Lori McKenna Puts Her Voice Front and Center On ‘The Balladeer’

Lori McKenna Puts Her Voice Front and Center On ‘The Balladeer’
Lori McKenna; Photo credit: Becky Fluke

In a year filled with uncertainty and shock, Lori McKenna provided the country music world with a bit of welcome reliability by releasing yet another stellar album. The Balladeer, the Boston-native’s eleventh studio album has, predictably, been met with unanimous acclaim. Critics have rightfully gushed over the Dave Cobb-produced record’s personal feel, bittersweet insights and folk-infused, earthy tones.

Over the past few years, McKenna’s legend has grown considerably thanks to the runaway success of tunes such as Tim McGraw’s 2016 smash “Humble and Kind” as well as Little Big Town’s somewhat controversial 2014 stunner “Girl Crush.” But longtime McKenna followers are keenly aware the songwriter’s skill set goes well beyond what mainstream radio reveals.

Perhaps more than ever before, The Balladeer represents McKenna putting her voice front and center, rather than her written words and notes. The title, not to mention the album cover image of McKenna standing alone, holding her guitar in front of a microphone, serves to remind any who need it that the “singer” aspect of “singer-songwriter” label is of great import to her. We recently caught up with McKenna to discuss how she tackles these crazy times as a songwriter, her daughter’s unique generation and how what she perceives as the limitations of her voice has helped shape her sound.

Lori McKenna; Cover art courtesy of Thirty Tigers

You’re releasing a new album during a pretty eventful time for the country. As a songwriter, do your creative gears start turning during times like this when so much is going on?

This year has been such a wallop, hasn’t it? The creative side of me churns pretty slow, actually. I have to figure out my way of saying things and it sometimes takes a little bit for me to do that. I have friends that can write so well about things as they happen, but I tend to stay away from that because I think I might say the wrong thing. Writing takes me a while. I’m months away from being able to really reflect back on the things we’re learning now. I need that space.

The first line in “When You’re My Age” goes, “when you’re my age, I hope the world is kinder than it seems to be right now,” for example. I wrote that a year and a half ago [laughing], and of course, it applies still.

Speaking of that song, it is directed towards high school graduates. Your daughter graduated high school this year. How did she handle her senior year being so unusual?

She did pretty good with it all. She missed out on prom and was sad about that, but her and her friends did a good job of not feeling sorry for themselves about it. Instead of a normal graduation ceremony, we had a drive-thru graduation and she stood up through the sunroof in our car as we drove slow enough for her to be able to see and talk to all of her teachers, which was nice. I also told her she got out of wearing three-inch heels for three hours.

You’ve always been admired as a songwriter, but I think your voice is unique and also worth people talking about. Does naming the album Balladeer and having a picture of yourself performing mean you want people to appreciate your voice more?

Well, I’ve always sort of struggled with my voice. Now, I appreciate my voice for its uniqueness the more that time goes by. I do say to my husband sometimes, “if my singing voice was 30 percent better, my job would be a lot easier.” My range is limited, but I’ve learned to be comfortable with it and I am thankful for that. I do think I have an identifiable voice and it serves my songs well. In a way, the limitations of my voice have helped my writing by defining my style more than anything else.

You have Kimberly Schalpman and Karen Fairchild from Little Big Town help you out on “This Town is a Woman.” You must really enjoy working with them.

I really do. For that song, I thought about all of the great women in country music and in the Americana world. They really helped bring that song to life and I’m so thankful. I love what they do and the way they see music.

As a songwriter and a recording artist, do you have a process for determining which songs you keep for yourself and which ones you’re O.K. with other artists recording? 

There is a sort of process and it usually involves a discussion between myself and my manager or my publisher. I make a record every two years so it’s really about narrowing down my song choices for my own records.  I’m in a really good space where if I cut a song and Tim McGraw cuts the same song, I’m not going to get in his way because he’s such a huge artist. It’s the same way with a group like Little Big Town. I cut “Happy People” after they did, for example. I’ve never written a song and then said, “O.K. we can’t put this in front of anyone else because it’s just for me.” I hope I write things that work in different ways.

As a professional songwriter you must give a song’s commercial prospects some thought. Have there been any songs that you just knew would hit it big when you wrote them?

“I’m not good at that part actually. I never know if a song is going to be a hit or not, and that’s probably a good thing. At the end of the day, I just love writing songs. Of course, because I write songs for a living, I have to hope they are commercially viable to a point. I can’t think too much about it, but that’s in my head a little because I want to keep doing it. I do tend to write from a kind of selfish point of view in that I want to like singing what I write, yet I do need to keep others that might sing that song in mind too. I try to keep a balance.

OK, how about the flip-side of that question. Have there been surprised by the success of any songs you’ve written?

“Girl Crush” surprised me because we really write that for ourselves. We didn’t think about how it would do beyond just writing it. It just goes to prove how great of a band Little Big Town is. My job is to follow the song and let it tell me where to go and when I’m done with it.