Susan McKeown was born on February 6, 1967 to John Ryan and Jane Ann (Jeannie) McKeown in Terenure, Dublin, Ireland. She was greatly influenced by her mother, an organist and composer who died in 1982. Susan briefly attended the Municipal College of Music, Chatham Row, Dublin – now incorporated into the Dublin Institute of Technology) – as a teenager before abandoning a potential career in opera order to sing folk and rock. Together with John Doyle, McKeown formed The Chanting House in 1989. Mainly performing as a duo, they toured Europe with Donogh Hennessy and other musicians, playing of original songs and traditional tunes. They released a cassette-only album called The Chanting House in 1990.
Immigration to New York City
Upon graduating from University College Dublin McKeown was awarded a scholarship to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Manhattan, so in 1990, with a bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland, she relocated to New York City. Doyle followed and they were soon to join forces with Seamus Egan and Eileen Ivers, with whom they recorded one live cassette and one track, "If I Were You", which they contributed to the album Straight Outta Ireland in 1993. McKeown's musical collaboration with Doyle ended with his departure in the summer of 1993.
With new musicians, as "Susan McKeown and the Chanting House" she performed at clubs such as Sin-é, Fez, the Bottom Line and the Bowery Ballroom, and recorded a cassette album – Snakes – in 1993. But it was the release of Bones in 1995 – an album of original songs with her take on a centuries-old keen (caoineadh) and an arrangement of Robert Burns' "Westlin' Winds", later recorded by Fairport Convention – that earned her a reputation as a singer-songwriter and launched her solo touring and recording career. In 1997 she recorded three albums: her own Bushes & Briars (Alula); Peter & Wendy, the soundtrack to the Obie Award-winning Mabou Mines theatrical production of the same name, which was composed by Johnny Cunningham; and Through the Bitter Frost & Snow, a collaboration with bassist Lindsey Horner. At this time, she began to divide her work into albums of traditional music (Bushes and Briars, 1998) and singer-songwriter albums (Bones, 1995; Prophecy, 2002).
McKeown suggested to Cathie Ryan and Robin Spielberg the idea of recording an album of songs relating to motherhood, resulting in The Mother Album (1999). McKeown began producing with the albums Lowlands (2000 Green Linnet) and Sweet Liberty (2004 World Village/Harmonia Mundi). Probably most successful among her traditional song releases, the latter earning a BBC Folk Music Award nomination for her setting of an English gypsy song with a mariachi band. Her second release for Harmonia Mundi's World Village imprint was Blackthorn (2006).
In 2001 she produced A Winter Talisman with Scots fiddler Johnny Cunningham, with whom she subsequently toured each winter until his death on December 15, 2003.
On December 19, 2003 Susan joined the klezmer band The Klezmatics onstage at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan in a concert of songs they had composed to lyrics by Woody Guthrie. She has toured and appeared with The Klezmatics often since then, performing in Europe and across the U.S., including in Carnegie Hall in New York City and Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Together they recorded Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah (2004) and Wonder Wheel (2006) which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album.
In 2009, McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg, the lead singer of The Klezmatics, released Saints & Tzadiks (World Village/Harmonia Mundi), an album combining Yiddish and Irish songs.
McKeown devised and produced Songs from the East Village, a world music album of songs from the students, parents and staff of The East Village Community School in Manhattan which was released in September 2010.
In October 2010 she released the solo album, Singing in the Dark, an exploration of creativity and madness. With lyrics from poets who were writing through the lens of depression, mania and addiction, the music was composed by McKeown, Leonard Cohen, John Dowland, Violeta Parra, and Klezmatics members Lisa Gutkin and Frank London.
In November 2012 she released Belong, her third album of original song.
An ongoing project is Bowsie, collaborating with Gerry Leonard on ambient settings of folk songs.
- The Chanting House (1990) - cassette only
- The Chanting House - Live (1992) - cassette only
- Bones (1995)
- Peter and Wendy (1997), with Johnny Cunningham, Seamus Egan, Karen Kandel and Jamshied Sharifi
- The Soul of Christmas: A Celtic Music Celebration (1997) Thomas Moore/Johnny Cunningham
- Through the Bitter Frost & Snow (1997), with Lindsey Horner
- Mighty Rain (1998) with Lindsey Horner
- Bushes and Briars (1998)
- Mother: Songs Celebrating Mothers & Motherhood (1999), with Cathie Ryan and Robin Spielberg
- Lowlands (2000)
- A Winter Talisman (2001), with Johnny Cunningham
- Prophecy (2002) Guest appearance by Natalie Merchant
- Sweet Liberty (2004)
- Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah (2004 limited issue, reissued 2006 with 4 additional tracks) by The Klezmatics (guest appearance by Susan)
- Blackthorn: Irish Love Songs (2006)
- Wonder Wheel (2006), by The Klezmatics (guest appearance by Susan)
- Saints & Tzadiks (2009) with Lorin Sklamberg
- Songs from the East Village (2010) - production only
- Singing in the Dark (2010)
- Belong (2012)
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