Singer/songwriter Lori McKenna has been releasing stunning records for just about 15 years now. Like stop-you-in-your-tracks stunning records, from Paper Wings and Halo, at first, on down to Numbered Doors, her latestMcKenna’s attention to the detail of her craft is both notable and laudable, and it’s the reason why Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Sara Evans, and others have recorded her songs on their albums. It’s also the reason she now finds herself writing with other successful Nashville writers who take painstaking care with their work, including Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose, and Brandy Clark. Despite landing cuts on big releases, McKenna continues to make her own records and play her own shows. Because, as with so many before her, you can take the song out of the writer, but you can never take the writer out of the song.
What is it that drives you to write songs?
I think I’m drawn to songs because I was raised in a musical family. There was always music playing or someone playing music in my house, growing up. It seemed to me, from an early age, to be the language for expressing your feelings. If you didn’t know how you felt, you could find a song that did.
When a melody or idea starts to rise, does it nag and haunt you until you let it come through? Or can you sometimes dismiss it outright?
Song ideas certainly will haunt you and then — when nothing’s there — the urge to write will haunt you, too. It’s a double-edged sword in that way. Inspiration can be a delicate thing. It’s a bit like a muscle and sometimes you have to just run with it and not get anywhere. You have to get through the dry spells and manage the floods. I’m not an all-or-nothing type of person; so I’m usually pretty routine about writing ideas down — and singing melodies into my phone. Most of the time, I will go back to those ideas and I think they are terrible. But if I had chased it when the inspiration came, I probably could have caught the thing!
When you’re writing a story that isn’t yours, what’s the key to honestly stepping into a character and a truth that you don’t know?
Putting yourself into someone else’s gut is so much fun sometimes. I think it’s how we understand each other. A songwriter’s job isn’t just to tell a story; it’s to try and see the other side of the story, too. I’m always trying to get better at that. Sometimes you just have to go down the list — Would the character feel this way? Or this way? Would she say this? Would she walk away now or would she turn around?

How do you know when a song is finished and good?
I have to sing the damn thing about a million times. Sometimes I will write a song and wake up the next morning with it in my head. That’s usually a good sign. But sometimes I just have to play the song out — to an audience or to my friends or to no one — and get to know it. Other times, you have to put it down and forget about it for a few days and then check back. You can see it in a different way, sometimes, doing that. If a song doesn’t feel finished, it will tell you… and hopefully it will tell you what it needs.
Now that you’ve landed some big cuts, do you feel less pressure on your artist’s career or does that fire burn as brightly as ever?
The thing about songwriters is that we want you to hear our songs. That’s just how it is. I will always want to play out and sit in writers’ rounds with my friends and people who inspire me or writers I look up to. That’s like going to church. I am very fortunate that I’ve been able to perform in the places I have (from arenas to church basements and everything in between really). I never expected anything from my music and it’s blessed me in more ways than I can count. Bottom line: My favorite thing is to write a song. Pretty much every day, that’s what I want to do. I could stand to travel less and write more. I could stand to worry about stage clothes less and write more. But it’s part of it for me. It all goes together and it’s hard to separate them.