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Lori McKenna stays true to indie roots

Fans who’ve followed Lori McKenna since she was performing in small cafes, selling self-released CDs after a show, may have been a little nervous when the mainstream country establishment scooped her up.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fans who’ve followed Lori McKenna since she was performing in small cafes, selling self-released CDs after a show, may have been a little nervous when the mainstream country establishment scooped her up.

In mere months, McKenna went from a critically acclaimed but under-the-radar singer-songwriter to a protege of country superduo Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. After McKenna penned Hill’s hit “Stealing Kisses,” she signed a record deal on McGraw’s label, opened for the pair on their huge nationwide tour and even sat next to Hill on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as Winfrey gushed about McKenna’s talents.

But don’t worry about McKenna trying to Faith Hill-ify her music and sacrifice her intensely personal, emotional songwriting. With “Unglamorous,” released this month, the 38-year-old makes such a seamless transition even she jokes it has been too good to be true.

“I keep telling my kids, these things normally don’t happen ... it’s usually not this easy,” laughs McKenna.

But McKenna’s path to Nashville hasn’t followed the typical major-label debut trajectory. First off, she’s 38 years old — and not trying to hide it. She’s also the married mother of five children, ages 18 to 3.

And she still lives the life of a typical juggling mom, living outside of Boston and writing songs in between school dropoffs and cleaning up after kid mishaps.

McKenna wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m just one of those people, I’ve been so blessed to do what I do, and be able to have my focus still be on the things that I love, which are my kids, and my family and my husband and my songwriting.”

From hobby to full-time careerMcKenna has maintained this artful balance since 1998, when she put out her first album, “Paper Wings & Halo.” Though McKenna, the youngest of six kids, had been playing guitar since she was a teen and always had a passion for music, she didn’t start her career until after she became a mom. When “Paper Wings” was released, she had to borrow money from family and friends to get it released.

“Music was always one of those things that I sort of did on the side. I remember at first it was considered like, ‘Oh, it’s like a hobby for mom,’ because it’s something that would take me away from home, and I wouldn’t really make money on it,” says McKenna, whose husband is a plumber. “Then the next year, it was like, ‘Well, she’s making a little money, she helps with the grocery bills.”’

Soon, it was her second job, after being a stay-at-home mom. McKenna would load up her minivan and play gigs across the Northeast, often making it back home before the kids got up for school the next morning.

Her stature grew, especially regarding her songwriting, which is filled with strong characters, rich storytelling and haunting melodies.

“I definitely write from the perspective of my life — I live in the town I grew up in, I got married when I was 19, my husband and I have been married a long time and we have all these kids,” she says. “I’ve never really traveled a ton, I didn’t move away to college like a lot of my friends ... so I’ve definitely always written from a very domestic point of view.”

The best singer-songwriters can effortlessly relate those personal experiences to the masses. Friend and fellow songwriter Mary Gauthier felt McKenna’s music could be interpreted by others, so she shared them with her publisher.

The publisher “called me a few weeks later and said, ‘Faith Hill wants to hear everything you’ve ever written,”’ McKenna recalls.

Hill ended up choosing three McKenna songs for her 2005 album “Fireflies,” including the title track and the hit “Stealing Kisses,” which was also on McKenna’s 2004 album “Bittertown.”

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“I don’t remember ever being impacted by a songwriter the way I was with her. Her writing is masterful, with a pureness that is completely unaffected,” Hill said in a statement. “The songs are such a great combination of depth and realness. There’s just this indescribable collision of innocence and honesty in her writing.”

Producer Byron Gilmore, who along with McGraw runs Stylesonic Records in Nashville, says McKenna’s songwriting took them by surprise.

“The most successful writers in town were absolutely blown away by Lori,” he says. “To all of us, she came out of nowhere.”

Gilmore adds: “Her songwriting is just amazing, but on top of that, her vocals ... She had a fire in them that you don’t get out of a lot of people.”

No pressure from record labelSo when it came down to signing McKenna, McGraw and Gilmore — who produced her debut — wanted to make sure that fire wasn’t extinguished. To that end, there was no push for glossy hits or attempts to tweak McKenna’s image.

“The focus was always from the very beginning on the songs and the songs coming through and not sort of, ‘Let’s make this commercial, or let’s make this one radio friendly,”’ says McKenna.

And Gilmore says from a marketing perspective, it may help that McKenna is a mom: he says females tend to relate to her songs, and in addition, her life experience gives her more depth.

“Maybe she’s not 21 years old,” he says. “But you don’t get those kinds of songs out of 21 year olds.”

Though her new label has taken her back and forth to Nashville with regularity, McKenna doesn’t see herself as a country artist, at least in the traditional sense: “I don’t worry too much about the labels, I think I fit into Nashville because Nashville’s a town that appreciates songwriters.”

To that end, she considers herself lucky that her path led her to Nashville, and Hill and McGraw, because they gave her a mainstream dream without sacrificing what is most important:

“I’ve just been blessed to be able to combine those things, the songwriting and the kids, in a way that I can take the kids along with me for the ride.”