from the Cape Cod Times, Nov. 7, 2013
If you listen to a country radio station, you’ve heard a lot of Lori McKenna’s handiwork lately.
Hunter Hayes had a No. 2 hit a few weeks ago with “I Want Crazy.” Little Big Town made the country Top 40 with “Your Side of the Bed” and the group’s current single, “Sober,” is climbing the charts.
Those three songs have Nashville written all over them, but they were co-written by McKenna, who lives in Stoughton, a town 15 miles south of Boston. McKenna (who’ll perform Saturday at the Cotuit Center for the Arts) built her reputation as a performer in Boston’s contemporary folk scene, but over the past decade she’s become known behind the scenes as someone with a gift for writing hit songs for other people.
“I want some woman who’s driving home after a bad day to be listening to the radio and hear a song that sparks a human connection,” McKenna said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t have to be the one singing it, but that’s the kind of song I want to be a part of.”
McKenna said Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are her favorite songwriters. “As rich and famous as they are, they can still write something that affects you or me or my husband who’s a plumber and doesn’t even like music that much,” she said.
Long before she was writing songs that were recorded by Faith Hill (“Fireflies”), Keith Urban (“The Luxury of Knowing”), Allison Krauss & Union Station (“My Love Follows You Where You Go”) and others, McKenna wrote songs to entertain herself and her family members.
“I’d play a song or two while we were sitting around the kitchen, having a beer,” she said. “I started doing open mikes because my sister-in-law and one of my best friends talked me into it.
“As soon as I stuck my neck out, someone was there to say, stick your neck out more. Every time something would stop me, something else would open up. I always tell my kids, you have to take a risk.”
When she released her 1998 debut CD, “Paper Wings & Halo,” Boston folk station WUMB named McKenna the new artist of the year. Critical raves continued for her next CDs, “Pieces of Me” (2001) and “Bittertown” (2004), a Springsteen-style series of songs about life in a small town. McKenna’s blend of folk, country and rock drew comparisons to Lucinda Williams and Kasey Chambers.
McKenna’s gifts came to the attention of country superstars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Hill recorded three of McKenna’s songs, including the title song, on her 2005 blockbuster, “Fireflies.” McGraw and Hill took McKenna on the road as the opening act for their stadium tour, and McGraw co-produced McKenna’s 2007 CD, “Unglamorous,” her only CD to be released on a major label (Warner Bros.).
“That whole ride, it was like an invitation,” said McKenna. “I found an adoptive home in Nashville. I learned through Nashville that what I’m good at is collaborating on writing songs – helping someone pull out what they want to say.
“I don’t think I’m the best singer or the best anything, but I feel like I belong. Nashville gave me that confidence.”
McKenna’s productive enough that she has plenty of songs for herself. She released a CD in 2011 (“Lorraine”), a six-song digital-only EP last year (“Heart Shaped Bullet Hole”) and another CD in April (“Massachusetts”).
For the new CD, she had producer Mark Erelli (a singer-songwriter who’ll open her Cotuit show) narrow the batch of songs from 70 to 14. While “Pieces of Me” looked at family life and “Bittertown” explored the tapestry of small-town life, “Massachusetts” is an exploration of romantic love.
“People don’t listen to records from front to back as much as they used to,” said McKenna. “But I asked Mark, ‘What if we put it in order from saddest to happiest?’”
The CD starts with “Salt,” which is almost startling in the narrator’s scorn for a past lover. “The opening scene has to be dramatic – something bad happened, like a movie,” said McKenna.
Working titles for the CD included “Crooked Road” and “Middleville,” but none of the ideas worked for every song. In the end, she went with “Massachusetts” as a tribute to the scene that nurtured her and the talented local musicians who backed her up on the CD.
“Each of my last four records has been different,” she said. “Now at 44, it’s like anything goes. It’s all self-expression. You can’t repeat yourself.”
When asked if there’s anyone else she’d like to see cover one of her songs, McKenna paused for a moment.
“I’m always bugging Mr. McGraw. We’ve written five songs together and he hasn’t recorded any of them yet.
“What else could possibly happen? James Taylor would be incredible.”
Until then the woman from Stoughton will keep writing songs for singers in Nashville. How does a woman from New England have so much twang in her voice and intonations?
“My Stoughton accent is so strong – it’s not a Boston accent – so I just started copying people,” McKenna said. “When I’m around people with accents, I want to pretend I have that accent.
“All the characters on ‘Massachusetts’ remind me of a neighbor or someone I went to high school with, my friends, my husband or my kids’ friends. I need to not have a super strong self-identity, so I can write about other characters.”
We asked Lori McKenna what she’s been listening to lately. Her response:
* “I admire Katy Perry. I think ‘Teen Age Dream’ is one of the best songs to come out of any genre. ‘Roar’ makes people feel good. ‘Roar’ is huge in my car.”
* “21” by Adele – “That doesn’t get old.”
* “The last record I bought was ‘The Civil Wars’ by the Civil Wars. I had a couple of long drives and that was one I put in to study. The tension of what they do, the drama.”
* “We Have Made a Spark by Rose Cousins – “Hers is the only female voice on ‘Massachusetts’ besides mine. She’s just remarkable. I can’t compare her to anyone else but her voice is absolutely stunning.”