But this is how her songwriting often begins — eavesdropping and people-watching while she runs her daily errands. “We’re all people-watchers in some way,” McKenna says over the telephone from her living room in Massachusetts. “We see a person, and we make a story up in our head. . . . I don’t know if empathy is the right word, but we develop some curiosity in one another.”
McKenna’s exquisite new album, “The Tree,” directs that curiosity toward families — her family, other people’s families, imagined families, families where the kids grow up too fast, and the parents grow old too soon, families that make her new songs feel as mundane and urgent as life and death. And while many have praised McKenna for her ability to elevate our most piddling pedestrian life-stuff to profound heights, for her, there’s no heavy lifting involved. When the ordinary is already extraordinary, the music is all around us.
“I’m not a truth-seeker. I’m not someone who wants to go around the world and find out why we exist,” she says. “For me to get sick of writing about my neighbors?” Even over the phone, you can hear her politely shaking her head. She can’t imagine that.
'Nashville called me'
McKenna got her start on the New England folk circuit back in the ’90s, but everything changed in 2004 when her fourth album, “Bittertown,” began to circulate in Nashville’s most exclusive corridors. Before long, a music publisher phoned to say that Faith Hill would like to hear every song McKenna had ever written. Less than a year later, she was sitting on plush couch in a bright television studio, chit-chatting with Hill and Oprah Winfrey. “Literally, Nashville called me,” McKenna says. “Now, I know that never happens.”
Thirteen years later, McKenna has become formidable in country music, co-writing nearly 100 songs a year. Astonishingly, that qualifies as below-average on Music Row, but the publishers don’t push. They know that this is the pace that helped McKenna pen “Girl Crush” a love-triangular waltz for Little Big Town, co-drafted with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose; not to mention “Humble and Kind,” a human decency anthem that Tim McGraw carried to the top of the country charts in 2016. (The song’s parting lyrics seem to accrue virtue as America grows more cruel: “When you get where you’re going/Turn right back around/And help the next one in line/Always stay humble and kind.”)
In addition to farming them out, McKenna occasionally includes her biggest songs on her own albums — “Humble and Kind” anchored 2015’s “The Bird and the Rifle” — but they usually only make the radio when someone else is singing them. And that’s fine by her.
“I know this sounds like bull----, but I swear, I just want to write good songs and be proud of myself,” McKenna says. “And I will say that I get proud of myself pretty easily. Like, if the house is clean when I go to bed at night, I’m so excited.”
Her songs can start anywhere, but many of them get finished in her basement in Stoughton, Mass. — the same small town where McKenna met her husband, all the way back in the third grade. Down in the basement, McKenna says she likes to come up with a song title, (she was hoping to catch one back at the salon), then work from there, strumming chords and mumbling melodies until her gestures start to point toward a story. For all of the precision and sophistication in her storytelling, here’s the surprising thing: A song’s narrative arc often follows the sound of whichever syllables happen to materialize in her mouth.
“The rhyme speaks to where the story lands,” McKenna says. “When I get going, something rhymes with something else, and suddenly this isn’t a song about elephants, it’s a song about soup. It has more control than I do, and I learned very early on to trust it.”
Other times — and this seems even more mysterious — her characters’ fates are sealed before the tune even gets underway. Maybe this explains why the songs that McKenna creates out of whole cloth still sound so certain, so hard-lived. She’s quick to point to “Numbered Doors,” a paralyzing ballad from 2014 that follows a drug addict from her wedding day (“She wore a borrowed dress nobody wanted back”) to her funeral (one more time: “She wore a borrowed dress nobody wanted back”). McKenna says the story is entirely made-up, but “I just knew she had to die, right away.”
And this has to be McKenna’s greatest gift: her ability to walk right up to the edge sentimentality without forfeiting the intensity that the moment demands. She calls that charged creative space “the edge of whatever it is” — and yes, it can get lonely out there.
Earlier that week, McKenna and a co-writer were putting the finishing touches on an especially shattering new song when her colleague lamented, “It’s so sad.” McKenna replied, “It has to be.”
She likes constraints
Too often, we talk about songs as if they’re just lyrics fixed on a page, not human vocalizations moving the air. But during a sound check at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis last month, McKenna was proving how words intensify their meaning when they become sounds. What was that tension in her voice? Was she channeling the pain of the people she was singing about? Was she singing in their defense?
“I was probably just trying to get my big-girl pants on and not cry,” McKenna says backstage after sound check. “Emotion will sometimes make me forget that I’m singing. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re supposed to hit the notes.’ ”
McKenna has said that she feels a pressure to write airtight lyrics to compensate for her limited vocal range — and while it’s hard to hear a voice as expressive as hers as limited, it’s easy to hear how wisely she deploys her resources. “My style is completely formed by my deficiencies as a singer,” she says. “I’m not mad about it. I’ve played with people who can do anything, and I think that’s a harder road. When you can sing anything, or you can play anything, there are too many things to use in a song.”
Limited tools and limited time. McKenna likes those constraints when she’s writing songs. “It’s not a novel,” she says. “It’s not even an essay. It’s three verses and a chorus that repeats itself. So you don’t have a lot of words to say what you’re trying to say.”
On her new album, she’s at her most economical with “A Mother Never Rests,” a beautifully devastating song, co-written with Barry Dean, that honors the perpetual hum of maternal love with a bridge that reads like a Hallmark card signed in blood: “When you hurt, she hurts, that’s how it is.”
If you need hard proof of McKenna’s ability to weave cosmic truth out of experience and imagination, there it is. She and her husband Gene have raised five children, but McKenna’s mother died when the singer was only 7. Now, at 49, McKenna sometimes wonders whether she taught herself how to be a mom by writing songs about being one.
It all reminds her of something she heard Bruce Springsteen share during his recent stint on Broadway. “I broke apart when he said you emulate the love you can’t have,” McKenna says. “I think about [my mother] all the time, even though I don’t know what I’m thinking of. . . . I can’t remember her.”
So maybe songwriting teaches a songwriter how to live — along with the rest of us, of course. And that’s the fundamental generosity that radiates from McKenna’s songbook. Her songs render worlds that feel detailed enough for us to step into, yet ambiguous enough to make into our own — there’s just enough room to confirm what we know and learn what we don’t.
Try feeling out those dimensions during “The Fixer,” a severe new ballad about a handyman, his wife and their respective attempts to stare down her terminal illness. During McKenna’s concert in Annapolis, she introduced the song by explaining exactly how she wrote it — how, straight away, she noticed that the word “fixer” sounds like “fix her” and how that little lightbulb immediately steered everything toward the big darkness.
“[But] you could change the story in your mind,” McKenna reminded the crowd, “and it would be happier.”