Lori McKenna On ‘The Tree,’ Sad Songs & The Evolution Of Country: Interview

Mike Wass | July 20, 2018 8:00 am
The Man Behind The Hits
We speak to Justin Tranter about writing songs for all your favorite pop stars.

With Grammy-winning hits like “Girl Crush” and “Humble And Kind,” Lori McKenna has carved out a niche as country music’s go-to songwriter. Not that she has any intention of pressing pause on her own recording career. After all, the Stoughton, Massachusetts-based mother of five cuts songs that other artists wont. Take “People Get Old,” the lead single from The Tree. Lori aims her golden pen at father time on the first taste of her 10th album (out now), capturing the moment when you stop seeing your parents as invincible and start preparing for the inevitable.

I recently spoke with the hitmaker about her emotionally devastating new album and she reasoned that sad songs are a simple by-product of her voice. Lori also spoke the compulsion she feels to write songs from the gut (a subject covered on album-closer “Like Patsy Would”) and the influence of her children on her music. Other topics of conversation include the ever-blurring line between country music and pop as well as her appreciation for all things Julia Michaels. Get to know the multiple Grammy winner a little better in our Q&A below.

Congratulations on the album! It completely destroyed me.

Sorry about that! It’s so funny. I always joke that I’m so happy in my life but the songs come out sad sometimes, and I think that’s honestly because of the sound of my voice. My voice sounds sad. It’s hard for me to nail a happy song and make a song happy.

Speaking of sad songs, let’s start with “People Get Old.” Given that it’s going to happen to all of us (unless something terrible happens), why is singing about old age so taboo?

I mean, if you’re driving to work and you have 10 minutes… ok, you live in LA, so you don’t have a 10 minute drive. But you don’t wanna jump in the car for a couple of minutes and listen to a song that reminds you that you’re getting older and that time flies. But I think it’s one of those things where songwriters tend to not write about aging because they know that it probably won’t get cut by another artist. Because nobody really likes to confront the fact that they are the age that they are. With me, just doing this for as long as I have, and I’m 49 this year, and it’s just sort of inevitable.

And my dad lives right down the street from me and he’s had a hard year with his health. He’s turning 83 in October. It was just one of those things that came on to me because I was sort of in the space of watching my dad age. And I know a lot of people have to do that with their parents. He lives on his own with his wife and they’re fine. But you have to start stepping in to help them a little bit. And that’s where my siblings and I have been at for about a year now, just realizing that parents are not superheroes, they’re human just like the rest of us.

I’m used to people in their 40s making music for teenagers, but The Tree is a refreshingly adult album. “Young and Angry Again” stands out as another relatable song for anyone with a little life experience.

As a songwriter, I get to sit with songwriter friends and we write these songs quite often. I think they come up a lot, and I think that’s what songwriters do, we write where we are in life. I think big artists, when they’re picking songs for radio, they have to appeal to such a wider audience. And once I realized that this song was going to be much more family-oriented, it made sense to be on this album. I knew “People Get Old” would be the anchor, and then I came up with the title and wanted to branch everything off of The Tree. And “Young And Angry Again,” I pitched that title knowing nobody’s ever gonna cut a song called “Young and Angry Again” except me. [Laughs].

Is the song also a reaction to everything that’s going on in America? It seems to tap into the outrage fatigue everyone is going through.

Yes, exactly. I mean, that was definitely a part of it. The other thing is, my fourth oldest child just got her license. She’s 16. When kids start to do those things, you instantly remember what it was like when you did it. I have five kids and everything they do, even if I didn’t do it, like… one of my kids moved to LA last year, I never got up and moved to LA, but when he does something like that, I feel like part of me goes back to being 20 years old myself. I ask myself, “What would I have felt if I did that at 20?”

Can you elaborate on “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s”? It’s one of my favorites.

I can’t remember where that title came from. But I just started reading the Bruce Springsteen book and he grew up in… did you read that book?

I haven’t. It’s on my list.

Oh, it’s great. And it’s better if you get the audio book, which he reads. But I had just started reading that book and in the beginning especially, he talks so much about growing up in the Catholic Church. It was a huge part of his life. And it was a big part of my life as well. We all grew up in a neighborhood where everybody went to Catholic Church and it was a huge part of raising your kids back in those days. And I just thought it was so interesting how the goal is to teach these teenagers all these rules to follow and how they try to get around them.

It’s not a true story at all, but I could imagine being in that church parking lot, weighing up the risk of trying to become yourself while listening to everything you have been taught. There’s obviously so much more to the song, but I thought it was a simple little way to just talk about this young love and how they’re not supposed to be doing what they’re doing. And then for them to be sitting there, at the back of the church, where they can find peace and quiet. But just the whole conflict of that, that’s really the best way I thought to get it across.

You close out the album with “Like Patsy Would,” which pays tribute to one of the greats.

Yeah, I wrote that with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey. And to be honest, we were originally playing with the idea of calling it, “Like Patty Would.” Because we were thinking of Patty Loveless and how Patty has one of the most beautiful and classic country voices. Everything she sings, it just goes right to your heart. And we just wanted to be clear that we were talking about country music. And of course Patsy came up in all those conversations, as well as Dolly and all the women that sang from their heart.

Obviously, Patty Loveless still does, but she just sang from her heart and her gut. And I don’t think there was a lot of worry about, at least not as much as there is today, about what you look like. They had the ability to sort of be more themselves. I don’t know if that’s true, but it is to our perspective. The idea came across as, “Today I don’t wanna write a song that I think is gonna make other people happy. I wanna write a song that is gonna come from my gut.” I don’t ever want to stop writing songs for myself, writing songs that just I need to get out.

The line between country and pop has kind of disappeared. Do you think anything has been lost in the process?

I don’t think anything has been lost just because the growth of the genre has been so huge. I think in a lot of ways, if you think of it on the glass-half-full spectrum, there are so many young people who love country music now. Like I live in Boston and my kids, my teenagers love country music. So they wouldn’t be exposed to Tim McGraw and George Strait if they didn’t love Sam Hunt. They are listening to that station because Sam Hunt turned their ear, Taylor Swift turned their ear to it.

But they stay and then they’re exposed some real wholesome music that they wouldn’t necessarily get on the pop stations. They get the exposure. They don’t really know… my kids don’t really know old-school country, but they know good country songs because their ear was exposed to the pop side of it and they jumped in. So I think music is gonna change no matter what. Pop music has changed over the years, so of course country music is gonna change. And there’s still good country songs on the radio.

Someone on Twitter asked if you would ever consider writing a pop song, and you said yes. I’m trying to imagine what it would sound like.

I know, it’s so funny. Songwriters love songs. I have two kids that are songwriters, and they’re both in the pop world. So I’m sort of listening to it all the time in the background and I like what pop has become. There’s a lot of pop songs now that are so airy and sort of rely so much on the vocals and the lyric. But more so than I remember it being when I was younger. It’s funny because I’m trying to learn how to make tracks and things like that. So the thing about songwriting is you can never learn it all, and I’m like a little kid when it comes to that stuff.

Who do you think is writing good pop songs?

Well, I love Julia Michaels. Her melodies, they’re not really too a grid at all. They kind of sometimes confuse me, to be honest, but in a great way. I just love how emotional her voice is and how it just seems to flow out of her. I even love her on that Keith Urban song, I just love it. I just think she’s a true, little emotional being that is like magic. I grew up on pop music, I love all that stuff. It’s just that writing one, I’m sort of limited to my guitar skills.

Earlier you said that no one is interested in cutting your emotional songs, but artists have a habit of covering them and landing big hits. Which song is going to be revisited on this album?

Oh, that’s funny. I really wish somebody would cut “People Get Old,” that’s sort of the one. When she heard The Tree, Miranda Lambert sent me a text message saying how much she loved it. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are still my go-tos. Every time I write a song, I’m like, “Will Faith like this? Will Tim like this?” Because I just love them so much. But I don’t know. I would love any of those folks to do it. But yeah, “People Get Old” probably has the best chance. People Get Old. I think everybody can put themselves into it.

Do you have a different process for writing a song for yourself as opposed to for another artist?

I’ve been really lucky in that regard and what I normally do is, if I’m with the artist then you’re just trying to help that artist write the best song they can that day, and that’s really easy. It’s harder when the artist isn’t there and you’re trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. But I always just still try to get to the point where, “Would I wanna sing this every night? Does every line hit me in that that I would wanna sing it every night?” And that’s sort of, I think, the safest way for me to go.

Thank you so much for your time. Congratulations again on The Tree.

Thank you. Have a great day.

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