Expert Testimony: A Career Built to Her Specs

Given by Grammy-winning songwriter Lori McKenna to Mark Small

Lori McKenna has become one of country music’s most sought-after songwriters without having ever having lived in Nashville. A lifelong Massachusetts resident, she opted to stay local even when it became apparent that moving to the Music City could boost her career. “My life would be easier if I lived there, but the lives of those in my family would not be easier,” she says. McKenna is a married mother of five children who puts family first and has succeeded at building a career on her own terms.

So far, McKenna has nabbed two Grammy Awards in the Best Country Song category. The first was in 2015 for cowriting the hit “Girl Crush” for Little Big Town. The second came earlier this year for “Humble and Kind,” a smash for Tim McGraw. The latter was also the first song written by a solo songwriter to reach number one on Billboard’s country charts in four years. She has also won awards from the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music, the Nashville Songwriters International, ASCAP, and the Boston Music Awards. Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Hunter Hayes, Mandy Moore, and Sara Evans are among the many artists who have recorded her songs.

McKenna started writing as a teenager, but she didn’t start singing her songs at open mic nights around Boston until she was 28 and had three children. Since releasing her debut album Paper Wings and Halo in 2000, McKenna has completed nine more. The music on her 2016 album, The Bird and the Rifle, netted her three Grammy nominations. A year after she signed a publishing deal in 2004, Faith Hill cut four of McKenna’s songs, and her songwriting career began to lift off. She estimates that she has written more than 1,000 songs to date.

McKenna, who is self-taught, spent two afternoons last summer sharing her hard-won wisdom with Berklee songwriters. She imparted two key points: First, each songwriter has to find his or her path to a career, and second, until you are writing great songs, no one can help you make your career a success.

Was it an adjustment for you to begin cowriting with others after working so long on your own?

When I first got a publishing deal, I was about 35 and had never cowritten a song. Some of my songwriter friends were telling me that if I hadn’t been cowriting, I shouldn’t start. But I started and loved it. So many things opened up. Looking back years later, I find now that writing songs as part of a community is one of my strengths.

How often do you go to Nashville for writing sessions?

I’m down there two or three times a month and I usually stay for three days on each trip. I miss opportunities sometimes because I’m not living there, but that’s good in a way. I’m not an everyday writer, and if I lived there I’d feel the pressure to write everyday because everyone else does. I don’t know if that would be good for me. I like to get an idea and let it grow.

In addition to writing, you still make albums and tour as an artist.

I do. After I released The Bird and the Rifle I did a tour of about 16 shows. Unless I am touring an album, I only do shows here and there, I don’t go out for a year at a time like others do. If you do that, it’s hard to write, and writing is my favorite part. I want to be able to write and get my songs cut by bigger artists. My manager Beth told me that having my artist side makes me a better writer overall. She taught me that I could do both things in a way that honors each without having to pick one over the other. It’s two jobs, but if you’re not writing every day or playing a show every weekend, you can do both.

After having a recording contract with Warner Music Nashville, what made you return to recording for indie labels?

I remember making the Unglamorous record [2007] for Warner Bros with Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw producing. There were a lot of musicians and this grand way of making a record that was so much fun. I remember an A&R guy from the label coming in and saying, “We’re going to sell a million records!” But I was thinking, “No we’re not.” I was a little scared thinking that if it took off and we had a hit on country radio that I wouldn’t be able to chase it. But that didn’t happen.

I learned so much and it was a great experience for me. When it came time to make the next record, the 360-deal was in play. I loved the people at Warner—the president and A&R people—but I would have had to take a 360-deal where they would take a part of my publishing, merch, and touring. I couldn’t hand over any of my publishing. That’s what was keeping me afloat. So I asked to get out. It was a fun experience before we all went our separate ways.

What has been your reaction when you hear the version a top singer and producer have made of your song for the first time?

I got a text from Karen Fairchild [of Little Big Town] when they were cutting “Happy People” saying she couldn’t wait for me to hear it. I had five songs on that record [The Breaker]. I was in Nashville when they finished, and Karen invited me to meet them for a glass of wine. Four of us sat in her car listening to the mixes. It’s always in a car! I remember the first time I heard [Tim McGraw’s version of] “Humble and Kind” I was in a publisher’s car outside Sony Publishing. I just lost it—it was so good. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve never heard my song and thought, “Oh no. What have they done?”

Have you been surprised by interpretations of your lyrics in an artist’s production video of your song?

I was surprised by the “Humble and Kind” video. I had seen Tim the night before he made the video and he was trying to explain to me that it was going to be a little like the Oprah Winfrey “Belief” series. I knew that was a global thing. As he was telling me what they were going to do, I was thinking, “This is a song I wrote thinking about my five kids.” I didn’t understand how he saw it in such a big way. He sent me a link to an edit of the video and I watched it about 10 times. I had never seen the song in that way, it’s brilliant! To me that’s an example of how many different ways we can look at a song.

In the writing process, do you make a lot of revisions to your songs?

I have friends who feel precious about their songs, but I’m not really like that. If something isn’t right, I’ll just scrap it and try to write a better song. If there is a good line buried in a song that’s not great, I may find a way to use it somewhere else. I heard [singer-songwriter] John Gorka say that you have to get the bad songs out so that they don’t clog up the tube.

Do you think that a songwriter’s ultimate goal is to make people feel an emotion or have a realization about life?

Everyone has a song that has opened their eyes to something they didn’t realize they were feeling. Sometimes I’ll talk with a listener who shows no facial expression as they tell me that a song was amazing. Someone else won’t say anything, but I can see that they felt something. To me, that’s much better. I think that’s why songwriters are here.

You seem to find plenty to draw on with your own life experiences and what you observe around you.

Well, sometimes I get stuck like everyone else does, but I’m not one to just not write. I met a guy in an airport who asked me what kind of guitar I had with me. We started talking and he said he used to play, but now he doesn’t even listen to music anymore. I tried to encourage him to pick his guitar up again, but he said no. He’d tried to be a musician back in the day and now he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it.

I don’t know him, but if I made up a story about him, it might be that he thought he could go into music and that it would give him something back. Some people go into music with an agenda for the success they want. My brother writes songs and has a great voice, but he plays only for himself. He loves music and it loves him back. Music is like a relationship, the more you give, the more you get.

What would you tell a songwriter who is just starting out?

I would say work at being able to interpret your own songs. I get a lot of songs and lyrics from people who want me to give them to Tim McGraw or some other artist, but I can’t do that. My husband just told me about someone we know who said they just wrote a song. I asked, “Did you tell them to go and write 999 more?” Most people don’t know that for every one of your songs that gets cut there may be 300 others that didn’t. I may write 150 songs in a year and I’ll be lucky to get two of them cut.

I know that there may come a day when I won’t have a publishing deal anymore because I’m not delivering songs that people want to cut. But I will still always want to write songs and I’ll still have the outlet to perform. That’s a gift.