Lori McKenna’s life used to include arena concerts, radio tours and appearances with Faith Hill on Oprah. Those heady major-label days are in the past, but otherwise life is much the same. McKenna still writes songs at home — in an office, not at the kitchen table — and flies to Nashville every few weeks to work with other songwriters.
If anything, she’s busier.
“I’m a little bit more organized with it now,” McKenna said. “I have it down to a science — flying down, getting myself around town. I’m going down more now, but it’s easier because I’m almost always familiar with who I’m writing with. I’ve done so much co-writing over the last two years that I’ve sort of found a home there.”
McKenna’s hardscrabble tunes made her a lot of friends in Nashville. With the help of song publisher Melanie Howard, she placed songs with several country artists, including three on Hill’s 2005 release Fireflies. McKenna signed with Warner Brothers and made the Tim McGraw-produced Unglamorous in 2007. Sara Evans, Jimmy Wayne and Mandy Moore covered her songs, and she found collaborators all over Music City who wanted to write with her.
She parted ways with the label in 2008, and last year joined a new publishing house, Universal.
“Thank God – I ended up in the right hands and I just love it over there,” McKenna said. “I’ve been able to find in Universal a couple of other writers that I just really sort of click with … you get in a room with them and it’s always going to be something exciting.”
The collaborations have produced a few new songs. “How Romantic Is That?” is a sweetly autobiographical paean to married life, with an offbeat sentimentality similar to “I’m Not Crazy” from McKenna’s last album.
Anyone waiting for a shiny happy Lori McKenna to emerge may be disappointed, however.
“I still have trouble writing outright love songs but some of them have made their way in,” she said. “But the co-writing has been more Bittertown than Unglamorous, the darker side of things than the more hopeful stuff.”
McKenna started out in the late 1990s Boston/Cambridge folk club scene and made four independent albums before she signed a deal. The major label experience was a relative blip in her career, and she has no regrets. Some people understood her songs about the sometimes-aching loneliness of small-town life, and others didn’t — the radio division, for example. “I just really think they looked at me like, ‘What is this 40-year-old mother of five doing here? How did we end up with this one?’” she said.
It was an experiment destined to end. McKenna has always made music on her own terms, fitting a music career to her family, not the other way around. “I loved the woman that was in charge of me, they [Warner Brothers] were so good to me,” McKenna said. “But they don’t work the way someone like me needs to work.”
She continued, “I was never worried about putting records out. I felt like, if I was going to worry about selling a million or even 100,000 records I would just make myself crazy, and I knew it was never going to happen. I knew it was going to be a step forward for me, but I knew it was never going to be a money-maker for this major label.”
The best part of the experience was the chance to meet and work with musicians she now counts as friends.
“I wouldn’t change a thing — well, I might change the radio,” she said with a laugh. “That was the only hell part. Everything else was such a blessing, but country radio is such a strange little thing and it wasn’t where I belonged.”
In 2009 McKenna performed a handful of solo shows, a relatively new feeling after years of touring with a band behind her.
“I get really comfortable looking to my left and knowing that Mark Erelli is there and will save me when my next mistake comes up,” she said. “But it’s almost impossible to tour with a band nowadays and make money.”
McKenna also felt the need to perform alone because, she said, “I didn’t want to forget how to do a solo show. It wasn’t that I was afraid I’d forget, but I was aware that I could if I wasn’t careful.”
This summer, she’ll participate for the first time in the “Vacation with a Folkie” weekend at the West Mountain Inn in Arlington, Vt. She expects the three-day house concert, which she’s doing with Mark Erelli and Tracy Grammer, to be a bracing experience.
“It’s almost the scariest part of it all. There is so much fear for me playing in a room of 20 people sitting right in front of you than playing in a big room with people when you can’t even see the audience,” she said. “If you’re going to try to mail it in, if you’re completely honest, then they’re going to know it and that’s really what it’s all about.”