The celebrated "Humble & Kind" songwriter-singer has long put her kids in lyrics, but now they're her collaborators on her latest soul-baring collection, '1988'
But sometimes a mom’s gotta do what a mom’s gotta do, especially when she needs help writing a song, and her songwriter son just happens to be home for a visit, lolling around the house watching a ballgame on TV.
“I was like, ‘Hey, what are you doing right now?’” recalls the Grammy-winning songwriter-singer, chuckling over her moment of trickery with her 33-year-old son, Brian. “‘Can I show you something?’”
Together, the two McKennas turned that “something” into the title song of her brand-new album, 1988 — and considering it’s a love song to her family, who better than her first-born child to be her co-writer?
In fact, his participation has to be considered the ultimate full-circle moment in McKenna’s storied career. The song is named after the year she married her high school sweetheart, Gene McKenna, and when she walked down the aisle, she was three months pregnant with Brian.
“I made him write it with me, of course,” says McKenna, 54, speaking from the home in Stoughton, Massachusetts, where she and her husband have raised their four sons and daughter.
The entire album, McKenna’s 12th, overflows with the wise, soul-baring storytelling that she’s long been celebrated for, sung in her distinctively emotive voice. And once again, her muse for most of the intimate songs has been her own life and family.
It was just a couple albums ago that she talked about how she assumed her writing would eventually turn less personal. But today, she realizes it’s hopeless.
“I can’t do it!” she says, laughing. “Something’s wrong with me! I keep thinking I’m gonna be able to do it, and I cannot do it.”
This time around, McKenna has achieved the ultimate merger of her two great passions — family and music — by collaborating with her children. Brian is one of two sons now pursuing a songwriting career in Nashville; Chris, 29, also has followed in his mom’s footsteps, and he, too, contributed an album track.
Bringing her children into her writing process has surely come just as naturally to McKenna as songwriting itself, which began as an adolescent hobby and has long since turned into a lifetime obsession.
“I just love it,” she says. “Songwriting is the only thing I could do for 10 hours a day. The fact that I get to do something that I love for a living, I do not take that for granted. I just love chasing that thing you don’t have total control over. If it’s a really good song, there’s magic in there.”
It’s no surprise to McKenna that her two sons picked her profession after spending their childhoods watching two role models: their dad, a plumber for a Massachusetts utility company, who dragged home from work every day, and their mom, who was having so much fun at her job, it often didn’t look like she was working.
“I tell my husband all the time, I don’t think me enjoying my job affected them as much as him being exhausted by his job,” McKenna says. “I think if I was a kid, and I saw my mom having a ball and my dad being exhausted, I would just make sure I didn’t do that! He makes fun of me, but it’s a balance. When you write for yourself, you still have to work your butt off. I’m blessed enough to just enjoy the hell out of it.”
Long among Nashville’s songwriting royalty — though she’s never made her home in the city — McKenna has earned her Grammys for “Crowded Table” (sung by the Highwomen), “Girl Crush” (Little Big Town), and “Humble & Kind” (Tim McGraw), and the list of artists she’s written for and with is a superstar “who’s who,” including Taylor Swift, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris and George Strait.
But she’s always kept being a recording artist part of her professional identity. Years ago, she reveals, she debated whether to let it go, and her friend Beth Laird, now her manager-publisher, helped talk her out of it: “She said, ‘Why would you do that? The artist side of what you do really feeds the songwriter, and the songwriter in you understands the song better because of the artist in you.’”
Now she looks at making albums as “my way of having a voice in the conversation.”
In 1988, her fourth album produced by Dave Cobb, McKenna once again digs into personal topics that evoke a full range of powerful emotions, from regret to contentment, from fear and sorrow to hope and joy. They’ve all been fed, she says, by an insistent impulse to look back unflinchingly.
“I’m so nostalgic,” she says, “and I think, for me, the going back is how I learn about myself now. I keep discovering things like, I did that then because it makes sense now. My songs explain life to me. Even if I’m a co-writer, there’s something that I learn about life from it.”
Yet her “greatest teachers,” she adds, are her children. She says she didn’t fully think through why she needed Brian’s participation on “1988,” but one reason certainly revealed itself when he came up with the lyric “half scared to death, half stupid brave” to describe his parents’ teenage marriage — a line that turned out to be her husband’s favorite in the song.
“That’s when you know, oh, [Brian] knows my experience,” says McKenna. “He knows that’s what it felt like, because kids don’t miss a thing. They know what their parents are going through. They know what their parents are. They know the energy of what it feels like.”
She pulled in her son Chris for help on “Happy Children,” another family-inspired song on the album. McKenna seized on the idea after she heard someone say goodbye with, “I wish you happy children.”
"And I thought, that is the most brilliant wish I have ever heard in my whole life,” she says, “and that needs to be a song.”
Stuck on the chorus, she once again enticed a sofa-parked son from his ballgame watching.
“There was Chris sitting there all talented and not busy,” she says, “and he got me to the chorus.”
Gratefully, McKenna says, both sons “don’t really ‘mom’ me” when they write together.
“They’re not like, ‘Mom, come on,’ which is great and awesome,” she says. “I think the reason they do that is because they’ve had enough experience writing with other people to know you have to meet the songwriter in the room and not who you think the person is in the room. So they’re not rolling their eyes at me or saying, ‘Nobody would ever say that, Mom!’”
The fact that McKenna is now writing with her children is an obvious signal she’s in a new life phase, and she exhibits that self-awareness in another standout track, “The Old Woman in Me.” The lyrics actually are a forward look: “I hope someday I get to be the old woman in me.”
“I am a little obsessed with aging,” she admits, but, she also believes — as she says in the song — that she’s now in her prime years.
“We come into ourselves, the older we get, especially women,” she says. “The conversations I get to have with my adult women friends, we dig in. We get right in there. And I think we’re feeling more settled in our bodies. I can really labor over the vanity part of this, but it’s not gonna change the way I look. My job is to change the way I feel about the way I look. I’m going to try to embrace aging in a way that is just the total positivity of it.”
The song, McKenna says, may also be a first step toward new lyrical themes.
“I’m not really a ‘what’s next’ person,” she says. “I’m more a ‘let’s go back’ person. But I really think the writing that will come next will be a little bit more of being in the moment as far as understanding. Even ‘The Old Woman in Me’ took me looking at the person that I want to be versus where I thought I was gonna be.”
So what is next? On Sept. 28, she’ll begin an 11-stop tour with fellow songwriter-singer Brandy Clark. McKenna says she’s not sure who came up with the pairing, but she was thrilled by the invitation.
“I was like, yes, please,” she says. “Brandy is one of my favorite writers and humans. We’ve been able to write together a bunch over the years, and I just love her. I think we do different things, but they overlap in a lot of ways. We’re really gonna make a night of it.”
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