Grammy Winner Lori McKenna to Summer Students: ‘Music Has Given So Much Back to Me’

By 
Salim ALi
August 17, 2017
Lori McKenna
Lori McKenna, back-to-back Grammy winner for Best Country Song, recently spoke to students in the Songwriting Workshop, one of Berklee’s many summer programs.
Image by Becky Fluke

Lori McKenna is one of the most successful storytellers in the music business. She has writing credits for songs by top country artists such as Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, and Keith Urban.

McKenna received her first Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 2016 for her work on Little Big Town’s smash hit “Girl Crush,” and followed it up with another Best Country Song Grammy in 2017 for “Humble & Kind,” performed by Tim McGraw.

McKenna’s latest album, The Bird and the Rifle, featured her own rendition of “Humble & Kind.” The album was produced by Dave Cobb, who has won Grammys for his work with Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. (Cobb and Isbell, incidentally, were generous enough to invite students to join them for a recording session last year during Berklee’s industry trip to Nashville, Tennessee.)

Watch McKenna perform “Humble & Kind” (acoustic version):

During a recent visit to Berklee, McKenna ministered songwriting tips, performed songs from her vast catalog, and shared her musical journey from Boston to Nashville in front of Berklee’s summer Songwriting Workshop students—who also were recently visited by another hit songwriter, Claude Kelly B.M. ’02.

The following is an edited and abridged presentation of McKenna’s remarks to students.

On Her Introduction to Music and Songwriting:

“I’m the youngest of six kids and we’re all musically inclined. Most of my siblings can play the piano really well and most of them have beautiful voices. We grew up with a lot of music and someone always playing the piano. I have two brothers that are songwriters and I grew up listening to whatever they listened to. I grew up knowing that it was important to know who the songwriter was—to figure out who wrote the song and not just who sings it. I think that immediately makes you think of the song differently. And the more you do it, they say it’s [like] a muscle. I started when I was about 13.”

"I grew up knowing that it was important to know who the songwriter was—to figure out who wrote the song and not just who sings it. I think that immediately makes you think of the song differently."

On Getting Started in Nashville:

“I met Mary Gauthier doing open mics around the area, and she had moved to Nashville, and I put out this record called Bittertown and she played it for her publisher, named Melanie Howard. She listened to the record, which is difficult to get anybody to do. She called me and asked me if she could pitch my songs around Nashville. Then Missi Gallimore, who hears songs for Faith Hill, gave the record to Faith and she cut four of the songs by the end of that year, and I had a publishing deal by the next year.”

On Cowriting:

“I had a lot of friends tell me that I probably shouldn’t cowrite because I’d been writing solo for so long that it might mess me up. I think because I wrote alone for so long and didn’t think anyone would hear the songs, I didn’t become an overthinker. I didn’t overthink because the songs that people seemed to like were the ones that came out fast, or the ones where I didn’t really worry about editing or anyone judging the song. Then when I got the publishing deal, people told me to be really careful about cowriting, but I ended up loving it. It ended up opening up a million doors in my writing. I definitely had awkward cowrites because I’d never done it. And usually they’d put me with somebody who did it every day. But I had really good teachers [such as] Mark D. Sanders. And he knew I was coming in as this girl that Faith Hill just found that never cowrote a song. And then I had Liz Rose, who’s my best friend and a great lyricist.”

"When I got the publishing deal, people told me to be really careful about cowriting, but I ended up loving it. It ended up opening up a million doors in my writing."

On the Separation of Writing and Editing:

“I write songs in first person because they’re more powerful that way. I am sort of happy and well-adjusted in real life, but I like songs that make you feel something, even if it’s uncomfortable. … When you’re only writing for other people, you’ll be careful to say things that you think someone else would say. And when you just write for yourself, and don’t give a damn whether someone else will like it, you are a better writer that way. You can have a great editor when the song is done or maybe almost done, but if you overedit right when you’re beginning, you’re in trouble. But I think I need that part of my brain that says, ‘Nobody will like this except for me.’ … If we hold back at all in the writing process of serving the song and we’re worried about someone else’s idea of a song, it’s not going to be the best song it could be.”

"You can have a great editor when the song is done or maybe almost done, but if you overedit right when you’re beginning, you’re in trouble."

On Writing without Expectations:

“My plan, originally, was to just play in the Old Vienna Coffee House open mic in Westborough [Massachusetts]. … The biggest thing we can do with music is to never expect anything from it. We give what we know how to give to music and it will give us back so much more. … Music has given so much back to me—more than I’ve ever expected.”