STOUGHTON, MASS. — The lights were dimmed and the room was packed at the neighborhood coffee house.
It was open-mike night, and dozens of aspiring singers and songwriters waited for their chance to make a first impression. Lori McKenna dragged out that night by her sister-in-law Andrea nervously took the microphone.
It was her first time in front of an audience.
"I didn't think I had it in me," Ms. McKenna says. "The audience could tell I was scared out of my mind."
This full-time mom had enjoyed writing poetry and singing, accompanied by acoustic guitar, to her children. But she hadn't seriously considered turning her love of music into a career before. She had never taken voice lessons and had spent most of her 20s raising three sons.
McKenna performed two songs that night in 1996, and the crowd cheered. As she walked out of the cafe, the manager, Robert Haigh, followed.
"Please come back," he said.
She did, and soon attracted a grass-roots following.
Audiences told her they loved her casual, acoustic-guitar style and songs that revealed nostalgic details about the frustrations, comforts, and joys of family life. Her voice is tempered with a slight twang, which has been compared to Natalie Maines (Dixie Chicks) and Nanci Griffith.
Two years after she hit the stage, McKenna released her first CD, "Paper, Wings & Halo," which launched her into New England's singer-songwriter scene. She won numerous accolades and put out a second album, "Pieces of Me," last November. This fall, she plans to tour the Northeast as she releases "The Kitchen Tapes," a compilation of 10 songs recorded on mini-disc at her kitchen table.
"They are demos ... some were written on the spot," she says, stepping around a rag doll and a rattle on her floor. "But they have this presence to them that ... you couldn't get [in the studio]."
Though McKenna's singing career has flourished, her family still comes first. "My top priority is being a mom," says McKenna, scooping up her 1-year-old daughter, Meghan.
On a typical day, she wakes up at the crack of dawn to fix breakfast for her family and prepare her three sons Brian, 13, Mark, 10, Christopher, 8, for school. She strums songs for a few hours in the morning and plays again after dinner dishes are washed and homework is finished.
These daily activities and reflections on rearing kids inspire her lyrics. "I find songwriting relaxing," she says. "It's like keeping a journal or making a scrapbook."
In "Pieces of Me," she sings about everything from the hole in her couch to her son's love of the planet Mars. An earlier song, "Hardly Speak a Word," is about another son, who is dyslexic.
"The best parts of his personality are the ones that can [also] be frustrating," she says. "You can go through the whole day letting [children] be who they are, then go through correcting them. When you go to bed, you think: I should have just loved more."
McKenna typically crafts her music in the living room as her baby girl plays happily on the floor, occasionally rocking to the beat of the music. She works on the melody of her songs first, her favorite part, then attaches words. "When I sit down, I almost don't have an idea of what I'll say. I babble the words...." she says.
She never writes a song down until it is complete. "The ones that stay in my head for days are the ones that work."
That's been her approach since childhood, when at age 13 songwriting became her "outlet."
The youngest of six, McKenna was born and raised on the South Shore of Massachusetts. Her siblings grew up singing and playing instruments. (She loved The Cure. Her favorite song remains "Just Like Heaven.")
She and her husband, Gene, married when she was 19, and McKenna dropped out of college to raise their sons. When the boys grew older, she craved artistic fulfillment. "I thought: I can't live my life just through my kids. I have to pursue this It's part of [me]."
With her family's encouragement, she sang at parties, family dinners, or alone in the kitchen. When she traded living-room concerts for the real thing, she found the folk-music environment supportive.
"People see this as your passion," she says. "It doesn't matter what clothes you have on, it's what you sing."
Her father, who lives nearby, and her husband, who works at a utility company, pitch in when she travels outside Boston for concerts, typically two or three nights a month. (She once drove all night from Long Island so she could fix breakfast for her family the next morning.)
She's content with balancing family and career.
"A big house and car are not important to me," she says. "I feel like I'm successful now with my little house. I'm home with my kids. What do I have to complain about?"