Lori McKenna – Dreams of an Everyday Housewife
Lori McKenna has always loved the same boy. She first laid eyes on him in third grade. They started dating in their junior year, married when she was 19. To some people, that might seem crazy, penned in, missing the vast adventure that is life in the world as we know it.
Lori McKenna doesn’t see it that way.
“Gene was nice,” she recalls, sparkle in her voice. “I met him in the third grade….He was a big kid, and nice. He was one of the nicest, the protector kid. He hung around with the popular kids, but we were friends. We didn’t hang around the same group, but we knew each other.
“We grew up together,” she continues. “He’s just always been there, and he’s even, and, well…”
Sitting in the polished wooden booth of a Nashville coffee shop, exposed brick walls making it a reasonable approximation of anywhere, the tiny singer-songwriter’s voice trails off. It’s not that she feels silly, she just knows that, to some people, her choices fall beyond the realm of comprehension.
Yet here she sits five children later, married to a man she’s known her entire life, and she is completely content in her world. But that world is rapidly changing. McKenna is no longer a local girl who writes songs in her kitchen, nor even a respected but relatively obscure indie artist. She is now attached to the supernova that is Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Hill recorded several of McKenna’s songs on her 2005 album Fireflies. McGraw and his longtime cohort Byron Gallimore produced her new album, Unglamorous, released August 14 on McGraw’s Stylesonic imprint, through Warner Bros. She is now getting the full-court press, including a stint on the Faith Hill/Tim McGraw Soul II Soul Tour and a seat on Oprah’s couch.
For a woman who didn’t play out until she was 27, and who for years turned down performing engagements that would take her too far to be able to come home the same night, this is a seismic shift. In many ways, it flies in the face of her take on life. Even when she was at that age when you can’t run far enough or fast enough, McKenna was a girl committed to the world she was already living in.
“I wanted to be an interior decorator and go to school in New York for maybe six months when I was in high school,” she confesses with a self-deprecating laugh. “But, you know, I was far too afraid to do that…
“I have lived in the same place for my entire life….That’s safe. You don’t get hurt if you write a song in your kitchen or your bedroom. So, if you’re doing that, you can be brave.”
After her mother passed away when Lori was just 6 years old — “Leaving This Life”, the penultimate track on Unglamorous, is mined from the imaginative songwriter’s life — McKenna found her inner life was where most of her truth lay. In a world of stoic taciturnity, she started recognizing the little details that define lives, the ones most people miss.
“I’ve always written songs that I know what the stories are about,” she explains. “It was easy to write about what I wrote about because that’s who I am. Domestic things are my life…and all I had to do was look around.”
The mother of her mother was a source of inspiration. In seeing the way her grandmother carried herself, and the way she revealed the facts of her life, McKenna came to understand both strength and story.
“Her daughter was her best friend, and she passed away when she was 40,” McKenna relates. “Her husband drank…and she came to our house every Thursday, where she’d try to help you whether you wanted her to or not.
“She never drove and she lived two towns over, and she’d drop these bombshells while she was cooking us dinner — like how she used to be a dancer. You know, you could’ve made a movie about her and her life, but to look at her, you’d never think of her as having such substance and tragedy.
“And that’s a big part of it: On the surface, you’d look at things and see the sweetest lady, a true nurturer. She was a happy person with sad things….The idea that when she was growing up, you became a dancer or you got married and have kids.
“She had a huge impact on me. She’d never give advice. She never gave herself credit enough, but there she was. I saw it…and that’s the thing: we all have these things [about us]. Some make statements, some don’t.”
The notion of expressing sorrow, let alone tragedy, was anathema. The denial of the pain ran so deep that no one spoke Lori’s full name for fear of invoking the mother she was named after.
“My name is Lorraine, which was her name — and only my grandfather would make that mistake,” she confides. “It was too painful to talk about, so we didn’t. I think that’s how we deal with it as a culture: Irish people drink, they don’t talk.
“My Dad had two sisters, and my Auntie Flo would be like, ‘Your father doesn’t talk about anything…’ She’d bitch about it. And you’d ask him and he’d be like, ‘There’s no time. Life is hard. Get over it and get on with it.’
“He was outrageously practical and logical.”
Managing emotions by sublimating and denying them, it’s a master plan. But all that sentiment has to go somewhere. Another Irish tradition is song. Two of McKenna’s brothers were already writing their own songs by the time Lori tried her hand at it when she was 13. She received encouragement, and before too long, she had her first song.
“It’s strange,” she muses. “My first song was a country song about a single mother…and her kids asking where has the Daddy gone. It made no sense, but I got encouragement, and I kept going.”
McKenna didn’t write to play out. She didn’t even write, necessarily, to share things with her family. Songs were a private affair, played for her siblings and occasionally at small gatherings of family and friends.
In many ways, those songs were never ever meant for the general public. Having married at 19 and given birth to her first child at 20, McKenna’s life revolved around a very small world. But it was more than plenty.
“I’ve always worked part-time in my brother’s glue factory…I did everything!” she says. “Though every time I had a kid, my job changed…it’d be dumber. By the time I had my fourth child, I was like Julie the Cruise Director on The Love Boat. I went from packaging glue to running the office to just being around and making sure things were OK.
“And it’s all so routine. Unless anything out of the ordinary happens, we just didn’t talk about it.”
But McKenna knew there were all kinds of ripples beneath the surface in her day-to-day existence.
“To me, it’s about moms and dads and families, how they make it work…or not…in so many different ways. So there’s truth — or my version of somebody else’s truth, a character I know or make up, because I can guess the details. I like specifics, but those specifics are never going to be more than I know. It’s probably why I only write songs about living in a small town. That’s what I know…that’s what I write.”
Part of that is the way inertia creeps into relationships, passion fades, engagements flow slowly away. There is so much work in keeping up the basic functions of a life together, sometimes the spark that ignited it founders.
Those were the things that caught McKenna’s eye. She wrote about loss, drinking, destruction of one’s life — and the way it impacts others. She embraced the characters who fell into the cracks, and she also offered up a wide-eyed innocence and wonder that gave off a strong sense of hope and joy amongst the wreckage that comes with lives inhabited.
Perhaps the young mother who was writing songs at her kitchen table, singing them at small parties, and occasionally putting them down on a hand-held tape recorder needed to try them in the wide open. It wasn’t something she hungered to do; indeed, she was afraid of what might come of her little moments if she took them into the great big world.
“I really can only be in kitchens,” she begins, grounding her worldview and its impact on her ambition with a laugh. “When I get much farther out, I can’t take it….I can only take so much reality and then I need to go back.”
She was 27 when someone finally convinced her to perform at an open-mike night. She was afraid, not the least because what if…
“When I’d see people at open-mike nights and they’d be horrible, you’d think, ‘Wow,'” she says of her will not to know if she was one of them. “If you admit you’re a songwriter, tell someone that’s what you are and it doesn’t work out, then you’re like the drunk woman at the bar who’s 70 telling you what she’d done. And I didn’t want to be that woman.”
At the Old Vienna Coffeehouse in Westboro, Massachusetts, the mother of three small children got up and sang, shaking and not sure she’d get through it. Nerves aside, the impact was instantaneous.
“The man who owned the place [Robert Haigh] followed me out and said, ‘You should come back,'” McKenna recalls, still semi-incredulous. “So I came back a month later, and he was like, ‘You oughta play your own show.’ I didn’t know…
“Robert Haigh was the reason I made Paper Wings And Halo,” she says of her 2000 debut album. “And one of the best things he told me about the audience was, ‘They want you to succeed. They want to love you; just get up there and let them.’
“I’d be physically shaking I was so scared, but people believing in me helped.”
Still, the response wasn’t really enough to motivate the young mother. “I was never self-driven,” McKenna says. “I’d give someone a little piece, and they’d either push me or run with it. And it’s not because I’m a perfectionist, either. I just didn’t have the confidence.”
Confidence or no, people were noticing. Though she was tentative about chasing music, she attracted a manager, the small labels were buzzing — even though they were fairly sure McKenna wouldn’t tour — and when she booked a showcase for the DIY release of Paper Wings And Halo, it sold out.
“The buzz on her in the New England folk scene was enormous,” remembers Jim Olsen, the man who eventually signed McKenna to his Signature Sounds label. “So I went to see her at the Iron Horse, to see what it was all about, and what struck me from minute one was not just that her voice was there. But there was this magnetism about her. She was so real and likable — and most importantly, she was hitting emotions that most songwriters never get to.”
Paper Wings And Halo was followed by Pieces Of Me and The Kitchen Tapes, the latter recorded to a minidisc player on that aforementioned kitchen table. Each tore pages from the lives around her, capturing the simple power of her gift for words and music.
“For years she didn’t realize how good she was,” Olsen marvels. “When I’d get in her car, I was always amazed at what she listened to, some very mainstream stuff…even John Mayer. She was driving around in the same minivan — a lot of miles on it, but that was OK. And if the first two records fell short on production, she was getting ready to turn a corner.”
McKenna was writing what would become Bittertown, an album that would tighten up the sound quality, add some edges, and create a juxtaposition with her silvery wisp of a voice that could fishtail into a guttural roar within the course of a measure.
Bittertown, released by Signature Sounds in 2004, bristled with the aftermath of suicides, sketched in the sparest details. “Bible Song” offered the straightforward presentation of facts, yet left plenty of room for resonance to echo — and that was endemic of the barbed-wire realities she was capturing without a shiver.
“This was more hard-edged, more honest,” says Olsen. “She was almost the female Springsteen — and it was very exciting to hear, because there she was sitting at her kitchen table with the songs just pouring out of her.
“This was something different….She was looking back at this full life from the perspective of a mature person. The songs were really, really good, and the demos were just as moving: just Lori and her guitar and that voice. You’d be an idiot not to hear it.”
Painstaking attention was paid to the details. Many songs were written to produce the thirteen that made the final sequence. Her longtime manager Gabriel Unger helped make sure there finally would be a record that matched his client’s gift.
It worked. Pop star gone inward Mandy Moore remembers the shock waves of McKenna’s appearance in Los Angeles to support the record.
“My manager [Jon Leshay] called me and said he’d heard the best songwriter he’d come across in a long time,” says Moore, whose new disc Wild Hope includes three songs co-written with McKenna. “And Jon has great taste. He got me the records, and I started stalking her I loved her writing so much. I literally called my manager every day, saying, ‘I want to write with her.’
“And then one day, I got to talk to her on the phone. Not long after that, I was on a plane to Boston. Her world is so normal, yet the songs…”
Mary Gauthier passed McKenna’s music onto Melanie Howard, the woman who’d partnered with her late husband Harlan Howard, the legendary country tunesmith, to build Harlan Howard Songs. Melanie knew songs, and she knew McKenna was someone she wanted to sign to her publishing company.
From there, it slalomed. Howard played the music for Missy Gallimore, the wife and creative pivot for husband/uber-producer Byron Gallimore, who played some select songs for Faith Hill, who asked to hear everything McKenna had written. Suddenly, the little woman who was proud to be able to put her $100 from local gigs toward the groceries was in play in a great big way.
“Bittertown was maybe the best singer-songwriter record of the last ten years,” Olson says. “There was no denying it. But you couldn’t help wondering [about Nashville]: What do you want with this folk singer?
“It didn’t add up to me, but she wanted it and we are ridiculously artist-friendly. We got a buyout, and the thing that concerned me most was that there was nobody there. She had a lawyer, but there was nobody else looking out…and it was a whole different thing.”
Suddenly Faith Hill was recording her songs. She used McKenna’s “Fireflies” as the title track for her 2005 release, and performed “Stealing Kisses” on the CMA Awards. She was going into the studio with not just Gallimore, but also McGraw, who’d flown in on a private jet from taping Oprah with his wife the day before. She even found herself on Oprah’s couch with Hill, telling the story to a moist-eyed crowd.
“What bothered me about Oprah,” Olson says, “is that they acted like Faith found her in her kitchen. But that overlooked so much: the fact that she’d played the Newport Folk Festival, Sundance, a lot of smaller festivals, released these records to great reviews, and really worked at her craft for a long time.”
Was there a universal reality that bound her austere Bittertown to the shinier, poppier world of contemporary country radio? Perhaps it was McKenna’s willingness to pull back the curtain on the Norman Rockwell facade of domestica for a grittier look at the faults, falters and struggles of real people trying to sort out the bumpiness that is getting by.
“No one is going to write a song about my husband and what a kickass plumber he is,” she says, trying to pin it down. “But the way you have a life together — the fact that there were years when he and I would go out to dinner and just stare at each other ’cause all we knew how to talk about is the kids — it’s what happens.
“‘Stealin’ Kisses’ comes from that. When he gets home, he sure doesn’t want to talk. We grew up watching our parents, and we learned it from them. So this is life…and it’s the truth…and maybe these songs struggle, maybe they figure some of it out.”
For Hill, herself a mother of three and a working girl, albeit an impossibly glamorous one, the truth rang out. Like Howard and the Gallimores, Hill wanted to embrace songs that could only come from someone who was beyond the spotlight, able to live and sort out the way lives merge and converge.
It is neither safe nor easy to seek to play on the national stage, and doing so was never McKenna’s dream, nor her goal. “There is a little surreality to it,” she acknowledges. “But when the opportunity came, I remember I took them [the family] to 99 [a nice restaurant in Boston] for dinner to tell them I’d been offered a deal with Warner Bros. I had to explain that if I made the record for them, I’ll have to work to support it…I’ll have to leave the house for more than two days at a time.”
And so the family sorted it out. McKenna began walking a tightrope between her tight-knit New England folk scene and Nashville’s Music Row, a place where she has become, in every sense of the word, a major-label recording artist.
To make it work, McKenna and family moved half a mile up the street in Stoughton, Massachusetts, to a house with one more bedroom than the one they’d lived in for nineteen years. “It was so tight where we were,” she offers flatly, “where would you put a nanny or babysitter? And that was the kind of thing it took to make it work.
“It was things like that; the package changed a little. The house is different. I bought a new van. My hair looks a little different than before….But the kids aren’t affected by that kind of [cosmetic] thing. How my husband feels about me, how my kids feel — that’s exactly the same.”
McKenna’s life and music actually aren’t exactly the same. This transition she’s in the midst of comes with inherent contradictions and conflicts. What was a certain starkness on the edge of Bittertown has been replaced with the sort of languid glossy sheen designed to fit in the mass world for Unglamorous.
Which isn’t necessarily bad. Her smoky voice is nestled into big organic tracks that are fuller than what she’s done before, and there is a comfort amongst the twang that is reassuring. Loping along, “I’m Not Crazy” is a song of exulting in a life most people would overlook — the averageness seems so common as to utterly lack any kind of specialness, yet it’s thrilling to the singer. The haunted, almost reckless taunting of the fated-to-be-together-but-knowing-ALL-the-buttons-to-push “I Know You” shows the dangerous bond of intimacy that can’t be abandoned. Even the hushed “Leaving This Life”, with its string-section reinforcements and steel guitar puddles, captures the heartbreak of a small child whose mother will pass away when she’s just 6 years old.
The gulf between indie cred and big-time show business isn’t lost on McKenna. And while to some ears the difference between Bittertown and Unglamorous isn’t radical, she was aware enough of the process to express concern to co-producer Byron Gallimore during pre-production.
“I was talking to Byron on the phone,” says McKenna, “and I must’ve said something that rubbed him the wrong way. He was like, ‘Look, if you wanna make Bittertown again, you should just stay up there and do it.’ It’s funny how no matter where you are, you’re trying to sound like something else, and yet…you also don’t want to repeat what you’ve done.
“When people are in the northeast, they’ll say, ‘Don’t make this record sound like it’s from Boston,’ and I think there was a sense of that here, too — the sensitivity that it shouldn’t sound like a Nashville record, I guess.”
She pauses for a moment, looking for a way to illustrate her point.
“For me, it ended up about being sure that the song was what was being played, not just the music,” she picks up. “And the musicians were overjoyed to have a producer who let them go out and work from the lyrics. [Upright bassist] Glenn Worf would always come right in….He was very vocally supportive of what we were doing, saying ‘This is so unusual for us,’ and being very concerned that I was happy.
“He said, ‘Every time I walk in this room, I wonder if we’re still friends.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He says, ‘Well, we’re playing some weird stuff.’
“It came down to what Byron told me early on: ‘We’re going to make this record that’s going to cost a ton of money, but it has to sound like you. The only thing they really seemed to tell the players was to lay back.
“I don’t know how they normally do it, but it was great.”
Unglamorous is a decidedly different record for McKenna. It has Nashville co-writers. It has big production that one could argue is aimed to garner country radio airplay. She is getting the kind of push that expands audiences by two or three decimal places.
“How To Survive” turns on the details of TVs used to distract a couple from engagement. The blazing “Written Permission” is almost a defiant dare to a partner to take their liberties as far as possible. “Falter” captures an outsider kid who grows into a deeply troubled adult, perhaps because no one along the way reached out to him.
Is it a compromise based on ambition? Is it about glory? Is it something else? Different? More?
“Is success selling 500,000 copies?” McKenna asks. “Or is it successful because I’m proud of it, because Byron and Tim are proud of it? Because the players had a different kind of experience? To me, I think it’s that.”
Jim Olsen agrees in his own way. “It’s not about ‘I want to be a country star.’ It’s a very different story; that’s part of what makes her special. She wants to help her family. She worries about her personal situation more than anything — and she’s a great mother. Taking care of them is what motivates her, because she’s not very ambitious.”
Success to McKenna is also about the way others can imprint themselves on her songs, making them their own, finding ways to infuse their own lives into her lyrics. It’s a gift they bring to her truth.
“I’ve had experiences where people will come up and tell me about a song I played,” she says. “They tell me a story that happened to them, and it has nothing to do with what I was writing about. But it moves them…the way what I was writing about moved me. And that’s sort of the idea, isn’t it?”
A few hours have passed. The day is dying. McKenna has been at it for a good while, but she is genuinely pleased to sit and parse her life, her music, her career, looking for the catch in the transition. In some ways it makes no sense to her. In others, she’s trying to make the most of it, while also letting what’s going to happen happen.
“I remember being on the plane after Faith had cut the songs,” she reflects. “I remember being on the plane with the contract for Warner Bros. — and I finally felt like if someone asked me what I do for a living, I could say I was a songwriter and mean it.
“When I was making that $100 that was going toward groceries, I was really happy, but I wouldn’t tell the guy on the plane. But beyond that, it’s not so different.”
She laughs and leans in, almost whispering: “I came back from the Soul II Soul Tour last week and went to a cookout in the neighborhood. This lady I know says, ‘So how was your little tour?'”
McKenna’s eyes sparkle whimsically. She didn’t need to tell her she’d just played to 15,000 people at Boston’s major arena. She doesn’t measure it in those terms, but in songs. And for where she is, she is fine. It’s not quite all the same, but it sort of is.
She still lives in the town where she grew up. She’s still married to her high school sweetheart. Her oldest child may be going to college in the fall and her youngest to preschool, but she’s not going to change the fundamentals of who she is just because the record budget has gone up.
“Someone asked me, ‘Do you wanna be on MTV?'” she says, setting up the contrast. “Do I look that fucking dumb? I know who I am. That’s all I need. Right now, I’ve got plenty.”
Holly Gleason has written for Rolling Stone, Playboy, CREEM, Musician, The LA and NY Times and some others. She lives in Nashville with a 15-year-old cocker spaniel named Zelda.