Anderson East, Ann Powers, Lori McKenna
Photo: Jason Davis/Getty Images
Songwriters Lori McKenna And Anderson East Get Creative Within The Limitations
Although GRAMMY winner Lori McKenna and soul singer Anderson East developed their crafts in different music communities, their respective journeys share similar solitary beginnings. Together, they unpacked their personal approach to songwriting and how their limitations shaped the artists they are today with NPR’s Ann Powers at the Recording Academy Nashville Chapter's Craft Session event on Oct. 9 at Eugenia Hall.
A packed crowd of music industry professionals attended the 90-minute Q&A, which took a look inside the two artists' respective disciplines, the stories behind their most prominent songs and how they connected through GRAMMY-winning producer Dave Cobb. East sequenced McKenna’s GRAMMY-nominated album, 2016’s The Bird & the Rifle, and her latest release, The Tree, the latter of which features East on electric guitar. Both were produced by Cobb and recorded at the historic RCA A studio on Music Row where East keeps an office.
“I think there should be a GRAMMY category for sequencer and Anderson should win them all,” McKenna quipped at one point during the session.
East started out in music having no interest in becoming a songwriter. All he wanted to do was make records. But there was only one problem growing up in Athens, Ala. At the time, his hometown lacked songwriters with original material to record. So, his musical talents developed out of the necessity to be the artist, songwriter, producer, engineer and session band at the same time. He compared the experience to competing in a NASCAR race.
“It’s impossible to the racecar driver and the pit crew at the same time,” he said. “It was a natural progression growing up in Athens, which is not far from Muscle Shoals, but we were very isolated. I had no idea that this great wealth of music had come from right down the street. One of my best friends, his dad was Little Richard’s guitar player, and us kids went down [to FAME Studios] for a Christmas party with our terrible middle school band. We’re up there playing, and Dave Hood jumps up on bass. [Jason] Isbell is there. He’s still in the Drive-By Truckers at that time. We’re still kids, and we didn’t really understand the breadth of what we’re getting to be part of; I had no clue.”
McKenna is one of those rare creatives who developed an affinity for songwriting at age three. Coming from the songwriting circles in Boston, Mass., her background was primarily in writing music solo using the details from her life as the mother of five children for inspiration. She was introduced to the Nashville songwriting community through Mary Gauthier who gave a copy of McKenna’s 2004 album, Bittertown, to a local publisher that offered to pitch McKenna’s songs to other artists. Faith Hill recorded Bittertown’s “Stealing Kisses” and “If You Ask” and made McKenna’s “Fireflies” the title song of her 2005 album. Without seeing the benefit for McKenna in collaborating with others in the writing room, her songwriter friends in Boston warned her that co-writing would have a negative impact on her point of view.
“Friends of mine in Boston would be like, ‘It’s going to mess you up. You’re not going to write by yourself anymore,’” McKenna recalled. “The way I feel about it is in Boston and other cities that have a great live music scenes, what happens is you have this club, and everyone gets up, and they sing each other’s songs.
“But I don’t know how to do any of that stuff. I can’t harmonize. I could barely play guitar, and although I’m part of that community, I never really found my community. When I met songwriters that taught me how to co-write, that’s where I found my community. If you have a show, I’m probably not going to be able to help you with your show this evening. But if you need to write a song in your heart that you can’t figure out how to get out, I might be able to help you do that.”
McKenna added her limited range as a vocalist has become one of her biggest assets as a songwriter.
“I say to my husband all the time, 'if I could sing 20 percent bigger my life would be so much easier because I have such a small range,'” she said. “In the end, it has served me well because it has led me to the kind of songs I’ve grown into singing. I can’t sing, ‘Happy Birthday.’ It’s going to sound sad no matter what.”
Cobb discovered East during a songwriter round at Nashville’s Bluebird Café. When it was East’s turn to play, he boldly paused the show to take a bathroom break after being overserved too many beers. In 2015, East became the flagship artist on Cobb’s Nashville-based Low Country Sound, a record label imprint in partnership with Warner Music Group subsidiary, Elektra Records. East’s Low Country Sound debut, Delilah arrived in July of that year. Several songs on Delilah and East’s 2018 album Encore were co-written with Aaron Raitiere, a Low Country Sound songwriter and East’s college friend from Murfreesboro, Tenn.’s Middle Tennessee State University.
When Powers turned the conversation to songwriting families and what it takes to keep them healthy, Raitiere’s name was the first one out of East’s mouth.
“Rat’s kind of my comfort blanket,” East said. “We’ve been best friends since I was a freshman in college. We met in a songwriting class. Both of us had a parallel life, and when I met him, I was going through that great college breakup with the one. And I think I was outside vomiting in the parking lot when he drives up in the Toyota Camry that he still drives to this day, and he goes, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ I’m just wiping the vomit off my mouth, and he was like, ‘I’m about to go drink a bottle of Wild Turkey in my backyard. Do you want to come?’ I was like, ‘Yes. I do.’ From then on, I had my dude.
“I’m sure you’ve gotten set up on those blind dates where you walk in a room pull out your guitar and go, ‘I’m from Alabama. Where are you from? OK. Here are my deepest darkest secrets.’ It’s very uncomfortable, and I don’t respond well to be put in that situation. But for some reason, if I’ve got him, we’ve already got this history, and so we can freak somebody else out real quick. Ultimately, they’re going to laugh and be comfortable.”
While McKenna’s longtime songwriting relationships didn’t typically start with a breakup and booze, she believes she lucked out with the forever creative partnerships she’s made in Nashville. Mark D. Sanders was the first collaborator she connected with in town, while the behemoth “Girl Crush,” one of McKenna’s most significant songs, was co-written with her Love Junkies songwriting team, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey.
“We’ve been through it all together emotionally, and so you’re always in safe hands,” McKenna said. “No matter what stupid thing comes out of your mouth, nobody is going to judge you for it. Those are the best places to be creatively.”
She said “Girl Crush,” which won Best Country Song and was nominated for Song Of The Year at the 58th GRAMMY Awards, came together in less than three hours during a three-day writing retreat at Rose’s house. McKenna had the title “Girl Crush” on her phone based on the popular social media hashtag and brought up the idea for a song to Rose while she was preparing breakfast. At the time, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman were due to come over at 11 a.m., leaving them just enough time to write a song.
“Liz was like, ‘What the hell is that about,’” McKenna recalled. “l never thought about it past the title. She said, ‘Well it sounds really difficult, and we have two-and-a-half-hours to write a song.’ She never turned around from making eggs.”
McKenna then pitched the idea to Lindsey just after she had woken up for breakfast. Lindsey then picked up a Gibson guitar she had traded with Chris Stapleton and sang the two lines just as they are in the final recording.
“Hillary had just woken up, and that’s the way she heard it,” McKenna said. “And then we knew we were in ballad land and we knew right away that this is a song about a woman being obsessed with the other woman. Then Karen and Kimberly came over with brownies and wine, we played them the song, and we didn’t even know if it made sense.”
Both McKenna and East emphasized the importance of embracing a reckless abandonment of the music that came before them.
“When you write a song, you think nobody is ever going to hear, and you don’t have any editing, it’s your friend,” McKenna said.
“If you’re so wrapped up in what somebody else has done, then you ain’t got anywhere to move anymore,” Anderson added. “There are only eight notes [in a scale]. You can’t invent another note. I don’t think originality is lost, and I think each person has their own unique ability to be themselves.”