The Balladeer

Lori McKenna

The Balladeer

“I keep saying, ‘Oh, my next record would be less personal,’ but they just get more and more personal,” Lori McKenna tells Apple Music. Now two decades into her career, she long ago went from being a fixture on the coffeehouse circuit in the northeast to a celebrated contemporary folk artist and coveted collaborator to Nashville songcrafters, many of whom make the pilgrimage to her small-town Massachusetts home seeking wisdom. Despite the sprawling list of co-writers she’s accumulated, McKenna’s latest Dave Cobb-produced album is made up mostly of songs she wrote on her own, along with a few she completed with the kindred spirits in her inner circle, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey. Those two and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman are McKenna’s only featured guests. “I just pulled in my closest women confidants,” she explains. McKenna goes through each song on The Balladeer here.
This Town Is a Woman (feat. Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman) “This song started with a conversation I had with Dave Cobb about women singer-songwriters. I was driving my daughter to school one day. I realize if storms and ships can be named after women, surely if a town had a gender it would be a woman. I couldn't wait to get home and try to start picking up the song. I'm a townie. I have lived in my town my whole life. The way that a town will build you up and then set you off, I think they're like proud mothers. They want you to become what you need to become and they set you free, and then they're just sitting there waiting for you, if you need them, to come back to and find your younger self. But we also blame them when things don't go well, which falls into that parent trap as well. I have worked so much with Karen and Kimberly, I was like, ‘What if we can get Karen and Kimberly to sing on this song?’ To me, they are the voices of what I feel a hometown heart and soul would sound like.”
The Balladeer “That song started out as the title. We've all heard that name, the balladeer, so many times over the years, but it just hit me one day, and I thought, ‘Oh, I'm a balladeer. I love ballads. Those are my favorite.’ I think really quickly when I started in on it, I knew [the protagonist] had to be way more interesting than me. Character-driven songs are so fun to write, because they literally reveal themselves to you, and you almost have no control over where the song's going if you really sit in it. You have to follow the character. You start to see them in your head and they'll tell you what the story is. I loved the way she had all this guard up, and she was so protective of herself and her pain, and then she falls in love and that's washed away. She finds more of herself in that love, which ultimately maybe doesn't carry her through her whole life, but she got a piece of herself in it. Maybe she goes back to writing her ballads again by the end, but she's won something in that love and loss.”
Marie “I have four brothers and a sister, and my sister's Marie. They raised me. When my sister and I shared a room still, we had this little painting. It's actually baby Jesus, and he's wearing this golden crown, and I don't know where it came from. It probably came from a yard sale or a church bazaar or one of those things. I was just staring at it one day, remembering that I had carried it all through my childhood, and now my adulthood, and thinking about Marie, and what I would have done without her. My siblings have been a huge part of my life. When I sat down to write it, I just figured, ‘Oh, I'll write Marie a song.’ Once you start digging up those memories, those pieces of things that you remember sharing together with a sibling, it was kind of hard, but kind of beautiful. I see it all in a loving way, because my family is so tight-knit, and Marie and I are so close now. She was a real trooper about that song, too, because I sent it to her. She was really good about it, because she doesn't like any attention.”
The Dream “I think it's easy to look in your kid's eyes and one day think, ‘I wish you’d met so-and-so.’ It's got to be genetics, but it's almost an accident that they'll have the same sense of humor, or the way they stand, or the way they hold themselves, as somebody that's passed on that they didn't even know. They didn't watch that person. So how do they know to have that crooked posture? There was a lot of thought about my father-in-law, because my three oldest were born but they were very small when he passed away. I have sort of a childhood perspective of heaven and death, because my mom died when I was little. I think of [deceased loved ones] as these heavenly helpers that are watching over you. I think that's what they told me when I was a kid, and I'm holding on to it for dear life.”
Uphill “To me, it's a friend telling a friend, ‘I know that you're going through something really hard, and it's your instinct to retreat and handle it on your own, but I'm here. I might not know what to say. I might not know what to do. I surely might not be able to fix it, but I am with you.’ People are unique in the way they handle their problems. I had a friend last summer that was going through something, and she would disappear. So this was my way of trying to pull her out and say, ‘I won't even pretend to have the answers, but I can sit on the phone with you while you cry, or whatever you need.’ It really started that simply.”
Good Fight “I actually think that it's easier to write about the tricky things in a relationship than the beginning, the falling in love, all the beautiful things. Those are way harder to write, because they've been written about so many times and so well. The other issue is I fell in love with my husband when I was 16. It's harder for me to go that far back or even imagine it as much as the tricky stuff that makes you realize, ‘Oh my god, I do freaking love you. We just went through this together.’ This song started because my husband works for the gas company, and he called one day and said, ‘Hey, I'm going to work some overtime today.’ And I said to him, ‘Still working overtime after all these years.’ It's like the fighter in all of us. What are you willing to fight for? Are you willing to still be working overtime 32 years into a company, and 33 years into a marriage?”
Stuck in High School “I have all those siblings, and my father keeps all of our high school graduation photos on a wall in his living room, in order, which is so funny. The day I started to write this, I was just wondering what I owe that kid. Did I make her proud? Is she disappointed? Would she even believe what happened between then and now? And the song is really just a reflection, the idea of looking back on her, or all of us looking back on who we were when we were that age. You're growing up and leaving your family, or finding a job, or going to college, and doing all these amazing things—that first step in your life as an adult. It's like you're carrying around your younger self. We're all carrying around a bit of our younger self.”
When You’re My Age (feat. Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose) “That song, strangely enough, started with David Letterman, because he was interviewing Howard Stern, and they were talking about the state of the world today, and he says, ‘My son is 14 years old. What's the world going to be like when he's my age?’ It just struck me. All I could think of was my kids, when they're my age: What world are we handing them, and what do I need them to know about the world that they're all stepping into? I tried for a month and a half to write that song on my own. I couldn't wrap my head around where to go. I brought it to Liz and Hillary, and I knew that they would get it. Liz is a grandma now, and Hillary has a toddler, and we all found ourselves in that song somehow. It was a great journey to have with the two of them.”
Two Birds “This is the one song that kind of reflects back to ‘The Balladeer’ for me. This whole cheating thing: Can we be true to one person always? And can we really, really give 100% of ourselves to someone unless we know that's a possibility or not? I think it was just another way to write a cheating song. It started with the title. I know I've used the bird metaphor a couple of other times, but I just can't help myself. We wrote this one day, Liz and Hillary and I, sitting on the floor in Hillary's living room. It was, believe it or not, a fun song to write.”
Till You’re Grown “My kids all went to the same high school that I did. One day my daughter Meghan came home and said, ‘I can't stand the B2 hallway.’ And the B2 hallway is the main hallway that I can remember standing in myself. I remember what it smelled like. It just hit me: ‘You have no idea how fast this is going to go. You want to rush through, but if any kid had the ability to see themselves at my age and go back, they would take this in a little slower.’ It's a shame that you don't know how fast it goes until you're grown.”

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