Straddling the line between performer and backroom writer gives this supremely talented artist a unique insight into the creative process
As a writer and co-writer, Lori McKenna has forged some of the biggest tunes to have burst out of Nashville in the last few years. Little Big Town’s Girl Crush, the 2015 CMA Song Of The Year, and Tim McGraw’s country chart-topper Humble And Kind are just the tip of the iceberg, with McKenna providing tracks for stars such as Faith Hill, Alison Krauss and Keith Urban and she remains one of the most coveted songwriters out there.
McKenna is also a performer and artist in her own right and this July saw the release of her latest album The Bird & The Rifle. Spilling over with the devastating emotion of everyday life and the ability to turn the simple into the universal, it’s a record that deserves to gain its creator huge recognition and transform her career in the same way Traveller did for Chris Stapleton.
We’ve wanted to speak to McKenna since witnessing her steal the show at the CMA Songwriters Series event back in March. The release of her 10th solo record gave us the perfect opportunity to discuss her process and the differences between writing for herself and for someone else…
We thought you were terrific at the O2. How was that night for you?
“It was such a pleasure to be there. My family vacationed in London when I was a freshman in High School and I was determined to move there at the time, it took me all this time to get back. I was informed that the audience was going to be amazing and to prepare myself for that and they really were stunning. I think they even made me cry.”
It was great to see the artists remove all the layers from the songs and show how well-crafted they are beneath the production, is that daunting for you as a performer/writer?
“I love writer rounds for that very reason. The writer of a song has such a unique perspective on the song because they are coming at it from the inside out. The writer knows all the roads that song could have taken and all the ways it could have turned differently from where it landed.”
How does it feel to have released your 10th record?
“It’s shocking to be honest. I remember very well making my first record and thinking that that might be it. I am so blessed that I get to continue to grow as a songwriter and performer.”
Is it nice to be releasing your own album rather than be contributing songs to other artists?
“It’s nice to be allowed to do both of those things. I love songwriting and that is my favorite part of this job but the performer in me likes to get out there every now and then. The balance has been a good one for me.”
Does the record represent your current view of the world?
“The record is really just ten little stories. I wanted them all to thread together somehow but they are domestic and ordinary in a lot of ways. I think the world is made up of little stories like these (and hopefully some happy stories too).”
Did you approach the writing differently to if you’re writing for someone else?
“Usually I can tell pretty early on if the song I’m writing that day is one I would cut myself. But honestly every day I’m just trying to write the best song I can. It’s fun when they work out for someone else to sing them too!”
You always fill your songs with such real emotion and life experience. Is that all drawn from your own life or do you like to create characters in your writing?
“The emotion of the song comes from the character, whomever that may be. Sometimes it starts with me and then turns into someone else. Sometimes it’s a story I heard or even a cool sounding noun that makes me want to paint the character around that noun.”
Humble & Kind is an example of the that, are you able to elaborate on the creation of that song for us?
“I wrote Humble & Kind for our kids (we have 5) and it really just started as a list of things I wanted to make sure my husband and I told them. I really saw that song as a little prayer for them.”
Do you have to be in a different headspace to write a song like Humble & Kind rather than something like Girl Crush?
“Girl Crush was co-written with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey. The remarkable thing about that song is that once Hillary heard the title she sang the first 4 lines exactly as they are. That song really had a mind of its own and we were lucky to be the ones to write it down!”
Was there any temptation to write all the songs for this album on your own?
“I don’t find myself leaning in that direction very often. I would rather piece together the best songs rather than just solo songs. If the best songs I have were all co-writes, then it would have been an all co-write album. It seems like it usually ends up being half and half.”
How did you choose your co-writers for this project?
“My publisher and I keep a list of writers I want to be able to write with some day. But when it came time to write for this album we just looked back into the songs we had and the ones I’d been saving to include. I’m so happy I get to share these songs with the great writers I get to write with. I’m really lucky in that department.”
Why do you think such great ideas come out of those writing rooms?
“I think any time you have two or three people in a room who LOVE LOVE LOVE songwriting, you’re going to get some great ideas. But there are days that it is more chasing than writing. I’ve had lots of days like that. I think that’s why co-writing is such a cool thing, you can play off one another. If someone is down the other person can bring them up.”
Do you tend to use the same instrument when writing?
“Mostly guitar. Sometimes I will write on my piano, but I’m a terrible piano player.”
Have you ever had an idea that’s too good to give to someone else so you’ve not offered it up during a writing session?
“No, but I have had ideas that are rejected by one writer and then I’ll write it with someone else. That happens all the time. And it’s good to know your cowriters. I wouldn’t have presented Troy Verges and Caitlyn Smith with The Bird and The Rifle title without knowing they would go down that road with me and make the song so much better.”
As an outsider with an intimate knowledge of the city, what do you think makes Nashville such a special place for music?
“I don’t live in Nashville, but I love it there and spend a ton of time there. It’s a beautiful and special place. I think the history of that town plays a lot into it. Everyone who grew up on country music or respects country music knows that Nashville has been its home for a long time. It’s pretty magical to think Harlan Howard may have had a drink at this bar and so on.”
What’s your favourite version of one of your songs by somebody else?
“That’s tough because I’ve been so lucky with cuts, they have all made me so happy. Tim’s version of Humble and Kind is really special to me because I saw that song as a little prayer to my kids and he saw it in such a bigger way. He brought that song to so many people. I could have never done that. It’s been a blessing.”
If you could pick one artist to write for, that you haven’t already, who would it be?
“I’d like to write WITH Adele. Just like everyone else in the world. HA!”
Lastly, do you see yourself writing your own music as well as continuing to write for others for the foreseeable future?
“I hope so. There’s always more to learn and more to write about. There’s always a way to get better. I just want to keep going and be the best I can be at it.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell
Lori McKenna’s album The Bird & The Rifle is out now and lorimckenna.com has all the info