Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Bringing ‘Massachusetts’ to Cotuit

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

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.”


Hit List

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.”




R.I.P., Richie Havens

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Richie Havens died on April 22, 2013. I interviewed him for a story that ran in the Cape Cod Times on Nov. 19, 2001. 

Still singing for freedom

Illustration by Jim Warren/Cape Cod Times

Illustration by Jim Warren/Cape Cod Times

It’s been more than 30 years, so you might think Richie Havens would be tired of talking about Woodstock.

“Oh, no, not at all,” says the folk singer, who performs Saturday in Provincetown

“I’ve come to learn that it didn’t belong to me in the first place. It belongs to everyone,” he says of the song he first performed as an extemporaneous variation on the traditional spiritual “Motherless Child.” He delivered it as part of his festival-opening performance on July 16, 1969. “It came out of me and came through me, without my knowledge that I was going to sing that.”

Havens was supposed to be the fifth performer to take the stage for that celebration of peace and love. But the scheduled start time was four hours in the past and the concert promoters were begging Havens to perform.

Why him? The crowd was so much larger than anticipated that musicians had to be flown to the stage by helicopter from a nearby farm. Since Havens and his band had the smallest pile of instruments, they were pushed to the head of the line.

When he got to the stage in Bethel, N.Y., Havens looked out at the faces – hundreds of thousands of faces.

One thought passed through his mind: “Gosh, they’re going to throw stuff at me.”

Scheduled to play for 20 minutes, Havens gave the promoters some breathing room to get their act together (more or less) by performing for three hours. When he ran out of material, he just made up a song. That song, “Freedom,” became one of the highlights of the Woodstock film.

“I had nothing else to sing, and it just came together,” he says during a phone call from West Palm Beach, Fla., where he was scheduled to perform with Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn and Janis Ian – the same lineup that performed at the Melody Tent in Hyannis in August.

“There hasn’t been a country I’ve been to where that song wasn’t what the people wanted to hear.”
Havens, 60, says that the Woodstock crowd was even larger than “official” estimates.

“The numbers, believe it or not, were 520,000 people the first day. The newspaper said 250,000. They do that to everything they fear. They halve it so people think it’s less than it is.

“In the film, when the camera is behind me and you see people starting to stand and clap, most people don’t realize that there is another field over the top of that hill almost as big as the field you’re looking at. That field was filled as well. They never even saw the stage.

“When I flew over them, the first thing that came to mind was what became the title of my book: ‘They can’t hide us anymore.'” (The memoir was released in 1999.)

Havens says the lessons from Woodstock still matter.

“It was the most peaceful thing, the most conscious thing, that had happened with that many people in this country. As young people, we had been put upon by our own government in a way that made us very afraid.

“All we wanted to be was real Americans. We wanted to work with other people and negotiate, rather than fight with them. We knew it wasn’t the people’s fault that there was war. It’s never the people’s fault. It’s always the government.

“It’s up to us to say what really happens.

“A lot of the young people I talk to want to know what the ’60s were about. It wasn’t about music. It was about consciousness being put through the music of a generation. That consciousness became world consciousness. World peace was what my whole generation was about.”

Of course, Havens’ career didn’t begin or end with Woodstock. His latest CD, “Wishing Well,” will be released tomorrow. Along with some Havens originals, it includes a cover of Pink Floyd’s “On the Turning Away.”

Born in Brooklyn, Havens organized several street-corner doo-wop groups when he was a teenager, but his first performances were in a less visible place.

“We had wonderful parks in Brooklyn,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in the tops of trees with my friends, just getting away from the cement. We weren’t basketball players, which is why we turned into singers in the trees. The doo-wop thing was our way of expressing community.”

When he was 20, Havens plunged into the Greenwich Village folk scene. The first two albums he recorded weren’t released at the time. “Mixed Bag,” a 1967 album that featured covers of songs by Bob Dylan and the Beatles, pushed him to the folk foreground.

After Woodstock, Havens had the audience to stay on the road nearly full time and the clout to push social causes.

In the ’70s, he co-founded a children’s oceanographic museum in the Bronx. In 1990, he founded the Natural Guard, a children’s environmental-action organization with chapters around the world. “It’s run by the kids themselves,” Havens says. “Kids have the answers to the big questions on this planet.”

Havens has worked on other peace and justice causes over the years. Saturday’s concert is a benefit for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee ( Peltier is serving consecutive life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975. Peltier maintains he was not the killer, and many activists feel he was not granted a fair trial.

Havens sees much still to be done, but is quick to point out that the world has seen some changes for the better since the Woodstock era.

“Over the last 30 years, we have changed so much and we haven’t even acknowledged it,” he says. “We haven’t patted ourselves on the back for surviving the craziness that the world throws on us.”