Get to Know Hit Country Songwriter Lori McKenna

The writer behind Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” releases a masterpiece of her own.

Posted in MusicWorld on September 13, 2016 by
Photo: Becky Fluke

We know you’re wondering, and the answer is yes. Yes, Lori McKenna is humble and kind, even with that GRAMMY to her name. And yes, if you didn’t have one already, you will have a girl crush on her. Not only is she one hell of a songwriter (a song scarcely drifts from her guitar strings or her lips before Tim McGraw or Little Big Town is clamoring to cut it), but she’s an artist who has just delivered one of the finest albums of the year in The Bird and The Rifle. A mother of five who was a virtual unknown in the industry until she was in her early thirties, Lori included her own version of “Humble and Kind”—written for her kids at her dining table in Massachusetts—on this album, which is her tenth. The sentiment of that song aside, The Bird and The Rifle is largely a collection of songs written and stashed away through the years about what happens when love goes long past its expiration date. Oh, and did we mention Dave Cobb produced it? The acclaimed Nashville producer behind Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell recorded Lori live and delivered a lush backdrop for lyrics into which she has embedded stories. Little stories and big stories wait in these songs, to encourage you, to break your heart, to remind you of your own stories.

What’s the difference emotionally between releasing an album of your own and having a song you’ve written be released by an artist like Tim McGraw?

It’s 10 songs, and there’s so much more involved as far as a tour and CD release and packaging it all, but you’re in control of all those things. When your song comes out by another artist it’s like you’ve handed the song over and everything’s in their control as far as how the song is going to translate. You’re just waiting to hear it. “Humble and Kind” is the last thing that I had cut, and Tim did such a beautiful job. That was such an emotional song for me. I wrote this little song for my kids, and someone put a magnifying glass on it and made it so much bigger than I could have. He made such a moment—a really, really powerful moment.

I was at the ACMs to sing with Cam, and Tim was going to perform, too, and I was backstage. There were about a hundred people lined up from all different walks of life, all standing in the hallway. As I walked by them, I was like, “Who are all these people?” And someone says, “They’re here to sing ‘Humble and Kind’ with Tim.” And I literally was like, “What? How is this the song I wrote in my dining room for my kids?” Someone else took that and made this out of it. I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen again in my life.

Had you already heard Tim’s version of “Humble and Kind” when you cut your version?

Yes, it was released already because I remember when we went to cut it, Dave Cobb was like, “I didn’t listen to McGraw.” He didn’t want to hear it until we cut it. That made sense to me, that a producer wouldn’t want to do that. I had probably heard his version a thousand times by that point, but [Cobb] didn’t want to listen to it. It wasn’t a big deal. He just said, “I’ll hear it later on, but let’s just do our thing first.” The way that he produces things is he just lifts it up. He’s listening to the lyrics more than anything else and just trying to guide the song to hold the lyrics up.

There are other versions out there of your song “Wreck You,” too. How did you approach recording that song?

That song is about eight years old and has been cut a few times. David Nail actually cut it but it didn’t make his record because Heidi Newfield’s record was coming out. And then Jack Ingram cut it, and I think he’s going to release it; I hope anyway. He’s a good friend of mine. It’s funny because when I listen back to Jack’s version and to the line about getting dressed in the dark each day, where I say “By 6 a.m. I’m in the car driving,” afterwards I realized that wasn’t the lyric. The lyric is “By six-fifteen I’m in the car driving,” but I just forgot. I think when you sing songs live, they develop into these other things. Like “Humble and Kind,” in my version there’s a lyric change because Tim listened to the work tape, and then when I went to demo it I had sung it live a couple of times, and for phrasing reasons I changed a line at the end. The line about “when you get where you’re going.” I say, “Turn right back around.” When I originally wrote it, the words on the work tape were “don’t forget, turn right back around,” and it’s just a lot of words. When you write a song, a lot of times you record it on your phone or whatever, and then you demo it. But when you write a song and you play it live a few times and then you record it, they definitely change—usually it’s phrasing, and I’m able to nail the phrasing better the more I hear the song.

Several of the songs on the album were written with the Love Junkies, a three-member songwriting collective. What’s your dynamic like?

Our dynamic is so crazy. Liz Rose was one of the first people I ever co-wrote with when I had a publishing deal in town. I had always just written by myself, and the first person they put me with was Mark D. Sanders, who is a brilliant songwriter and I love that guy, and with Liz Rose, and she’s a lyricist. She doesn’t play. I remember walking in the first time that I met her and she had a keyboard in her office, and I was like, ‘Do you play the keyboard?” And she was like, “No, I don’t play anything; I’m a lyricist.” And I was like, “How does that work?” It was so new to me—I didn’t know any of that stuff. But she’s been my best friend in town ever since. Somebody had the idea of putting me and Liz and Hillary Lindsey together—I think our publishers. I had written once with Hillary before all of this, but we had never stayed together. When I’m in Nashville to write, we stay at Liz’s house, and Liz established this rule—nobody gets in, nobody gets out—so she stocks up on food and everything we need, and we just write from the time someone wakes up until someone falls asleep. We’ve written a lot of songs this way, and it’s become really important for the three of us as friends. We’re all in different stages of our life. Like, when we wrote “Girl Crush,” one of us was in our fifties, one of us was in our forties, and one of us was in our thirties. One has been married several times, one has been married a long time, and one has never been married. We’re in all these different scenarios of our lives, but we love each other.

Do you find you work best this way, in concentrated bursts of songwriting?

Even when I was in school, I was always better at studying right at the last minute. And even with shows, I try to rehearse over time, but at the end of the day I’m just going to need to buckle down and really rehearse right before. I have friends who can write everyday, and I always think they’re amazing, but I can’t do that. That’s one of the reasons why not living in Nashville has been good for me. I think I would feel guilty that I’m not writing every day. But I come here at least once a month, and by then I have ideas that I’ve saved up and if I know I have somebody coming up in the future that I’ll be writing with I start thinking about what they would like. That’s worked out really well for me.

You say this album finally made you come to terms with your voice—how so?

I think I was getting to that point already because my last two records were cut live. But through the years of doing demos and stuff, you get used to being able to fix any mistake you have. But I kind of like mistakes in a way, and I’m certainly not a perfectionist. I knew going in that Dave was going to record live, and I had a little bit of experience with it so I was like “OK, I can do this,” but it’s kind of stressful, especially when you’re playing. You can’t really fix what you do. You have to just get it. And I’m not really good at singing the same song 10 times. I’m going to be like, “You know what? I hate this song. I hate myself, and I hate this song.” So I knew going into it that that was going to happen, but I think that also being the age that I am and in the part of my life that I am, at the end of the day I have to be like, “I am who I am. I have this voice, and if I want to sing then I need to accept that this is my voice.” I’m not going to nitpick it apart. It’s like if it was a person, it’s not going to be perfect, and it certainly isn’t. I might still have a show, and at the end of the show think, “I just sucked at that,” but when I listen to this record I don’t think, “I could have done that better.” I was in the moment. I did what I was capable of, and I sang it the way I wanted to sing it. There’s a lot of freedom in that.

You didn’t put out your first album until 1998, when you were 30. What were you doing for the first 30 years of your life?

I started writing songs when I was 13, but my family members all have really pretty voices and I knew my voice was really different from their voices. I didn’t leave my house to sing until I was 27. That’s when I started doing open mics. Before that, I was just hanging out, having kids, writing songs by myself. I think that was really good in a way because if you write songs from 13 to 27 and you don’t think anybody’s going to hear them, then you don’t self-edit in a way that you may if you’re afraid somebody will hear it. If I didn’t have that time doing that I don’t think I would be the writer that I am.

What advice do you wish that you had been given when you started out?

One of the things that someone told me early on that I wish I believed before I believed it was that the audience wants you to succeed. They are not sitting there because they want you to suck. They’re sitting there because they want you to do awesome. It took me a long time to understand that, but I think that’s important. Once you know that, there’s something defensive in writing or singing or performing that goes away.

“Girl Crush” is your most commercially successful song, but is it true you didn’t know it was a hit once you wrote it?

Me and Liz [Rose] and Hillary [Lindsey] wrote that, and the crazy thing was I said, “I want to write a song called ‘Girl Crush,’” and Hillary picked up a guitar and sang the first four lines literally exactly how they are. I think she automatically thought I meant a girl talking about her ex-boyfriend’s new girl, and she was like, “That’s what you mean, right?” And I was like, “I think that’s what I mean, but I don’t think I told you that and I’m not even sure if I knew that’s what I meant yet, but that’s awesome.” We thought right away [that it wouldn’t go anywhere]—it’s a ballad, and nobody is looking for a ballad. It started old school right from the get-go. We were like, “Nobody’s going to like this but us.” We’ve said that many times. I’m lucky enough that I get to write with people where everyday isn’t like, “Let’s try to write a song that gets on the radio.” Because then you’d be in trouble. The three of us have been careful about when a song is just a song. We can always write another one.

Is songwriting your happy place?

It’s definitely the best way that I know to express myself. Songwriters are really lucky in that way. We’re sitting in these rooms by ourselves all day thinking about how we feel and writing it out and making sense of it, or we’re talking to somebody else about how they feel and writing it out and trying to make sense of it—and rhyming it. We have so much time to be therapeutic in our work that songwriting also becomes the way we feel better about things. A lot of times that’s why people who aren’t musical love music; our job is to help people bring something up that they didn’t know was in there. We’re always emptying it out. Not to hold songwriters up on a pedestal, but that’s why we’re here for each other—that’s why art is a thing.

What’s been the best part of working with BMI for you?

That whole aspect of the business is really about the people. I know there’s money involved. Every songwriter I know, they’re not with their PRO for the money that they distribute; they’re with them for the people that represent them in that company. I think Jody [Williams] may be one of the most well-respected people in the music business ever. And I know I can call Leslie [Roberts] if I have a problem. And I know that they’re song people, and I also know that it’s not just about the songs that make money. If “Girl Crush” was too weird and nobody ever cut it, Leslie’s still the type of person who would go, “That’s a cool song!” They love songs. It’s been a great experience. They’ve always been supportive of not just the songwriter side of me but also the artist side of me.


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