Erin McCarley: Two hours with a budding star

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Erin McCarley and bandmate, KS, eat a quick dinner before performing at Blue Martini in Orlando, FL on May 15, 2009. (Photo by Nick Masuda / Orlando Sentinel)
From flashing a Florida truck driver to her feline music producer, Erin McCarley has a story to tell.

And her music is no different.

The budding alternative-pop rock starlet made her second Orlando appearance in as many weeks on Friday night, entertaining a tame crowd at Blue Martini.

But, McCarley's music is anything but tame. Her tunes - which have been featured on Grey's Anatomy, One Tree Hill and The Hills – partner angelic vocals with thoughtful and storytelling lyrics.

The 30-year-old Texan sat down with the Sentinel on Friday, talking about life on the road, finding life away from home and how Clive the cat is to thank for her first album, "Love, Save the Empty."

How is life on the road? I grew up not traveling, so all of this is eye opening and fun for me right now. We get to explore each city, which is all new to me. I wasn't on a tour bus this last go around, we were on a van, which is much different. On a bus, you drive on a bus all night and you're in the next city and you relax all day and get what you need done. Where as in a van, you get in the morning and you drive. And you are doing that all day.

Why the van? People have their own budgets, so budget wise, a van is cheaper. When I jump on somebody's bus, it is like renting a room at a hotel, the artist pays for the cost. It's a good way to cut back... I have a month off now, but our next tour, (bandmate) KS and I are just going to hit the road in a car and open for Mat Kearney. It'll be fun. It'll be an adventure.

How hard is it to make it right now? We were just talking about that in the car. With being a new artist, there are so many new bands out there. There is more music than ever right now, and people have shorter attention spans than ever. I was looking through Spin magazine, looking at all the festivals, schedules and seeing all these bands that I've never heard of in my life, but they have followings. It is pretty crazy, it's crazy. You have to come up with your own marketing campaign. You have to be the President of the United States and tout around each city and win them over. That's what I feel like I am doing right now. It's just about a song; it all boils down to a song. If people connect to that song, then they latch on and want to get to know the artist. So, it does boil down to the songwriting. There are exceptions, some have more gimmicks. I know, for me, I don't have any gimmicks. I am not saying that is a good thing, some people are rally talented at other things, but my voice and my songs are what I have, so I just hoping that people hear it, connect and want to know more about me.

How much has your life changed? People being able to come up to me after a show and tell me, "Your song helped me get through the week." I am seeing people connect and passing the word onto their friends. People in the first three rows are actually singing the words, and that feels good.

You seem to want to tell a story with your music, what is it? When I signed the record deal, the record was already done. They just took it from me and told me that would use it as is, which was really cool. I made it very clear that I didn't want anything changed or I wasn't going to sign the deal. No reason to change it.

You stuck to your guns? It was a dialogue that happened for a month and a half. We were talking to different labels, but I was very adamant about (not changing) it. I had worked on this album for two years, alone, with my producer, just the two of us. No reason that I want to break up the songs and add any more songs. It was all a concept, it made a story. It made sense together.

Are you tempted to go commercial? I obviously had commercialism in mind when I made the record, my producer was very good about bringing me back to the middle, saying "I know you can go off and do your little artsy-fartsy thing, but people want to recognize it." So he helped me come back to the middle. I don't think it is "middle-pop," but it definitely has elements of pop. There are some days where I want to say the hell with it and go either totally make my next record weird and probably the way I would want to do it. But, I know what I have to do to survive, but I don't think you have to cater to everything. I feel like I did that with this record. I don't know if that is going to bite me in the butt in the end, and never explode to a household name, I don't know. That was kind of my goal, was to have household name, but I don't know if that is my goal anymore.

What is your goal? Where are you in five years? I don't know. Listening to a lot of music, going through iPods, exposing myself to classic songs I've never listened to. I am excited to continue to grow, and write. Not write for other people, although I'd probably be pretty smart to do that to make more money. But, just right now, I still have a lot of things to get off my chest and things to say.

With fame comes being a role model. How important is that to you? I go back-and-forth on that. I am hard on myself, I respect myself and the position I have for little girls, especially this tour. I had a ton of little girls that use me as a soundboard for them. They cling on to every little thing, so it is important. I have been put in role model positions for my whole life, so there is part of me that wants to rebel and have no need to have that filter or shield up anymore. It's not a fake shield, but you have to filter when you are doing that. There are times where I don't want to. But, in the end, I know that is a role that I need to be in.

Dead or alive, who would you love to perform with on stage? I've always said Beck. I don't know how that would work, but I think he is really cool. I love the programming he does and the string arrangements. Beat driven stuff, which I grew up dancing, so I am attracted to that at times. My dream was to dance in music videos. Grew up on Janet Jackson, so I learned every move of hers, as well as Madonna and Paula Abdul and all of them.

Envision bringing that to your shows? My mom tries to get me to do that, she says that I would be perfect for it. I don't think so. I'd be pulling out 80s moves, because I haven't danced in years.

What's life like on the road when you're married? It's crazy. Very crazy. But, I guess it depends on where you are in the relationship.

Miss your "baby?" Yeah, I miss Clive. He's my cat. He's crazy cat. Craziest cat you've ever met. He helped produce my record.

What? I waited to name him when I first got him, and I had just started writing songs. He is a music cat. When I started playing my songs with the guitar that he liked, he would stay in my lap, and when I would start playing something and it would be bad, he'd start running around like a siren was going off. So his name is Clive (after music producing legend Clive Davis), because he is like the magical ear.

Does playing a place like Blue Martini appeal to you? This is interesting, never done anything like this before. Intimate is sometimes harder than big, I feel more intimate when there are a thousand people, and I don't know why. I feel safer. I guess it is that I feel more exposed when there is an intimate thing and so I feel more vulnerable, therefore more inhibitions and then feel inadequate. But, when there is a bigger audience, like (on her last tour with Jack's Mannequin), it was a great thing, it's by far the biggest crowds I've played in front of since my record came out. I grew up in big mega Texas churches, where it was 5,000 people, so I'm used to singing in front of big crowds. But, I wasn't singing my songs, with my guitar and being the one in charge. I like the bigger crowd, I feel like I can talk to people more personally that way. I am very private, you get me with 10 people, and I won't talk. I need to be entertained.

So, I see on Twitter that you use Priceline on the road?? Our label books hotels for us all the time, but it kind of became the event of the day when we were driving around in the van. We'd find four-star hotels and put in a bid for $60 and it was almost always accepted. Being on tour, you want a place where you can walk around and get to know a city, so we'd find places and try to get it as cheap as possible.

Have your Florida shows stood out in any way? Erin: Yeah, I flashed a truck driver. KS: Erin! Oh my gosh. Erin: I haven't told anyone that. KS: The press shows up and this is what you tell them? Erin: Well, it was our day of titties; we wanted to go to Hooters too. KS: We wanted to find the restaurant, and we were driving down the highway, and I said "Erin, flash the truck driver." Thought she'd just laugh. But, she turns and says, "Ok." And she did it. She apologized to the truck driver as she was doing it. We just stood there and said, "She did it. Erin McCarley just flashed a truck driver." Erin: My mom is going to find this out through this. I probably should call her and tell her. She'll think it's funny. Right?

Just another story, and Erin McCarley wouldn't have it any other way.