“Every time you make a record, the minute you finish, you write your favorite song ever,” says Lori McKenna. She and producer Mark Erelli whittled down twelve songs out of 70 to create Massachusetts, her sixth studio album. We spoke to McKenna, whose songs have been recorded by Alison Krauss, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Mandy Moore, about the first song she ever wrote, the words she loves and hates and more.
You’re drawn to sad songs. As someone who sometimes writes for others, are you able to get other artists to record these sad songs?
I love sad songs because they draw emotions out of the listener – that’s what most artists are looking to do. Sometimes artists are looking for sad songs. It might be easier to get cuts with happy songs — actually, I’m sure it is. I have writer friends who are fantastic at writing those party songs we all love to move to. I always say I can’t make you dance – so I’m gonna try and make you cry.
What makes this album unique for you?
I’ve never made a record with my band. In a way — this is the only record I’ve made with players who know the music as well (or better) than I do. We cut this one live — so I knew that my performances would not be technically perfect. But that wasn’t the goal — the goal was to give the songs the emotional foundation we thought they deserved.
Was “Susanna” inspired by the late songwriter Susanna Clark?
That song landed in my head one morning while I was in California with Troy Verges on a writing trip. It’s hard to lie about it – although I wish I could because I never had the pleasure of knowing “Susanna” and I’ve only ever met Guy once. Part of me knows that I have no business writing a song about either one of them. But the song landed there in my head and as every songwriter knows – it had to come out.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Matraca Berg. And every time I hear a song I wish I’d written, that songwriter is a bit of hero in my head.
What artists do you like to cover when your playing for your own enjoyment?
I grew up on James Taylor, Carole King and Neil Young. When covering songs I pretty much stick to those writers who enjoy three chords as much as I do.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
The first song I ever wrote was a country song about a single mom and her daughter. I was like 12 years old, and I remember playing it for my brothers and my brother Richie saying “I don’t know how she came up with a country song!”
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
Every time you make a record, the minute you finish, you write your favorite song ever. That’s just how it works. The last song I wrote by myself is one called “God Never Made One Of Us To Be Alone”. I’ve been making Mark Erelli play it with me to open some of the CD release shows. Sometimes the best songs come out of nowhere. Sometimes you chase them down for hours and hours and sometimes they chase you down.
What’s your approach to songwriting — melody first?
I can’t write lyrics first. I start by playing something on my guitar, or piano, and mumbling words to go along with the melody. I mumble for a while until the right word falls into the right phasing with the right note. Sometimes I’ll carry around a title for a while until I find the melody that it wants to go to. But usually the words and melody find each other.
Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere by when choosing them for an album?
I gave Producer Mark Erelli about 70 songs to listen to and pretty much let him pick the songs to put on Massachusetts. I’m happy with the flow of the record. I think it captures a lot the highs and lows of a typical life. I like to try and celebrate the non-celebrated stories of an ordinary life. We put songs on there that we’ve been playing live for years (“How Romantic Is That,” “Make Every Word Hurt”) and songs that are brand new (“Smaller & Smaller,” “Better With Time” were both written days before we recorded). The only standard I have when choosing the songs is, “Am I going to want to play and sing this every night?” and, “Am I proud of this song?”
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of ?
I’m proud of all of them for different reasons. I’m proud of “My Love Follows You Where You Go” because I got to write that one with two of my dearest friends, Liz Rose and Barry Dean, and it was cut by Alison Krauss on her Paper Airplane record. We wrote that about our children and when we cut it my husband and two youngest kids were in the studio. We had been working for nearly eight hours and I was getting so tired. But somehow, I think because the kids were there, I was able to sing it pretty well. Not as beautifully as Alison Krauss, of course. But I’m happy that one made my record because it is such a message to our kids.
What’s a lyric or verse from Massachusetts you’re a fan of?
I’m pretty happy with the chorus of “Shake.” Mostly it wrote itself — which I know is weird to say — but I do believe that sometimes they do.
Time does not waste itself /A dream can not wake itself /The truth can not disgrace itself / An unwritten prayer can not save a lost soul
Arms can not embrace themselves /A heart can not break itself /and I can not shake myself from you
Are there any words you love, or hate?
That’s a great question. I don’t think I hate any words (except a few swear words). But I do get stuck on words sometimes. I like the word “baby” because I call my husband and my kids baby. I like the word “kitchen” because it seems to me, we spend a lot of our lives in our kitchens. If the word baby or kitchen is in the song, I probably put it there.
Do you do any other kinds of writing?
When I was a kid I decided that I was going to write a book. I was inspired by S.E. Hinton because she had written books in her teens. I discovered early into my first “novel” that I had no attention span for such things. I also realized that my language skills are pretty weak and I can’t spell to save my life. My brother Donald read some of my writing and noted that most of it was a long conversation. So, a four minute song that’s really just a rhyming conversation is what I fell into, and it’s my favorite way to express myself.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
On Massachusetts, the song that seems to get the most reaction is “Grown Up Now,” which I wrote for my big kids. Specifically my son Mark, he had just graduated high school when I wrote it. On Lorraine, which was my last record it is either “Lorraine” which is about my mom, or “Still Down Here” which I wrote with Barry Dean about losing my sister-in-law Nancy Giroux to cancer.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Most of my friends… Mark Erelli, certainly, he is brilliant. Barry Dean, Tony Lane.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
Greg Brown’s “Brand New ’64 Dodge.” If that song doesn’t make you feel about 1,000 things then you’re just not listening.