Interview: Lori McKenna on ‘1988’, ‘The Songwriter Tapes’, touring and more

If country is a genre where the songwriters are royalty, then Lori McKenna has a pretty strong claim to being the queen of them all. One-third of the legendary ‘Love Junkies’ alongside Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, she’s written for almost every big name in Nashville, including Taylor Swift, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Little Big Town, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Carrie Underwood, The Highwomen, Sheryl Crowe and Reba McEntire (just to name a few!), as well as tracks for the TV series ‘Nashville’ and ‘Monarch’ and the 2018 remake of ‘A Star is Born’. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s won back-to-back CMA Song of the Year Awards, three Best Country Song Grammys and was the first woman to win the ACM Songwriter of the Year Award.

However, she’s also carved out a path as an artist in her own right, self-releasing her first album ‘Paper Wings and Halos’ all the way back in 2000, before breaking through with 2016’s critically acclaimed ‘The Bird and the Rifle’. Her 12th record, ‘1988’ – named after the year she married her husband Gene, and the follow-up to 2020’s ‘The Balladeer’ – is due for release later this month and is a touching tribute to family and lifelong friends.

I recently had the chance to chat to Lori about the new album, her upcoming tour, working on ‘The Songwriter Tapes’ with Luke Laird and Barry Dean, how she approaches her writing and much more besides.

Your new record ‘1988’ is coming out on 21st July – can you tell us a bit about it?

Yes, it’s the fourth record I’ve made with my producer Dave Cobb and his band, Chris Powell and Brian Allen. And we tracked it over a couple of weeks in Savannah last fall. And I’m just excited to get it out. I kept telling him, this is my version of a rock record [laughs].

Was that something you consciously wanted to do before you made this record? Or did it evolve during the recording process?

It was really an idea where, and I say that with a smile, because I know it’s not the the rockiest record anybody’s ever heard, but I usually just write ballads. So I had to, writing wise have this right hand of, “Okay, let’s try to move these a little bit more”, which is hard for me, which is not my natural rhythm. But yeah, I was thinking one day that the rock albums of the 90s, like Sheryl Crow and Gin Blossoms, and those records still sound so good now. And of course, Sheryl Crow’s insanely just brilliant, she’s on another level. But those records sound so good now. And they were such a big part of my life, and still now. But I was teasing, saying, “Well, if I made a rock record in the 90s, I want it to sound like that”. And then I realised that I am old enough, and I did make records in the 90s [laughs]. It’s always weird how old I am. I still keep thinking I’m 35.

But yeah, so I called Dave and I said, “Can we can we just make this more electric leaning?” which is why he’s playing all electrics. And we had fun. And so that kind of changed my frame in writing – you know, “let me try to write with this movement in mind”. But also, my live band had a lot to do with it, because my band is awesome, that I get to play live with, and they really can rock out even though I can’t [laughs]

Lyrically the big theme of the record is those lifelong bonds and relationships with family and old friends. Did you know that was going to be the focus ahead of making the album, or did it evolve that way as you wrote for it?

I think they just come out that way for me, because it’s such a focus in my life. 1988 was the year my husband and I got married and the McKenna family was established, we say, and it was inspired by a tattoo my daughter got. My daughter, her name’s Megan, she called me, she was travelling, and she said, “What year did you and Dad get married?” And I said, “1988, why?” And she got the tattoo with the angel and the year, which is so funny, because she was born in 2001. And people always ask her, like, “Were you born in 1988? Like, what is this tattoo all about?!” [laughs]

And I thought it was so interesting that she thought that was important, but it is important. You know, we were 19 when we got married and had our oldest son when we were 20, and I wrote that song [‘1988’] with him, my son, Brian. And I think that the fact that most of the songs are personal, and I think that’s just what I always do. Like if I have to sing them every night, they have to sort of come through me that way first.

One of the other songs I wanted to ask you about on the record was ‘Happy Children’, which you’ve just put out as a single. I know you wrote that one with your son Chris – how was it working with him?

That was so fun. I don’t know if “I hope you have happy children” is an expression in the UK, but it’s absolutely brilliant. And I wish that in the States we said that to each other every time we were walking out the door, because I heard someone say and I just thought, “that is the greatest wish of all times”. Because if you have happy children, so many of the burdens of life are solved with that one statement. You know, if we all had happy children then we’d all be okay.

And Chris and I wrote that, when he was actually… Chris and Brian both write and live in Nashville and I live just south of Boston. But Chris was home and I showed him the beginnings of that. And again, sort of asked him, like, “I want to make this move a little bit. And instead of writing another ‘Humble and Kind’, the way I hear things, can you help me move this along?” And it was really fun to get in lyrically with him on that one, too.

I also wanted to ask you about was ‘Killing Me’, which you worked with Hillary Lindsey on. How is it working together as performers compared to as songwriters?

Well, Liz and Hillary and I are besties, and I just love them so much as women and just on every level of humaneness. We love each other. And the fact that we also love songwriting and get to spend so much time together writing has been such a blessing. And I had a day with Luke Laird and Hillary for writing, going in one more time before I went in to cut the record, and I had this title of, “would it kill you to be happy, because trying to make you happy is killing me”. And it was just sort of about a relationship in the beginning. But then it ended up being sort of like a way of my talking to myself here, like the parts of our minds that are so hard on each other. And I brought it to them.

It’s so funny, because I just found the recording of us finding that hook. I remember the day because it wasn’t that long ago, but it’s Hillary and Luke – I didn’t even have a guitar in my hand, and they were just sort of going back and forth of how to find the best way to say that. And it was so fun to go back and hear us finding it the right way to do it. And Hillary who has like, the greatest voice of all time, and I have a very small little range [laughs] – she’s singing these notes that I can never sing. And it’s funny how… I would say I dumbed it down so I could sing it. But it’s really fun.

I almost want to share the recording. I’ll have to figure out a way to do it if she lets me, because they’re so nurturing was me on it. And when she sings this beautiful run that I can’t sing, and then feed it back to her in the way I can, she immediately knows my language, she knows that you do what she’s done. And she goes, “I just did it the way that I would do it”. And she congratulates me, you know, she’s like, “That’s great. What you just did is great.” I mean, it’s just a beautiful moment of like these three friends championing one another, being like, “What you just did was great. Oh my God, let me find where it sits in me.” That’s one of the things I love most about co-writing.

You’ll have to do a deluxe version of the album and put it on there! I know you recently made a video for that song as well – how was that?

Oh God, I’m not good with cameras. It’s like my least favourite thing [laughs]. And when I went in with the management team about what are we going to do for this record, I think one of my first things was, “Can we just do very limited? You know, I’m not an actor in any way, shape, or form, do I really need to do videos?” And we found that, the director for that video, Derek, we had a call with him and sort of talked about this idea of me talking to myself in that song, like the critic in me talking to the artist or any of that stuff that happens in our head. And he saw it as, “Well what if we had you talk to your younger self?”

And it’s so funny because my my friend Becky, after the video came out, she called me and she said, “Whose idea was that?” And I said, “Well it was the director’s idea”, and she said, “I love it when a music video takes a lyric to a very different place than the way the lyric appears in the beginning” and I was like, “no, it’s this beautiful process of a creative thought”. Like just the teamwork that’s involved in someone having one thought like one negative thought that becomes something beautiful in someone else’s mind. And the actor that they had – I mean, the whole day was really… I have limited spots in that video for that reason, because it’s supposed to be a younger self sort of being told like, “don’t be so hard on yourself”, because every older person looks back and says, “I should have been nicer to myself.” [laughs]

What do you feel that you’ve learned from making this particular record that you’ll take forward into future projects – either for yourself or working with other artist?

That’s such a good question. I mean, this was a new experience in the way that we were leaning more electric with it, which I really loved. And we were in a new studio for me, for all of us. And we were in a new space. And there was a lot of nature involved in this recording process versus a studio where you don’t know if it’s daylight out or not – those studios are magical in their own right. But being able to make a record in a house on a little tiny island off the coast of Savannah was so joyful, because you could honestly just walk across the yard and a dolphin or something would just be swimming by, it was crazy [laughs] But I realised that the the nature piece had a lot to do with how much I enjoyed this process.

And also, I think, for me, it was a little bit of a checking of a box of knowing what I sounded like with more electric sound and is that a place I can now start writing from. I’m in my my writing room, and I have a piano here, I’m not a piano player, but I can write from the piano, I would never play one live because I’m terrible. But you can start a song there and it can grow from that. And it will start in a very different spot than if I just pick up my same guitar and play the same chord progressions. I think electric, for me isn’t can is like the same thing. You know, like, sometimes I’ll co-write with Dustin Christiansen, for example, and he’ll just bring electric guitar in and it just brings you to a different spot, even as a songwriter. So I think it opened up a little bit of the creative mind in me about being open to other sounds versus just a ballad and acoustic. Those are my favourite things of all time [laughs], but I love learning new roads to go down to and those are kind of new for me.

You’ve also got some tour dates coming up in the US next month. Are there any songs you’re particularly looking forward to playing live, either from this album or previous ones?

We’re actually still putting setlist together because I think right now I have like 21 songs on the setlist and I don’t I could fit them all, or even sing them all. But it’s kind of hard each time we have a new record, it’s hard because there’s the ones that people know you for, and most people know they’re coming to listen to a new record. But we’re gonna try to do everything on the record and then put in ‘The Bird and the Rifle’ and ‘The Table’ and things like that, that we do every night, usually. But it’s really fun playing this record with my live band, because it is more electric driven and I have such a great band. The band configuration is going to change a little bit over the summer for various purposes and everyone else had different tours to jump on too, but I think just getting out in general with a brand new record, and having support versus playing the songs all solo, it’s very exciting for me.

You’ve mentioned Luke Laird already and I wanted to ask you about ‘The Songwriter Tapes’ project you put out earlier this year with Luke and Barry Dean. How did that come about and what was it like working together on that?

That was such a joy. You know, I think it was Luke’s idea to do that. And then management came and approached Barry and I and said, “Luke has this idea that we want to bring to life”. And I think it can be a project that can end up, like my publishing house Creative Nation will end up doing with other writers. I always talk to my writer friends about making their own records because I feel like it’s such a blessing that I have, because you always write songs that don’t really see the world and you love yourself but they don’t really get to have a life outside of your house. For a songwriter that isn’t necessarily an artist first, to be able to put their music out I think is really important.

And Luke and Barry… I made the Christmas EP with them and they’re like brothers. I have four brothers, and then I have Luke and Barry. So they’re really like family to me, I love them dearly. And I feel so supported and like I can do anything. You know, anything truthful I can do with Luke and Barry, and they will support me. And it was so fun to watch them, you know, shine on their songs, too. So it was great.

We’ve talked about this already but I wanted to ask you about your process as a writer. Do you typically start with a line or snippet of something and take it from there? Or does it vary depending on the song, or if you’re writing for yourself or for someone else?

It really does. It’s always quite different. And that’s like, one of the things that is so beautiful about having a craft like songwriting. aND for anybody that writes songs, I think that’s one of the things we can all say is just such a great part of it, you can never really get sick of the process, because there’s so many different ways. But for the most part, I like to start with a title. I’m a word person. And i like to start with, when I see that line, like ‘The Bird and the Rifle’, I think I know what it wants to sound like. Like, for example, ‘Girl Crush’, which I had the title, but I didn’t have anything else in my head about that song and Hillary Lindsey sang the first four lines as soon as I said it. She just knew, like, she just heard it. It was like a little gift, you know what I mean? She just heard it. And so those things are really it’s like a great starting point.

But also getting a session with, like Barry Dean or someone that plays piano beautifully, and I can’t, sometimes you’ll just hear somebody melodically and you’ll know what it wants to say – it will almost tell you what it wants to say. You kind of have to be open to every way that it’s going to come at you. And you just have to have your antenna out at all times, like, “Is that a song? Is that a song?” [laughs]

It’s been 23 years since you made your first record. What is that keeps you motivated as a writer and an artist?

I mean, I think it’s what we just said, about how it’s always very different. Co-writing opened up a million little doors in my head when I started co-writing years ago, and the collaborative – is that a word – collaborating with other writers in that way. I’m not a great musician in that way, I can’t really like jump on stage with you at your show, and just jump on a harmony or something, but I can help you write a song, you know what I mean? And I really found my community in the co-writing community.

And I think not doing it too much too. Although I do feel like I am blessed that I get to write as much as I do. But also, especially the older I get, I also make sure I carve out just this space to not always be thinking about it. And I’m lucky that I have a big family and five kids and all these other things to worry about. And beautiful ways to keep me going, so when I get to go back to the music, it’s always such a refreshing idea. It’s like a deep breath.

That’s such a good description of it, thank you. This is probably a really difficult question, but what’s the song that you’re proudest of that you’ve written?

That’s a great question too. We always say like songs are like our little babies. And honestly I’m really lucky that I have have ‘Humble and Kind’, and I think that that’s such a full circle song for me because it came from… I literally wrote it at my dining room table in my yoga pants and I sent it to Tim. And like, the fact that I have a job because of the McGraws and and that song is immediately just about my children. And then Tim brought it to life and gave it such a life of its own. I think that if it was any other artists that brought that song to life, it would have been wonderful no matter what, but the fact that it was Tim, and it’s such a personal song for me. My kids and I and my husband, we really got to experience the journey of that song together. We got to all watch the trajectory of what Tim did with it and got to just be overwhelmed by other people taking in something that my kids knew was written for them was a great blessing.

What’s still left on the bucket list for you?

I just really want to just keep going, is my thing. I really love to branch out with new artists that I haven’t been able to write with. I love the way there’s this really gritty, guttural honesty that’s coming out of a lot of young artists now. And we got to see that before and I feel like maybe it wasn’t cool for a while or something. But it’s just like coming out, like just growing out of the ground now. So it’s so fun to watch that happen, because I feel like music has to have so much truth in it.

And I feel like if we’re leaning back in the truth department, and the community, the service, Mary Gauthier, my dear friend who’s one of the best songwriters in the universe, says songwriting is a service industry. And so that sort of changed my perspective of things when I heard her say that. And it’s going forward thinking of the act of my songwriting as a service, even though I think of it as very selfish at this point. So to be able to go down and look at it through the lens of service, I think it’s gonna be a whole new world for me, in a lot of ways. I think that’s what’s next now, that now I have so much age [laughs], I can start throwing my age around a little bit, and maybe be even more honest, I don’t know. But I’m starting to know myself better. So I think I’ll start knowing the songs better.

What does the rest of the year look like for you? Is the record and the tour going to be the main focus? Yeah, so the record, you know, touring – I’m not a big tour, you know, I’ve never done the road a lot. So we have a bunch of shows around the release of the record. And then we’re working on a little special thing in the in the fall, and trying to figure out a way to get over to see you guys at some point. I hope within the next few years, because my kids are getting older – my youngest just graduated high school and he’s going off to college. So the next five years is going to start looking different for me, I think, once the kids are all sort of starting to move out of the house.

I was going to ask if you had any plans to come over to the UK as I know you were supposed to come here for C2C in 2020 and then the pandemic happened…

We’re talking about trying to figure it out again. So I hope it works. I don’t know anything yet, but I hope it works.

Lori McKenna’s new album, ‘1988’, will be released on 21st July via CN Records/Thirty Tigers.

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