Photo by Becky Fluke
Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Lori McKenna shares what she has learned as a songwriter.
The youngest of six children, Lori McKenna grew up writing songs in her journals. Her two older brothers were songwriters and as a result, she thought that everybody wrote songs. It wasn’t until she got to high school that she realized songwriting wasn’t the norm.
McKenna remembers writing songs as early as twelve years old and the first one she wrote, a track titled “Take,” she first presented to her brothers.
“It was a country song and my brother, Richie, was like, ‘How in the world did you just end up writing a country song?’” she tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “We didn’t grow up listening to country music. We grew up listening to songwriters; James Taylor, Carly Simon, Neil Young. I remember my brother being like, ‘What just happened? How does that come out of you?’”
She kept writing but never thought to pursue music professionally until she was 27 and her sister-in-law talked her into doing an open mic night in the Boston area. (McKenna still lives in Massachusetts with her family and five children). The open mic night was successful as the man who ran it invited McKenna back to perform.
McKenna has since made a thriving career as a songwriter with her home base in Massachusetts where all her siblings live within 45 minutes of each other. While many of her peers reside in Nashville, McKenna instead makes several trips a year to Music City to co-write and when she’s not in Tennessee she writes by herself back home. Her writing credits have not suffered as they include songs recorded by Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Little Big Town, Hunter Hayes, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, among others.
“It would be hard for the kids to leave their cousins or their school or for my husband to relocate and all that, and it’s worked out really well for me to just travel back and forth to Nashville because I’m not an everyday writer,” she admits. “I’m not really built to write every day. Some of my friends are and they write one or two songs a day. I need to simmer on things more.”
Simmering on songs is suiting McKenna just fine as she recently celebrated a No. 1 with “Humble & Kind,” a song she wrote with her five children in mind that Tim McGraw took all the way to the top of the country charts. It also marks the first time in over four years a song went to No. 1 with one writer. (The last was Taylor Swift’s “Ours” in 2012).
During a recent performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, McKenna says she wanted to write a list of things to tell her children so she wouldn’t be accused of not sharing important life lessons later on.
“I had the title and I knew I wanted it to be things I wanted my kids to know,” she says, explaining her process. “Once you get there, there’s a lot of information. You could overshoot the song. It was more about editing and taking out ‘put the toilet seat down.’ That didn’t necessarily have to be in it.”
McKenna says that the song itself is fairly simple and the list of hopes and dreams was easy to write as a parent. While she always starts with verses when it comes to songwriting, McKenna said for “Humble & Kind” the chorus came first.
“I knew that I lucked out in finding that chorus, to be honest, and then everything else, like I said, was easy to put in there,” she explains. “It was just a matter of editing it down and putting it all in the order that worked in my head the right way.”
For more of my interview with Lori McKenna, visit Sounds Like Nashville.