Keepers of the Weepers: Talking Sad Songs with Lori McKenna and Lucy Wainwright Roche
Grief is the great leveler of life. No matter who you are, you have experienced some kind of loss, whether of a partner, a parent, a pet, or a profession. Much like love, loss is loss. And grief is a wild ride, even in the best of circumstances, but there is beauty in that pain for anyone who cares to carve it out. Two songwriters who have perfected that art are Lori McKenna and Lucy Wainwright Roche, though they employ completely different means to reach the same end.
Over the past couple of decades, McKenna’s name has become synonymous with melancholy. But her heartbreaks aren’t breakups. Rather, McKenna takes long, deep looks at familial life and the growing pains that come along with it — kids growing up then leaving home, parents getting old and passing on, love wearing thin but staying strong. On her latest release, The Tree, she comes at these subjects from every possible angle, painting every possible detail into the portraits.
One song, “People Get Old,” folds all of her explorations into one piece, as she comes to terms with her father’s aging and how that ripples through the generations: “My daddy had a Timex watch, cigarette in his hand, and a mouth full of scotch, spinning me around like a tilt-a-whirl on his arm. Houses need paint. Winters bring snow. Kids, come on in before your supper gets cold. Collection plates and daddy’s billfold, that’s how it goes. You live long enough, people get old.” It’s a wondrous gift McKenna possesses, this turning of ordinary things into extraordinary things. But, if you ask her, she’s just reflecting the life she lives as a mother, wife, daughter, and friend … who happened to start writing award-winning songs at some point along the way.
Wainwright Roche, on the other hand, grew up surrounded by music on both sides of her family, thanks to parents Loudon Wainwright III and Suzzy Roche. Even so, she shunned the spotlight at first. After earning a master’s degree and starting a teaching career, Wainwright Roche conceded to destiny and released her first EP, 8 Songs, in 2007. That set featured a song called “Saddest Sound.” Its follow-up,8 More, dropped in 2008 and included a slowed-down duet version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Heavy Heart” with Martha Plimpton. And so it went from there.
Little Beast, Wainwright Roche’s new record, showcases all that sadness in the most beautiful, if not foggy, light possible. Brimming with the debilitating heartache left in the wake of a breakup, Little Beastgazes sweetly at what was and gently embraces what is. There’s no venom here, no vitriol. But there are also very few actual details, just a tender, notional reckoning, as in “Heroin”: “Sometimes I see your favorite shot. It’s one you wanted, but you never got. It was of me, but not me. I’ve been busy counting days. Seasons stack up, but the well remains. And that’s about you, but not you.” Unbothered by the minutiae, Wainwright Roche is the Kupka to McKenna’s Gauguin, with both coaxing beauty out of sadness.
In an episode of his Revisionist History podcast called “The King of Tears,” Malcolm Gladwell posits the notion that what makes a sad song work is the specificity in it, and he claims that sad songs are much more prevalent in country music —which we can widen to include folk and other roots music—than in rock music, but I’m not sure he’s right on either point. Particularly the specificity part. And I would like to offer as my Exhibit A, Lucy.
And I rest my case. Because, Lucy, your writing is often quite abstract with very few details pointing the way to what it’s actually about. What is that for you? Is that a privacy thing? A poetry thing? Would details dilute it all, in your mind?
Lucy Wainwright Roche: That’s a good question. Somebody was asking me the other day about how people in my family get in trouble with each other for what they write about, and I was saying that I don’t have that problem because I’m vague enough that nobody knows when I’m bitching about them. [Laughs] So maybe it’s a little bit related to that. But, also, sometimes I take something that’s a little bit more direct and undo it. I think, on this record, I was a little bit less that way. I don’t know. It’s a good question. I’ve never thought about it that way.
But I think sometimes I shy away from being really straightforward just because I feel like I don’t know how to do it artfully enough and get away with it. And other people — and other songs that I love — are able to do that. But there are only certain cases in which I feel able to do that. Mostly, I’m not sure I can pull it off that well. [Laughs]
And, yet, your music is still heartbreaking, when it’s meant to be. To me, that works because so many of the saddest emotions and situations are notably impossible to pin down. There are just some things we don’t have words for and, yet, every album of yours has several lines that stop me in my tracks. I think, “Gah! How did she put that together and make it land in that way?”
LWR: Well, it’s a miracle to me that it lands for people. And I’m so grateful that it does sometimes. I love it when I can apply something really sad completely to my life, so I guess there’s a part of me that likes to keep it open enough that somebody can do that to themselves and make themselves more unhappy than they were. [Laughs] You’re welcome!
Lori McKenna: [Laughs] Oh, my God. That’s hysterical. That’s so funny, especially, Lucy, because you’re seriously one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, so I know that’s not true.
LWR: [Laughs] But it’s interesting, though, because I’ve related to all different kinds of songs. Like Lori, for example, when I first was listening to your records, years ago, I was just walking around Ohio sobbing, listening to your songs. The first song that I ever knew was “Hardly Speaking a Word,” and I love that song. I felt completely connected to that song, even though, technically, I don’t think that I have any experience with what you were maybe talking about. But I was completely destroyed by that. It’s a mystery what people connect to.
LM: It definitely is. It’s funny that — and I guess I didn’t really put this together — if we are talking about sad songs, that you, Lucy, and I probably hit it from exactly the opposite ends of the spectrum, perhaps. Because I’m so detail-oriented and I don’t know how to do what you do. I think maybe they get to the same point because what you do is so poetic and beautiful. I don’t know necessarily what you mean, but I know what you’re feeling, whereas I think I might paint the room — what the house looks like. But I think the same person can get to those places through both of us, maybe.
Lori, what’s your process for deciding which little bits of detail are going to land something for you? There’s the collection plate and a billfold and a kitchen towel …
LM: Once I figure out what I’m trying to say, I have to visually picture the person — even if it’s myself. I have to picture the person I’m trying to write the song about in a space. Maybe because I’m a visual learner, I have to picture the space. That’s where the furniture comes. I think it all just started that way by mistake, when I wasn’t aware of what I was writing or how I wrote. I think I just sort of ended up in that category as a furniture person who would add pieces like that to describe the scene.
And, then, as I pay more attention to it, as I get older, the billfold and the collection plate, to me with my dad, that was a big memory for me, going to church every Sunday and how the dad, in most families and certainly in mine, was responsible for the money. So it’s how, in one sentence, can I kind of tip you off to the fact that he is a religious person that is also very practical with his money? I know that’s not what that sentence does, but that’s where my brain probably started with it, for example. And “billfold” being an old term.
There’s a Greg Brown song called “Brand New ’64 Dodge” and it has maybe 12 or 16 lines in it. I don’t think there’s a chorus. But the first line is, “Money comes out of dad’s billfold; hankies come out of mom’s purse.” And then I think the next line is, “The engine doesn’t make a sound, even when you put it in reverse.” So he’s described his dad and mom, already. Then, later on, he says his dad “looks like he might smile.” That’s all you need to know about that guy. The writing is so brilliant. When you pick it all apart, you realize that it’s actually November ’63, and they have this brand new Dodge, which, back in the day, was such a big deal if you had the car the year before. But also he says, “Our president’s a Catholic,” and you’re like, “Oh, my God. He’s talking about Kennedy now.” It’s crazy. It’s kind of written more like you, Lucy. It’s very poetic and you don’t know exactly what he’s saying until you line it all up. Then you’re like, “This is genius.” … I don’t know if he set out to write these 16 lines that would say so many different things to so many people, but it really does, and it’s a song about a car, for God’s sake! [Laughs] But it’s not, at all!
It sounds like it kind of splits the difference between the two of you, in a way, with just enough detail to sketch the frame of the abstract, while still leaving space.
LM: Yeah. And I think that’s probably the gray area that lies between me and Lucy. And that all works, too. The best thing about music is that somebody — a non-music person — can listen to maybe all three of our songs — let’s throw Greg Brown into the conversation — and still be emotionally moved by it. If we all wrote books, if Lucy and I were novelists, you would probably either like her way of writing or you’d like mine. But music doesn’t give you those limitations.There are people, I’m sure, that would appreciate both of us.
Do you think that has to do with the fact that, there is the melody, there is the production? There are those other elements to either provide support to whatever you’re saying or provide tension to it. That’s the magic sum of it, right?
LM: I would think so. Yeah. I would think so, for sure. It’s interesting because, also, vocally, we’re very different. You don’t, Lucy, but I definitely have one of these voices that you either like or you don’t. But our voices are also very different on that spectrum. And I think my voice lends itself to somebody that’s just going to say something, like, “Here’s my declaration!” And Lucy’s voice is so beautiful and can be more poetic and more melodic. You can do those things with your voice that I can’t because I pretty much can’t hold notes. And I don’t even hear all the notes that most people hear.
LWR: I feel like you open your mouth and my heart breaks. [Laughs] I’ve always felt like that. And there is only a handful of people who are like that — people who I love for different reasons, some of whom could sing a phonebook and it would make me feel connected right away. And then there are some who have different elements of what they do, but maybe not that. So I think people’s entry point comes from all different places.
And in relation, Kelly, to what you were saying about rock music and Malcolm Gladwell — and I’m so interested that Malcolm Gladwell is thinking about sad songs — I feel like sometimes sadness is masked in songs that are rock songs. Then, adding someone else’s voice or changing the way you present the song totally changes it. It was suggested to me by Martha Plimpton, years ago, that we cover the [Bruce Springsteen] song “Hungry Heart.” I had heard the song a million times, but when I wrote it down, suddenly I was like, “Oh, my God. This is the most devastating song ever!” But I had never heard it before. I had heard it completely differently. You change the context of something like that and it’s almost hard to imagine it back the other way. I always joke that I like to take upbeat things and turn them into sad snoozers. Sometimes things that I never thought were sad at all get incredibly sad, the more you slow them down. [Laughs]
LM: You’re so right! I never thought about “Hungry Heart,” either. He’s so good at that, isn’t he? I mean, “Born in the U.S.A.” is the same deal, kind of. Then you see people misuse it, and you’re like, “Did anybody read the lyrics?” [Laughs]
The one that comes immediately to mind for me is Shawn Colvin doing “This Must Be the Place.” The Talking Heads’ version is “doop doop doop,” and hers just rips you to bits.
LWR: Yeah. I’ve been doing [Tom Petty’s] “Won’t Back Down,” but really slow, in my set on this tour. And I had never really heard that song, either, until last year. I was out with Emily Saliers on her solo tour when the Las Vegas shooting happened and, the next day, Tom Petty died. I love that song, but I had never heard it that way before and now I think — especially in the moment that we’re in — it’s so devastating. [Laughs] Now I want to slow down everybody’s songs all the time.
LM: Yeah. Yeah. Tom Petty was really good at that, too. Even just saying, “Even losers get lucky sometimes” — think of even just what that says. You’re so right. The one I always go to is [Cyndi Lauper’s] “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” because the second verse is “Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world.” It’s so sad! [Laughs]
LWR: It is so sad. And, oftentimes, songs like “Won’t Back Down” don’t have very many lyrics in it, but they just slay. And, of course, it changes the context so much. I think there are so many ways into whether things are sad or not, and things slip by you that we’ve all known for years and years, and you just don’t hear it. But, then, in another context, you might hear it. I love it when that happens.
Lori touched on this earlier, but I want to add to it. You are two of the funniest people that I know, in life, so it makes me wonder … In order to write the songs that you do, do you each have deep wells of sorrow or grief that you have experienced —maybe they are compartmentalized, maybe they are just far enough in the past that you have some distance, but you can still tap into them, as needed?
LM: I know I say this and it sounds like I’m joking, but I’m 100 percent not joking: I honestly think that a big part of the reason that I’m drawn to sad songs and I sing them is that my voice lends itself to sad songs. That is 100 percent true. I don’t sound good singing “Happy Birthday” or anything like that. [Laughs] But I also think we all have sorrow and things in our lives that we deal with in different ways. And I think, for me, it’s always been through music. So, if I’m not sad today, but I’m going to try to write a song or I have a title that sounds sad, creative people all learn to store it and hit it — like you said, tap into it or well it up a little bit. We use it to our advantage a little bit, in that way, but I think we also kind of store it there, and this is our way of getting it out. And I think that is a great vehicle for being really happy in other areas of our lives because we have this great benefit of expressing it in a way that most people don’t have the luxury of having.
LWR: Yeah. And I feel like something being heartbreaking and something being funny are so close together. [Laughs] It sounds sort of weird. For example, the other night, we were playing in Arkansas, and some people in the audience got into a physical altercation during my set. I guess I really bring that out in people somehow. [Laughs] It’s not the first time! I stopped in the middle of the song and said we needed security. Security came, the police came … it was a whole thing. It was simultaneously so absurd and funny and unreal, and also so heartbreaking. I just feel like those things live so close together, for me. Oftentimes, especially on the road, things are so absurdly funny and completely heartfelt. I don’t know. I think those are just the two main things I notice every single day — how funny things are and how absolutely devastating they are. [Laughs] It’s really fun.
I think you guys have helped my prove my point that Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t know what he’s talking about on either point: Specificity doesn’t matter and neither does genre. Right?
LM: Uh huh. I was also thinking of that thing Louis CK has talked about with hearing a Springsteen song, pulling over, and instead of turning it off, he just sat there and took it. I forget which Springsteen song it was, but it’s interesting that, in rock music, they’re kind of doing the same thing, but they are tricking you because, melodically, you’re not noticing the words or you’re dancing, which is another way of getting emotion out. Where, what we do, it’s usually us by ourselves and these three-and-a-half minutes of words and chords, and there’s not a lot of dancing … at least at my shows. [Laughs] I don’t know about you, Lucy.
LWR: No. No. Some nights, people ask me if I want a towel and I’m like, “No. I’m not going to be moving around very much at all.” [Laughs]
LM: No sweat! [Laughs] So, you’re noticing so much more intently, “This song is a little sad.” I feel like sometimes I write something that’s happy and people still think it’s sad. And I’m like, “No. Pay attention! Every now and then, it’s happy!”
LWR: Yeah, I would say to Malcolm Gladwell, sometimes you can hear something that’s not in the language that you speak and it can be very moving and sad, too. And we don’t know if it’s specific or not because we don’t know what the hell they’re saying.
LM: That’s true!
LWR: Sometimes the Indigo Girls do a solo song in their set, and I was thinking about Amy [Ray]’s new solo record and how, every time she opens her mouth, I totally believe her. I think that’s a lot of what makes something sad is whether you believe the person, whatever they’re saying or whether you totally get it or not. You’re just like, “Yes. I believe that you mean that. And I can feel the depth of that.”
LM: Yes. And there’s a human expressing themselves and that’s beautiful, no matter what. You’re so right because instrumentals — and I’m not a big person who listens to songs that don’t have lyrics because I love lyrics so much — but the Schindler’s List theme song … obviously, you know it’s from that movie, but even if you didn’t, and somebody said, “Hey, I just wrote this song. Do you want to hear it?” It’s one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. It’s beautifully sad. It’s beautifully emotional and sad, and if it wasn’t connected to that movie, I still think 100 percent, that music is so gorgeous and so sad. And there’s not one word in it.
And it’s neither country nor rock. So take that, Malcolm Gladwell.
LWR: There you go, Gladwell. [Laughs] Get yourself to a folk festival, Gladwell!