The first time I heard singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, it was 1998 and I had bought a double CD called “Respond,” a compilation by Boston women to benefit Respond, Inc., a domestic violence agency. I picked it up because it included favorites like Melissa Ferrick, Juliana Hatfield and Kris Delmhorst.
Lori McKenna was a new name to me. But her contribution to the compilation, called “Fireflies,” struck me hard. It remains a favorite: “And before you knew me, I traveled ’round the world/And I slept in castles and fell in love/Because I was taught to dream.”
Fast-forward to today and McKenna, 45, is a nationally touring artist who just released her seventh album, “Numbered Doors.” She secured a publishing deal a number of years ago, and country stars Tim McGraw, Hunter Hayes and Faith Hill have recorded her songs. In fact, Hill covered McKenna’s “Fireflies” and named her 2005 album after the song. I still prefer McKenna’s original. Her voice has a gravitational pull that draws me in and keeps me there as she tells her stories, creates her characters and lets me into her world of outstanding song-crafting.
“Numbered Doors” is no exception. Take “Stranger in His Kiss”: “There’s a stranger in his kiss, tastes like made up stories, stolen moments and cigarettes.” Ouch. The album’s opening track packs another stinging punch. “I could have dug out the Grand Canyon with a spoon, with all the time I’ve wasted on you.” Bitter? Yes. But also, a gorgeous song.
McKenna calls Stoughton, Massachusetts, home. She’s a mother to five children ages 10 to 25. Her two oldest sons are in a band together.
Sometimes other songwriters come to Massachusetts to work with her, but McKenna travels about once a month to Nashville, where she is part of the Universal Music Publishing Group. In a phone interview from her home, she talked about how a song moves from the writing process to a mega star’s album.
“The label has people that listen for the artist,” she said. “So they’ll go to pitch meetings. The publishers play them songs that they think they’re looking for, and then the label has a person who looks for the artist.” If the label’s representative likes a song, then it’s time for the artist to say yes or no.
Often though, McKenna said, it happens another way. “Most of the time, you send in the song, you say, ‘Hey, I just wrote this song today. It’s about my cat. I hope you like it.’ Then, they’ll call back and say, ‘This is kind of cool for so and so,’ and then they’ll run with it and pitch it. There are a lot of people involved to make it happen.
“Now that I know the business a little but more – which I’m not going to tell you I know the business because I don’t know it the way some songwriters do – but now that I understand a little bit the way it works, it’s absolutely mind-blowingly crazy that Faith Hill cut any of my songs, never mind four of them.”
McKenna said some of the ideas for “Numbered Doors” songs were conceived in motel rooms while on the road touring.
“I don’t know if anything was actually written in a motel room as much as sort of inspired by the time we spend in those rooms,” she said. “I know that it’s maybe a little cliché for a songwriter to be talking about motel rooms but it’s just how it is. Motel rooms are like old creepy houses. What were the stories that went on here?”
I told McKenna how her voice has a kind of “catch” in it that always kills me … in a good way. But she said she still has trouble considering herself a singer. “At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade it for a voice that was less distinctive, but I wish my own voice was a little bigger at times.”
Writing as part of the Nashville scene is difficult. There’s a lot of competition, and writers often end up crafting songs with a small group of well-established and up-and-coming artists in mind.
“But I’m lucky in the way that I’ve always been an artist myself, so if I write a song today or tomorrow that nobody else in the world is going to like but me I still have this way to express it,” she said. “I can play in a room and a hundred people might show up and they’re going to listen to me and I can still put out a record and maybe a thousand people will buy it, but it’s still like that part of the ‘I made something, I need you to see it.’ To just be a writer that doesn’t perform their songs, I think it’s harder to be in that. Part of what we do – we need to show somebody. I don’t know why, but we need to.”
I, for one, am sure glad McKenna does what she does. See and hear for yourself on Sunday night in Portland.
Lori McKenna. 7:30 p.m. Sunday. One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., Portland. $23 in advance, $28 day of show; onelongfellowsquare.com