It’s Got To Be Honest: Interview with Lori McKenna
Singer/songwriter Lori McKenna likes to think of herself as a housewife first. Married to her husband for 22 years (she has known him since third grade), mother of five children, and life-long citizen of small town Stoughton, Massachusetts, she takes pride in her home and family more than anything else. At age 27, she began performing locally at open mics and released three albums of self-penned material before her breakthrough in 2004, when friend and fellow artist Mary Gauthier passed her songs to Melanie Howard in Nashville. This led to signing with Harlan Howard’s publishing company and eventually to Faith Hill hearing them in 2005. Hill had just completed recording her album, but added three of McKenna’s songs to the roster: “Stealing Kisses,” “If You Ask,” and what would become her CD’s title cut, “Fireflies.”
Hill said of McKenna, “I don’t remember ever being impacted by a songwriter the way I was with her. Her writing is masterful, with a pureness that is completely unaffected. The songs are such a great combination of depth and realness…there’s just this indescribable collision of innocence and honesty in her writing.”
In 2007, Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore produced McKenna’s Unglamorous, and she toured with McGraw and Hill on their Soul2Soul Tour. Other outside cuts from her catalog include Sara Evans’ “Bible Song,” Tim McGraw’s “I’m Workin’,” Jimmy Wayne’s “True Believer,” and most recently on Keith Urban’s deluxe edition CD Get Closer, a song McKenna has now herself recorded, the emotional “Luxury of Knowing.” The new Country Strong soundtrack features the McKenna co-write “Chances Are.”
In early 2011, she will be releasing her sixth album, titled Lorraine. The artist is named for her mother Lorraine, who died when McKenna was just seven years old. She admits that this is her most personal album she has ever made.
Two days before I spoke with her, McKenna was in Washington, D.C. to perform for the CMA Songwriter Series at the Library of Congress, along with Bob DiPiero, Little Big Town and Brett James. Following the show, her beloved Collings OM-1 acoustic guitar was tragically left behind in a taxi cab, which is where our interview begins.
Lori McKenna: I just can’t believe the poor little thing is gone. We were just calling and calling all these cab companies yesterday, and I spoke to a lovely woman at the D.C. Taxi Commission. Everyone’s been really helpful. People who have instruments are like, “Oh, no!” [They] feel what it feels like to lose something like that. I told my husband yesterday I feel like I left my kid with a bad babysitter (laughter).
It’s like your worst nightmare come true. This must have been a shock for you.
When you lose it on an airline, you always get it back. Even when we landed at Boston, when the other luggage was coming around, half of me expected the guitar to just be on the baggage claim [carousel] (laughter). I’ve lost it for a couple of days before on a plane and it has always come back.
You’ve probably read about musicians losing priceless violins in taxis, and they often do come back. That’s why I was telling your publisher [Whitney Williams of Universal Music] “Don’t give up hope.”
Janis Ian had a guitar that was stolen. From what I remembered Janis telling me, it had come back eighteen years later. She always kept word out that she has a guitar and this is the serial number, and if you ever saw it – it was hers.
Do you have a nice back-up?
I do. I have several guitars, but of course that one is my favorite. It’s funny – it’s made me realize a couple of things. One, I have all these guitars and I was going to sell two of them and buy another guitar anyway. I was going to recycle two of them that don’t sound that great live anymore. You know, they go through these little changes. The one I lost wasn’t one I was going to sell, but it made me realize how much I loved that guitar and the Collings guitar company – they’re so beautiful. So it sort of put a buzz under me to maybe look at getting another Collings anyway. It was a little bit of a trauma, but [it also made me realize] there’s too much to be thankful for to cry over it all day (laughter).
Your publisher told me it was on that guitar that you appeared on Oprah, and it was on that guitar that you performed while touring with Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. You wrote so many songs on it, as well.
I think most of this record was written on that guitar. I have a beautiful guitar that Faith gave me – a Taylor. I wouldn’t travel with it. It’s an anniversary Taylor – very expensive. That’s my most prized guitar. But this one [the lost Collings] – I sort of took it everywhere. It sounded good, so that was the one I had written most of the songs on that I’ve written over the last year and a half.
I’ve been listening to your new album Lorraine that’s coming out in 2011. Some of the songs are so stunning, Lori. Songs like “Luxury of Knowing” – I can’t get that musical hook out of my head – “The Most,” “Buy This Town,” and “All I Ever Do” are fine artistry. Please talk about putting together this new record.
Barry Dean produced this record for me. We started in January of this year. Originally, the idea was that I would make an EP – just a handful of songs. We made an eight song EP; we picked songs that weren’t very specific. Some of them were still personal, but they didn’t have a lot of specifics in them. The idea was to pitch the EP for film and TV. You could have a song in a TV show, but it needs to have a bit of a general sense to it that everyone can paint their own picture with it. So we started there.
Barry is one of my dearest friends and I write with him all the time. [Barry wrote “God’s Will” cut by Martina McBride] He’s sort of like my musical brother. It was a great experience [working on the record]. The players that he works with the most – his favorites – maybe “favorites” is a bad word – but, you know, the players that he tends to work with in sessions – they kind of all got it, especially the piano player Jeff Roach, who ended up playing a lot of the piano on the record. They liked the fact that the music was a little different. It wasn’t straight-down-the-road pop/country. They thought it was a bit unique in that perspective. As time went on, every now and then we would write a song, or I’d have a song and ask Barry to help me record it. It just got to the point where by the spring, I was really itching to make a [full] record. Before that, I didn’t want to spend all this time and honestly, the money, and make something that I didn’t know I was ready to make. After Bittertown and then Unglamorous, I didn’t want to take a step backwards or sideways. I wanted to continue to grow like I felt I had on those two records.
Through the help of Barry and Universal Publishing, they all allowed me to do this. It was kind of slow – it took us a while because we only went down to Nashville once a month [from her home in Massachusetts]. At one point we were done, [but] this is what always happens with records: you finish making a record, then you write a favorite song. That’s how “Buy This Town” came in. If I had to pick one [as my favorite on the record], which would be hard, it might be that song. Right after “Buy This Town” came was “You Get a Love Song.” It isn’t my favorite, but it added what I needed on the record. I needed that one up-tempo – I call it up-tempo, but I know it’s mid-tempo (laughter). To me it’s heavy metal. They all let me go back in and re-cut some more songs. The last three songs [to be included] were “Buy This Town,” “You Get a Love Song” and “All I Ever Do.” Those three songs almost didn’t make the record. At the end of the day, I think I have a piece of work that covers a lot of ground, and I have a lot of different feelings that all can be held in the same little hand.
I noticed there are many piano-driven songs on Lorraine. Is that just because Barry Dean writes basically on piano? Were they written on piano?
A lot of them were. The thing about the piano in this record is over the last year, I have basically fallen in love with the piano. I have a mini piano in my house that my sister found for me in someone’s basement about ten years ago that is a really unique little piano. I love it, love it, love it, but I can’t play it at all, but I can WRITE on it. So between my frustration that I can’t play, and my love for simplistic piano playing, and then writing with Barry who’s basically, I guess, first a piano player – he plays guitar, too – but I just love the way the piano has this emotion that – the guitar does, too, but the piano has a different emotion – so really with my begging, we ended up with a lot of piano on this record.
Barry is always the first to back away and let you be you, and so, because I’m a guitar player – in his brain – it would be a guitar-driven record. At the end of the day, he was just trying to make me happy, me begging for more piano all the time. “If He Tried” I wrote by myself, and I did write it on my piano, but I could never play it live. I can write on it, but I can’t play on it.
Have you written songs on piano in the past, or was that new for this venture?
Yeah, that was definitely new for this record. “If He Tried” and “The Most” I wrote with Barry, but I started that on the piano. A lot of times, I’ll start something on the piano, then I’ll call Barry and say I have this song and I need your help. “That’s How You Know” was also written on the piano. “Rocket Science” is another one, but that’s Tom Douglas’ song (laughter). I was writing with him at Universal one day and I said I want to write a song about how love really is like rocket science. He just sat down and sang me that whole chorus the way it is, so that was Tom’s doing. [Douglas also wrote Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me.”]
In what other ways is this new album different from your last one, Unglamorous? On that, you also worked with Nashville A-list writers, but Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore were your producers. How was it different working with the two groups of producers?
I think the process, in general, is pretty similar. I’ve been lucky enough, in both situations, to work with producers that let the song and the words be the star, and fill in everything else. That’s what Barry did and that’s also the way Tim and Byron were. My music is lyrically driven more than musically driven. It’s more about the feeling than anything else. In those ways, the process was similar.
The difference with this one, because it took the better part of a year to make it, [was that] the songs came sometime piece by piece and they were written that way. When we did Unglamorous, we had like nine days in the studio and 14 songs to cut, and that’s what we did. We had the group of songs to start with. We hardly added anything – just one song at the end of the day. You’re in there with the same players in a beautiful studio – that side of the process was much quicker with Unglamorous than with Lorraine. I didn’t really intend to take this long with it, but that’s the way it turned out and I think it’s what it needed. I look at the songs that are on Lorraine and there’s a whole little story that goes with it. This record is much more Bittertown than it is Unglamorous. It’s more personal and more me. If I was going to make a record in my basement, it would be this record, without the great players. It wouldn’t sound as good if I did it by myself, but this process is a little bit more homespun, I guess – more organic, more emotional than the last album was.
I sense a very deep love and respect for lyrics in your work. You’ve got some lines that knock me out, lines like: “If I could buy one night, I wouldn’t buy the one you’d think/I’d buy the one when my eyes teared up by the light above the kitchen sink.” Do lyrics come easily for you?
Sometimes they do. You know that song [“Buy This Town”] was written – I started it in my van. I was driving my kids to school. I live in a town I have lived in my whole life, and I drive through the center of town up to ten times a day, dropping off kids and picking up kids and all that stuff. That song just literally popped in my head at 7:30 in the morning when I was dropping them off at the high school. In those songs, they’re easy, but those songs don’t come very often. Those are like musical gifts. Every songwriter that I know would tell you that. My friend calls them “furball songs.” They don’t come all that often; you’re lucky if you get one on a record. And “Buy This Town” was the one on this record. Maybe I loved it so much because it was easy. I write everything down. I keep notes and I have all these papers everywhere. I’m like most writers in the way I think I have a good idea, and when I start to write it, it turns out terrible (laughter).
Are there certain songs that move you more than others? I noticed your voice breaking at the end of the last track on the album, “Still Down Here?” Is that a tough one to get through?
Yeah. The first time I sang it, I tracked it with the piano player. I sang and Jeff played, and then they went back and added the cello. So when I went to sing the track for the record, Barry didn’t let me hear it beforehand. He said, “Go in and sing it, and you’ll hear the cello come in.” I didn’t get to listen to it with the cello until I was singing it. The cello adds so much emotion to everything. It’s such a moving instrument; sort of takes your breath away sometimes.
That song was written for my sister-in-law Nancy who did the photos for the record. She passed away last winter and I had most of those words and a really bad melody to go along with it. Barry knew Nancy. She was 46, I think, when we lost her. She had cancer. She was a big part of all of our lives. So I had all these words about it and Barry had that melody. I didn’t write a lick of that melody, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard. He just took these words I had and fit them in. Then when I heard that cello, I was thinking of her and I just lost it. Then of course, when he put all those vocals together, and he played it back for me, I definitely questioned it at first. I did get through it – there were other takes where I did sing it through without losing it. [In the end], he said I think we should keep this. I played it for one of my kids and said what do you think? Because all of us had gone through this loss and my brother more than anyone, [it was a group decision] and they all okayed it. It’s honest more than anything else. It’s not sung well, but it’s honest, so we ended up keeping it.
Was it always meant to be the last track? It’s a perfect ending to your album.
There was no where else to put it but on the end of the record. I’m always the last-song-on-the-record girl. When I buy a record, I always like the last song the best; that’s usually the most emotional song there. It’s hard to put a song like this – with an ending like this – in the middle of the record, and have the listener re-group before listening to the next track. You can’t place it anywhere else.
There is a palpable sadness to all of the songs on this album. Is that just something that unstoppably comes out of you when you sit down to write?
If I had to describe to you the way my writing is, and my job and my career, my kids – [I’d say that] I’m really a very happy person. I’m an optimistic person. I’m a positive person and I’ve been really lucky, overwhelmingly lucky and blessed in so many ways. I’m always drawn to everyday people and everyday life. I know a lot of people – some of my dearest friends – have really hard lives in one way or another. So, everybody has these stories in their life. In “You Get a Love Song,” [to paraphrase the song]: you’re probably not gonna write a book about yourself, you’re probably not gonna make a movie. These things that you go through, we all sort of endure, but they lead us to something else. I love that part of a song. I love songs that touch on just regular people that go through regular things. We might not talk about it much, but they’re really hard and that can be rewarding and get you to somewhere else, where you didn’t even expect to get to. I’m drawn to that stuff. Most of the songs on the record are kind of examples of that. They start out with something that might have happened personally with me, but then that storyteller kicks in: you exaggerate it a bit or you make it a little bit harder than it is [in order] to get your point across. I love music like that, like Bruce Springsteen – the way he can draw out of you, the way my husband probably feels putting in a day’s work, working everyday and driving a utility truck. I just love that stuff. We’re all sort of buried down. We do what we do everyday to get through our lives; then we hear something that brings it out of us. I’m just really drawn to that.
I’ve read about people who have lost a parent early in life – Rosie O’Donnell has talked a lot about it. Madonna has talked about losing her mother at such a young age. Does the sadness I hear in some of your songs have anything to do with losing your mom when you were just seven years old? Do you tap into that emotion to get to that place in your music?
It’s part of it. I’m always wondering about her and all that. It’s true that that’s made me more than anything else. I definitely like happy songs, too, but I don’t write them as easily as the ones that are darker. I feel like in most of them, at the end of the songs, that there’s hope and a bright side mixed in there as well…maybe not on “American Revolver” (laughter) [a song about settling heartbreak with a gun].
Can you share with us a bit about your writing process? Having five kids, it must be challenging to find that quiet place to think. Well, you did mention writing in the van. [Lori’s children range in age from 6 to 21 years.]
I’ve had a few songs start in the car over the years. The problem with that is you always have to get yourself home to finish it before it disappears. The way we set up the house is I have a little office in the basement and right outside the office is the playroom for the little kids. My kids are really good; they’re used to the music always being around somewhere. Maybe because I’m the youngest of six, I’m pretty good at blocking out distracting noise. I have friends and have worked with other artists and writers who need to have a vibe in the room and need to have these outside things in order for their best work to come through. Growing up with a lot of people in the house, I’m not really like that. I keep everything in my little brain instead of needing a lot on the outside. Many times they’ll set up a vibe in a studio to make everyone else feel comfortable. My brain doesn’t really need that. I can’t really write on a train or a plane because I need an instrument in my hand, so I’m not good that way. I know friends who can sit and write the whole song without an instrument, but I’m not like that. As far as noise and being interrupted over and over again – that doesn’t bother me. I can usually get back to where I was just because I’m so used to it.
Does that mean you hear the music and lyric simultaneously?
Yeah, that’s the best way for me. I used to never be able to do this in front of people, but now I’ve become pretty comfortable with it – where I’ll start playing something on my guitar and start singing words that don’t make sense, like babble. I’ve met a lot of people who work the same way. It seems to me that the best song will have words coming out with that melody and not have them attached to it later on. That’s why “Still Down Here” is kind of remarkable when you think about it because I had these words and Barry found this melody. We had to change some syllables – not every word of that song was written before. Barry can do that because he’s brilliant, but for me, my best [lyrics and melody] come at the same time. That’s why I need to have that guitar in my hand to do a good job.
How does your husband feel about having snippets of your personal lives popping into your songs?
You know what? He’s really, really good about it for two reasons. The main reason why it works is that he doesn’t actually listen to what I say in songs. The second reason is because he knows my process. As most writers do, I can start with one sentence or one feeling [that’s personal] and then it takes on a life of it’s own from there. He knows that for me, there’s no point in wasting a song if there’s not going to be somebody’s honesty in there. It doesn’t have to be necessarily MY honesty, but if a character in a song I’m writing is going to stay, whatever they say, it’s got to be honest.
Faith Hill’s CD Fireflies was a major turning point in your career. Talk about that, and how did it change your life?
It’s impossible, really, to get through a day without thinking about Faith. She’s really been such an angel to the family. When we did Oprah and all those things, that was always the question: “How has this changed your life?” At that point when we did Oprah, I had only met Faith one time before. I hadn’t made Unglamorous yet and I hadn’t gotten to know them [Faith and Tim] as people or toured with them. Meeting them has given me a couple of gifts as far as the publishing side and the artist side of my career. I could always maintain myself as an artist and have this light that is beautiful, as far as being able to express myself in my work. But the publishing side of it allows me – affords me – to get on a plane and go to Kansas City for two days and play a show I’d never been able to afford to get to before. The way touring usually works for an artist like me is you get in a van or a rented car and drive around the country for two weeks at a time. It’s really difficult for me to leave my kids for more than two nights. I get a little crazy and stuff falls apart and I get cranky (laughter). Touring, for me, was always a money nightmare because I would have to fly out and fly in, instead of taking the economical route of touring: just getting in a car with a guitar and drive around and do ten dates and go home. I can’t do that. I don’t really want to do that, but I also can’t.
So the publishing side of my career feeds my artist side of me and that’s because of Faith cutting my songs. But she’s also changed things in the way of the lesson to my kids, as far as you should do what you want to do – what you love to do – because on some level, there will be reward even though it doesn’t seem like it’s going to pan out. You fight for it; if you give it your all and you work at it, you can really do anything you want to do. It might not happen the way you expect it to, you might not be a rock star, but you’ll be able to do something that you love that meets your goal. That was the biggest lesson with Faith finding the music and taking me in. It’s been a gift in that way you can look at your kids and say, “You shouldn’t dream big because these crazy things sometimes happen to people.” (Laughter)
With Tim making my last record, taking me out on the road – an artist just gains a lot of confidence through that. If you’d ask me five or six years ago, “Do you feel like you should be here? What do you call yourself?” – I really wouldn’t have known what to say. Now if someone sits beside me on a plane and says, “Hey, what do you do for a living?” – I say, “I’m a songwriter.” All of that confidence comes from the two of them and Byron and Missy Gallimore – people who believed in me before anyone else did in Nashville. They’re great people.
There’s a quote from you on your website describing yourself as “…just a housewife from Stoughton who likes to write songs.” Is that still true today?
I was thinking about this this morning. I was cleaning out my dishes in my china cabinet, getting ready for the holidays. That led to the pantry that led to the kitchen. I actually like cleaning the house. I was thinking about the word “homemaker.” I’m going to be 42 in a couple of weeks and I kind of finally get the word homemaker: You make this place. It’s really important to me to have pride in and love my house. I keep spending a lot of time making it that way. I was thinking about that, how the word homemaker leads me to the word housewife, which I know some people just hate. I think it’s a good word – for me it is anyway. I kid my girlfriends in town – I call them my housewife friends. We’re people who have all these other things in our world, but my main priorities are my kids and my family, my husband and my house, my neighbors. I guess where that quote came from is Bob Dylan. I can’t compare myself to Bob Dylan in any way, shape or form, but his famous quote is, “I’m just a songwriter.” And that’s really what we all are. We’re songwriters, but I’m still a housewife first. So I’m a housewife who happens to be a songwriter.
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- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim Z. That changes everything. I surrender.
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- Barry Mazor: Matter of fact, as always--I did. The notes say the album was recorded & mixed by and at "The …
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- Jim Z: that record was recorded in El Paso. (you could look it up) and other than appearing in Austin once in …
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- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim. The record's more or less out of Austin. But I'm sure they're also good in El Paso...
- Jim Z: Dirty River Boys are from El Paso, Texas.