beings.

Come out to Underwater Sunshine Fest, and get involved with David Keenan’s music— you won’t regret it!

Lindsay Nie