Interview: Lori McKenna
Lori McKenna is a bit of a homebody—which is to say that she enjoys being at her home in Stoughton between her overnight visits to Nashville recording studios and playing gigs up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The mother of five also writes most of her songs from home, recording many elements in her basement studio.
The folk singer-songwriter cut her chops at Boston-area open mics, encouraged by the supportive nature of the local music community. Her obvious talent and warm personality netted her enough fans and key connections to land her gigs at such national notables as the Newport Folk Festival and the Sundance Film Festival, plus a publishing deal in Nashville. Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Alison Krauss, Keith Urban and LeeAnn Rimes have all recorded songs written by McKenna in recent years.
Her latest effort, Lorraine (out January 25), is her most personal to date. It draws influences from her hectic life, her large family and her mother, who died around the age that Lori is now. She will debut many of her newest songs at a six-show stint at the legendary Club Passim.
TOB: You have three days of shows this year and they’re all different. What’s each show going to be like?
Lori McKenna: We’ve done it for—I think—seven years now. The first night, I share the night with Mark Erelli and Jake Armerding and we just sort of sit around and do cover songs. On Friday night, I do the whole night solo and then on Saturday night we do the whole night as a band. It’s a bit of a challenge to do six shows in three nights but it’s also great because it’s Passim. It’s my home away from home—a loving environment and a great place to play a show. It’s sort of a holiday treat for us as well as everybody else.
Your new album is much more stripped-down that your records in the past, and it’s a very personal album.
I think it’s we made a conscious choice to really keep things organic and imperfect in a creative way. We didn’t want to glamorize anything that didn’t need to be glamorized. It’s a more emotional record than anything else. I think it ended up that way because the process took so long. The piano has a lot to do with it, too. My producer, Barry Dean, is a piano player and I am madly in love with the piano. I can’t play myself but I can write on it.
What is it like performing these new songs, since they are much more personal?
Some of the songs I’m still getting used to performing on an emotional level—especially the last song, “Still Down Here,” which I’ve only played once live. That’s kind of what these Passim shows will help with: just getting up and playing most of the tracks on the record. But for the most part all of my shows are very personal anyways. The songs lend themselves to that, and the stories that go between the songs. For the most part it’s just me up there talking about myself.
You recorded in Nashville but wrote from your house in Stoughton. What is it like for you to divide your time and creativity between two places?
It’s become a way of life in a lot of ways. Nashville has become a bit of a home away from home. I have a little spot in the world when I’m there. As far as putting on my recording hat and going down there—it’s a good way to work. When I’m home it’s about the kids and all the shows that I do up here. When I’m in Nashville, I put my recording hat on and focus for three days. I have everything else in the whole world going on up here. It’s nice to disappear in Nashville for 24 hours, even to just get a couple songs recorded before I come back home.
What is it like being a singer-songwriter based out of Boston, with New York and Nashville's reputations to contend with?
Obviously I live here, and I’ve never lived full-time in other places. But Boston honestly seems like one of the best music scenes around, just from my perspective of knowing people who live in other cities and hearing their takes on it. I’m not a very competitive person, and if we didn’t have a nurturing environment here to begin with, I never would have even started. I would have just stayed home, writing songs in my basement.
I think that we can be pretty proud of the environment we have here. In terms of musicians and the people who take care of them, it’s very loyal and amazingly nurturing. You see that all the time, you see it in every genre in our area. Musicians help each other and stick with each other. We also have a lot of great places to play. If I had to rate it, I think it’s pretty tops.
You talk about not wanting to spend time away from home and your kids—what do your kids think about your job?
I think they are so used to it because I’ve been doing this for 11 or 12 years now. They are so used to it. To them it seems very normal. I always joke around that the kids only want to know what’s for dinner; they don’t care who is in the basement writing songs with me. There are parts of my job that are fun for them too—they get to go to places they’ve never been or meet somebody that they look up to.
There’s no “Oh, my mom’s not here because she’s out being a rock star,” or anything like that?
I don’t think they think of it that way. No, absolutely not (laughs).
Lori McKenna plays Club Passim December 16–18.