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The faithful songbird

Lori McKenna's in-demand tunes of everyday drama have taken her from the kitchen to CD success.

August 12, 2007|Holly Gleason | Special to The Times

Lori McKENNA wasn't all that different from any housewife with five kids -- except for the four critically acclaimed indie records she'd released -- when country superstar Faith Hill decided to record five of McKenna's songs on her 2005 album, "Fireflies," including the single "Stealin' Kisses" and the title track. For the Staunton, Mass., singer-songwriter who had married her high school sweetheart at 19 and lived in the same house ever since, it was surreal.

It didn't stop there.

Suddenly, the woman who'd never performed in public until she was 27 and wouldn't take gigs that would keep her from getting home the same night had a deal with leading music publisher Harlan Howard Songs; was being courted by Nashville's biggest songwriters to collaborate; and watched Warner Bros. Nashville, in tandem with StyleSonic Records, buy out her record deal from tiny Cambridge-based Signature Sounds. As if that wasn't enough, McKenna was swept off to Chicago to appear on "Oprah" with Hill, who championed the petite brunet's songs.

"The thing about 'Bittertown,' " McKenna concedes of her acclaimed 2004 album, "I gained a lot of confidence. Then all those crazy things kind of lined up with Faith cutting the songs. Suddenly you realize: Either back up and let somebody else have the opportunity -- or buck up and take the chance."

Chances hadn't been something traditionally taken by McKenna, whose husband is a plumber and whose mother's death when McKenna was 7 inspired the aching "Leaving This Life" from her new album, "Unglamorous." She prefers writing in her kitchen because "I've lived in the same place my entire life. That's safe. . . . You don't get hurt if you write a song in your kitchen or bedroom. If you're doing that, you can be brave."

"I hadn't heard songs like that since Laura Nyro," says Warner Nashville head Bill Bennett. "She captures the ironies and contradictions of lives people live. . . . When Faith played us [McKenna's] songs, you'd see the look on her face, how much those songs resonated."

McKenna, 37, says with a laugh, "It was easy to write about what I wrote about, because that's who I am. Domestic things are my life; all I had to do was look around."

"Unglamorous," with its engraved miniatures of marital gridlock and friction ("How to Survive" and "I Know You"), the wages of alcohol on the sober partner ("Drinkin' Problem") and the faded ne'er-fit-in she knew growing up ("Falter"), is an expensive, glossy record produced by Hill's husband, Tim McGraw, and his longtime co-producer, Byron Gallimore.

With handmade songs taken from McKenna's life, the lives around her and her imagination, there's intimacy and small-scale reality in "Unglamorous." Yet her ability to hit the emotional bull's-eye -- with the taunting challenge of seeking what's out there ("Written Permission") or the gently encouraging "Your Next Lover" delivered by the former partner -- provides these songs' stopping power.

"My manager [Jon LeShay] told me he'd heard the best writer he'd heard in forever," says pop thrush Mandy Moore, who collaborated with McKenna for her new album, "Wild Hope." "He gave me a CD [of her music] -- and I made him get me everything! I became a stalker. I wanted to write with her so bad."

More than grocery money

For McKenna, it's the songs. Starting at adult alternative radio, then crossing back to country, Bennett concedes, "it's an odd migration, but it's about getting to people who will respond."

Meanwhile, McKenna has moved a half-mile up the street from that longtime home -- and entered a new world. "What's your degree of success?" she considers. Back in the days when she was making only enough money from gigs to help pay for groceries, she couldn't quite come to describe herself to strangers as a songwriter. Yet, she says, "I was happy.

"Now, though, if someone on a plane asks me what I do for a living, I can tell them. I can say I'm a songwriter."

She beams. If Lori McKenna doesn't quite mean business, she means music. On the brink of a major label debut, that's plenty.

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