Interview: Lori McKenna Shares Hard-Earned Wisdom on ‘The Balladeer’
Lori McKenna's new song "The Balladeer" isn't autobiographical by any means, but its title certainly describes her. As both a songwriter and an artist, she gravitates toward the slower, sader, storyteller style.
McKenna excels at sharing stories and dispensing wisdom, in fact, and is one of the modern country music landscape's finest in both regards. Two of the Massachusetts native's biggest hits as a writer in recent years are Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" and Tim McGraw's "Humble and Kind." On her new album, The Balladeer, out Friday (July 24), she and frequent collaborators Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose (together known as the Love Junkies) flip another common phrase on its head in "Two Birds," while she alone writes once again to her children on "When You're My Age" and "'Till You're Grown."
While McKenna is a key player in the Nashville music scene, she's advanced her career from her home state, where she lives with her high school sweetheart, Gene, and their five children. She makes frequent visits to Music City, and has found a comfortable place in its landscape without being there 24/7; in fact, she tells The Boot, not living down south has been an advantage in some ways.
Ahead of the The Balladeer's release, McKenna spoke with The Boot about her new music, her place in the country music community and her glass-half-full outlook on life. Read on for the conversation:
You're very good at writing songs about the wisdom that comes with age that have connected with people, despite the idea in this industry that the older you get, the less commercially viable you become.
I think I'm really in a lucky space where, I know that exists, but I don't [laughs] -- I don't have to deal with it maybe as much as, to be honest, a younger writer would. I've also been lucky with my publishers over the years, I think because I showed up in Nashville as the writer of "Stealing Kisses," which was a weird Faith Hill cut -- like, this kind of strange song -- which was amazing for me, but I think people saw me in a different [way]. The writers in Nashville knew, like, "Oh, she's the one from Massachusetts that writes the weird folk songs."
I always kind of had that going for me, and also, just having the artist side of what I do be such an important role in my writing. Even as a co-writer for an artist or a staff writer that gets their songs pitched to big artists, I think that all sort of served me well, and I was really lucky that it all was part of the picture for me.
There's this whole conversation around the struggles of being a woman in country music, and right off the bat, in the first track, "This Town Is a Woman," you're just straight-up comparing the industry to a woman. Can you tell me a little bit more about writing that song?
That song came from Dave Cobb, and a conversation that I had with him about all the great singer-songwriter women that are in Nashville, in the Americana lane and in the country lane. There's so much talk about country radio and women not getting played enough, and it's sort of been -- I've been coming to Nashville I don't even know how many years now, and from the minute I started walking around Nashville, Tenn., somebody's been like, "Women are coming around!" [Laughs] There's always that hope that we'll get a little bit more of it, but it never seems to ever add up.
"From the minute I started walking around Nashville, Tenn., somebody's been like, 'Women are coming around!' There's always that hope that we'll get a little bit more of it, but it never seems to ever add up."
And so it was a conversation that I had with Dave about that, and I was driving my daughter to school ... and thinking about storms: We name storms after women. We name boats after women. If a town had a gender, it would most certainly be a woman. And I know that I'm seeing it in this motherly way of, like, you go ahead and you go out and you find yourself; I'll be right here. If you need me, come back, and all the different ways that that relationship can go. Or, don't go -- don't ever leave ...
You're very entrenched in what's going on in Nashville, but living in Massachusetts, you're not in the thick of it day to day. Does that put you at an advantage, or even a disadvantage?
Over the years, I would have had a different opinion of this, and there were definitely times where I've talked to my husband about, "Man, my life would be so much easier if I just lived in Nashville. My job would be so much easier if I just lived in Nashville" ... but I can never subscribe to the idea that anybody else needs to suffer for my art, other than me. It's not to say that it hasn't happened with my family from time to time, when I lose balance, but I really wanted to make sure that my family was -- I mean, there's just no option, other than your family being first.
So it didn't really make sense for me to ever move there, because the kids were all over the place. Both of our families are here ... I never wanted to pull anybody to Nashville to just say, "This is easier for me if we all do this." And I never want to lose anybody ... so, years ago, I may have had a conversation or two with Gene, my husband, saying, "Geeze, you know, I could work more, I could write more, if we lived in Nashville. I could network more" ...
But now I understand ... that it has benefited me to not live in Nashville, if just for the reason that I'm not an "everyday writer." I love writing songs, and if I lived there, I would write all the time, and I'm just not good writing all the time ... And I love my friends and my community down there; I love that town. I literally like get off the plane and I'm excited ... but that's also a blessing, too, because, as long as I've been coming there, I still freaking love it. But really I think my greatest gift of not living there is that I haven't overwritten ... I haven't gotten to the place where songwriting isn't still my favorite thing.
There are three songs on here you wrote with your Love Junkies collaborators, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose: "When You're My Age," "Two Birds" and "Good Fight." How did Hillary and Liz get brought into the writing process of each song?
"When You're My Age" came first, I think, of these three songs ... and that was a song that I tried to write at home alone for over a month -- like, a month and a half. I picked and picked and picked at that song. I had the first verse and the last verse, and I had no chorus. I never thought to go back to "when you're my age" as the hook, to be honest ...
I had no idea what to do with it, and I brought it to Liz and Hillary, and I'm so thankful I did because I'm so happy with the way it came out. I needed to write that song with them because Hillary has a young daughter -- she's a newer mom -- I have five kids all over the place, Liz has grandchildren at this point, so we all kind of came at that song as different generations ... It took me a long time to be able to sing it without crying. We all cried when we wrote it.
"Good Fight," I kind of had the chorus and I brought it to them. And we just all got it because we've all been in these relationships, knowing that sometimes the fight is a good fight and you have to have it.
And "Two Birds" was just a title I had. I knew there was a way we could write "two birds, one stone" about, you know, two birds and a dude. So that was just a fun write that just came from the title.
There's a throughline with "When You're My Age" and "'Till You're Grown." What made you want to include both of them on this album?
I've had this problem with other records because sometimes I do write some songs that people will be like, "I love that song you write." [Laughs] ...
"When You're My Age," as I said, to me, is the anchor of this album, but "'Till You're Grown" came before. I wrote that probably a year before we wrote "When You're My Age;" I had been singing it, like, almost every show. And that song is a song I wrote for my daughter, Meghan ... [She]'s going to college this year ...
That was in my brain: Do I need both the songs? But ["'Till You're Grown"] became part of my show every night, and people would ask me about it. And it just seemed like if I didn't have a space for it, I would have missed it -- I would have wished that I put it in there.
If "When You're My Age" is the central song on this album, how did "The Balladeer" wind up as its title track?
I did this last time with The Tree: The anchor of The Tree was "People Get Old," and that's such a bad title [laughs], but I could call the record The Tree because it's such a pretty phrase, and it's a family-oriented song, so it all worked.
"The Balladeer" doesn't work quite as well if "When You're My Age" is my anchor, but I just love the word ... and if any song is gonna fall out of me, it's most likely gonna be a ballad. I mean, I'm just so drawn to ballads and slow music and people singing their hearts out.
And I know that [word is] normally, or a lot of times, associated with a man, but it just seemed like the story would be about a woman, and I could identify with her really well, but also, I could tell a story about her that wasn't mine ... So, I allowed myself to write a ballad that didn't follow the rules.
I know it's not autobiographical, but are there parallels between "The Balladeer" and you? Or certain pieces of yourself in her?
Yeah, I feel like other than her getting famous and becoming a rockstar, if I didn't have like my life as a person that got married when they were 19 ... if I had found music younger, didn't know Gene, didn't fall in love when I was in high school, marry this guy, and then if this wasn't my life, it could have been me, other than probably getting famous. [Laughs]
But I love building characters like that. I feel like I know her, and I've had this feeling [before] -- it's always with women [characters] -- with songs that I've been able to write, and I always wonder what novelists feel like when they develop characters, because of course we're only developing a character that lasts three and a half minutes. I can't imagine what it's like to write a novel.
But I just feel like, I like her, and I can identify with her in some way, and it's so fun to build those characters in a song.
In "Marie," you sing about "being saved by my disposition." Were you the glass-half-full type of kid?
My siblings and I all have a different perspective of childhood, like most siblings do, and and losing Mom, we were all different ages ... To this day, I feel like it was just easier for me to to accept [her death] and carry than it than it was for [my sister]. And when I try to think how is that possible, the only thing I can come up with is just your disposition and how you enter this world and the way you're gonna see things.
I think my disposition, in many ways, has served me so many times in my life, because I kind of have this sadness in my songs [but], in general, I'm a very happy person, and I also kind of have a childish way of thinking of things sometimes ...
Do you feel like that part of your personality has stayed with you?
I hope it has stayed with me ... but I've also been really lucky -- kind of, like, crazy lucky, and very blessed, so if it didn't stay with me, it would be a shame, because I have been -- especially in my career in music -- I've just just been blessed in a way that, I've seen so many other people that have worked as hard as me, and beat me in the talent game, not be able to have the blessings and the successes that I have had.
So I don't know how I would have gotten bitter by music, is what I'm trying to say ... but I definitely feel like I've had to push myself to grow up a little bit ... I do tend to see things on a good side of things, thank God.