Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter Lori McKenna‘s elegant Numbered Doors frames earthy snapshots raw (“Rose of Jericho”) and ragged (the title track). Seamless narratives guides the journey throughout.
“Lori’s one of those people that can make the most mundane thing sound completely beautiful and poetic, and she does it without even thinking about it,” says “Rose of Jericho” co-writer Drew Kennedy. “It’s like her second language is English. Her first language is songwriting.”
CMT Edge spoke with McKenna about her new collection.
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
McKenna: It came about accidentally (laughs). [Boston-area songwriter] Mark Erelli and I do almost all my shows as a duo now, and we wanted to make an EP of five songs that maybe I’d just release digitally. We scheduled two days in the studio, playing acoustic and live, and the first day, we did five songs. The second day, I was driving back to the studio — it’s like an hour drive from my house — and Mark said, “Why don’t we just keep going instead of picking apart the ones we already have?” So we opened my computer and picked five other songs (laughs).
How many unrecorded originals do you have?
I probably on average write three songs a week. So there are a lot hanging around. There are a lot I was a co-writer on and I was proud of, but maybe they wouldn’t really fit into my shows. I always have a running list on sticky notes of EP ideas. I think right now, I have four different EP ideas on sticky notes on my computer. We picked songs that were written within the last year or so for this project, though. My last record, Massachusetts, had songs on it that were, like, seven years old. There’s nothing like that on this. Once we figured out what we were doing and were gonna call it Numbered Doors, we wanted them to fit with that somehow.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
I have days where I’ll try every instrument in the house and see if I can find a song — and I can’t to save my life. There are other days when there’s an idea in my head when I wake up. That’s how it was with that song. It started with a title. I guess in my head, I thought it had to be creepy if it’s about motels and what goes on. I really tried not to write it. It seemed like it was gonna be a tragic story, and I literally tried for three days to ignore that song.
It must’ve been a time when I was home and not traveling and maybe not writing with other people. I probably wouldn’t have inflicted that on somebody else. I finally just had to get it out, and when I did, I was like, “Wow, this is kind of different for me.” I’m not really a story song person. I usually write more of a conversation, but this song haunted me.
It’s funny. We made a video that my 20-year-old son shot, and while we were watching, my 10-year-old son was like, “Why did it have to end so sad?”
“I don’t know. It just did.” (laughs)
Explain the common lyrical theme.
I’ve usually been pretty lucky about hotels, but I’ve stayed in some where you’re up all night hoping you make it through the morning. (laughs) I drive by and think, “Who stays in there?” As a people watcher and a songwriter, I think we all make up stories about people and imagine what their stories are. I love regular life stories. When we had Numbered Doors down, we thought, “These have to be characters that would stay in one of these places, or they are in one of these places, or they’re in a marriage, which leads to a honeymoon, which leads to a hotel. That was the rough common thread.
I stayed in a dumpy motel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, years ago and the guy next door drove up in an El Camino. He immediately brought inside a shotgun and a handle of Jack Daniels.
Why didn’t I talk to you before I made this record! (laughs) Wait a minute, there’s a Las Vegas, New Mexico? I didn’t even know that. That sounds like a good song title: “Las Vegas, New Mexico.”
Yeah. Let’s make it happen. Meanwhile, how did “Rose of Jericho” take shape?
My publisher in Nashville fell in love with (Texas songwriter) Drew Kennedy and sent him up here. We had never met before he was standing on my front porch, but he’s such a nice guy. The first day, we wrote this song called “When Salvation Finds Me.” I woke up the next day at 6 with my kids, and I was probably super inspired from the day before, and I had this thing like “Numbered Doors” that landed in my guitar, the whole first verse and most of the chorus. It was so dark. There was a cross on the side of the road reflecting itself in a car window. It’s like, “Now there’s a cross! What are you doing to yourself here?”
Anyway, I put it away knowing very well that Drew’s gonna show up and I can’t inflict this on somebody. So I just put it away and thought I’d just work on it myself someday. Then he comes in and tells me this story about he and his wife buying a rose of Jericho plant, and he said he wanted to write a song about it. I was like, “What’s that? I’ve never heard of it. That’s such a great title.” Then he explained the whole thing about what it was and the whole thing about spilling water on it and it coming alive. I was like, “Oh, my god, maybe this song I started this morning isn’t ‘everybody dies and falls out of love.’” I played it for him, and he loved it.
Do you prefer co-writing or writing solo?
That’s my favorite part of co-writing. There’s no way I would have saved that song. I probably would have just thrown it away because I thought it was way darker than it ended up being. I know it’s not the happiest song you’ve ever heard, but I feel like there’s a lot of light in it now because of Drew. He amazes me like that. I think if I played that for somebody else, they’d be like, “I don’t know, man.”
Could’ve just been good timing, too.
Yeah, but that’s the thing about co-writing. As songwriters, we all have titles that we have in our heads or on our phones that we want to write. Like “Las Vegas, New Mexico.” I want to write that song someday. You’ll forget why you wrote it down, but you’ll say, “I want to write a song called ‘Las Vegas, New Mexico.’” Your co-writer will be like, “Oh, my god, I have that same title.” Obviously, that didn’t happen with the title for “Rose of Jericho,” but the two things just worked. Really, that title saved the song. Then we wrote a song called “Sleeping Alone.” We had such a great experience writing. Everything clicked just right.
Are you still writing stuff on your own?
I do write on my own but not as much as since I got my publishing deal. Before that, I didn’t even know that you were allowed to co-write. (laughs) What I’ve found about music is that my contribution is by helping people write. I love being the Drew Kennedy in the room, someone who can help get you to the song. You hit a wall and you need someone to come in and make it the best song it could be. We’re blessed in that we’ll never be bored by our craft. There are so many ways to write a song that you can never master them all. It’ll always surprise us somehow.