For many musicians, part of the allure of the job is hitting the road and seeing the world. For singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, she’s just as happy to have her songs do the traveling as she continues to discover her own town. Not just any old town, mind you. She’s a proud native of Stoughton, Mass., thank you very much.
With the release of her sixth studio album, Massachusetts, McKenna has once again crafted a sonic snapshot of the people, places and plots of her hometown. She possesses a gift for highlighting the uncommon glories of the common life and turning the mundane into magic.
But don’t let the sad songs fool you. She’s also got an infectious laugh and a charming Bostonian accent bubbling beneath those lamenting lyrics.
CMT Edge: Some of your previous songs have been described as love letters to Stoughton. Does naming your new album Massachusetts mean this is an entire album’s worth of those love letters?
McKenna: You know, my last few records have been made in Nashville. Over the last five or six years, Nashville has become such a big part of my music and my career. When we started talking about wanting to make this record, the first thought in my head was, “I want to make a record back here in Boston with my band.” They’re such a great group of guys, and every time I play a show up here, someone asks me, “When are you going to make a record with this band?” So that was almost the whole point of making this record. I wanted Mark Erelli to produce it because he plays with me almost all the time.
Since that’s how it all started, when we were looking through the lyrics for an album title, Mark and I thought, “Let’s just call it Massachusetts.” I’m so glad we did that because I didn’t want to worry about anything in making this record, other than it being for the people who have already bought my records and come to my shows. I’m really happy with the record and the title because Mark commented that all the characters in all the songs could be — and in some cases are — the people that live here. I’m such a townie and such a Stoughton person. They can’t really get rid of me.
Massachusetts was recorded live in a barn rather than in a conventional recording studio. What drove the decision, and what did that type of atmosphere lend to the experience?
We used to always make records that way. Bittertown and every record I made up until Unglamorous, that’s how we did it. The first record I made was just me and a couple of people, and you’d go in a track live and that’s just how it was. Then when I started going out to Nashville and writing a lot was when more and more of the studio process changed. The bands on my records have always recorded live and have always been perfect, but I was able to go back in and fix any of my mistakes. So I got used to the security of all that, especially singing-wise.
When we went to make this record, Mark and I would have these long talks about production. He really wanted to do it live, and I was always on board. However, when we got in there, I’m not going to lie to you, I was miserable. I was like, “What have I gotten myself into?”
The barn we recorded in was called Middleville, and it really has its own thing. It’s almost like a living, breathing spot where you come in and make your music with it, in a way. All my bandmates had made records there before, and they loved it. I got in there and I was like, “Where’s the screen, and how do I fix my vocal?” I got really quiet and scared.
I’m so happy with the way it came out, though, and so proud of how it sounds because I know how hard it was for me and how anxious I was during the process. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’d do it again, but I’m glad I experienced it. Luckily, Mark’s whole thing from the beginning was he wanted it to be emotional, and he didn’t care if it was perfect.
On the surface, songs like “How Romantic Is That” and “Grown Up Now” aren’t exactly paint-by-number love songs. Can you describe your process for taking commonplace themes and ideas and presenting them in fresh, layered ways?
When I first started writing songs, one of the first pieces of advice you always hear is, “Write what you know.” When I was young, I would think, “I’m not really worldly, and I haven’t been to all these places that my traveling musician friends have been.” I’ve never written a song about Paris because I’ve never been there. I just kept writing about my friends, and I’d pull something from their stories and pull something from mine.
Surprisingly enough, it’s been something that’s really fed my inspiration. I’m really inspired by the house next door and the house down the street. We may have an unchampioned life, but we all have an amazing story. At some point years ago, something in my brain went off about that and how to write songs around it. It may not be enough for a book or a movie, but I can write a three-and-a-half minute song around it and keep someone’s attention.
It’s funny how sometimes the most personal songs — like the two you mentioned, for example — those are the ones people identify with the most. That’s 100 percent about my own little life, and when someone else says they love it, that’s the connection that music can make for people that blows my mind. I get so excited about it every time.
You’ve described yourself as both a songwriter and a song chaser. What’s the differentiating factor between the two for you?
I think I started saying “chaser” recently because I write so much more now than I used to. Years ago, I would only write when I was inspired or when I had an idea. Now, writing is my favorite thing. That requires chasing because every day you’re not going to have an idea. Some days I feel like I can’t write a song if my life depended on it, and some days I feel like I could write all day long. I just like the word “chaser” because you know that song’s in there somewhere. Some days, it’s just not going to let you find it very easy.
There’s a certain melancholy to your songs with a subtle “bend without breaking” attitude. Do you find your lyrics are more about processing through those sad emotions or taking power back from loss and unhappy experiences?
I think, a lot of times, it’s more powering through. Unfortunately, that’s what most of us are doing. Sometimes the best you can do is power through. With a song like “Salt,” though, she’s really pissed and she’s taking the power back. I think that’s how life is. We all have moments where we’re just getting by, and then we have those moments where we totally surprise ourselves with our strength.
I always say to people, “I guess my songs are sad, but I don’t think of them as completely dark.” But I’m drawn to those songs because I don’t know how to make people dance, and if you can’t make them dance, you got to try and make them cry. The whole point is you want to make them feel something.
The songs that I’m the most proud of are songs that, if listened to in the right spot, can make you sort of sad, then sort of happy and then sort of inspired all at the same time. That’s really what the goal is. I want to try to get people to hit a couple of those emotions, instead of just one.