Massachusetts is My Home: An Interview with Lori McKenna
Lori McKenna contains multitudes: she’s a proud mother of five children and is fiercely committed to her family and the domestic life they lead in Stoughton, Massachusetts; she’s also one of Nashville’s most sought-after songwriters, whose most recent hits include “I Want Crazy” by Hunter Hayes and “Your Side of the Bed” and “Sober,” both recorded by Little Big Town.
Her songwriting history includes cuts by Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Sara Evans, and many others. She’s carved out a solid solo career for herself as well, playing regional shows around the Boston area as well as cutting seven critically acclaimed albums and one EP. Her most recent project, Massachusetts, continues her trend of extremely personal looks into her life. Lori graciously took a little time out of her holidays to talk with us about that project, her songwriting, and what is coming down the road.
How has your life in Massachusetts affected your music?
I think that Mark Erelli, who produced the record, and I were talking about titles. We went through every single lyric on the album trying to find some common ground woven through the lyrics somewhere. We had this list of things that I always end up talking about like kitchens and things like that. We were trying to find a name that summed it all up. And Mark said that all these stories that are on the record could have well been people’s lives that live around here. The record was such a homecoming recording-wise because my last three recordings were made in Nashville. So the name Massachusetts was a perfect because I’m such a homebody. I hope someday to have a home down in Nashville. That would be really nice. But I won’t ever not have a house here in Massachusetts. It’s part of the people we are now.
What is it about that Boston area that keeps you from moving permanently down to Nashville? It would seem easier career and travel-wise to be located where so many of your co-writers are.
It definitely would. And sometimes I feel somewhat disconnected up here with Nashville’s writing community, which is such a great community of artists and people that I’ve come to know. It really has become my home away from home. I really do feel tied to it. And I think about it sometimes is that it would be so much easier to live there. But the problem with that is I am one of those people that focuses on only one thing at a time. When I’m done, I can turn that page and focus on the next thing. But I’m not the greatest multitasker that you’ve ever met in your life.
The thing about writing is that it can really consume you. And I think if I lived in Nashville, I would write maybe too much, because there are so many great writers there. Not that there aren’t here either, but there’s just so many of them there. I’ve got to know so many of them. I would want to write every day and I know myself as a writer. I’m not an everyday writer. I have to think on things. I can’t write a good hit song unless I’m really inspired. You know as a writer, that sometimes, you just have to talk yourself into it or it’s not going to happen. I don’t do it very well that way. For safety reasons (laughter), I know myself well enough to know that it wouldn’t work. It would probably be like a gambler living in Vegas or something. That wouldn’t be good for me. It would be like an alcoholic living above the neighborhood bar.
Do you ever feel like you have split personalities as an in-demand songwriter and mom at home?
It’s funny because the writing has become such a big part of all of our lives here now because it’s a fun job. Not everyone gets to have a career that they’re so passionate about and that is so giving. A career in music isn’t the easiest career to choose. When you give to whatever your passion is, whatever your art is, it rewards you somehow. The way my career rolled out, it kind of happened by itself without me even knowing it. A lot of times, I find myself trying to catch up to it. It’s become a big part of everyone’s life here because I write so much here. There’s a songwriter here almost every week. Not in December because it’s holiday season, but almost every week the rest of the year. There’s someone writing with me and we’re having dinner here together and the kids know my songwriter friends. My close songwriter friends are like extended parts of the family.
It’s one of the careers where we end up talking a lot about around here. It just doesn’t shut off. The kids have become country music lovers and they’re a big part of it. There are really not those two personalities. The only two parts are when I’m home and when I’m gone. I don’t do really well when I’m gone and no one likes it when I’m gone. I don’t travel well. Everyone hates it when I’m gone. I only travel three to four days at a time at the most. That’s the part they struggle with. They ask, “Where’s that lady who does our laundry?” (laughter) “When is she coming back?” Every working parent goes through that. My sister has to travel for her job and it’s the same thing for every parent that way I think. It makes us appreciate coming home all that much more even if it’s coming home to a messy house. (laughter)
Are the kids pretty clued in to your music achievements?
I think so. They’re not very impressed by it, I’ll say that. (laughter)
I think they get it. I have one daughter and she’s 12 and it’s funny to see her like other artists like One Direction. She’s a fan of Katy Perry and One Direction. She likes the country music and the folk music that we listen to as well. But to watch her become a fan of a huge pop star is funny because she’s met enough bigger country artists that she knows are just human beings. She has a grounded vision of the music that she looks up to. It makes her look up to them in a different way than a kid who wasn’t exposed to so much music. She’s much more grounded in her approach. She wants to know who wrote the songs and who is playing what. It’s kind of interesting. As a girl, you just think it’s going to be Beatlemania. But it hasn’t been that way. It’s fun to watch it through her eyes because it seems to be from a different perspective. It’s different from how I looked at it when I was her age.
The songs you pick for your own projects seem to be a little more personal, a little more revealing, than some of your co-writes like Hunter Hayes’ hit, “I Want Crazy.” Is that a byproduct of having someone else involved? And what draws you to the more personal ones for your own projects?
I think mostly it’s because I’m going to have to play them at my shows. I just always want to play the shows during my little shows that affect me emotionally the most. Or at least what I think affect other people the most. I think back and remember being on Warner Brothers and having meetings with the team that I was working with that had those other songs that I had written along the way. And I had to decide if I wanted to record the songs the songs that are going to make people dance or make people feel something. Which room am I best at? Was I going to get my band together and play at bars or sit in a room of 100 people and make them feel something that they didn’t expect to feel when they walked into that room that night? I’m just better suited for the emotional songs than the songs that make people dance. Sometimes I wish I had a little bit of that more in me. But there are people that are good at it. That’s what they do. I so admire that. Dancing is moving too. You can feel something back all that movement and all of that letting go. But you can always sit and quietly catch yourself holding your breath. You can be moved that way as well. I feel like I’m better suited at making people feel that way.
You wrote a doozy that was just released by Ronnie Dunn called “I Wished I Still Smoked Cigarettes.” Walk me through that song.
That song is such a blessing to me. I wrote it with Barry Dean and Luke Laird. I’m going to tell you exactly what happened. They are such sweet boys and I love them both dearly. They’re both just amazing songwriters. They are wonderful people. We write together from time to time just the three of us. One day, we were writing a song at Universal Publishing, and I don’t know what had happened, but Luke walked into the room and said, “I wish I still smoked cigarettes.” He wasn’t frustrated but something had happened and he just said that. And I said, “Oh my gosh, that would be such a good song, that’s such a good title.” So Barry wrote it down–he’s the keeper of all the words–and a few months later, Barry called and said he and Luke had started the song. We got on the computer — I was in Massachusetts and they were in Nashville — and they played me pretty much the whole song. They give me credit for certain lines, but from what I remember, most of it was theirs. I was just the lucky girl that said that it should be a song. They handed it off and let me help them finish it, which, of course, they didn’t have to do.
But I’m so proud of that song mostly because two friends, who could have just taken off with it and finished it on their own, waited for me to be part of it because I was in the room when it started. That’s what Nashville is about. That’s how you end up falling in love with other songwriters. They love the songs as much as you do and they respect each other and each other’s work. We all just want to write that next great song. That’s all any of us want to do. That’s a good example of that. They certainly could have finished it up without me and made sure I could be part of it.
And of course, there’s Ronnie Dunn. How could you possibly want for anyone else to sing it? The whole thing has been really exciting.
What other projects do you have in the works?
The way I write is that I just write. And I just kind of hope that someone who is making a record out there will like what I’m putting out. Over the years, I’ve become a real fan of co-writing even though I’ve written alone a lot. I have this thing where Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey and I write together. And I don’t know how this happened, but we got called The Love Junkies. We’ve been writing a bunch together. We stay in a house for three days at a time all day and all night. We don’t leave the house, we have food sent it. And wine. (laughter) For three days, we just write. That’s been a fun project for me because it’s writing time and girl time. As you know, Hillary and Lindsey are the best songwriters and we’re busy with that. We’re talking about recording some of that.
We wrote the song “Sober” together for Little Big Town. I love Little Big Town. They are just the nicest people. I’ve never known a band like them. They’re just so loving and supportive of each other and just so dang talented. They blow my mind.
Other than that, I’m just writing. I’ve got two trips planned and both are revolving around Barry Dean. So I get five days with Barry in the next two months. He’s like my Liz. He’s my go-to person. If I have something I’m itching to write and I’m up here, and I can’t figure out how to do it, I’ll call one of them and they will bail me out.
And I think I might do another EP with Mark Erelli in February. It’ll be stripped down and just the two of us. I’d like to record some songs that I’ve done over the last few months that I’d like to get out there.
What music goals to you still have for yourself? What do you hope your legacy is?
When I first started playing music outside of my house, my brother Richie told me that you just want to keep going. You don’t just want one great record and then die. They all kind of build off of each other. From the very beginning, I’ve tried–and I haven’t lost that spirit–to become a better writer. I think that’s all I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to write songs that people can identify with. Even if they can’t identify with me as a person, they’ll be able to identify with me through a song, even if it is about my life. I’m always trying to figure out how to do that better. At the end of the day, you want somebody to remember you as a songwriter as someone who tried to write the song that made someone feel something they couldn’t necessarily express on their own. Most of the stuff I write is fairly simple and domestic-based stuff. Somebody will walk up to me after a show and say, “That’s exactly how I feel.” And that’s what I get most excited about.
What is country music to you?
I think country music is a lot like folk music. When I first started out in Boston, we had this folk music scene. I remember when I first heard of it, there were a million different descriptions. It’s the same for Americana now. I think that country music is a lot like folk music in such that it’s lyrically-based and it’s pretty grounded. It’s one of those things where you can hear a song it will instantly remind you of being a kid when you were growing up. If we get really too elaborate with the lyrics or too crazy with the melody, it’s harder for people to fall in love with those songs. I think we’re all drawn to the more simple songs. They’re songs that feel like conversations. They’re songs where you can imagine the characters or you might even know those characters. To me, that’s what country is.
I didn’t grow up listening to country music. And when I started many years back, I always wondered why we didn’t listen to it growing up. It’s all about people and stories. They’re little short stories. That’s what I love about it. Even now, on country radio, I know as a mom, I can listen to the country station or the coffeehouse station or the folk station and you’re going to be alright- especially with little kids in the car. They’re family music. It’s the kind of songs you can grow up on. It’s the kind of music you can listen to with your parents or your kids and not be embarrassed about. I’m proud of country music for still writing music that isn’t just about sex. When you listen to the pop stations, that’s really what the songs are all about. We’ve got some sex in there, but there’s mostly real life stuff in there. That’s where you can you hear that voice where you know that person. That’s what it’s all about.
- bob: Thanks Barry. Just reserved the Adam Gussow book. Sounds interesting.
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- Leeann: Wow! Heavy topic and horrifying indeed! "Beer for My Horses" was all fun and games until that reference, I'll have …
- Barry Mazor: Everything else aside, the way that reporter fills us in, with must-have, pointless generational snark included, about who this "Little …
- luckyoldsun: "The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia" seems to be about a lynching--even if there's something about a judge …
- Arlene: Sorry. I meant to give the link for "Supper Time." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZ58Kfe41kI
- Arlene: Another song sung by Ethel Waters: Irving Berlin's "Supper Time"
- bob: Powerful songs. I read the book "A Lynching in the Heartland" by James H. Madison about a dozen years ago. …
- Ron: Sky Above, Mud Below by Tom Russell is another.
- Jack Williams: Another Othis Taylor song from White African is "My Soul's in Louisiana."