Interview: Lori McKenna Talks Working With Dave Cobb, Songwriting and Reflective New Album ‘The Tree’
In recent years, Lori McKenna's songwriting profile has increased considerably, thanks to her two Best Country Song Grammys wins, for co-writing Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" and penning Tim McGraw's "Humble and Kind." But the Massachusetts native also has a lengthy career as a recording artist; in fact, her affecting new studio album, The Tree, ranks among her best solo work.
Working with a bevy of songwriters — including Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird and her Love Junkies co-conspirators Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey — McKenna recorded The Tree with producer Dave Cobb, with whom she also recorded 2016's The Bird and the Rifle. The partnership was fruitful: The album brims with well-wrought Americana that encompasses upbeat folk ("Happy People"), wiry country ("A Mother Never Rests") and jangly roots-rock ("Young and Angry Again").
Songwriting-wise, on The Tree, McKenna's "anchor," as she puts it, was the song "People Get Old," which ruminates on the inevitable passage of time as it relates to an aging father. "I still think it's hysterical because it's, like, the worst title ever," she tells The Boot with a laugh. "But there's no other way around it. It was like, that had to be the title of the song." She was hesitant to call the album People Get Old, however — a conundrum that solved itself once she co-wrote the title track, which uses the metaphor of a tree to illuminate ideas about family and destiny, with Hemby and Aaron Raitiere.
"Once I had those two songs, it was just like, 'What else fits in this picture for me?'" she says. "I felt so lucky to have those songs as the backbone of everything else."
The Tree is cohesive, with its aforementioned songs on aging and mortality also touching on familial bonds, finding emotional equilibrium and reconciling past and present selves. To hear McKenna tell it, these themes were top of mind as she was writing the song.
"I have three kids in their 20s now. So I have been in this mode of kids going off and chasing their own lives — and, at the same time, my dad's getting older and needing a little bit of help here and there," she says, noting that her father lives down the street from her.
"My dad is going to be 83. He's getting older. On the reverse side of that, my mom died when she was 40," McKenna shares. "Most of us human beings are going to go through this strange little phase of our lives where we're realizing all these things at once. And that's kind of where my head's been."
The Tree was released on Friday (July 20). Read on for McKenna's full chat with The Boot.
This is the second album you've made with Dave Cobb. What makes you both such great collaborators?
I don't love being in the studio. I sort of hate it. I'm one of those songwriters, like, I don't even want to record the song. Sometimes I'll just [be like], "Let's write another song." It's not part of the process that I've ever really fallen in love with ... I've had great studio experiences over the years, making records that have been really fun to make and really enlightening for me, but I've never really been comfortable in the studio until I started [working with him] and the team that he has.
He reminds me of one of my brothers. You ever meet somebody and you feel like you've known them? For some reason, you knew them somehow? I instantly had that feeling with him. More than anything, what I think is magical about my experience with him … I 100-percent trust what he says. If he tells me that we have to do [a song] again, I know I have to do it again [laughs] ...
He somehow just knows when the song is going to have its best way to express itself. And it's like we're just sitting around playing the song. That's how it feels, even though there's microphones and everything around us. It's trust more than anything. I really, really trust him. It's always paid off for me to trust him.
"The thing about songwriting is, you never think you really get it."
I feel like that's a common theme, that a lot of musicians say the same thing. He's this sage like figure. He just gets it. There's just such an empathy for the music and for the musician, and it's very intuitive.
I think, for him, it is. With me, we're sitting around playing live. He's right across from me, and he's playing as well, but he's watching me the whole time. I always find that amazing.
You know how they say that Tom Hanks, he's such a great actor, he makes the other actors seem like better actors? Cobb kind of does that for me. Whatever he's playing is sort of making my playing seem better. [Laughs.] And he is literally just watching me, and he watches in a way that he feels like, if the artist has emotionally reached the song, then that's the right version of the song.
And then, in between songs, he makes sure everybody's comfortable. He makes sure [there's] — not necessarily a social aspect, but there's a family aspect to the conversations. Like, "Oh, did you hear the song? Or, you know, like, "This was recorded here" — because we were in RCA Studio A. He has this presence about him that calms your nerves.
You've worked with a lot of the other songwriters on the album before. For this particular record, what did you learn from them? What made the experiences so good?
It's funny — on this record, there's a lot of Love Junkies, which is Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey and myself. We have become this little sisterhood of songwriters; we love each other as humans and women. This record's nice because we have two Love Junkies songs.
Other writers, [like] Barry Dean and Luke Laird, I write with them all the time. Hailey Whitters, she came to my house to write. It was a little bit like the Dave Cobb experience — I felt like I knew her; I felt like I understood her right away. We had a great time writing songs together. It's been great getting to know her.
All these writers are people that, I can come in with any stupid idea, and they're not going to be like, "That's a stupid idea." [Laughs.] They're all people I'm very comfortable with, especially in the room writing, as far as like, "This isn't the right line, but I'm going to say it out loud." You can't comfortably co-write a song with somebody that you're afraid to say anything in front of. You have to be able to say anything. And I truly believe that.
"Happy People" really resonates — the last line comes up, "We all deserve to be happy while we're here." That's such a simple but profound statement.
Hailey came in with that idea. She said, "I want to write a song called "Happy People."" And I said, "What's it about?" And she said, "Well, happy people don't cheat, and they don't lie." I was like, "Well, let's just sing that."
I think Hailey was, like, 22 years old when we wrote this song a couple of years ago. And I thought, "That girl is so smart. She has so much wisdom in her young, little head and heart." I've been able to write with her several more times since then, and she's just an amazing writer. She's going to be amazing in life.
She's one of six kids, and she's one of those kids that just gets it. That song, you know, when we got to the end of it, she had said part of the chorus that talks about, like, "You're never going to be happy by taking someone else's away." And that was something she had said, and I sat in the room that day just so overwhelmed by how much she got it. I don't even know if she knew how smart she was yet.
When we get to the end of the song, it seems like it would just end on a chorus, because the chorus is so fun and all that, but we just wanted to wrap it up that way. The bottom line is, everybody deserves to be happy. [Laughs.] Sometimes we overthink that. And we tried to make the song as simple as we could.
Both "Humble and Kind" and "Girl Crush" have elevated your songwriting profile in recent years. In what ways have you seen their success kind of inform or influence your own work that you're doing?
The biggest part of being able to write songs for other people is it has afforded me the luxury of being able to still tour and make my own records. I started working with [publishing company] Creative Nation, I guess it was three years ago. Beth Laird is my publisher. I started out making records and being an artist that wrote songs, and then I got a publishing deal and became a songwriter. And that is my favorite part of the whole process: writing songs. I just love it.
Beth reminded me that I need to keep the artist piece of what I do. A lot of times, to me, the songs don't really come to life until I get to play them in front of an audience, and get to talk to people about them, or how they see the song. [Beth] introduced me to Dave Cobb, and then once I had that piece, it's like, now I finally have this really great team on all sides of everything I do. I have this great team surrounding me at the moment, which is such a blessing.
Being able to record my own songs and sing them for people — in the end, it makes me a better songwriter. The thing about songwriting is, you never think you really get it. You always want to try to get better at it. It fuels that creative side of what I do, in all ways.
"We all have our role, and we are all important to each other."
That's cool — it's that balance. You can fulfill both sides of you.
When you're writing a song that you think is for someone else, the artist brain in you is like, "Would I want to sing this every night? Would I be able to interpret this every night?" And that's important for me to have in the back of my head.
When people listen to the record, what do you want people to take from it?
What I always ever want is for some emotion to be sparked in [people], to make them reflect on their own world and appreciate it more. I always kid around and say, like, "I can't make you dance, so I gotta try to make you cry." I don't really try to make people cry [laughs] -- like, actively try. When I listen to music, the stuff that pulls something out of you that you didn't know was there — those are the songs that I want to hear again. I think that's why music is so universal — because it makes us feel.
This record in particular, I hope it makes people reflect on their families and how they fit in them and how they're important in their structural family, whatever that may be. We all have our role, and we are [all important] to each other. It's funny, in writing some of this, I realized, even when you were a kid, you affected somebody else. Like, me being here has made my sister's life different, just as much as her life has made mine. And I hope people reflect back on that stuff.