Lori has five kids and lives in the town where she grew up. Songwriting gives her a voice, something that fulfills her apart from her family and friends. In this interview, Lori explains why this outlet is so important, and how she pulls it off while raising a family (hint: her husband doesn't attend her shows). Faith Hill recorded some of her songs, which meant a trip to Disneyland.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): It really is incredible that Faith Hill, who is this very glamorous woman, can relate to people in the same way that you can. But there must be some connection there, at least with the songs.
Lori McKenna: Well, I think that Faith, she certainly is glamorous and she's certainly a beautiful woman, but you know, "Mississippi Girl" is a big hit, and I think that the song worked because it's really true. She has a great sense of humor, and she really is just like everybody else once you're around her enough. It's just that the way she usually is presented is as this beautiful woman, but she has a hell of a lot of soul, and she has a hell of a lot of heart. Like, she sang at the CMAs, she sang "Proud Mary," and she sang "Respect." Oh my God, she can sing her heart out, she really does. And she's not as unusually glamorous as you would think she is. She's like a regular person once you're around her enough and you get to watch her a little bit.
Songfacts: She sang one of your songs at the CMAs, right?
Lori: She did. She did "Stealing Kisses."
Songfacts: What do you think of the whole incident? [When Carrie Underwood won the 2006 award for Female Vocalist Of The Year, Faith reacted as if she was aghast, but not everyone got that she was kidding.]
Lori: Oh, I couldn't believe how blown up that got. I wasn't there, but I didn't even question the fact that she was kidding. Just from hanging out with her the few times I have, she's got a great sense of humor. I didn't even think that it was that big of a deal, because I just knew that she was kidding.
Songfacts: So how did she come to record your songs in the first place?
Lori: My publisher, Melanie Howard, got her the songs, actually before I had a publishing deal. Faith was one of the first people she pitched my songs to.
Songfacts: Talk about "Stealing Kisses."
Lori: Poor Faith. She totally got the song, she told me, the first time she heard it. And I was so happy that she did, but a lot of people don't get the song, and I think it's because maybe they read in too much to it. But basically, "Stealing Kisses" is like just a page from my little town here. As far as the cop in the beginning, I just remember when we were kids, you'd be drinking a six-pack at the end of some dead-end street somewhere, and the cops would come and they'd take your beer and send you home. And you know, they'd sort of wink at you, like "Hey, see you tomorrow night," you know, on the next street over, or whatever they do.
And it's just like these towny things that we all sort of experience growing up here and I'm sure it happens in a lot of towns. And then that girl being married to that boy and finding herself just lonely - I don't actually mention the kids in that song, but one of the things that I found so striking as I got older and as I had my kids is that I live in a little tiny house, and we have five children, and you can still feel lonely. This is a horrible example, but I always say I don't even go to the bathroom by myself, there's like a two-year-old following me around. But you can still somehow have that disadvantage of feeling lonely sometimes, and I've had conversations with my neighbors and my friends who are moms and are sort of experiencing the same things. So the song is really just that big example, a specific example of that loneliness you could feel even though you're with somebody.
Songfacts: So the next question – if you find yourself in that situation, what do you do?
Lori: Well, you write a song about it. Make you feel better.
Songfacts: But it seems like you need some kind of cure. I'm sure there's a lot of people out there that are feeling the same thing, and they would look at Lori McKenna and go, "All right, she clearly has felt this. Well, how did she get through this? What did she do?"
Lori: Right. That's the thing. During my shows, I think people start to worry about me after a little while with the songs. And it's so funny that they come out this way, because I am just such a happy person. Writing is the way I get everything out, and it just sort of makes me feel better - it's like a journal almost.
I know a lot of people that unfortunately don't get to do anything. I know a lot of people that are drinking, or whatever they end up doing. Seems like people figure out something to do. It's not always the best thing for them, but for me, especially with the whole mom thing, I've always had the gift of having, not a talent, but just being able to express yourself some way and so you maintain your own person, and instead of just being a mom or just being a wife, I've always been drawn to something. And that's what I mean as a "gift." I'm just drawn, passionate, about something that makes me feel better.
My husband, on the other hand, the poor guy, he's tried like a thousand different things and he doesn't have anything other than his kids and his family that's he's passionate about in that way. We've been married for 18 years, I've watched him sort of struggle with that, and constantly looking for something that's going to keep him himself, and make him fulfilled without the kids, because the kids grow up and get older and then you're in trouble.
I think everybody has a dream, and everyone has a talent. And I think the real gift is being able to find what that talent is and what your dream is. I think there's a lot of people that just can't figure it out.
Songfacts: Another song that Faith Hill recorded, "If You Ask." Would you be able to tell me a little bit about that song?
Lori: It's funny, the first time I met Faith we were talking about that song, and it was the same thing, like, "Sort of explain the song to us." I was sitting there, and I just said, "Well, to me it's like this... it's a love song."
It's not a typical love song, but to me it's this woman that just loves this guy through all his faults and she's just gonna stick it out and learn to live with it because of this love she has for him. And I feel like he loves her, too, but he's just got this problem.
And those type of songs, people always make fun of me, like if Lori's gonna write a song there's gonna be one alcoholic in it or it's just not a Lori McKenna song. I come from an Irish family, but I don't know if you really could find anybody that alcohol hasn't affected, or some sort of addiction of that type hasn't affected their family somehow. My husband grew up in an alcoholic family, and it's one of those things that I'm kind of paranoid about in my own relationship with him. So the poor guy goes out for a couple of drinks and then I write a song about it. It's why my husband doesn't go to my shows. But to me, it's just a love song. It's just this undying love that she has for him and she's gonna figure it out, when he needs her, she'll be there.
Songfacts: So what do we think about the guy in that song?
Lori: I think that he loves her. I wrote the song, so I guess I must have had him in my head. But it's just that he loves her too, and he needs her. I don't really see him as a bad person. I just see him as a guy who has some trouble, and thank God he has her to get him through. I'm not saying it's right. But I think it's just something I've seen in a lot of families and a lot of people, and even bits of it in myself. I've definitely had days with my own husband where it's like, "Well, we don't want to end up like this," learn from the mistakes of the father, that type of thing. So it's just one of those things where I think they're good people and they love each other. Maybe they're not even trying to figure it out, they're just trying to live through it.
Songfacts: The other Faith song that she recorded, "Fireflies"...
Lori: It's a happy song, can you believe it?
Songfacts: Yes, I can. I used to chase fireflies, too. I wonder if they have those other places, or if that's a Northeast thing.
Lori: I don't know if all regions have them, but I know they call them lightning bugs, but we always called them fireflies.
Songfacts: So tell me about that song.
Lori: Well, that song I wrote years ago. That's the oldest of the three songs that Faith cut. I think I was around 28 or 29 when I wrote that song. I had three of my five kids, and I think I was just watching them one day. I don't specifically remember what sparked it, just thinking about when you are a kid you just feel like everything's possible.
I always say to people, "Kids almost know more than we do." It's like they're almost smarter than we are in so many ways. Like, we learn so many things as we get older that just take away from this natural thing that kids have. And I remember just thinking about that and feeling like when I was a kid I felt like when I was older I was going to be able to do whatever I dreamed I would do, and it just wasn't an option that it wouldn't work out. And then I was just thinking of it, like, why am I like that and a lot of people aren't?
So somebody must have taught me to have these big dreams, and somebody must have instilled something in me - and maybe it's genetic, I don't really know. One of my brothers called me up one day and he said, "How come you were taught to dream and I wasn't?" I wanted to be able to teach my kids, and it probably comes down to my husband and I were just so opposite, and I am the dreamer and he is the practical, responsible, level-headed one - almost like he's the pessimist, I'm the optimist. And I was just thinking, I'd rather have them grow up and be like me. Of course you need a little bit of both, obviously. But it's funny, because in the long run, really, that song has provided exactly what I think my original intention was. What sparked the song was I want my kids to grow up and be dreamers, like I am, and feel like anything's achievable, anything's possible. And basically, what the song did in Faith cutting it, has provided all of that. It's like proof. Like, here you go kids. Mom had a dream that she would be a songwriter, and she stuck her neck out and she worked at it, and if you work hard enough... maybe it's a bad example in some ways, because it's like fairy-tale, like too good to be true. But on the other side of it, it has provided exactly what I intended, what I was hoping for in the end. I mean, after Faith's record came out, we went to Disneyland and the kids were thinking, Auntie Faith took us to Disney. And it was really because of that. She has just put so much hope into our little house here. My whole extended family, ever since Faith's record came out, you see somebody's face light up and say, "How's Faith? Have you talked to her?"
It's been like this big boost for everybody. Like nobody believed that little Lori was going to have a song that somebody like Faith Hill would sing. And it's as much as you can say a dream come true. I know I'm rambling, I'm sorry.
Songfacts: You're not rambling. Is that the song you did on Oprah?
Songfacts: What's it like going on Oprah?
Lori: That was a trip. I love Oprah. I think that as a woman, just as a human being, she has done so much for our country and women, homemakers, and moms - people in general - but I think probably more specifically women, just making them feel better about themselves. It always blows my mind that motivation, like where do you get it? You either have it or you don't. Or you have a little bit or you have a lot.
And I think because I live here and I grew up with most of the people I'm surrounded by all the time, I sort of know who's got that spark, who's got that motivation and who doesn't. People sit and turn the TV on at four o'clock and they're going to leave that show feeling motivated about something, in most cases. It's not like something that brings you down. It's always been opposite as far as helping women feel better about themselves. So I was thrilled to just stand in a room with her and watch her, and it was a great experience. She is a very smart woman, and she was very nice. And she was sort of like what I expected, I guess.
But the other side of it was at that point I was still just getting to know Faith, and Faith sort of calms everybody down. I've seen star quality in people, but I've never really seen it – for lack of a better term - as bright as with her. You figure if you have two women standing in a room and Oprah's one of them, Oprah's going to blow everybody's mind just sort of watching her. But to me it was still Faith that amazed me at that point, and she still does amaze me. But I was still getting to know her. So to me, that day I remember Faith more than I remember Oprah.
I thought she did really well, and she did a great job interviewing. I was just learning all these things, and I just sort of watched her, trying to absorb some sort of something off of her, because she handles herself so well all the time. I remember just sort of watching her and how she handled things.
Songfacts: I've never met anybody who's been on the Oprah show. What happens? When's the first time you actually meet Oprah?
Lori: For me, the first time I met Oprah was when you walk on the stage. And I think that's true of Faith, too. We were in different dressing rooms, we were right across from each other. And I don't think Oprah came over to our wing of the stage. She did after the show to say goodbye to Faith and talk to her. They were doing Katrina benefits and things together. But beforehand, I don't think the guests meet Oprah at all, so the first time I met her was literally watching her on the stage.
I admire her because she's so smart, and because I think she brings out the best in people. I don't know if it was actually on the show, but Faith sang a gospel tune at the end of the show. I think it's called "I Surrender All." And Faith and Oprah, they both grew up going to, I think, Baptist churches and singing these songs as little kids. And I was sitting in the front row of the audience, and Oprah was beside me as Faith was singing this song, and people were weeping, it's so brilliant. And Oprah, she's holding my hand, and she's singing, and all I could think was, This is like the closest you can get to God. It was such a spiritual thing, and it was just so moving. I was literally in my own body going, Oprah's holding my hand, she's singing, Faith's singing, people are crying – how did I get here?
It was a beautiful experience, and it was a great day for me not just like, "Oh look at my career, look at me, I'm a songwriter, I'm on Oprah." It was just on all these different levels, like surprisingly great. It was crazy, crazy.
Lori lives in Stoughton, Massachusetts, about 20 miles south of Boston. While many songwriters travel the world for inspiration, Lori finds it here, which leads us to "Bible Song," which Sara Evans recorded.
Songfacts: Is Stoughton a little town?
Lori: It's not a little town. It's funny, it seems like a little town, but we have like 30,000 people living here, which I don't think is considered a little town. I'm not sure, though. Some people say, "Oh, I grew up in a town of 1,500 people." So I guess we're not so little. But a lot of people stay in this town. You know, my husband and I both grew up here and a lot of our friends from high school still live here. So we know all the police officers and all the firefighters, and it just seems like a small town, I guess, because of that.
Songfacts: That's one thing that kind of struck me, because the people I know, like my friends in Summerville, for instance, you go out with them and everybody knows each other even though they're all 35 years old, and they've all grown up there.
Lori: Maybe it's a Northeast thing. I don't know, because I've never lived anywhere else. But yeah, it's kind of a strange thing. Even my friends that went away, and went to great colleges and got great jobs, a lot of them have found their way back home. It's strange.
Songfacts: Well, that seems to be the subject of "Bible Song."
Lori: Right. "Bible Song" is just basically what I didn't do. It's sort of the opposite of how I feel, in a way, because the character sort of feels like they're running off, or they want to run off and get the hell out. I know people who have felt that way, but I actually never have felt that way about it.
Songfacts: Can you tell me a little bit about how you can write a song about a character?
Lori: Maybe because of the fact that I'm from a really tight-knit family and I live a half a mile away from the house I grew up in, and my husband and I have lived in this house since we were married. Maybe because I really haven't done a lot of traveling - even my friends that are singer-songwriters, they get in a Geo Prism and they tour the country. They're gone for two weeks at a time, and three weeks at a time they come back. I've never really done that, even as a singer-songwriter, because of the kids. I've gone out two days, tops, and things like that. So maybe it's just from the lack of travel.
You know, it's easy to sort of take on the idea of somebody who's standing next to you at a soccer game in the morning watching your kids play soccer, and just pick up little things from people when they talk about their lives. And maybe it's just because mine hasn't been all that adventurous, I just sort of like to pick out things in other people's lives. Maybe I'm just living through everybody else, I'm not really sure.
Songfacts: Well, when you're talking in that song about "I don't want somebody to read a bible over me," just so I know that reference, is that what the Catholic faith does with somebody at a funeral?
Lori: Yeah, I mean, "Bible Song," I don't really know where I read or heard that. I'm not very good at knowing anything about the Catholic religion even though I've been born and raised into it. But yeah, that's the idea of being at a funeral service and someone singing "Ave Maria," or some sort of gospel tune of any sort of kind, whatever sort of one sits in your head. I felt like if you put a specific song in there it's going to make some people think, and then if you just put the general term in there maybe it'll make a lot more people think of what you're talking about.
Ruby Bridges was a six-year-old girl when she became the first black student enrolled in a Louisiana public school. She's the subject of Lori's song "Ruby's Shoes," which Sara Evans recorded.
Songfacts: "Ruby's Shoes," did you do it on the same Oprah show?
Lori: I did, yes, a part of it I did. That song I wrote because my older son, who's now 17, when he was in second grade was doing a biography report on Ruby Bridges. So I actually wrote that for his extra credit. It was his oral presentation of that book report. He got an A, by the way.
That song has just been so good to me, because I ended up meeting Ruby Bridges, and she came and met my kids. That was like "Fireflies" and another song that has over the years taught me and my kids a lot, sort of given back to me more than you would have thought.
Songfacts: There was a little crying when you were on that Oprah show, right?
Lori: You know, I had shut off my cry switch. I didn't realize I actually had the ability to do that, but I was afraid that I would walk out and just start crying, because Faith sort of made me cry all the time anyway. And then with the whole "Ruby's Shoes" thing and everything else, I think technically Oprah cried, but I don't think I did. When Oprah was crying and Faith was getting teared up, I was like, "Okay, you can turn it on a little bit now, Lori."
So I may have come across a little cold hearted by that point. But the same thing with the CMAs. You know, Faith sang "Stealing Kisses" and I was standing behind her playing guitar, and when she got to the one part of "Stealing Kisses," I started to sort of lose it. I'm standing there on stage at the CMAs, and there's all these people and TV cameras, and I don't want to make a fool out of myself in front of poor Faith. And my legs started shaking, I did start getting a little upset, as far as I'm going to start crying. And I shouldn't do that, it's not very professional. But I held it in until she got off stage, and everyone - her friends from Warner Brothers and all her people there - were sort of over congratulating her, and I just lost it, because she did a fantastic job on that song. Sort of blows me away how much she gets it. And she really does, you know.
Songfacts: Yeah, I just would love to be able to quantify what makes you feel emotion in some of these songs. Because some writers seem to have this ability to write songs that just make you feel something.
Lori: Since I was a teenager I always wrote songs. That was like my journal, and it was always my way of expressing things. And the thing about a song is you can take a little piece of an emotion that you have and you can exaggerate it to sort of make your point, which is why a lot of the songs, I feel like they're sort of bittersweet: There is a sweetness in there, but a lot of them are on the darker sides.
But I think that in writing a song, because it's three minutes long, and you don't have to make every single line exactly about you, you have the ability to be completely honest, and just sort of say something that maybe you wouldn't say in a conversation, but you would say in this way. I think it comes from most of my years of writing. I always just did it for myself and nobody else was going to really hear it.
You know, I didn't leave my house until I was like 27, because I didn't think anybody would like the sound of my voice. So they were always just my little things that I sort of made for myself and kept for myself, and that was how I expressed myself. And because I've written with other people, I've had situations where I've written with people that want to say something, but then when it comes time to, like, really say it, they won't go there. Like, "Oh no, I couldn't say it." You know what I mean? It's like, Well, that's what you just said to me. Why are we wasting our time if we're not going to really tell the truth? And thank God my husband doesn't really listen to them. At the end of the day it all comes down to the fact that my husband doesn't listen to me. Thank God. He's great about it, and he gets it, he knows. He knows what it's all about.
Songfacts: The song "Beautiful Man," can you tell me a bit about that song?
Lori: The song's kind of strange, it doesn't really have a chorus. I think it was just like this stream of words that sort of popped out of my mouth one day. I was learning how to play in DADGAD, and actually most of my songs are in DADGAD now, but I was just learning then. It's about my husband and how I think he's a better person than he thinks he is. I see him as a beautiful guy, and constantly reminding him that he is, and things like that.
It was just one of those things where it didn't get changed much, it was just sort of the way it popped out. I had this mini disk and I was recording things rather than writing them down. I made sure everything rhymed or whatever, but it was just one of those days where the song just sort of popped out really quickly. Like "Fireflies," I think I wrote that song in like 15 minutes. Those songs that come really easy are usually the ones that stick around the longest. It's funny.
Songfacts: Have you noticed anything about when these songs come to you what you're doing?
Lori: You know, it's funny, because usually I forget. Because I'm almost always writing with the kids running around, which is why I got the mini disk, because I could just turn it on and leave it running. And you know, you have to put the guitar down every ten minutes and do something with somebody. I don't really remember exactly what I was doing, but I know that at that time when I wrote "Beautiful Man" I was pregnant with my daughter, who's five, and I was home. At that point I only wrote songs at home, but since then I've done a lot of co-writing, so I'll write in Nashville a lot. But at that point I'm sure I was just sitting in my living room somewhere.
Songfacts: A song like that is about your husband, but then when you get into your Bruce Springsteen mode and you're writing your songs which are very character-driven, is there anything you do to get inspiration to give you that impetus to write these songs?
Lori: As far as finding what the person's about?
Lori: The best songs for me always come with the melody and the words at the same time. Like the words fit into that melody because they popped out when you were just sitting there trying to find words. And it's funny, because a lot of times I don't even know what the song's about until I get to the end, and I don't really know who that person is until I get to the end. Or, like, they start out as me but they end up as somebody totally different, which is usually the case.
It's funny, at that point I was working with a different manager who loved the melody of the song but he didn't like the words. I wanted to cut that song in the studio and put it on Bittertown [her 2004 album], and nobody agreed with me, so I let it go. And I remember having a talk with him about it. He was like, "Well, just the words, they're not great, they're not really great words." And it was one of those things where I really put my foot down and I was like, You know, I know what they mean. I know what I'm thinking about when they came up, so I'm not going to go back and try to write something to make it more acceptable for everybody else. I wrote it for myself.
Songfacts: The last song I'd like to ask you about is "One Kiss Goodnight."
Lori: Yeah, "One Kiss Goodnight," it's not 100 percent about me and my marriage, but I'm sure I was sparked by something in my marriage that reminded me of this thing that happens quite a lot with people. It's kind of like "Stealing Kisses," but it's not as desperate. But it's sort of like, "Hey, you know, I love you and you love me, so pay a little attention, show a little love."
I think "One Kiss Goodnight" just came from this whole thing in my marriage that happened - and this is horrible and it's kind of corny – but I think it actually came from an Oprah show where it was like you talked about the first time you see your partner for the day, like just look at them. Drop what you're doing for one second, look them in the eye and give them a kiss. Just five seconds of paying attention and connecting, and then one little kiss, and then "How you doing?" I swear I had seen it on TV and it was probably on Oprah, it's just hysterical. And my husband came home and at that point we had like four kids, and it was one of those things where, yeah, my husband would come home and I'd say, "Hey, how you doing?" and not even look at him, because I'm doing my thing and then he's doing his, and then homework and everything else. And it was just sort of this reminder, like let's pay attention and just be nice to each other a little bit.
And it's funny, because I remember writing that song. I was sitting at the dining room table, my daughter was in her high chair, and I was singing "One Kiss Goodnight" and she was blowing kisses at me. And I'll never forget that, it was so cute. I actually might have it on a mini disk with her blowing little kisses. And she was a baby, she was like one. She was funny.
November 1, 2007. After this interview, Lori became one of the top songwriters in country music, winning the Song of the Year CMA in 2015 for the Little Big Town hit "Girl Crush," and nabbing the same award the following year for Tim McGraw's "Humble and Kind." Both songs also won Grammy Awards for Best Country Song.
Learn more about Lori at her website: lorimckenna.com. Here's an interview with her frequent co-writer, Barry Dean.