The things Lori McKenna sings about are timeless. Recorded formats aren't. We've been able to offer each Song of the Week as a free download, but Warner Brothers—the major label that released McKenna's 2007 album, Unglamorous—balked at the idea, as well as a stream of an alternate version of the album's title track from a 2007 EP, Unplugged at Studio 330. But we've decided not to discount what's still a great song, even though the approved Warner Brothers version above suffers from thin drums and producer Tim McGraw's big studio work.
That said, perhaps, I can convince you to purchase the "unplugged" version of the song, which doesn't sound so buffed and oversized. It trades the ostentatious treatment for a simple direction that's much more appropriate for a song titled "Unglamorous." It's a straightforward tune that epitomizes what McKenna does best—emanate genuineness. Her backstory says as much. She's married to a plumber, who she knew since third grade, and—with five kids—they live within miles of the house where she was raised.
That life is the very cloth of her work: In the song, she reminds us of the bathtub stains behind the veneer of success. She hails that familial gastronomical glue, peanut butter, and offers an image of "crowded dinners at the kitchen table." While it may be unglamorous, it's a helluva Norman Rockwell moment, which might seem hokey in less authentic hands.
Indeed, though five kids may be a lot, she nails the allure in five words that say so much more: "with eyes just like mine." Her simplicity and repetition reinforces a "no frills, no fuss" subtext that implies that this is what it's all about—the snapshots of togetherness, "old worn socks on a bedroom floor."
McKenna's unpretentious, homespun sentiments aren't a hard sell as folk-country crossover, as has happened with Unglamorous. In fact, she's preparing to go out with Trisha Yearwood in another day, though she readily admits she's more of a "homebody": "I'm all about how late can I leave, and how soon can I get home."
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How do you know Liz Rose, and how did the two of you write "Unglamorous"?
LORI MCKENNA: I know Liz from my publisher. Publishers love co-writes for some reason. I'm not exactly sure why. But they really try to inspire people to write together. So Liz is one of the first people that I wrote with. She's a lyricist that lives out in Nashville and we just hit it off. She's one of my favorite people to write with, and she's inspirational. She comes up here to my house, spends theee or four days here, and we just write song after song. Some of them kind of suck. [Laughs.] That's just us being full of ourselves and giddy. But for the most part, if I could only write with one person in the world, it would probably be Liz.
The song was her idea, not mine. We had spent the day here at my house in Stoughton [a Massachusetts small town 30 minutes south of Boston] writing, and she was staying at the Stoughton Hotel, down the street. I would bring her back to the hotel at the end of the day. We'd have dinner or something. So I brought her back at the end of the day, and she was having a beer at the bar or something to eat, I forget, and she had been there for a couple days and I guess it's kind of unusual for a woman with a southern accent to be hanging around Stoughton for that long. [Laughs.] A waitress or someone who works at the hotel asked her what she was doing here in town, and she said, "I'm a writer and I'm here writing with someone that lives in town, and she's, "Ohmigod, Lori Mckenna?" and Liz was like, "Yeah." It was right after the Oprah show aired, so it was from the conversation she had with this waitress. She'd seen me on Oprah and figured I was probably very well put together, I lived in a nice house and my life was all figured out. Liz called me afterwards and said, "We have to write a song about the way you really are because people's perceptions are completely wrong." She said, "We'll talk about the house and how it's a mess and the kids throw food at us," and all this stuff. I said OK, and she said, "I think it should be called, Unglamorous.'" [Laughs.] So that's what we did when she showed up the next day. I went and picked her up and we wrote that song. It was really fun.
In the song you mention one TV and no cable. Was this a child-rearing decision of some sort to limit their TV exposure?
At the time, we lived up the street. We moved this past march, so we're in a newer house that we actually fit in. But at the time I was living at the end of this dead-end road, off the main route that goes through Stoughton, Route 27. We have five kids and the house we moved from—we lived there 17 years—was basically almost 1,500 square feet. So it was a very small house for 7 people. It's a very old house, a lovely house. My husband didn't want to leave. We had basic cable, like the TV you got when you plugged the TV in.
We moved into this new house with three teenage boys, part of the deal was I do have cable now. But at the time when we wrote the song I did not .
The other house, there wasn't anywhere else to go. There's no TVs allowed in the bedrooms in the house. That's just my husband's rule. He doesn't think it's proper. The house was so small. The second floor were the bedrooms and the first floor was the kitchen, dining room and living room. So we only needed one TV because we were in the same room all the time.
It's funny because I had this thing where I was sort of resentful of cable for a long time. I kept telling my kids, "TV was free when I was a kid. I don't know how they tricked us into paying for it." Then when satellite radio came along, I had the same campaign going: "Radio is free. What are we paying for radio for?" Then I was given XM as a gift, and I can't live without it now. [Laughs.] So now not only am I paying for my TV, but the radio as well. [Laughs.]
Do you still primarily keep your song fragments in your head?
I've been co-writing a lot more, especially over the last year because I've been touring more and I've been around a lot of other songwriters. Like, "It'd be fun to sit in my hotel room and write a song, but it'd be better to go sit somewhere else and work with somebody else." So I've been co-writing a lot more, but really, for me, the things that draw me to any kind of songs are songs that I can identify with a piece of it, and most of that revolves around domestic things so for me. I don't think it will be anytime soon that I'll be writing songs about things that you can't figure out, or these complex melodies, and too poetic of verses, where you're like, "I wonder what she's saying." I like songs that are easy to identify with and easy to figure out. I don't like too much of a mystery going on there.
The idea of working on a song in your head is appealing in that I would imagine a melody would have to be strong to stick with you, so it's like a self-weeding process.
I think I'm paranoid about writing ideas down because then they never do make it. Maybe the best song I wrote last year, called "Make Every Word Hurt," which I have not cut, but I play it at shows a lot and people always ask me about it, and they always ask me to play it. I refused to write it down when I had the idea. I literally walked around with it for weeks and weeks. I would remind myself, it could be about this, or about that.
It's funny because other things I do write down, like "this will be good for a co-write with Liz or my friend Mark Erelli," I'll write those things down, and then I'll read it back to them later on, and I'll be, "What the heck did I write that down for, it's so stupid. When did I think that was a good idea?" [Laughs.] So I think I'm a little paranoid about the writing down of things. Of course, once I'm writing the song, I have to write it down. I'm sort of a visual learner, and while I'm writing the song, I write everything down.
I've said this before, but my kids sometimes remind me of melodies. I fool around with a melody and put the guitar down and forget it, and the next day one of the kids would be singing it. That's happened to me several times. Then when we were on tour last summer, my oldest son Brian was with us. He's 18. Mark Erelli, my guitar player and friend, would rehearse everyday in the showers—we were in these like hockey arenas. Mark [pronounced "Mach"] would be in the big showers rehearsing and he would write, and we could hear him because the showers would echo. So he had this melody that he started one day, and totally forgot about it and a couple days later my son Brian asked him about it, and sang it back to him. Mark ended up finishing the song. It's called "Once." It's a brilliant song, and he's like, "I have to thank Brian for reminding me of that old tune because I almost forgot it."
You've said that you might not have become a performer when you were 27, if not for your kids. How come?
They gave me a lot of courage, would probably be the easiest way to say it. I didn't have that desire as a 20-year-old, like a lot of songwriters do, to sort of inflict my music on other people. [Laughs.] And I don't know if I ever would've if I didn't have my kids so young. So then when I started, I had the first 3 of them, and it was really like, "Well, this isn't going to make or break me because I have these things." And I think that a lot of people pursue their music, and then kids come or they don't come, and they come later in life, and that's how it should work for a lot of people. But for me, I don't know if the two things would work as well for me if they'd come in different order. I'm happy the kids came along first because I don't know if the music ever would've found its way out otherwise.
It obviously informs much of your work, themes of family and domesticity.
I don't really know what else I would've written about. I'm sure I wrote songs as a teenager, and I'm sure I thought I had things to say, but even if a song isn't about your kids, which most of them are, a lot of times they spark ideas in your head. It's like you can love your partner or your spouse with every piece of your heart, you can really love that person. But your kids, it's a different love. It's a ferocious love. You can understand how people lift cars off babies. It's just a different thing, and then you can take that and apply it to other things, to other characters that you invent while you're writing a song.
What was your family life like as the youngest of 6?
I think when you're a kid you think that whatever you're experiencing is normal and everyone else is strange. [Laughs.] Then you grow up and you're like, "Wow, we were crazy." But I think that we were about as normal as it gets. We were a really traditional family, other than my mom not being there cooking in the kitchen every day, because she wasn't there. [She died when Lori was young.]
Really, my father kept things very normal and loving. My brothers would come home from school and cook dinner, or he would cook dinner, and we ate dinner together every night, and we all had our chores. I had a very good childhood. A very Irish-Catholic neighborhood with a ton of kids and stuff like that. So I feel like in some ways my career is a bit non-conventional but really I think we live in a great little family neighborhood now, and my kids are out in the street every day with the neighbors kids. We drive each other's kids to school each day. So I think that even though I might not be home 3 days this week, we do have a very conventional family, for nowadays standards anyway. I think that anyway though my kids will probably talk about how crazy it all was.
Lori McKenna performs with Mark Erellie at The ArtsCenter Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 8:30 p.m as part of the American Roots Series. Tickets are $24.