Collectively known as the Love Junkies, songwriters Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose have been responsible for such monster hits as Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” as well as — in various iterations — songs for A Star Is Born, the TV series Nashville, and dozens of other singles and album cuts by Taylor Swift, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw and more. The trio recently got together to participate in the popular podcast Broken Record, for an episode aptly titled “How to Write a Hit Song.”
The trio is joined by best-selling author and Revisionist History podcast host Malcolm Gladwell, who shares hosting duties for Broken Record with producer Rick Rubin and former New York Times editor Bruce Headlam. Gladwell introduces the podcast, taped at Nashville’s Sony Tree studios, by saying that he didn’t so much as interview the trio as he “sat in the corner laughing and made sure the tape was running.”
For the first several minutes, after Rose recalls a chance encounter with an old boyfriend from her hometown of Irving, Texas, the trio begins writing a new song based on that experience, with Gladwell even contributing a rhyme or two. Later in the podcast, they also play (from an iPhone) the demo of one of their so-called “dude” songs, “Coppertone and Chlorine,” which was cut, but remains unreleased, by Kristian Bush.
Here are five things we learned from Gladwell’s conversation with the Love Junkies:
Lori McKenna learned the art of co-writing from Liz Rose.
After Massachusetts native McKenna signed her first publishing deal in Nashville, she also had her first experience of collaborating with other songwriters. “When I came to town, I got a publishing deal in 2005. I had never co-written a song. I came down here to do trips. I never lived here. I would fly down. My publisher was like, ‘You should co-write songs.’ It just seemed so difficult to try to do this with other people. My first co-write, I think, was Mark D. Sanders [co-writer of “I Hope You Dance”]. Liz was maybe my third or fourth person they put me in a room with. Really, over the couple years following, she taught me how to co-write a song.”
Taylor Swift introduced Hillary Lindsey to Rose in a roundabout way.
Thanks to Taylor Swift, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose were the co-writers of a huge hit song before they even met. After she started a song with Rose, Swift went to Lindsey’s house for a writing session and asked for her help. “I don’t know,” Lindsey recalls telling the young artist, who was working on only her second album. “I don’t really know Liz. I don’t want Liz to hate me. I don’t know if this is a good idea. And she’s like, ‘Liz won’t care, Liz won’t care.’” For the record, Rose says now, “I thought it was awesome.” The song was “Fearless,” which would become the title cut of Swift’s Grammy-winning sophomore LP, which has, to date, sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Rose and Lindsey would finally meet each other for the first time at a party for Swift not long after the song’s release.
The writers each take on a unique “role” for their songwriting sessions.
When the three writers get together, the most important thing they do is keep each other honest, but they also each take on a particular role, including being the “adult in the room,” a role McKenna claims for herself with the others noting that the roles often shift. “Somebody has to be the artist of the song and each song is different. Our roles will change,” McKenna explains. “We’ll write two songs in a day and the roles will change between the songs. Somebody’s the artist, somebody is the therapist, somebody’s the cheerleader… someone is the sleeper.”
The trio isn’t afraid of addressing their age.
Before an emotional acoustic performance of “My Age,” which reduced all of them to tears, the trio talks about the song’s inspiration and how each one of them came at it from their own experiences with parenthood or, in Rose’s case, grandparenthood. “I was on the other side of the room. I was playing the piano,” recalls McKenna. “I started singing something and Liz had never heard it before and was singing along with me… She knows me so well she knew what I was going to say. I had no chorus. I didn’t know what to do with it. She started singing the chorus but we had no hook. Hillary says, ‘Well, this is terrible but it could be this.’ As soon as she said it we all cried like babies. To me, that was magical.”
Rose was initially against writing “Girl Crush.”
When McKenna first told Rose about her idea for “Girl Crush,” Rose was dead-set against writing it. The trio was on the second day of a three-day writing retreat. “Lori and I were in the kitchen and she was making coffee,” says Rose. “We were waiting for Hillary to get up. She said, ‘I want to write a song called ‘Girl Crush.’ I immediately, without even thinking, said no.” Once Lindsey entered the room and began playing what would become the first line of the song, Rose relented. “I wasn’t thinking. I have no idea where it came from,” says Lindsey. “Clearly it came from God. That did not come out of my mind.”