Songwriter Spotlight: An Interview with Lori McKenna

Lori McKenna speaks casually, and humbly, about her path to being one of Nashville’s most in-demand songwriters telling us, “I didn’t really know that I could do this at all but I sort of just always wrote songs, and every now and then would have enough nerve to sing one for somebody and one thing always led to another.” McKenna fell into songwriting, almost like the career chose her. “I feel very fortunate that I get to do it.”

McKenna is a three-time Grammy Award winner. She’s written critically-acclaimed songs like Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and “Happy People,” Carrie Underwood’s “Cry Pretty,” and even “Always Remember You This Way” from the famous film, A Star Is Born. She also has credits on songs recorded by Miranda Lambert, Faith Hill, George Strait, Cam, and Sara Bareilles. 

Unlike many of her peers, McKenna never made the permanent move to Music City and still resides in the Boston area. Even when she got her first publishing deal back in 2005, she never wanted to make her family leave what was familiar to them. “I didn’t want to uproot my kids. I always just commuted back and forth from Boston to Nashville,” she tells The Nash News. There were times when she was nervous she wouldn’t be able to meet the right people or make connections but she always felt like she was in great hands with her publishing teams throughout the years.

She also confesses that not living in Nashville turned out to be an asset giving her a different perspective on her career. “I think it was actually beneficial for me in a way because I go to Nashville once or twice a month, and I still, every time I get there, I get excited about being in Nashville. It was sort of like a relationship where you don’t take anything for granted and I am still in love with the plane flying in and seeing the landscape of that city and knowing there’s a million songs being written in Nashville, Tennessee every day and I get to be a tiny little part of it.” She continues on adding, “The wonder of it all is still alive and well in me and I think it’s ‘cause I never lived there. It’s like Disneyland every time. If you lived in Disneyland, you’d get used to it.” McKenna speaks with distinctive wisdom as she makes it clear that Nashville awakens a childlike wonder deep down in herself.

Lori McKenna

A lot of the songs McKenna is credited on lean towards the emotional and vulnerable side. One example of this is, “Humble And Kind” which was recorded by Tim McGraw and written by Lori Mckenna alone. The song won the CMA Award for Song of the Year in 2016 and a Grammy Award in 2017. When asked if it’s hard to share her art with someone else she responds, “I feel like songs are meant to be sung and interpreted in all different ways. I can’t think of a song that I’ve ever just said, ‘Please don’t pitch this for anyone else, I have to do this myself.’ I really don’t ever have that feeling about it.”

She even goes as far as to admit that she doesn’t think her writing fits the mainstream zeitgeist of pop-country. “I’m not very good at being a commercial writer,” she states. “I’ve just been lucky enough where some of my songs have landed in these beautiful hands of these great artists that have been so good to them for me. But I feel like, every song I write, I feel like I would love it if anybody ever wanted to cut it.”  Where some writers might find it hard to give away their words, McKenna is eager to. She attributes her emotions towards the subject to her age. “You kind of have to hold onto things when you’re establishing yourself. I’ve been doing this for so long and am in my own little world. But I do understand writers that think, ‘Oh this is for me and I want to keep it that way.’ I totally get it when people do that.”

When McKenna had put out her full-length record The Balladeer back in 2020, she spoke about how she’s inclined towards writing somber ditties. “Sad songs are the ones that always get me when someone has a new record out, I’m always drawn to the slower, sadder songs; I don’t know why. I grew up on music like that. I also think that we all have this internal rhythm and mine’s just pretty slow,” she exclaims while laughing through her words. She’s even had internal arguments with herself over it as she goes on to say, “I really need somebody to come in and kickstart me in an upbeat direction. I’ve fought it a long time and every now and then I can be lucky enough to get something out on my own that moves a little bit more but I’ve been so blessed to write with incredible co-writers that are good at all of those things that I’ve kind of made peace with it.”

The intrinsic relationship McKenna has with sadness is prominently displayed in her most recent work as a solo artist: her holiday EP titled Christmas is Right Here. The idea for a Christmas-themed project came from McKenna’s manager. “I remember it was over the summer, and I was walking around my yard with the dogs and I was like, ‘I cannot make a Christmas record. I can’t even make it through Christmas without crying.’ And then I was like, oh! Christmas without crying – that’s a good title for a song,” she tells us. From that small creative spark, McKenna was able to craft five original Christmas songs, including the somber and violently relatable “Christmas Without Crying” which she wrote with Luke Laird and Barry Dean.

Writing the project was fun for McKenna as she tapped into a different side of herself while creating it. She got the chance to reflect on the past two years our society, and our world, have collectively faced, and how she’s had numerous friends who’ve lost their parents.“I said, ‘Can this be really emotional?’ And they said, ‘Yeah it can be whatever you do. Just do the thing you do.’ So that’s what we landed on.” She adds under her breath, “And I think crying is fun, so.”

Recently McKenna has featured on two EPs. She sang on “Briefcase” with Walker Hayes on his 2021 EP, Country Stuff. She also lends her voice on the emotionally charged track, “The Other Side” by Maddie & Tae which she wrote over Zoom with the duo; it just came out earlier this month. “They really just wanted to have an inspiring song that somebody could hear in those moments when you really need to hear a song like that,” she notes. “It was a very conscious decision for them to write something that wasn’t just for us, the writers, but for everybody else. They really do have hearts of gold.”

She excitedly mentions that Maddie & Tae uniquely pen songs for vocal harmonies; she compares them to a family because of how particularly in tune they are with each other. “When you have somebody who knows how to harmonize with somebody else that they respect and care for in the way that Maddie & Tae care for each other, it’s like another character in the song that you don’t know even exists,” she explains. “It’s a whole other game and it’s beautifully played by the two of them so it’s really fun to write with them in that way.” She also gets giddy when speaking about how they approached her to be on the track. She had no idea they were thinking of including her saying, “I don’t know why they thought to have me sing on it but I was so honored.”

Mckenna was the only co-writer on Taylor Swift’s “I Bet You Think About Me:” a “vault track” from Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version). “That song was about 11 years old,” she pauses before adding, “We think.” Swift was in the Boston area playing two sold-out shows at Gillette Stadium not too far from McKenna’s house. On the day of the second show, she visited Mckenna, they ate lunch and then wrote together. “She had this little nugget of a song which was ‘I Bet You Think About Me,’ she knew that was the hook,” Mckenna tells us. Swift had asked her if she should lean in the folk direction (they did) and after that, the rest flowed naturally as McKenna recalls, “I don’t remember anything other than sitting here watching how incredible she is. She knows what she wants to say and when she says the right thing, she remembers it. She didn’t write anything down. There was no recording of the song.” McKenna was writing the lyrics on her computer but Swift never looked at her screen. “If the line is right, she knows it’s right, and she remembers what it is,” she says.

Later that night, McKenna attended Swift’s show with her kids and when she was backstage, Swift started playing “I Bet You Think About Me.” “I’m like, how is this woman gonna get out there, do a completely choreographed show for 60 thousand people, and she’s singing the song that she just wrote two hours ago.” When Red originally came out, the song didn’t make the cut, and then this past summer Swift contacted McKenna. “I talked to her for like a half an hour on the phone. She was like, ‘Remember this part? And we added this part, and then this part,’ it was like we wrote it yesterday.” The new version features backing vocals from Chris Stapleton. “I love the way it came out. It’s so true to that original thought she had. She followed through 11 years later,” McKenna declares.

At this year’s Grammy Awards, McKenna is nominated for Song Of The Year alongside seven other women for the track, “A Beautiful Noise” sung by Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile. “To be a part of that song has just been a blessing,” McKenna states. The song was written during quarantine so it was mainly worked on through Zoom sessions and phone calls. “Touching on things like race and sexual orientation in a broad way where anyone can listen to that song and hopefully put themselves in it and get empowerment from it.” McKenna was shocked by the nomination. “A lot of those women I have never even met,” she “It’s an example of music bringing people together in kind of the craziest way. Songs take us on journeys.” She hopes to meet her fellow songstresses at the award show taking place in April.

McKenna has cuts on upcoming LPs from Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett, and Hailey Whitters. She also plans on releasing music under her own name as she says subtly. “I’ve got some writin’ to do.”

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