Lori McKenna may be the only person in Stoughton, Mass., with a record deal. That’s where she grew up and where she’s raising five kids with her husband of 18 years. Yet, with Faith Hill and Sara Evans cutting her songs, Nashville has come to feel like a second home. Although she’s upbeat on the title track of Unglamorous, she concludes the album with “Leaving This Life,” a heartbreaking memorial to her mother who died when McKenna was 6.
During a recent visit to CMT’s offices, she pulled up a chair and chatted about her new songs, the pressure of living up to people’s expectations and why she loves Nashville.
CMT: Does the line about the crowded dinner table in “Unglamorous” describe a typical day in your house?
McKenna: Yeah, it’s funny, we have a bigger dinner table in my house than we did growing up. But I’m the youngest of six kids, and we had a table not much bigger than this one. It amazes me that every night we were able to sit around that table. We usually have to steal a chair from somewhere else if everyone is home for dinner.
What was going through your mind when you heard Faith Hill singing on “Falter”?
It’s like how cello will draw an emotion out of you. I heard that song so many different ways, in so many different phases to get to the end result. The last thing they added was Faith’s voice. We were talking one day and I said, “Will you sing on one of the songs?” and she said, “Which one? Falter’?” I’m like, “That would be the one!” I have to listen in the minivan because my speakers at home aren’t that good. I’m in the minivan for an hour, listening over and over again. It’s one of those gifts I’ve been blessed with.
What did you do when you finished the song, “Leaving This Life”?
I co-wrote that song with Mark D. Sanders in his office in Nashville one day. He said, “Let’s write a song about your mom,” and I said, “I don’t want to do that. I’ve done that so many times and they never turn out good.” I love that song for a lot of reasons, but one of the reasons is because it is a good example of two people collaborating. I would never have gotten that song to where it is, and it probably would have never happened at all, if not for Mark pulling it out of me.
It’s hard for me to play it because it’s emotional. It was one of the first songs we cut in the studio because it was clear that everybody wanted me to put a version of that song down. Right away, I remember the players listening to the demo, and one of the players said, “We have to make this song sound like a movie.” They all went in there with me, not just hearing the song but hearing everything about the song. The track came out so great because of that.
What has surprised you the most about the Nashville music industry?
The thing that I love about Nashville is that everybody here is involved in music. I think I love it because I don’t live here. … I never want to miss an opportunity, and I think if you lived here, you’d go out and get coffee in the morning and you’d see somebody who’s a brilliant songwriter who you’re dying to write a song with. I think it would consume me more than I needed it to. For the most part, I am usually doing what my sister or what my friends are doing at home and playing my music when everything gets quiet.
So many of your songs are about living up to somebody’s expectations, and with five kids, you must know something about peer pressure. Do you think a person ever outgrows that need to fit in?
I think most people do, a little bit. My sister-in-law just turned 40 last year and she’s the youngest of five kids. I’m the youngest of six. I remember talking to her about her birthday and she said, “Are you kidding me? I can’t wait to turn 40! Because finally people will take me seriously and listen to me!” Like, “I am 40 years old! This is the way I feel about this!” … We get comfortable in our own skin. Our oldest son is 18, and there’s not a shy bone in his body until you put him in a situation where he’s not comfortable. It’s hard not to remember feeling that way at that age.
I think that most people, as they get older, they get meaner — but I think they get more honest! (laughs) And I’ve been the goof of my family my whole life. My sister is beautiful, but she’s so much more self-conscious than I am. I’m always, like, if I say something stupid, I apologize. I’m just used to making fun of myself, I guess.
What is it about your hometown that has stayed the same over the years?
Maybe it’s true everywhere, but for the most part, people kind of hang around. I didn’t go to college, and my girlfriends who were my best friends in high school still live in town. The police officers and fire department, I went to high school with half of them. The people are the same. It’s not a small town. It’s 29,000 people or so. It’s like a working-class town. We got an IKEA [retail store] a couple of years ago, so with the money we got for the taxes, they fixed the center and they started fixing stuff everywhere. So it looks nicer, but it’s still that in-between town. It’s not a rich town and it’s not a poor town.
Culturally, it has changed since I went to school when there were white kids and some black kids. Now we have a huge Portuguese population and a huge Greek population, and there’s a ton of every shape and color. Now that I’m older and the kids are in school, I love that about the town. You can go live in a really rich town closer to Boston and show up in a class and there’s all white kids there. One of my son’s best friends is named Angel and I love that! This boy is playing football and his mom is yelling out, “Aaaangel!” (laughs) It’s so cool. You don’t get that everywhere. People can judge it whatever way they want to, but in the end, I feel like it’s exactly where we need to be.