If it were up to singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, nothing about the blustery coastal town of Stoughton, Mass., would ever change. It’s 7:15 on a Friday morning, and as she drives through the town center to drop off two of her five kids at school, she passes by the now-defunct bowling alley, the fire department, the Church of Christ, the crackling Bud Light sign. Stoughton is the only place she’s ever lived and, frankly, she loves all of it.
And then, the words form of their own volition, literally streaming into her mind like water. No, no, no, she thinks. Just yesterday, she completed her sixth record and sent the artwork to the printer. Not another song.
But it’s already there, and it won’t be ignored. McKenna presses her foot on the accelerator, hurrying to get home to sit down and finish the unexpected tribute to her tiny town. Though the decision isn’t cheap, she stops the presses, redoes the album artwork and records “Buy This Town” as the 13th song on her 2011 album, Lorraine.
“I love that song because my neighbor is in it,” she says. “At the end it talks about the football game and the firefighters being there. It’s my love song to Stoughton, Massachusetts, to all those good people that struggle and work, and on Friday nights they’re going to go have a beer and be happy and smile.”
If you ran into McKenna at the bar on a Friday night and shared a laugh with the blue-jeaned brunette, you just might earn a cameo in one of her songs. Recorded by artists like Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Alison Krauss, Keith Urban and LeAnn Rimes, McKenna’s songs are populated by the people and places she encounters in her daily life.
She mostly writes at the breakfast table in her kitchen, where she can see out the windows, with her children running in and out and the laundry piling up. And no matter how happy or sad, she tells the truth about what she knows: her sweet, ordinary, blue-collar life.
“There have been so many beautiful and amazing songs written throughout time,” she says. “There’s no point in saying something that has been said a bunch of times before, unless you’re gonna really be honest and say either exactly how you felt, or exactly how you think another person felt, without sugarcoating anything. I don’t say it unless it’s going to affect me or affect someone else.”
Being something of a late bloomer—friends and family talked her into playing open mics when she was 27, already married with three small children—the 40-year-old mother of five no longer worries much about what other people think of her writing.
“I’m just going to go right for it. I guess I’m not a baby anymore,” she says. “But I’ve been in the room with very young artists who are good writers, and I’ve seen them say something they should write. But then they get afraid, and they pull it back and say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t really want to say that in a song, though.’ That’s the difference between a really great young writer and a good young writer. The great one will say something that’s maybe uncomfortable for their mom or their dad or their boyfriend at the time, but it’s the truth.”
That candor is a dynamic tool for connecting with people as intimately as McKenna connects with her listeners through Lorraine, a collection of songs inspired by her mother and namesake who died when McKenna was seven.
“It’s always amazing to me how people always comment about the song ‘Lorraine,’ because it’s so personal. How could anybody else identify with that song? But somehow, people do. And that’s what I mean about being honest. You can be talking to yourself, and other people are drawn to that because they can’t say it.”
McKenna says most writers have a muse, that unforgettable moment, feeling or person they just can’t stop thinking and wondering about. For her, it was her mom.
“If I think about why I write songs, it’s because my mom died when I was little,” she says. “As bad as that is for any family, I had a really good childhood—my family’s awesome, my dad’s incredible, we all are really happy people and we’re all close. It’s not like I had a traumatic childhood and now I’m a songwriter. But I think spending a lot of time wondering about [my mother] led me to this internal thinking that is helpful as a songwriter. When you’re doing anything, getting coffee in the morning, you’re thinking about a song.”
McKenna’s upbringing gave her the courage to be painfully honest, but not every writer has those genes.
“There’s no way to really teach it,” she says. “You see someone like Taylor Swift, and see what she did when she was that young. Everybody says she knew what she wanted, she knew what she wanted to sound like, she knew what she wanted to say. That’s why she’s so good. I don’t know if you can learn that. If we could, I would be teaching it to all my kids. It’s hard for really young people to not worry about what other people think. When you see young people who don’t worry about what people think, they’re always remarkable. They sort of amaze even older people, because we all wish we had that ability when we’re 20.”
Looking back on her younger years, McKenna says she has moments when she thinks, I said that? She admits she can’t listen to her initial records anymore, but that’s OK with her.
“I think you can grow old and die happy knowing you’re proud of the work you did while you did it,” she says. “Even though you’ve changed so much that some of the stuff you can’t listen to anymore, that’s what you had to do when you were that age.”
A staple in her town and in Boston’s close-knit community of singer-songwriters, McKenna is confident that she’s doing what she has to do. She watches her kids play in the yard on dusky summer nights, attends school budget meetings, makes dinner and writes songs in her kitchen.
“For me, the thing about songwriting is you can do it forever—you don’t have to retire. You can sit on your back porch and still write songs. If you took everything else away, I would still be writing songs on a little piece of paper. That’s the only thing I can do for 10 hours a day and still, when my husband gets home, run upstairs and be like, ‘Come listen to this song I just wrote!’”
McKenna’s album Lorraine (Jan. 2011) is a poetic, beautifully face-forward album. Check it out at lorimckenna.com.