There's No Passion in Perfection - Interview with Lori McKenna
by George Dow
With her new album Lorraine released January 25th, and a full schedule of shows and appearances to support the new release, Lori McKenna didn’t think twice about dropping everything to help a friend in need.
On January 21st Lori co-headlined a bill with Aimee Mann at the Paradise in Boston. Proceeds from the benefit show will help support their mutual friend and well-known Boston-area drummer, John Sands who suffered a massive heart attack in November but is now on the road to recovery. The show was organized by a group of friends, dubbed Team Huggy and the Boston music community came out in force on the 21st to help one of their own. In addition to headliners Mann and McKenna, the night also featured The Jess Tardy Band and Ron Sexsmith, both members of John Sands’ musical family. In addition to the music, Team Huggy organized a silent auction featuring tickets to sold-out shows, in-home concerts and sport and music memorabilia galore.
Little more than half an hour after returning with her bandmates from a performance at the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, ME and dropping the kids off at their Sunday activities, Lori spent some time talking with about John, the benefit event, and her new album, Lorraine.
On John Sands and the Paradise Show
“I haven’t played with a full band for over a year but as far as I’m concerned, John is my drummer. I’m in a job where I get to know a lot of people. John is at the top of my list of people that I like to be around. He changed everything for me dynamically when we started playing together. I have my own little rhythm issues because I’m used to playing solo. I can only really play with a handful of drummers and John and I just clicked. As a musician, he’s one of the best we have and as a person he’s also one of the best. It’s very true when you hear people say they love John. People use the word ’love’ a lot but its really true. We all really do love John. He’s just a good, good guy." McKenna said. "The only thing that was disappointing about the night was that John couldn’t be there but he was obviously there in spirit. It was nice to see everyone come together for him like that.”
There was an army of people that helped put the benefit show together. Among them Richard Gates, a local musician and bass player, who himself had a successful heart transplant in 2004 as a result of a degenerative heart disease and local artist management mogul, Michael Creamer. “But Jess Tardy (John’s girlfriend) was the first person that I talked to about it. I just cannot imagine what that woman has been doing. It’s just incredible. She’s been calling with updates (on John’s condition) and when the call finally came and she said, “He’s going to be Okay.” I was like OK, just call me back when you want to do the benefit show.”
“I know Jess because she’s come to shows. I’ve met her a few times and seen her at other shows. She’s such a great girl. I had never seen her play live. I had just heard people say, “Man, she’s great.” I thought she stole the show. I just thought she was amazing. She has done so much too. As far as I’m concerned she saved John’s life. He wasn’t going to call an ambulance. He called her and she called the ambulance. If the ambulance hadn’t been there the second it was, they wouldn’t have worked on him for as long as they did. So she’s just been an angel.”
For McKenna it was critically important to be there for her friend. “Most musicians live within a very small period of time between shows. Maybe not day-to-day or week-to-week … but being a musician isn’t the easiest thing and if you’re out of work for a long time then things can get crazy.”
As much as she enjoyed the experience of playing the benefit at the Paradise, the rock and roll stage is a little out of her comfort zone. “I’m used to my bandmates being closer to me. I think that’s probably why," McKenna said. "If someone were to say, “Hey, let’s book a show at the Paradise, honestly I’d need John there (on drums). It’s a rock room and the difference is that the audience is standing. The audience is such an important piece of the experience for me and for everyone on stage. I don’t know if audiences know how much they’re participating in the event. Maybe that’s not true in an arena, but in a room or a small theatre it’s critical that you can feel that you’re getting your point across. You get spoiled; you’re used to silent audiences. It’s harder to feel like you don’t suck when the balcony’s not listening to a word you’re saying. We’ve all honestly been kind of spoiled because we get to play in these great places where the audience is right there along with you the whole time. I have to toughen up in that category a little bit.”
Lori had never worked with Aimee Mann before this show “unless you count the Lilith Fair. The last year that they did the original Lilith Fair I opened the Boston show. That was the only other time I met her. I don’t think that I’ve seen her since then but I feel like I kind of know her because of her connection with John. With everyone trading stories backstage I would always hear what was going on with her.”
Of Aimee’s set, Lori was a big fan. “She’s just so striking and people are always mesmerized by her because she’s just so good.”
The Benefits of Benefits.
McKenna has a long history of supporting worthy causes. “It’s funny. January has been a busy month for benefits. On the 7th I was a small part of the Dick Pleasant tribute night that they did at Sanders Theatre. Dick has been a driving for force of the folk world for many years in Boston. That was a fun night because all of these folk artists got to go together and sing at Sanders Theatre and tell Dick that we think he’s great. On the 14th I went down to Nashville and did a benefit with Kim Carnes at the Bluebird for Alive Hospice in Nashville.”
“If I had to guess, we’ve done about 5 or 6 a year. The thing about benefits is that musically you always have a great time. You see people you haven’t seen. Everyone walks away knowing that they won’t be getting a paycheck but everyone is there for the experience of seeing each other’s music and knowing that they helped out in a small way while they were there. Everyone has to pay their bills but it’s almost more of a reward in a way. We’re really lucky. We get to play these shows and we have these great jobs but you’re in a position where every now and then you can participate and show up and be a small part of it and help out.”
“We play the Bluebird down in Nashville usually once a month or so and those shows usually end up in the hands of (one charity) or another. We did a Music Cares benefit last year and another benefit for the Bluebird itself.”
At the same time, performing at these events can pose some professional complications. “If you’re scheduled next month to do a show down the street … you know … your name can’t be on everything. It takes some maneuvering. Sometimes you have to say, “I can’t do this one but maybe I can do the next one. But each one is always a gift somehow.”
On the New Album, Lorraine
McKenna’s last album, Unglamorous took a turn towards a more country sound. She shared some of the differences between the two records: “Through my connections with Faith (Hill), and Tim (McGraw) and Byron Gallimore who produced the album, Warner Bros. called one day and said, 'Hey, we want to make a record … so you should come down here and Byron and Tim will produce it and it’ll be great!' It occurred to me that that doesn’t happen very often anymore. I know a lot of people who spend a lot of years in Nashville or L.A. trying to get a record deal and I basically got a phone call one afternoon. So, going in, I knew that it was going to be something different than Bittertown, which was the record before. It was going to be a production growth but we were going to have to be careful that it was an artistic growth at the same time.”
“When we went down the first time I didn’t know any of the players. They asked me, 'Who do you want to play on the record?' and I said Darrell Scott. Darrell was the only musician I knew in Nashville. So Darrell was there but all of the other musicians were new to me. Tim and Bryon had seen me play but none of the musicians had seen me do a show before. It was really weird. I was like, 'How is this going to work?' but it was really one of the best experiences. I loved it but in a different way. It was like an experiment in a way. Can I do this and still feel like I’m being true to myself at the same time? And that came down to picking the songs. So I ended up with these musicians that I just fell in love with. These players that were just so great. And I think it ended up being a different experience for them than some of the other records that they’ve made.”
“So that record, I knew was going to be different for me. My concern was to try this and to be true to myself and I’m very confident that I did that. I can listen to that record and be proud of it. I’m proud of the songs and I can call it ‘my record’ and still play those songs every night but I knew that I’d go back to where I’m most comfortable.”
“We went out with Tim and Faith [on tour], Mark [Erelli] and it was the same thing; we knew we were going to go out there and play for 20,000 people for the next 30 minutes but we knew that in a few months we were going to be at [Club] Passim [in Cambridge] and that’s where I’m most comfortable. But it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up and it was such a great experience. There was a lot of growth for me in that experience. Internally it was what I needed to do.”
“So, this record was just a matter of taking the growth that I had internalized as an artist and applying it to a sound that fits me better.”
Skirting the line between country and folk can occasionally lead to frustration, she said, “Sometimes people ask me how I ended up as a country artist, and it’s like, someone gave me that word because Warner Bros. Nashville signed me, but really I was never a country artist and I don’t really even know what that means anymore. The names are all so confusing. Sometimes people will say, “Well if I see the word ‘Folk’ (on a CD) I won’t even open it. It’s so frustrating because what if it just said ‘Good Songs’?"
Though Lorraine has standout tracks from end to end, one track in particular jumps out as a departure from McKenna’s traditional sound. The closing song, "Still Down Here" is a piano-centric song that plays almost like a lullaby. McKenna described the origins and development of the song, “My sister-in-law Nancy, who took the photos (for Lorraine), the front cover and the picture of me on the back, she was my brother David’s wife. She passed away the year before last, late in the year. She was a photographer and we both were sort of late bloomers in our careers, hers in photography and mine in music. So we kind of artistically grew up together a little bite. She had cancer and she died very young.”
“I had all these words and I had this really bad melody. Honestly, this really bad, standard melody that went along with it. Barry Dean, who produced the record is a piano player. I just knew … because he’s kind of a spiritual guy and he’s so thoughtful and he knew Nancy. He knew what my brother went through in losing her. I didn’t even play him the melody that I had because Barry is so nice he probably would have helped me fix it, and it was really wrong. So he literally just belted out that chorus and the words almost fit perfectly. So that’s Barry’s melody. Tom … and I can say this because I didn’t write it … it’s one of the prettiest melodies that I’ve ever been able to sing every night.”
“So that’s where it came from.”
There’s a point at the end of the song where McKenna starts to break down.
“The fact that we kept that was honestly a bit of back and forth. At first it was going to be just piano but Barry came back and said he wanted to add cello to the song. So the cello was added later. When I heard it I knew that I wanted to sing it again. I think it was the first pass and I kind of lose it at the end. Then I sang it a few more times. I went home and they emailed me the vocal comps to see if I liked it. I made my son Christopher listen to it and I said, “I can’t keep that like that” and Christopher said, 'You can if you want people to cry.' and I said, 'Yeah… I want people to cry!' But we went back and forth because I didn’t really know if I wanted to leave it that way. [During other takes] I did sing it ‘right’. I got through it without losing it. Barry really wanted me to keep it. He said, “This is what happened. This is how you feel so you should just keep it that way.” Then I played it for Mark [Erelli] and said, 'What do you think? Should I just have them fix it?' and Mark said, 'It kind of says something if you don’t.' So between my son and Barry and Mark talking me into it I said, 'Alright, let’s just keep it the way it is.' It’s been hard to sing live but I can get through it now. I’ve kinda gotten used to it.”
That aesthetic is something that was maintained throughout the new album. “We were very careful.” (laughs) “This sounds wrong … but we were very careful on the record not to fix every mistake. That’s the problem with records now; we have the ability to fix everything. I didn’t really want to do that. I didn’t want to just go through and fix, fix, fix until it didn’t sound like me anymore. I think it was Rosanne Cash that said, 'There’s no passion in perfection.' I had never thought of it that way but for me, I think that’s right. So all the mistakes that were left on there were emotional mistakes and remind me of the moment, like there are a couple of times in the recording where you can hear the piano bench move and things like that and it just kept it more real for me. It kept it like I was still in that room playing with those people. It doesn’t make sense to fix thing all the time.”
For more information about the Team Huggy fund raising efforts visit the Team Huggy website: www.teamhuggy.com or to make a contribution, visit their donation page: http://www.teamhuggy.com/donate.cfm
Lori has shows around New England and beyond throughout the rest of the winter and into the spring. Visit her tour page for the latest listings: http://lorimckenna.com/tour