Long before Faith Hill heard her songs, Lori McKenna was writing them and before that, she was living them. Married at age 19 to Gene McKenna, a plumber for the local gas company, the former Lorraine Giroux, one of five children herself, became a mother three times in the subsequent eight years, staying at home to raise her children except for a few part time hours at her brother's glue factory to help make ends meet.
By the time she was 27, McKenna had already been writing songs for half her life. She began when she was 13, 7 years after the death of her mother from cancer, perhaps as a way of coping with the devastating loss. Whatever her motivation to write songs, McKenna was never particularly inspired to do anything with them.
"The first song I ever wrote was, strangely enough, a country song, but not so strangely, it was about a little girl asking her mom where the dad had gone," she says. "I would always make up little songs, and two of my brothers are songwriters, and I would share them with one of my brothers. It wasn't until I was 25 or 26 that I would play them for my friends if they would come to the house and hang out with me and my kids. At the end of the night, I might sing a song."
When she was 27, McKenna's family forced the issue and made her take her guitar and her songs to an open mic at the now defunct Old Vienna coffee house, a regional club that often hosted national touring acts. McKenna reluctantly and shakily climbed the stage and did her two songs with an unexpected result.
"I remember so clearly this being my goal that someday I'll get up enough nerve to do the open mic at the Old Vienna coffee house," says McKenna. "My sister-in-law and my sister and my brothers dragged me there, and they talked me into it. I did two songs. and I was physically shaking. The guy that ran the open mic, Robert Haigh, followed us outside and told me to come back. I went back about a month later, and he was like, 'I was wondering when you were coming back.'"
As McKenna played out more and more, her reputation in the Boston folk community grew exponentially. Her songs were a quiet reflection of the life she lived every day, and her poignant observations and compelling melodies made her a fast favorite among Boston area folk fans.
"I did the bar gig thing for a couple of years, and I think I learned a total of 10 cover songs. I was always so bad at learning other people's songs," says McKenna with a laugh. "Luckily enough, I got to play this bar down the street that the guy was nice enough he didn't care what I played. He liked my music, so he let me play my own stuff. I could never have done the whole cover thing. It would have been way too much work for me, I'm sure."
In 1998, McKenna recorded her debut album, "Paper Wings and Halo," which she self-released. At that point, the Old Vienna's Haigh was instrumental in helping McKenna get gigs, securing a producer and offering career advice, which was invaluable for the budding artist.
"He never took a dime from me," says McKenna. "He essentially managed me for free for about a year before I was doing real shows and actually making money, and then I got a manager from that point on. (Haigh) was my guardian angel. I don't think I could have done it without him at all."
Eventually, she was signed by Signature Sounds, which released her next three albums: 2001's "Pieces of Me," 2003's "The Kitchen Tapes" and 2005's critical breakthrough "Bittertown" (in that time, she and Gene released two more children as well). All were well received, garnering McKenna three Boston Music Awards, but "Bittertown" seemed to spur the most talk about next level success.
"'Bittertown' was definitely the biggest learning experience for me; it was like a turning point in my confidence," says McKenna. "I had a manager right from the beginning, who was great, and I think what I did with the first few records was I did what I was supposed to do, and I did what made sense, but I didn't have the confidence to back my steps up as well as I should have."
"We went in to make 'Bittertown' with Lorne (Entress), who produced it, and he played drums and a zillion other instruments, and Kevin Barry who played bass and guitar, and it was sort of just the three of us. It was sort of a long studio experience, but it was necessary for it to take that long because I was just learning. If I hadn't done that record before I made this record for Warner Brothers, I think I would have been just a mess. 'Bittertown' gave me so much back."
Still in all, the industry buzz over 'Bittertown' may not have been enough to raise McKenna's profile without one more critical push. One of McKenna's longtime friends and former label mate on the Boston folk circuit, Mary Gauthier, had gone pretty much the same route, parlaying her Boston cred into a deal with Lost Highway.
"Mary and I were friends from doing open mics, and we were on Signature Sounds together," says McKenna. "Mary brought this up, but out of that patch of singer/songwriters that came out that year in Boston, Mary and I were the two old ladies. She's the gay one, and I'm the one with all the kids. As it turns out, being gay is much more normal than having five kids. So, Mary and I were the old ladies...we joke about the other stuff."