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On 'This Close,' Lori McKenna Draws Inspiration From Family

Lori McKenna's new track for <em>Morning Edition</em>'s Song Project series was inspired by her children's perspectives of the COVID-19 era.
Becky Fluke
Courtesy of the artist
Lori McKenna's new track for Morning Edition's Song Project series was inspired by her children's perspectives of the COVID-19 era.

The Morning Edition Song Project, in which musicians compose an original song about the COVID-19 era, returns this week with country singer-songwriter Lori McKenna. A Nashville writer for hire and solo artist in her own right, McKenna has been spending the year doing songwriting sessions over Zoom from the basement of her family's Boston home.

"When I first started writing as a teenager, people said, 'You got to write what you know,' and I figured well this is what I know," McKenna says. "I know how to be in a family."

McKenna's five children, aged 16 to 30, continue to inspire her music. Two of her kids are in school, two are musicians and another works as an EMT. Living in her own pandemic "bubble," McKenna says she now watches the news through her children's perspective.

"I tend to wake up really positive." she says. "And then you turn on the news, and you get down. Someone calls with some more loss that they've experienced And in between, I'm writing country songs, or a song about a truck. So there's these crazy highs and lows."

David Greene spoke McKenna about providing parental wisdom during a pandemic and creating her new song "This Close" with her family. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

David Greene: I know when we started talking to you, you were thinking about writing a song that conveyed some kind of parental wisdom about the pandemic. But it sounds like at some point you sort of shifted gears. I wonder, can you take me into your thought process as the song was coming together in your mind — what the journey was and where you landed?

Lori McKenna:Originally when it started I thought, well, the way that my brain normally works is this mother voice — and watching these kids, what would I say to them in all this? I assumed it would be more humble and kind, in that way [of], "Here's a list of things I want you to know." And I guess in some ways, this song has a little bit of that. But once I got in there, I realized that what I kept telling my kids was, sometimes we just need the bottom in order for us to see as clearly as we're going to see. There is a lot of hope in some of those lines, at least in my head. But there's also the "Well, we have to do the work too."

If we do the work you're talking about, and we get "this close," what are we getting close to?

We're getting this close to understanding and seeing [that] we're all so much more alike than we are different. You know, the world isn't just our life. The world isn't just our family. The world is this big wonderful place, and we can get so much out of it if we just understand that we're all just here to love each other. How can we do that even better?

I believe that people are fundamentally good, and I just think maybe we've just been a little bit sidetracked with the negativity. This is a time for us to all sit back in it and realize that we don't want to move forward that way. We want to move forward in a more loving and positive way.

The recording of this song was a family affair, right?

Yes, two of my kids are songwriters. My son Christopher produced this; my son Brian, my older son, he's singing and playing, I think, some guitar. I sent it off to them once it was done and this is what they came back with.

I know you said you write a lot of songs as a mom and from a place of parental advice, and you originally took this in a different direction. But I just imagine you with your kids and family and thinking about the pandemic together — I mean, this kind of feels like parental wisdom.

Well, I guess you're right [ laughs]. Now that we're discussing this, I don't think I stray too far from that in my experience as a songwriter lately. Maybe it's a little bit more grown up than I expected it would be, as far as lyrically, but my kids are grown up so it does make sense. Watching them sort of interpret all this is ... I always say this, but my kids continue to teach me more than I teach them. And in that way, I guess it still is there in the song.

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David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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