BY LESLEY HASTINGS
With her new studio album “1988” due for release on 21st July and a stateside tour to celebrate the project starting the following month, it’s a busy and exciting time for Grammy award – winning singer songwriter Lori McKenna and of course her fanbase.
Named after the year she married her husband, Gene, the album’s ten tracks serve as a love letter to her family and lifelong friendships and include “Happy Children”, a co-write with her son Chris, which bestows perhaps the kindest of wishes (listen here https://orcd.co/happychildren ). In addition to her career as a solo artist, Lori is of course one of the industry’s most in-demand songwriters, having written songs for artists including Taylor Swift, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw and Little Big Town, and was the first female artist to win Songwriter of the Year at the ACM Awards. It was wonderful to get the chance to chat to Lori about the album, tour and her career to date, a real bucket list interview for me and I must admit to being rather nervous. But she was so down to earth, putting me at ease immediately, her passion for her craft shining through in every word she spoke.
I hope you enjoy our conversation.
1. LH Hi, Lori, thanks for your time today! Can I assume from that impressive display of guitars on the wall behind you that you’re in your music room at your home just outside Boston?
LM Ha yeah it looks like a guitar centre! And yes, I’m just 20 miles south of Boston.
2. LH I’d like to start by quoting from the press release I received regarding “1988“ in which you say looking back on your recording career that in a way you wish you could start all over again, knowing what you know now. Maybe you could expand on that, ‘cos it hasn’t been a particularly shoddy recording career has it?
LM No! I think it’s more age …. I’ve wrestled with confidence issues always which makes you make certain choices. I’m really not a regretter, I’m a “looker backer“ with rose coloured vision but not a regretter. But I’ve also been very lucky. I keep telling everyone this is my version of a rock record, and Dave Cobb my producer still laughs at me about that as everything is acoustic and stripped down! But I said to Dave I wanted to make a record like one I’d have made in the 90s , like Sheryl Crow, that stuff still sounds so good now. You can’t find a bad Sheryl Crow song can you? I can play that for my kids for the first time and they would think it’s just happened! Then I realised I did make records in the 90s! I forget how old I am, I feel like 35 years old! So it was like let’s just do that and have some electric guitars this record.
LH It’s so odd you should mention Sheryl as hand on heart she honestly came on the radio today and I was singing along with “ All I Wanna Do”!
LM That song is a great example! And Alanis Morisette. So I did have my time then and I was so lucky to have it, but when I say I wish I could go back I mean go back and take it all in again. I have these situations like “how did I get here? This is crazy. What am I doing here?” I didn’t actually absorb them as much as I should.
LH Springsteen is another artist whose back catalogue still sounds so good… I was at his show in Hyde Park yesterday…
LM Yes! I had to see “Springsteen on Broadway” twice, because the first time I went I cried the whole time, people were like holding me by the shoulders and saying “ you’re going to be ok!”. It was so life changing, and the way that he just gives …. I’m sure it was the same last night …
LH Indeed! I’m still recovering mentally and physically, I’m slightly shattered today to be honest!
3. LH Anyway we digress… back to the matter in hand!
So ….”1988” is your 12th studio album I think? How do you feel these days in the run up to release day, is it still as exciting or nerve wracking as ever?
LM Yeah, I feel like every time I release a record it’s a different process because the world changes. The last time I made a record with Dave and released it this way was “The Balladeer” which came out in 2020. So now I keep asking my manager “are we doing the thing where we’re doing the thing ….” and he’s like “no because we were in lockdown last time”! So I guess the process is now back to how it should be. I’m sort of a compartmentaliser, you make the record then you sit with it and then you kind of move on, start writing other things, they start working out artwork and all those things and then you’re back to it. We started rehearsals for the shows a week ago and that just sort of ignited this new spark in me and I’m now like “man I just can’t wait to play this to people with a band, this is going to be fun!”
4. LH Are there any particular tracks you’re looking forwards to playing live?
LM I think we are going to try to do the whole record. “The Old Woman In Me“ we’ve been playing for a while because it’s the oldest song on this record, and “The Town In Your Heart“ is just really fun to play live. But in rehearsals playing them with the band, I just ask them “can you sing?” and give them a microphone … like on “The Tunnel” where everyone comes together….
LH Oooh yes I love that big gospel sound on that one….
LM Yeah! I kind of missed the songs in a way so it’s going to be fun to get out there and play them with the band.
5. LH So will you play the album top to bottom?
LM I think we’ll switch it up a little bit for each run, and we’ll do a few older song obviously too.
LH Of course you probably haven’t got to play much of “The Balladeer” live due to the restrictions when it was released?
LM Yeah I did some live-streaming shows, one with the band, around its release but it’s wild, I just don’t understand time any more especially the older I get!
6. LH Are there any songs you always include in you set list at live shows (ones there’d maybe be a riot if you omitted them!)
LM The ones we always stick to are “Humble and Kind” , and we normally do “The Bird and the Rifle“ .
And “Crowded Table” is always such a joy as The Highwomen did such an amazing job with that one and it’s been such a gift that song. I’m so happy I got to be just a tiny part of it, that it exists and we get to sing it and the audience will sing along. I love the ones where people sing with me. But sometimes you really don’t know til you get in the room . So we‘ll stick to the album but have about 21 songs so everyone doesn’t get bored, including the band, we have to keep them on their toes!
7. LH Talking of keeping people on their toes, looking at the writing credits on the new album there’s obviously some co-writes with your “go to” collaborators but also some with people I’m not sure you’ve worked with before. There’s two of your sons on there, and also Stephen Wilson Jnr who has an interesting backstory coming from a scientist background. Does writing with new people keep things fresh and interesting for you, help you develop as an artist?
LM I get to work with new people all the time, and I think it’s such a great part of this job! Every co-write, every conversation, you learn something, even if you don’t necessarily connect with the person. My publisher does such a good job putting me with people who they think I can help, or they can help me, or at least we get the song. I didn’t know Stephen Wilson Jnr until last year. Ben West is a friend who I’d written with a bunch and love, he’s one one of the greatest people in the universe, and he was working with Stephen Wilson Jnr. I heard some of his songs and I just couldn’t believe it, I was like “where has this guy been?”! He makes me feel like an 18 year old boy, there’s something that he does that’s so truthful and guttural, I just fell in love with it. So we had a write together, the three of us, we wrote for Stephen’s record and then I asked if I could have a day where we write for my record. And they were both so gracious about it and brought the idea of “The Tunnel“ on. I love this idea of how you grow up with someone, you practically come out of the ground together, live on the same street and spend all these years together then as you become an adult and go your own way you realise that in my case life has been filled with so many blessings, I’ve been so lucky, and how does this impact on the other person I grew up with who has had a much harder time. Who picks this? To me the greatest thing about that song and that co-write is I consider myself to be a very joyful person …. I like sad songs, I will admit that, and Stephen and I can both have this darkness to our writing …. but til we were into that song I never saw the light at the end of the tunnel til Stephen said I think we’ll just end this with “there’s a light at the end, a light at the end of the tunnel”. It was just staring me right in the face and I didn’t see it til he said it. I just love him and love how that song turned out and he brought it to life.
8. LH You also still do a lot of solo-writing, there’s several on the new album, and I wondered how far into a song idea or write do you know whether you’ll finish it on your own or ( like the example above!) if you need some more input?
LM It’s funny, that used to be clearer to me. But I’ve learned that sometimes I have a clear focus of what I want the song to say and if I’m by myself I will start a song that can make me cry, I think it’s got something to do with the flow, and I know I’m on the right road and just have to follow it ….. and then I get a lull. “When You’re My Age” is a great example of that, I tried to write it by myself for a month and I kept hitting the same lull and brought it to Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey and they found the chorus which I just couldn’t see. And that’s kind of what happened with “Happy Children”, I wrote that one with my son Chris. I couldn’t hook it, I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn’t get there and Chris helped me find it. So I think when I was younger the song just went away and now I’m old enough to know better, and I know these people who can get me out of these jams I get into! You think “oh this is so emotionally charged, so personal , why can’t I do it??“ but sometimes I just can’t. I needed a friend, another mother to finish “When You’re My Age “ with me, or I need a kid …. unless I share it it’s just not going to allow me to get there ! And so now that I’m older I really see those opportunities .
9. LH I wanted to ask you about the recording process for the new album. You and Dave have worked together so many times and must have such a good understanding of each other but you said you wanted this album to sound a bit different, to be your rock album, so how did things differ this time in order to achieve that?
LM Yeah this time it was quite different because we didn’t record it in Nashville. It was the first record I think that he recorded in his new studio which is in Savannah, Georgia, on one of those tiny little islands. And there was so much nature involved, we’d close the curtains when we were recording but the world was just right outside. The process was beautiful, I had never been to Savannah and didn’t know what it even looked like, so the process in that way was different. The core we cut live, Chris Powell on drums, Brian Allen on bass, Dave playing guitar with me, which is what we’ve always done the four of us together. I can’t have a click, Chris just keeps me where I need to be, follows me, it’s really the only way I can do it. And this time Dave and I sat right across from one another, they put a partition between us and I was just looking at him and being directed by him, like if we had to do something again. He over-dubbed all the electric guitars, it was really great, we could go back and listen to everything we cut live and he’d overdub . Everything was really so much fun, we had a ball! It took about two weeks …. I went home because I can’t be gone too long …. but we tracked over with Brian and Chris for about four days.
The thing about Dave is he has a lot to do with the vibe, he sets a vibe that’s very comfortable, he’s just like “let’s play the songs sitting together, then move to our spots and try to record it”. Plus there’s an organic vibe happening, I almost forget I’m in the studio. And I’m not comfortable in a studio! It was around Halloween time too so it wasn’t too hot, the weather was perfect and I had my son Chris there for the beginning then my son Brian came in with my husband so I got to share it with the family a bit . We just had a great time!
LH Sounds like it!
10. LH And finally, a question I think all of us here in the UK are itching to ask, are you planning any shows over her? You were due to come over for C2C in 2020 with Liz and Hillary but of course that never happened …. so I think you owe us a visit either alone or with the Love Junkies…
LM I know …. well the Love Junkies are trying as we were booked to come but it’s a bit like moving mountains getting the three of us together. But I was just saying to someone that my youngest son, David, just graduated high school and is going off to college, so the next 4-5 years of my life are going to be very different with the kids getting their wings and going. I’m trying to get my husband to work a little less, so let’s see …. I really, really, really want to get over. I’ve done shows in the UK, and visited as a fan, but all my friends have a touring life over there, friends like Mary Gauthier and Brandy Clark, they get to visit and Maren I know was just there …. it’s rising to the top of my list!
LH Yeah I saw both Maren and Brandy here recently …. and Brandy’s musical “Shucked” is opening here next year…
LM I saw it and I’m still laughing! It’s so great!
LH Well I really hope you make it over, maybe we can then chat in person.
All the best with the album release and tour…thanks again for your time today .
LM Thank you!
Preorder/presave “ 1988” here https://orcd.co/1988-eu
1. The Old Woman in Me (written by Lori McKenna)
2. Happy Children (written by Lori McKenna, Chris McKenna)
3. Killing Me feat. Hillary Lindsey (written by Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, Luke Laird)
4. Days Are Honey (written by Lori McKenna, Barry Dean, Luke Laird)
5. 1988 (written by Lori McKenna, Brian McKenna)
6. Growing Up (written by Lori McKenna)
7. Wonder Drug (written by Lori McKenna)
8. The Town in Your Heart (written by Lori McKenna, Jessie Jo Dillon, Dustin Christensen)
9. Letting People Down (written by Lori McKenna)
10. The Tunnel (written by Lori McKenna, Ben West, Stephen Wilson Jr)