Lori McKenna – Putting the horse before the cart
Lots of songwriters undergo something akin to a secret apprenticeship, as they hone their composing skills, but most do so with the aspiration that their songs will one day be heard. Lori McKenna is an exception. From the time she wrote her first tune at age 13 until she performed her first open-mike show nearly fifteen years later, McKenna never expected to write songs for anyone but herself.
“Somebody asked me a question about that within the past year,” says McKenna. “And it dawned on me that when you write songs, or poetry, or anything like that, without the intention of anybody ever hearing it — maybe it’s a bit more honest than it would have been, had you been concerned that someone might judge you. I did that for years and years, so I’m not worried about what the audience might think, as far as the writing goes. If the audience hates a song, then I won’t play it, but it won’t stop me from writing it, at least.”
It’s a safe bet the songs on McKenna’s latest CD, Bittertown, will be met with something far different from disdain. Bittertown is the most band-oriented of McKenna’s four releases to date; it leans toward a more pop-rock sound than its predecessors, while still retaining a folk vibe.
In addition to producer Lorne Entress, supporting players include Boston-area veterans Kevin Barry, Meghan Toohey and Joe Barbato, among others, with McKenna herself handling most of the acoustic guitar. Pitching in on backing vocals are Buddy Miller, Mark Erelli, and Chris Trapper of alternative-popsters the Push Stars.
Making a record that had the feel of an ensemble effort was important to McKenna. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” she says. “I play so many solo shows, and when I rehearse, it’s always by myself. I don’t have a scheduled rehearsal time, ever, with a band, so when I’ve played with bands in the past I’ve always been worried about staying in time. It’s a totally different vibe from playing solo, but with these guys, my worries weren’t where they normally are. I was comfortable right from the beginning.”
McKenna’s own beginnings as a songwriter have their roots in the death of her mother. Lori was just 6 years old at the time, and partly as a way of coping with the loss, she began writing poetry. Just after she finished grade school, an older brother gave her an acoustic guitar, and her predilection for poetry shifted toward songwriting.
Although her hometown of Stoughton is just 20 miles south of Boston, McKenna wasn’t drawn to a career in music or big-city possibilities, but rather toward small-town domesticity. She married a longtime schoolmate at 19; before she was 25, she had given birth to three of the couple’s five children.
Finally, at age 27, McKenna worked up the courage to do some open-mike performances at a neighborhood tavern. Still, it took some prodding from one of her in-laws to get her onto a bigger stage.
“It was at this place called the Old Vienna Coffeehouse, in Westboro, Massachusetts,” says McKenna. “They had this incredible open-mike series that went on for years and years. They would have people like Ellis Paul and Vance Gilbert — people who were touring and selling records nationally — still showing up at open-mikes. It was sort of like the creme de la creme of the Boston folk scene.
“My sister-in-law, Andrea, has a lot of guts and chutzpah, and she sort of put me in her minivan one night and drove me up there to try the open mike. That’s where I started meeting people like Kris Delmhorst and Mark Erelli. Most of the people I met first were in that environment, at that little coffeehouse that had a lot of great music coming out of it.” The connections she made at the club eventually led to a deal with rising regional label Signature Sounds.
Given that McKenna has remained in the town where she grew up, and that she’s first and foremost a mother and a wife, it’s only natural that her songs are often centered on family and relationships. Bittertown contains a few exceptions — the shimmery “Lone Star” was inspired by a Beck concert — but the launching points for McKenna’s imagination tend to be filial matters, and the conflicts and comforts that accompany them.
The somberly rendered “If You Ask”, for instance, details the sturdy resolve of a sober woman sticking by a hard-drinking lover, while the stately “One Man” is an eloquent meditation on living a simple life and keeping potential encroachments at bay. Such veins run rich and deep, but McKenna insists her songs shouldn’t be regarded as strictly autobiographical.
“I get that all the time,” she says. “I’ve just learned that it’s coming, and that I have to deal with it. I don’t know, maybe everyone thinks my husband is an alcoholic, or maybe they all think I’m miserable. It’s so funny, because my husband is great about it. He knows that that’s just how my brain works.”