Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Telling compelling stories of people living everyday lives, Lori McKenna's songs have captured an audience drawn to both the comfort of familiarity and the search for the unusual. With no formal training, McKenna's sometimes rough and nasal voice brings an authenticity to her subject matter and entices her listeners.
Lori McKenna grew up as the youngest of six children in the blue-collar South Shore town of Stoughton, Massachusetts, 20 miles south of Boston. Her mother died of an illness when she was six years old, and McKenna dealt with the loss through writing poetry. Music was always a part of family gatherings, and she and her siblings grew up singing and informally playing instruments. By age 13, McKenna's poetry had transformed into songwriting. Bruce Springsteen, who also wrote and sang about regional life in the northeastern United States, was her hero. She married her high school sweetheart at age 19. Dropping out of community college when her first son was born, she worked as a receptionist and sold Tupperware. She continued her life as wife and mother, and enjoyed singing with friends and family.
In 1996, when she was 27, McKenna's sister-in-law, Andrea, dragged her to a local bar for her first open mike night. McKenna brought a Martin guitar she had borrowed from her brother. "My sister-in-law, Andrea, has a lot of guts and chutzpah, and she sort of put me in her minivan one night and drove me up there to try the open mike," she told Russell Hall in the bi-monthly publication No Depression. "I didn't think I had it in me," she told the Christian Science Monitor. "The audience could tell I was scared out of my mind." The club manager, Robert Haigh, followed her out after the performance and asked her to return. It wasn't long before he had asked her to open on a regular basis for folk musician Tom Rush.
Relationships with people at the club led her to make her own CD. In 1998 she released Paper Wings & Halos on Gyrox Records, produced with Seth Connelly. The album quickly sold 10,000 copies. McKenna was surprised. "I never thought I'd ever make a CD in a million years, and all of a sudden I had one. It was THAT easy," she told the Boston Herald in 2001. That year WUMB, a Boston-based folk radio station, named McKenna its best artist, and the Boston Globe honored her album in their year-end top picks. She won the Boston Music Award in 1999, performed at the Newport Folk Festival, and then won the grand prize at the "Lilith Fair Talent Search" at the Karma Club, which got her an opening slot on the Lilith Fair tour. She got the opportunity to open for some big name artists, including Richard Thompson, Kasey Chambers, John Mayer, Nickel Creek, and Suzanne Vega.
McKenna signed to Signature Sounds in 2001, and released the roots-pop album Pieces of Me on the Catalyst Disc label. In 2001 she won the prestigious American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) Sammy Cahn Award. In March of that year she sold out the 900-seat Somerville Theater in Massachusetts. Soon she was traveling to concerts outside of the Northeast, with shows in Tampa, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee. Her music became known internationally when her song "Fireflies" became a listener favorite in England on BBC2.
As her audience continued to grow, so did her family. In August of 2001 she gave birth to her fourth child. McKenna considered her primary role to be that of wife and mother, although she did occasionally run into scheduling conflicts. Her husband, Gene, works for a utility company. For McKenna, career and family are something that can work together. "I know now it can work. Everyone's behind me: my husband, my family. My mom and step dad are right down the street when I need them," she told the Boston Herald. McKenna doesn't live the glamorous life of a rock star. She and her husband live in a modest house down the street from the house she grew up in. She drives a minivan that also doubles as her tour bus.
In 2003 she released The Kitchen Tapes, a compilation of ten songs she recorded on her mini-disc at the kitchen table one afternoon with an inexpensive microphone. The songs were initially taped just to keep some songs in her memory, and were originally only available through the Internet. "They are demos. … Some were written on the spot," she told the Christian Science Monitor. "But they have this presence to them that…you couldn't get [in the studio]."
McKenna writes music at home, in between her household chores. "I find songwriting relaxing," she told the Christian Science Monitor. "It's like keeping a journal or making a scrapbook." She doesn't write the songs down until they are completed. "The ones that stay in my head for days are the ones that work."
Her fifth child was born in April of 2004. Bittertown, produced by Lorne Entress, was released in May. One of the songs, "Bible Song," had harmony added by a hero of McKenna's, Buddy Miller. "I don't know how they did this technically, but the song was e-mailed to Buddy, he recorded it, and then he e-mailed it back to Lorne," she told the Boston Herald. "The album is based on that whole thing of growing up, going to high school, and staying where you are," she stated on her website. "The songs are all about living in this town, knowing everybody that lives here with you, and not necessarily having to get away to discover yourself." This hypothesis is clear in the song "One Man," where she sings, "One man, one town is all I need. A simple plan to guide me through this simple life I lead."
USA Today reflected, "Like Patty Griffin, Maria McKee and numerous other gifted but modest-selling female singer/songwriters, McKenna folds folk, rock and country textures into wistful and wry reflections on heart-ache and faith."
Paper Wings & Halos, Gyrox, 1998.
Pieces of Me, Catalyst Disc, 2001.
The Kitchen Tapes, Signature Sounds, 2003.
Bittertown, Signature Sounds, 2004.
For the Record …
Born c. 1969; grew up in Stoughton, MA; married, husband's name Gene; children: five. Education: Attended community college.
Sang at her first open mike night, 1996; released Paper Wings & Halos, 1996; toured with Lilith Fair, 1999; signed with Signature Sounds, 2001; released Pieces of Me, 2001; The Kitchen Tapes, 2003; Bittertown, 2004.
Awards: Named Best Artist by Boston radio station WUMB, 1998; Grand Prize, "Lilith Fair Talent Search" at the Karma Club, 1999; Boston Music Awards, 1999, 2004; ASCAP Sammy Cahn Award, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Signature Sounds, P.O. Box 106, Whately, MA 01093, phone: (413) 665-4036. Website—Lori McKenna Official Website: http://www.lorimckenna.com.
Boston Herald, May 4, 1999; December 7, 2001; April 16, 2004
Christian Science Monitor, August 16, 2002.
No Depression, June 1, 2004.
USA Today, September 6, 2004.
Lori McKenna Official Website, http://www.lorimckenna.com (March 26, 2005.)
Additional information was provided by Lori McKenna's record company, Signature Sounds.
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