Lori McKenna

Lori McKennaSinger-songwriter Lori McKenna comes to the First Encounter Coffeehouse in Eastham next Saturday, September 28th, complete with an intriguing little handful of mysteries. For instance:

How does a fledgling folksinger from Stoughton raised on Broadway musicals, J. Giels, and James Taylor end up with the strong, lonesome peal of a Nashville veteran?

How does a thirty-two year-old mother of four find time for writing, recording, traveling, and playing shows?

How could someone who describes herself as by nature quite a reticent performer (she says she “never really intended on leaving my house”) end up with this incredible air of authority to her work, in the process attracting a large enough following to sell out large venues like the Somerville Theater surprisingly early in her career?

She sings with such assurance, like she’s telling you the plain truth, like it or lump it, totally direct and definite. She’s not a blaster, but when she lays it down, it stays down. And she’s got this definite country thing, this twang, even in her pronunciation (when she sings, that is; it’s not a part of her speaking voice) that she insists arrived without her ever having heard much country music at all. She’s never winsome, never whispery, never cute -she somehow cuts right through all that and goes straight to the meat at the heart of her songs, which are more often about things being wrong than things being right.

And she doesn’t just sound country -she sounds tough. She doesn’t know how she got this voice, though she does say her whole family sang a lot: “I have one sister and four brothers, and they all sang better than me. I was the quiet one, because everyone else could really sing. I really don’t know where it comes from. I did have a grandmother that always loved to sing and couldn’t sing; there’s maybe some of her in it…”

True to the folk genre in their mostly autobiographical nature, her lyrics are sometimes as sharp and deep as her voice, as on the chorus of what might be her best song, “Never Die Young” (dedicated to her mother, who died when Lori was four):

I am the one who will never die young
I am a martyr and I cannot hide
But I’m not a winner, I’m just brilliantly bitter
I’m sealed by my skin, but broken inside

At her best, her lyrics are thoughtful, incisive, and almost novelistic, but (again, paradoxically) she insists she isn’t much of a reader (though, when pressed she confesses admiration for the writer Toni Morrison and Anita Diamant’s recent “The Red Tent”, adding that she loves Oprah Winfrey and used to read a lot of Oprah’s Book Club recommendations, but “got embarrassed being the one with all the books with the ‘O’ on them.”)

So far, she’s released two CDs: 1998’s “Paper Wings and Halo” and last year’s “Pieces of Me” (both on Catalyst); the latter features guest turns from Richard Shindell, Jennifer Kimball, Ellis Paul, Meghan Toohey, Kris Delmhorst, and a full band. She says musicians love her because she never tells them what to do (“I just say, ‘OK, here’s the song -don’t mess it up’, and then I love whatever they do”), but adds that Meghan Toohey (“Ms. Smarty-pants arranger-person”) has been helping out a lot (“her overthoughts counter-act with my lack of any thought.”)

Her next release will be something she calls “the kitchen tapes”, which she said she recorded by herself at home on her new mini-disc recorder, somewhat in the warts-and-all tradition of Springsteen’s “Nebraska” or Michelle Shocked’s “Campfire Tapes.”

Recording at home? With four kids? “Well, this was before my one year-old was born -I just had to wait until they went to school.”

The result will be an internet-only release that she’ll also sell at live shows. Meanwhile, she’s also starting sessions for her next “official” album with her band at High & Low in Boston (a loft studio originally set up by Morphine’s Mark Sandman), sandwiched in between increasingly high profile gigs (she’s already done the Newport Folk Festival and Lilith Fair) and -oh yeah! -raisin’ them pesky chillens, some of whom are morphing into road managers and guitar players as we speak.

Not to mention reading all those books with the “o’s” on them…

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