Smile Politely

Emily McKown discusses her unique journey and new Two Shoes album

A group of five individuals sits on the edge of a red barn's loading dock, immersed in a casual group interaction. They are dressed for comfort and warmth, suggesting a friendly gathering or a break during a collaborative event. The barn's large open doors and windows show a glimpse of the musical equipment inside, indicating a creative or musical setting.
Two Shoes on Facebook

Urbana’s vibrant music scene is a beacon for artists like Emily McKown, who blend their musical talent with activism to create a powerful force for social change. Known on stage as Emily Anne and previously leading the Emily Anne Band, McKown infuses her Americana and folk influences with a commitment to social justice, believing deeply in the healing power of music. Her latest project, Two Shoes, is poised to release its first studio album, Compass Rose, on Wednesday, May 8th. With this new album, McKown aims to do more than entertain; she seeks to spark dialogue and foster understanding through her heartfelt songs.

“One reason why I [chose to move to Urbana], was that I’d lived in Olympia, [Washington] which was big, which was the place that inspired my passion for justice work,” she explains. “And when I was looking for a new place to live, I chose Urbana because it felt like I really wanted a place where I could find a diverse community. I felt called as a folk singer, particularly a white middle-class folk singer, that I could make country music and folk music and engage and have real relationships and friends with people living in the country who think differently than me.”

McKown’s early experiences in her Universalist Unitarian church, where her parents were volunteers and leaders, immersed her in an open, pluralistic spiritual community, helping her shape the worldview that has made her so committed to seeking out positive interactions across boundaries as an artist today. I asked McKown if she had an example of bridging idealistic divides with music, and she recalls a memorable moment came when she was doing an intro for her cover of the classic country song “Stand By Your Man” at Urbana’s weekly open mic, at the Urbana Hootenanny, which she now hosts.

In a well-lit room, a person wearing a bright yellow shirt and a black necktie smiles slightly while holding a guitar. Behind, bookshelves and a harmonious mix of houseplants create a warm, inviting atmosphere typical of a cozy, lived-in space.
Emily McKown on Facebook

“I did the introduction to the song, telling the story about how I first heard the song. I mentioned I was raised by these feminists growing up and so after first hearing the song, I thought she [Tammy Wynett] was being ironic,” Anne recounts. After the performance, “a woman came up to me, who was maybe in her 50s or something…and she was very cautious to to talk to me, but I said, ‘Oh, hey, it’s nice to see you again’ and she said, ‘You said you were raised by feminists. That sounds so hard,’” revealing her own reservations rather than a sense of connection. Despite the initial misunderstanding, this opened the door to a meaningful exchange. “We went on to have a really great conversation,” McKown noted. “We talked about going to church on Sunday and [found] our common ground. It’s that kind of relationship-building. Some people might be afraid of a feminist, but then they meet me and I’m wrapping my arms around them.”

McKown’s journey has evolved into a profound pursuit of becoming a chaplain, a path that intertwines her spiritual and professional endeavors. Inspired by her work at her local church and a workshop from the American Music Therapy Association, she realized the unique role chaplains play in using music in clinical settings. This revelation steered her toward pursuing a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts with an emphasis in chaplaincy, aiming to offer one-on-one care with her musical talents in tow. For McKown, this pursuit is not just about blending music with ministry; it’s about healing, connecting, and enriching the lives of those she encounters on her path.

McKown’s excitement is palpable when she discusses Two Shoes’ debut album, which she affectionately calls “a time capsule of sorts.” Reflecting on her journey since moving to Champaign-Urbana, the album stitches together five years of growth, connections, and musical exploration. The inception of the album dates back to her initial two months in town, with the final track penned only a few months ago, encapsulating her evolving experience and insights.

The album is a rich collaboration featuring notable local musicians, each bringing their unique flair to the project. Clayton Burke enhances the tracks with his adept steel guitar play, while fiddler Claire Johnson adds a traditional vibrancy to the melodies. Jacob Croegaert, Charlie Harris, and Cody Jensen, alongside Sam Payne—who also passed on the Urbana Hootenanny hosting duties to McKown — further enrich the sound that defines this recent project.

Recording the album turned into a year-long endeavor, initially planned as a weekend session. The unexpected delay came after their graduate student drummer had to exit due to graduation commitments, leading Joe Wachtel to step in and record half of the drums, with Cody Jensen handling the drum tracks on some of the older songs. Matt Wentzel, the engineer, transported his entire studio to the Kalyx Center, ensuring the album’s production mirrored its heartfelt inception. Moreover, McKown and her partner Jacob went a step further, setting up their own recording studio in their garage to finalize the tracks, truly making this album a labor of love and a hallmark of community collaboration.

Emily Anne’s album with Two Shoes culminates powerfully with “Put Your Feet Up Mama,” a track that resonates deeply with her appreciation for the caregivers who enrich our lives. Describing the song, McKown reveals, “It’s really two songs in one—a twofer! It’s inspired by the hardworking and devoted moms of my life, of which I am so lucky to have many.” She elaborates on the song’s broader meaning, noting, “It’s a gentle reminder to bleeding hearts everywhere to let the world give back to you when you need it,” a sentiment drawn from her personal experiences and observations of figures like Claire Szoke, a major influence and former Executive Director at Channing-Murray. McKown characterizes the song as “a blessing” for those like her friend Claire, her mother, and other godmothers—”Women and men who do a lot of caregiving and in making the world better.” This song, split into two parts, serves as a heartfelt tribute to the spirit of Mother’s Day and to all those who give tirelessly, reminding them to also care for themselves.

Two musicians perform passionately on stage. The person on the left plays an accordion, wearing a denim jacket over a colorful blouse, while the person on the right strums a guitar, dressed in a blue denim shirt. Their expressions are focused and joyful, conveying a lively musical interaction.
Emily McKown on Instagram

In addition to Two Shoes and her role curating the Urbana Hootenanny, McKown also frequently performs with her dance-pop side project JEMM, a rowdy but joyful celebration of her inner “diva singer” that she calls “a childhood dream.” With acoustic musicians like Matt Turino of Meadowhawk, Matt Wentzel, Brian Maxwell, and her fiancé Jacob Croegaert backing her up, McKown gets to “wear sparkly dresses and a wig” for raucous JEMM gigs, letting loose and having fun.

Whether she’s philosophically exploring the intersections of spiritual well-being, artistry, and activism through Two Shoes or living out her glammed-up pop fantasy with JEMM’s musical celebration, McKown exemplifies what it means to be a creative force for connection and positive change in her community. Through her music and community efforts, McKown continues to show that while melodies may not solve every problem, they can open doors to conversations and understanding, subtly weaving together the fabric of her community.

You can learn more about McKown and her band Two Shoes on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, and Facebook.

Now through Mother’s Day, proceeds from all orders of the new album, Compass Rose, digitally or on CD on Bandcamp will go to the Channing-Murry Foundation’s Feeding Tomorrow Spring Fundraiser

Upcoming Appearances:

Emily Anne and Jacob Croegart (Duo)
Rose Bowl Tavern
106 N Race St.
Urbana
Th May 16th, 5 p.m.
Tips in bucket

Clayton Burke Band with Tiger Beat featuring Emily Anne
Rose Bowl Tavern
106 N Race St.
Urbana
F May 17th, 8:30 p.m.
Tips in bucket

Two Shoes
Urbana Free Library
210 W Green St
Urbana
Su May 19th, 2 p.m.
Free

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