If you’re ever lucky enough to spend a few minutes talking with artist and songwriter extraordinaire Lori McKenna, you will very quickly appreciate why she’s a GRAMMY winner with knockout hits for Little Big Town (“Your Side of the Bed” and “Girl Crush”), Tim McGraw (“Humble & Kind”), and Hunter Hayes (“I Want Crazy”). She is also up for Americana’s Song of the Year Award for “Wreck You,” from her critically acclaimed album, The Bird & the Rifle, produced by Dave Cobb.
Lori’s personality is as open, warm, and honest as her music. And she’s not above poking fun at a songwriter’s propensity for ruminating on the same subjects over many songs. As she noted in an interview for her website, “We all have our words. My words are front porch, kitchen, there’s always a car in there.” The difference is of course, once Lori adds her special touch to those “porches, kitchens and cars,” the results turn into classics that touch and inspire a lot of music fans. Lori is totally in love with songwriting. And the worlds of Americana and Country Music are all the better for it. We spoke with Lori at the Epiphone/Gibson showroom in Nashville when she stopped by to pick up her new Epiphone Masterbilt Century Zenith just before her AmericanaFest showcase at 3rd & Lindsley.
Thanks for stopping by, Lori. I know every artist this week has a demanding schedule. So how are you doing?
I know! This is such a busy week. We’re kind of doing everything (laughs). I’m playing “Wreck You” at the Americana Awards which I wrote with Felix McTeague and it’s up for Song of the Year
which is amazing. I got to rehearse with the house band. The first time I went to the awards was last year. Americana tends to be emotional music to me—it’s at the Ryman—so it’s one of those emotional evenings. Wee get to play the song, and then I have a showcase Thursday, September 13 at 3rd & Lindsley
Are there any unique pressures to performing a showcase when typically you’re focused on writing?
Showcases are different for festivals. I’ve had years where I’ve been able to bring my band from Boston. Since I made this record—The Bird & the Rifle--
it’s been great because the band that I made that record with lives here so when I come here and I have an opportunity to play with the band I can just pull them. We made that music together. I worked with Dave Cobb on that record and I don’t think he knew this but my the band in Boston and the band that I have here—especially the rhythm section--they are so much alike. The drummer, in particular. Chris Powell, who I play with here, and John Sands, who is my guy everywhere else, they almost sound like one another in a certain way. And I have trouble honestly playing with drummers because I’m so used to playing solo and writing solo.
Playing with a songwriter is a good challenge for a drummer. It requires them to be a percussionist and not just provide a back beat.
I’ve been lucky to work with guys that think like percussionists. As far as the stage presence in a showcase, it’s different. It’s different if you open a show. You know the audience is there for the feature and you’re trying to win them over. In a showcase, the audience comes from everywhere. Most of them are songwriters like myself. Most of them are musicians like myself. And the other ones are just huge fans or in the industry some other way. And they may know you but perhaps not enough to buy a ticket for your show. I don’t tour all that often. So you have to try to win them over but in a different way. Another thing is they move through these showcases so fast. You’re not showing up at the venue at 3 for an 8pm performance. You show up and you jump on stage and go! To me it’s more fun to see artists I don’t get to see that often and just playing with the full band.
Are there particular instruments or styles of music that help spark your writing?
I’m so lyrically based. For me, it’s more singer/songwriters where the lyrics are the standout of the music. Sometimes I’ll try to get out of the pattern. I tend to write the same song over and over again and then you try to figure ways to expand it—to a certain extant. Some people are much better at masking it than people like myself. Like the new John Mayer record or any John Mayer records—his chord progressions are things I wouldn’t think of. Sometimes I’ll go back and try to listen to either piano-based stuff or guitar players that know all the chords (laughs). I tend to stay with about four or five of them! Usually those aren’t songs I’ll end up cutting, to be honest. But it’s about the lesson of trying to go outside of your comfort zone, listening for a progression my brain doesn’t necessarily hear right away.
Your home is in Boston. What is Nashville like for you? Does it conjure a feeling or vibe or mood that you can count on when you come here to work?
Definitely it’s still the most inspiring town for songs I think that exists probably anywhere in the world. To me—though I have some of my best friends here and friends I consider family in my heart—it’s impossible for me to be here and not
want to write a song (laughs)! Do you know what I mean? I still think of it as work. My commute is getting on a plane and coming down to Nashville. This is, in a way, my job. As much as it’s a passion and I would write songs no matter what, I always want to work –create something—when I’m here. I think it’s still a song town, no matter what. They can put a million more buildings up and it will still be a song town. It’s definitely it’s own thing.
Do you ever think about packing up the family and coming south?
My family definitely keeps me at home. But the best way to describe it is: here my life would be easier if I lived here but nobody else in my family’s life would be easier (laughs). And so the goal is to try to keep everybody else’s life running smoothly and then I can figure it out. Someday maybe we will. But what I’ve learned about myself is I’m not an everyday songwriter. I won’t go long periods without writing—writing is my favorite part of it all. If I lived here, I think I would want to write everyday because there’s so much great writing happening everyday. Like literally, if you just think to yourself—anywhere in the world: I wonder what songs are being written in Nashville right now?
No matter what, there are some great damn songs being written in Nashville today, you know? It’s impossible for it to not happen here. So, I would want to write more if I lived here and then I think I would get burnt out. I have the luxury of not burning out because I’m not in the wheel all the time. I can go home and write by myself and sometimes spend three days thinking about an idea before I even start writing it. Which, you don’t usually have the time to do that here because there is so much writing going on.
As a creative person, are you ever torn between whether you want try to finish a song on your own or take it to another writer? Co-writing is a big deal in Nashville. But it also has a tradition of publishing hit songs by solo writers. I’m thinking of Hank Williams or Steve Earle or Cindy Walker.
If I get stuck on a song, I will definitely pull some people in. A lot of times, I’ll start a song and it doesn’t want me to finish it by myself. I do about 70% co-writing and 30% solo writing at this point. What I’ve found about writing and sort of the songwriter’s side vs. the musician’s side of what a song needs is I’m much better as a teammate. I found my community in the songwriter’s world. Not to say I don’t love musicians and players. I do! If you have a show and you say, ‘Lori, you should come up and play on my show and sing such-and-such a song with me tonight,’
—I can’t harmonize unless I learn the part. I can’t play well enough to just jump up on stage and start playing with you unless you’ve written a really simple song that I can figure out.
In Boston there are a lot of great musicians that live there and they all collaborate. The performance is this big collaboration and I’m always sitting in my seat going: “I wish I could do that but I can’t or I’ll probably mess it up if I get up there!
” (laughs). What I find here is that my collaboration is in the making of the song and that’s where I found my community. That’s where I found I am good at that—I’m good at trying to help you write your best song that day. And so that was like a huge piece for me because I was writing by myself for so long that when I started co-writing it was like this magical thing. People told me, ‘Oh you may not want to co-write for too long’
but to me, that’s where my community is. It’s been a big opening of a door for me.