On 'This Close,' Lori McKenna Draws Inspiration From Family

Oct 14, 2020
Originally published on October 14, 2020 8:07 am

The Morning Edition Song Project, in which musicians compose an original song about the COVID-19 era, returns this week with country singer-songwriter Lori McKenna. A Nashville writer for hire and solo artist in her own right, McKenna has been spending the year doing songwriting sessions over Zoom from the basement of her family's Boston home.

"When I first started writing as a teenager, people said, 'You got to write what you know,' and I figured well this is what I know," McKenna says. "I know how to be in a family."

McKenna's five children, aged 16 to 30, continue to inspire her music. Two of her kids are in school, two are musicians and another works as an EMT. Living in her own pandemic "bubble," McKenna says she now watches the news through her children's perspective.

"I tend to wake up really positive." she says. "And then you turn on the news, and you get down. Someone calls with some more loss that they've experienced And in between, I'm writing country songs, or a song about a truck. So there's these crazy highs and lows."

David Greene spoke McKenna about providing parental wisdom during a pandemic and creating her new song "This Close" with her family. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


David Greene: I know when we started talking to you, you were thinking about writing a song that conveyed some kind of parental wisdom about the pandemic. But it sounds like at some point you sort of shifted gears. I wonder, can you take me into your thought process as the song was coming together in your mind — what the journey was and where you landed?

Lori McKenna: Originally when it started I thought, well, the way that my brain normally works is this mother voice — and watching these kids, what would I say to them in all this? I assumed it would be more humble and kind, in that way [of], "Here's a list of things I want you to know." And I guess in some ways, this song has a little bit of that. But once I got in there, I realized that what I kept telling my kids was, sometimes we just need the bottom in order for us to see as clearly as we're going to see. There is a lot of hope in some of those lines, at least in my head. But there's also the "Well, we have to do the work too."

If we do the work you're talking about, and we get "this close," what are we getting close to?

We're getting this close to understanding and seeing [that] we're all so much more alike than we are different. You know, the world isn't just our life. The world isn't just our family. The world is this big wonderful place, and we can get so much out of it if we just understand that we're all just here to love each other. How can we do that even better?

I believe that people are fundamentally good, and I just think maybe we've just been a little bit sidetracked with the negativity. This is a time for us to all sit back in it and realize that we don't want to move forward that way. We want to move forward in a more loving and positive way.

The recording of this song was a family affair, right?

Yes, two of my kids are songwriters. My son Christopher produced this; my son Brian, my older son, he's singing and playing, I think, some guitar. I sent it off to them once it was done and this is what they came back with.

I know you said you write a lot of songs as a mom and from a place of parental advice, and you originally took this in a different direction. But I just imagine you with your kids and family and thinking about the pandemic together — I mean, this kind of feels like parental wisdom.

Well, I guess you're right [laughs]. Now that we're discussing this, I don't think I stray too far from that in my experience as a songwriter lately. Maybe it's a little bit more grown up than I expected it would be, as far as lyrically, but my kids are grown up so it does make sense. Watching them sort of interpret all this is ... I always say this, but my kids continue to teach me more than I teach them. And in that way, I guess it still is there in the song.

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DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Let's get back to the MORNING EDITION Song Project. It's the series where we ask musicians to write an original song about the COVID era. Today, we're going to hear from an artist whose work is familiar to country fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUMBLE AND KIND")

TIM MCGRAW: (Singing) Hold the door. Say please. Say thank you. Don't steal, don't cheat and don't lie. I know you got mountains to climb, but always stay humble and kind.

GREENE: We didn't talk to Tim McGraw who is singing here. We talked to the songwriter behind this and many other country hits. Her name is Lori McKenna. She's a Nashville writer for hire and also a solo artist in her own right. She cranks out the tunes from her home in Boston.

LORI MCKENNA: When I first started writing as a teenager, people said, you got to write what you know. And I figured, well, this is what I know. I know how to be in a family (laughter).

GREENE: And family continues to inspire her, especially since the pandemic.

MCKENNA: You know, I've just been in the basement here (laughter) writing songs over Zoom every day. And I really live in a bubble, you know, even more so than normal. So I'm watching a lot of this through my kids, through their perception of it all.

GREENE: She has five kids aged 16 to 30 - two are in school, two are musicians, another works as an EMT on the front lines of the pandemic.

MCKENNA: I just have this vivid memory of us at Easter, like, standing in the driveway and him being like, don't come near me.

GREENE: It's been a lot.

MCKENNA: I tend to wake up, you know, like, sort of really positive. And then you turn on the news, and then you get down. And then someone calls with some more loss that they've experienced. And in between, I'm writing, like, country songs or something (laughter), like a song about, like, a truck or something in between. So there's these crazy highs and lows.

GREENE: Lori tries to make sense of it all in the song that she wrote for us. It is called "This Close."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS CLOSE")

MCKENNA: (Singing) Maybe we needed the quiet. Maybe we needed the space. Maybe we're flying too close to the sun, we need to come back down to the waves.

GREENE: Well, I know when we started talking to you, you were thinking, you know, maybe about writing a song that conveyed some kind of parental wisdom about the pandemic. But it sounds like, at some point, you sort of shifted gears. And I wonder, can you take me into your thought process, like, as this song was coming together in your mind, like what the journey was and where you landed?

MCKENNA: Yes. I mean, originally, when it started, I thought, well, the way that my brain normally works is this mother voice, you know, and watching these kids and what would I say to them in all this. And I assumed it would be more, I guess, humble and kind in that way that, you know, here's a list of things I want you to know. And I guess, in some ways, this song has a little bit of that. But it was more once I got in there, I realized that what I kept telling my kids was sometimes we just need the bottom in order for us to see as clearly as we're going to see.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS CLOSE")

MCKENNA: (Singing) Maybe it takes every heartache, maybe it takes every ghost to get this close.

There is a lot of hope in some of those lines, at least in my head. But there's also the, well, we have to do the work, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS CLOSE")

MCKENNA: (Singing) We've been deep inside of this slumber - dreamless and reachless (ph) and cold - wrapping ourselves in the knowing without really knowing a damn thing at all.

GREENE: Well, if we do the work you're talking about and we get this close, what are we getting this close to?

MCKENNA: Well, I wish that we're getting this close to understanding and seeing we're all so much more alike than we are different. You know, the world isn't just our life. The world isn't just our family. The world is this big, wonderful place. And we can get so much out of it if we just understand that we're all just here to love each other. And how can we do that even better?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS CLOSE")

MCKENNA: (Singing) This close to salvation, it's taken an undertow. This close to the promise born in the human soul, born in us all, born in us all.

GREENE: Lori McKenna says she's not exactly a religious person. But she found a kind of faith as she wrote this song surrounded by her grown children at a lake house over the summer.

MCKENNA: They're all at an age where they're figuring out what kind of adult humans they're going to be. I can't look at that and think it's all negative. There's just no way that's possible. I think - I believe we are good people. I believe that people are fundamentally good people. And I just think maybe we've been a little bit sidetracked with the negativity. And this is a time for us to all sit back in it and realize that we don't want to move forward that way. We want to move forward in a more loving and positive way.

GREENE: Wasn't this song a family affair? I mean, your kids are on it. We hear them - right? - in this song.

MCKENNA: Yes. You know, two of my kids are songwriters. And my son Christopher produced this. And my son Brian, my older son, he's singing and, I think, playing some guitar. So it's - I sent it off to them once it was done. And this is what they came back with.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS CLOSE")

MCKENNA: (Singing) Maybe we'll meet at the bottom. Maybe we'll meet at the end of the road, hearts on our sleeves, our spirits all freed, once we see past the end of our nose.

GREENE: Well, I know you said that, originally, you know, you write a lot of songs as a mom and parental advice and you sort of took this in a different direction. But, I mean, I just imagine you with your kids and the family and thinking about the pandemic together. And, I mean, this kind of feels like parental wisdom.

MCKENNA: Well, I guess you're (laughter) right. Now that we're discussing this, I don't think I stray too far from that (laughter) in my experience as a songwriter lately. Maybe it's a little bit more grown up than I expected it would be, as far as lyrically. But my kids are grown up, so it does make sense. And watching them sort of interpret all this is - I always say this, but my kids continue to teach me more than I teach them. And in that way, I guess it is still there in the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS CLOSE")

MCKENNA: (Singing) I know we're not there yet. God knows we got a long way to go.

GREENE: Well, listen; thank you so much for bringing us this song and for spending a little time with us. We really appreciate it.

MCKENNA: Well, thank you, guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS CLOSE")

MCKENNA: (Singing) We got a long way to go.

GREENE: That's Lori McKenna with her song for the MORNING EDITION Song Project. It is called "This Close." And you can hear the full song if you go to our webpage, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.