Thursday, January 11, 2007

Musical Mom

Musical Mom - Interview with Lori McKenna
by Naomi Graychase
[originally published at HipMama.com]

Lori McKenna blends talent and family into a recipe for success.

It’s a Thursday night in mid-December and Lori McKenna is dressed in jeans and a baggy, black sweater. In these clothes, she could be driving the car pool, or taking her four kids to the grocery store, but instead she’s standing on a stage before a rapt audience of nearly 200, glowing. Her set tonight is a short one. Just a few songs. Then Dar Williams will take the stage as the headliner.

She opens with a love song about her husband of fourteen years, and the young man beside me leans in and says, “I want to be her husband.” He looks at her there on stage, takes a swig of beer, and turns back to me, and says, “If I had to be a plumber and have four kids, it’d be okay if she was my wife.”

The audience is attentive. As McKenna sings about the hole that’s worn through her couch, about her son’s learning disability, about her mother’s death at an early age, about the man she went to high school with whose life seems to have fallen tragically apart, about fireflies and daydreams, the only other noise is a vague clinking from the kitchen, and then, applause.

McKenna’s life seems so atypical when you compare her to her peers in the music industry. She has four children--Brian 13, Mark 10, Chris 8, Meghan 10 months--a loving husband, and a home just minutes from the one she grew up in. And yet, she’s not your average, everyday, working mom, either. How many women in line at the bank in Stoughton, Massachusetts have an album that was just distributed nationally, and awards to their credit like New Artist of the Year (WUMB FM), or Outstanding Contemporary Folk Act (Boston Music Awards, 1999)? How many seventh graders can say that their mom played Lilith Fair and the Newport Folk Festival? How many daughters can one day play in the discarded patent leather Mary Janes and sparkly purple shirt their mother wore to perform in front of thousands?

Listening to McKenna makes you feel. Every time I’ve watched her perform, whether it was opening for a more established artist, headlining herself, or among a split bill of artists at a large benefit show, my eyes welled up with tears. It’s not just the lyrics, it’s the way she sings. It pierces you, like the perfect peal of a bell, rising, and tugging at your heart.

When you hear her speak, her accent is unmistakably South Boston. But when you hear her sing her blend of folk, bluegrass, and country, you would bet your best guitar that she hails from Nashville, Austin, or the Ozarks. A National Public Radio correspondent said recently that “more than any young songwriter on the scene today, Lori McKenna’s songs carry that stirring blend of stark intimacy and universality that has always marked the folk form at its finest.” And one man, who books an important New England venue says, off the record, that her song Fireflies is “the best folk song ever written.”

I spoke with McKenna for hipMama in May about what it’s like to be a touring singer-songwriter and a mother of four, all by the age of 31. (You can find out more about McKenna, buy her CDs, and see when she’s touring, at her Web site:
lorimckenna.com .)

NG: You’ve been a professional musician for five years, and a mom for 13. What role do your children play in your musical process?

LM: I think they are the biggest piece of me that comes through in the music. They’re an inspiration…When you have kids, it changes your whole perspective on everything…I was 20 when I had Brian, so, maybe I just hadn’t figured things out on my own yet at that point; it changed me so much as a writer because it changed me as a person.

NG: Most singer-songwriters write a lot of love songs--songs about looking for romantic love, unrequited love, heartbreak. Most of your songs are love songs too, but they seem to embody a different sort of love than the one we usually hear folksingers sing about.

LM: You grow up, and you love your parents and you have this love for your family, your best friend, then you get a boyfriend or a girlfriend. I love my husband and I still do, but when I had Brian, the thing that struck me--I had no idea that I was capable of loving something or someone so much, that I was willing to do anything for him. Then, when I had Mark, well, I love him so much, too—and it’s the same thing with every one of my kids. Even with my fourth. You could have 25 kids and still, you still love your husband or whatever, but it’s this different sort of love. Maybe it’s because you know you’re the one who is the protector. I think that comes through in the songs. When it comes down to it, I think every song is a love song. Every song comes down to love in the end, everything does.

NG: You played gigs almost right up until the birth of your daughter. Does the guitar feel different against your body when you’re pregnant?

LM: The last show I did was August 2nd, and she was born August 6th. I kept moving the guitar up and up and up to my chin. It was almost an inch below my chin when I was nine months pregnant! I never performed outside of my house when I was pregnant with the boys, so I asked a friend what to do. She said just move the guitar up and up. It’s a little more difficult, because of the belly. But, nothing is profoundly different.

NG: Whose music do you most admire?

LM: I liked listening to James Taylor growing up. Neil Young. Carole King. Cuz that’s what my older brothers and sisters listened to. I just admire singer-songwriters. I don’t have a lot of CDs in my house of people who cover other people’s songs. I always kind of check to see who wrote the song. That was always a big thing for me. I just listen to all different stuff, even if it’s a band. Jimmy Eat World, that’s my new favorite band.

NG: What kind of guitar do you use and have you ever had formal training?

LM: A Martin, D16. It’s a big guitar for me. I’m used to it and now I’m afraid to change. I’ve never had any real formal training. When I was 13, I took lessons for a year or two. But that was it. I never pursued any theory or anything. Probably because I’m a bad student.

NG: One of your most popular and moving songs is Hardly Speaking a Word. Can you tell me about writing it?

LM: It’s specifically about [my eldest son] Brian. He was diagnosed with ADD, and that was my song written about the frustration of it. The people that evaluate these things, they don’t really know your kid, and they come in and tell you “You see things differently.”

The basis of the song is that a lot of the things that are frustrating about Brian are the best things about his personality. So, the song is just about thinking I should have handled him differently, in the midst of yelling at him for the fifteenth time for running out into the street, I should have also yelled at him for the things I love about him. So through the years, he’s kind of like me, he’s not a great student but he’s great in all these other ways. He’s dyslexic, but he’s really smart and just doesn’t fit into that mold. So the song is basically about remembering to tell him how much I love these things about him.

I didn’t think anyone would like the song b/c it’s so personal and I don’t really explain what I’m talking about. But, I guess that’s good because people can take away whatever they want. I was shocked that people liked it and always asked for it.

NG: What does Brian think about the song?

LM: Somewhere along the way I was probably practicing in the living room. And he came in and was like, “That song is about me, isn’t it?”

It was perfect Brian--he figures everything out. It’s ironic that he has trouble in school cuz he’s just so damn smart!

I said, “Yeah, it is.” And he’s fine with it. I think he understands what I mean in it. He’s not embarrassed about it, at least not yet. But he just turned 13.

NG: Brian likes to play guitar, doesn’t he?

LM: He’s going to be the best guitar player in the world, that’s his goal. He’s actually very good. He’s gonna be a musician. I don’t worry about him when he grows up. He’s very self-assured and has this great ego.

NG: How does the baby respond to your music?

LM: Meghan is very musical. When I was six or seven months pregnant, I went to hear a show. I sat right near the big speakers, and she rolled around in my stomach for two and a half hours straight. I never found a baby to be that consistent.

She’s a huge Richard Thompson fan. She’ll be sitting on the floor now and the minute music starts, she’ll start swaying. Josh Ritter came over the other day and we were writing together and the minute he started, she started swaying back and forth. I sit on the floor and she’ll crawl over and touch the strings on my guitar. I’ve never seen a baby being so in tune, even with a jingle on a commercial. She’ll unconsciously start swaying. She has pretty good rhythm. She’s already upstaging me. I got my haircut the other day and then went out to see some people, and no one noticed cuz I had her with me!

NG: Do you take your kids with you when you tour?

LM: Well, now, the baby especially would go. I’d bring Brian and he’d watch her. Now she’s on this great sleeping schedule. We’ve gone to Philly and done two shows and two nights and then be home the third day. If I’m gonna be gone for more than two days, I have to take them cuz I’d go insane if I didn’t! I’m still nursing Meghan once a day now; I can’t really let go of it yet. The boys I nursed ‘til 9 months. It’s such a soothing thing. I could be on a deserted island and still take care of this baby.

NG: Last time we spoke, you mentioned that you don’t write down your songs right away, and that sometimes it’s the kids that remind you that you wrote one.

LM: Yeah, it’s happened at least four times. My process of writing, it goes through stages. I do the melody first, and then the words, or sometimes both at the same time. I never write anything down or record anything until I’ve had it beat in my head enough to remember it the next day. I try to hum a melody along with the guitar, a lot of times out of that a chorus line will come out over and over again. But, I always get interrupted. With four kids, it’s not like I can sit for like 5 or 6 hours to get a song out. Usually it takes a few days. So, sometimes, I forget about it, and the third day will come and go, and then the fourth day one of the kids will be singing it and I’ll go, oh! I forgot about it!

Now I just work during the day when the kids are at school. So there’s just Meg and she can’t repeat anything. But I’ve actually found that if I write or record too early, it doesn’t go anywhere. I have a notebook I call “The Morgue.” I don’t know why, but it doesn’t go anywhere if I write it down there.

NG: In "Never Die Young", a song penned for her mother, who died when she was six years old, McKenna writes: "I am the one who will never die young, I am a martyr and I cannot hide. But I'm not a winner, I'm just brilliantly bitter. I'm sealed by my skin, but broken inside." Can you tell me a little bit about Never Die Young?

LM: That’s the other really, really personal song. It’s written about my mom who died when she was 40, and I was six. And I’ve always had this really strong feeling growing up that I was going to live to be really old someday…I’m gonna live to be like 100 because my mother died when she was so young. My sister feels like she’ll die young.

It’s about that and the fact that when I was growing up and as a teenager, I felt so sorry for myself because my mother died. I’d hang out with my friends and they’d complain about their mothers but I’d think at least they had their mothers to complain about. And then when I had Brian, I felt sorry for myself more because I didn’t have my mom…But then I realized I was really okay. I was well taken care of. My dad, my step-mom. As a mother, I’d be heartbroken to leave, and I realized that she was taken away from her six children…but then of course, I have this thing in my head that she can always see us.

NG: What are your current or new projects?

LM: I’m touring more this year than I ever have. We’ve figured out this great balancing act with Meghan and the boys. I’m promoting Pieces of Me. It took a long time, 18 months to record, and in the process and being pregnant, I’ve written all these other songs. Hopefully we’ll go in the studio to do an album soon. But, ‘til then, we may do a home-recorded set of nine or ten songs that have come up along the way. We have about 25 songs to weed through and look at. We'll have to figure out which ones work together and which ones don’t. I’d love to try to get a few songs out on a home-made EP, while we work on a more polished studio album."

Lori Recommends


Carole King

I can identify with her a lot. It’s that woman thing.


Kris Delmhorst

I just think that her songwriting is amazing.


The Police

I think about The Police and I think about growing up. That’s always good, too, stuff that you remember from being a teenager.


Allison Krauss

She’s amazing.


Bruce Springsteen

It’s not magic and angels and stuff, it’s people’s stories, different people. Not what you necessarily hear on the radio. He’s got so much stuff that’s about other people.

Naomi Graychase is a freelance writer currently at work on her first book of nonfiction.
You can reach her at www.graychase.com

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