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Kelly Hogan was one of the Chicago alt-country scene’s brightest stars of the 1990s, and she has never stopped singing in the years since then—but she went a long time without releasing an album. Someone looking at a list of Hogan’s records might wonder whatever happened to her. For one thing, she’s been on the road a lot with Neko Case, singing back-up vocals for her good friend. Hogan’s also been working for another pal, Lynda Barry, scheduling the comic-book author’s classes on how to unlock the creative spirit. Meanwhile, Hogan commanded the stage with her confident and versatile vocals on many nights at venues like the Hideout, where she used to tend bar. But there was nothing new for Hogan’s fans to buy at the merch table.
That changes June 5, when Anti- Records releases I Like To Keep Myself In Pain. The album makes it clear that the alt-country label is obsolete as a description of Hogan’s music, a beautiful blend of classic soul, pop, jazz, and country. Hogan’s trusted collaborator Scott Ligon, a whiz on guitar and keyboards who also plays in NRBQ, joined her in the studio. So did legendary keyboardist Booker T. Jones, veteran session drummer James Gadson, and bassist Gabriel Roth, a.k.a. Bosco Mann, the band leader for Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings.
The songwriting credits are filled with some notable names, too. The record features new tunes—many of them written specifically for Hogan—by M. Ward, Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin, John Wesley Harding, The Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks, Robbie Fulks, Jon Langford and Roth. Andrew Bird composed a song for Hogan with lyrics by author Jack Pendarvis. Robyn Hitchcock wrote the title song, telling Hogan it was inspired by “a rather morbid e-mail exchange” he’d had with her. Vic Chesnutt gave Hogan a song before his death in 2009. Hogan also covers the Charlie Rich song “Pass On By” and the Magnetic Fields obscurity “Plant White Roses.”
Hogan discussed her new album and her musical roots with The A.V. Club, talking by phone from her home in Wisconsin, where she moved four years ago, to a Mayberry-like small town south of Madison.
The A.V. Club: It’s been 11 years since your last album. What took so long?
Kelly Hogan: People ask me that question. I’m like, “Dude, I was too busy!” I mean, I did that thing for ’XRT, a cover song a week for a year. I still have all that stuff in the can.
AVC: And you’ve been busy with live performances, playing with Neko Case, Robbie Fulks, The Flat Five, and others.
KH: I was probably just trying to figure out how to be a good, well-rounded musician. That’s what I’m always trying to be, you know? Just trying to do all kinds of things and take on all kinds of challenges—the harder, the better. The more frightening it is, the more I like it. My last record came out three weeks after 9/11. It was a really weird time. And it’s always hard, when you’re a peanut, to put out a record and tour. I just couldn’t afford to tour. I’ll take a loss, but I can’t ask my band to go out for less than what they’re worth and come home after four weeks with $100.
AVC: You consider yourself a peanut?
KH: Yeah. It’s still hard when you’re a peanut. Now I’m a big circus peanut. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was the origin of this album?
KH: Andy Kaulkin is the honcho at Anti- records, and I’ve known him for quite some time now through Neko. … I was at Amoeba Records. We were doing an in-store with Neko, and I was shopping in the jazz section and Andy walked up. “I gotta talk to you.” I thought I was late for bus call. I was like, “I’m sorry I’m late!” He said, “No, no, no. I want you to make a record for Anti-.” I thought I was being punked. I was like, “Really?” It all goes back to Andy. The label’s fantastic. It all goes back to the dude who’s running it, because Andy just loves music so much.
AVC: So he had the concept of putting this band together and having all these people write songs for you?
KH: Yeah. He suggested from the get-go that I should call in favors, because I’d sung with so many different people. Last February, he said, “What do you think about coming to L.A.? And we invest our money in the band?” And I was like, “Okay, who are you thinking?” And he said, “I’m thinking Booker T.” And I’m like, “Tell me more.” He mentioned James Gadson on drums, and I’d just seen that Still Bill documentary the night before, the Bill Withers documentary. It’s so great. James Gadson was Bill Withers’ drummer. Have you seen the footage of Bill Withers on “The Old Grey Whistle Test”? You’ve got to Google that, man. It pans over to James Gadson and he’s got this awesome Afro and this cool suit and a gold tooth and he’s just smiling this gorgeous “Everything is all right and it’s gonna be all right” smile. He still does that. That’s his playing face. You know how when most people are concentrating on playing, they look like they’re pooping?
It was just this weird thing—that Andy mentioned James Gadson the day after I’d watched that documentary and then Googled Gadson specifically for an hour afterwards. I’m like, “You’re shitting me!” And then Gabe Roth was magically available for only that one week between two Dap-Tone tours. We had to get a permission slip from his wife to release him to us. But then (Kaulkin) was talking about getting a guitar player, and I was like: “Wait just a minute now. All right, I’m going to go in with Booker T. and James Gadson and Gabe Roth. I’m going to need somebody I know. I need to bring somebody to the party.”
AVC: That must have been Scott Ligon?
KH: Yeah. I just knew that Scott was going to blow those guys away. And I swear I thought that Scott Ligon and Booker T. were going to start making out with their mutual admiration.
AVC: How did you get the songs?
KH: Andy said, “Write a list of all these people you’ve worked with.” I was like, “Dang! I’ve worked with a lot of awesome people. There’s a lot.” So I wrote 40 fan letters to people, saying, “I’m making a record. I think you kick ass. I’m looking for songs. Do you have a song that you think I could do right by?”
AVC: It must be awesome to have these songs coming in for you to sing.
KH: It’s terrifying! Every aspect of this project was fraught with terror. It was scary for me to write to these people. It was probably scary for them to get the letter. It was scary for them to write the songs. It was scary for me to get the songs. But like I said, I like to keep myself off-balance, teetering—keep myself open. That’s why I picked the title. I like to keep myself in fear.
AVC: How much do the final recordings vary from the demos?
KH: It varies song by song. Scott and I would play with the songs at his house. We were making demos to send to the band, just very skeletal demos, because we were going to arrange as a band all together, which is also scary. And then we spent those Mondays at the Hideout last March, and that was also non-negotiable to me. I was like, “I’m going to have to play these songs live because that’s where I’m more able to discover what the song wants and needs.”
The Robyn Hitchcock song, we didn’t know how we were going to do it. Should it be in 6/8? Like this doo-wop thing? Should it be this kind of rock ’n’ roll thing? In the studio, we saved it till later in the week, ’cause we still weren’t sure about it. Then we came back from lunch that day and I was like, “Okay, we’re going to do that Robyn Hitchcock song.” And James Gadson was like, “Oh, yeah, this one!” And he started playing this doop-de-dee-dee, like the Sons Of The Pioneers, and he started yodeling. And then Scott started playing these overtly Willie Nelson-y things on the nylon-string guitar. Booker walked in from lunch and he was smiling. He was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah—that!” And then we were like, “Duh! He produced (Willie Nelson’s) ‘Stardust,’ man.” So it became this sort of weird cowboy noir.
AVC: Do you see all this music as being of a particular genre, or are you past the whole idea of thinking, “What genre am I performing in right now?”
KH: I never think about it. If a song is a good song, it’s a good song. Country and soul music have so much in common to me. Gosh, I wake up singing a different song every day. I was singing Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.” Why? [Laughs.] Sometimes it’ll be the “Look for the Union Label” jingle. I never know. I don’t worry about genre. Even back to my band, The Jody Grind—record labels would take us to dinner and go, “You do all these different kinds of music. If you would concentrate on one of the things that you do…” But, no, we’re not going to do that just to be marketable. And here I am, still eating ramen noodles, 25 years later. And that’s fine with me.
AVC: Were you exposed to a lot of different kinds of music growing up in Georgia?
KH: My first crush was—at the same, I was double-dating, in my mind, Davy Jones and Buck Owens. For some reason I had a crush on Buck Owens—“old liver lips,” that’s what Roy Clark would call him. I was really into country music at the time. I have an aunt who is 10 years older than me, and I used to love to sit in her room and watch her clean out her purse, and we’d listen to Paul Revere And The Raiders and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Monkees. And I was constantly listening to the radio. We’d spend our days with my grandmother, and she’d listen to WPLO AM radio in Atlanta, which was the hardcore country station—Charlie Pride, Lynn Anderson, Buck Owens and all that. We’d watch Hee Haw at their house. And then my mom was listening to Tom Jones and Van Morrison, and my dad was a huge soul music fan—Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Booker T., all that stuff. Nobody in my family is a musician. But music was always on somewhere.
In high school I was really into Van Halen and AC/DC. A friend who was a year ahead of me in school came in one day with two Billie Holiday records and said, “Here, I’m trying to save you from yourself.” And, oh, man, I took all my heavy-metal records and I sold them to this guy in my homeroom for, like, five bucks. And I’ve had to re-buy them: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Diver Down. Why did I do that? I thought I was all cool and jazz after that. But what an idiot. The world is big. There’s room for “Big Balls” and “I Cover The Waterfront.” Isn’t it an awesome world we live in? Genre schmenre.
AVC: Did you take to singing pretty easily when you were young?
KH: My mom always said I freaked her out as a 1- or 2-year-old. I knew the words to songs on the radio. I could sing them to myself in the crib. I was always over by the record player listening with my head against the speaker. And singing. One of my first Christmas presents, when I was 4, was my own little record player.
But I was painfully, painfully shy. I was at summer camp a year before sixth grade. And I used to sing in our tents at night—six girls in a tent. They wanted me to sing at a going-home ceremony when the parents came to pick everybody up. I was like, “Hell no! No way!” So they stole my clothes one day when I was in swim class. And I walked around for three days in a bathing suit before I said, “Okay, I’ll sing a song.” That was the first time I ever sang in front of people—at a Girl Scout camp in ’76, in Augusta, Georgia.
AVC: And how did it go?
KH: It went great, actually. I was shocked. I sang “Memories” from The Way We Were, barefooted, in front of about 200 Girl Scouts, Brownies, and parents and counselors. I finally got my nerve up to go audition for chorus in that school year. … I went to All State Chorus every year, where you would work with university choir directors and do all the complicated stuff. I got to sing with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus with Robert Shaw, Beethoven’s Ninth, one time. That was really fun. And then I had to kind of unlearn all that, because I started playing in bars on the fly when I was still in high school. You have to lose a little bit of your diction to sing in a jazz band or a rock band.
AVC: Do you do vocal exercises?
KH: I try to warm up. I found that the opening measures of Louis Jordan songs make great warm-ups. Instead of just [sings scale] “Da da da da da da da da,” it’s: “Open the door, Richard! Open the door, Richard!” I just listen to music that I know by heart while I’m putting on makeup. Me and Neko do that in the bus. We like Patty Loveless songs, and we sing along to that.
You have to really take care of yourself on the road. I learned in the Rock*A*Teens you can have delusional, feverish flu and be on Robitussin when you’re playing guitar, but you can’t sing. You have to really take care of yourself, and there’s nothing that replaces sleep. I definitely miss out on some awesome drunk good times because of being a singer and not a guitar player. I have to go to bed.
AVC: Do you arrange your harmony parts?
KH: Mmm-hmm. I don’t write them down on paper, but I make them up in my head. I can just hear them. I like to live with a song for a while and drive around with it or listen to it while I’m doing something else, like doing dishes or taking a bath. I hear melodies in everything. I harmonize to my vacuum cleaner. I harmonize to a factory whistle in my town that goes off six times a day. I want to write them a letter: “Could you please give me a couple of more toots or let it ring out longer?” Or if a car alarm is going off, I start writing a melody around it. It’s bizarre.
AVC: Do you do something different with the delivery or timbre of your voice to meld with a particular singer?
KH: It depends on what the song needs. It can vary measure by measure in a song. I’m that nerdy about it. There’s definitely a different attack or how much vibrato. Oh, yeah, definitely. That’s my joy. That’s my nerdy joy. My nerd world. That’s where I live. I think about that stuff all the time.
AVC: One thing you’re not known for so much is writing songs, but you do have an excellent one, “Golden,” on the new record.
KH: Thanks, man. I don’t know. It’s a time-honored tradition: The writers write the songs. The singers sing it. I always say Bob Dylan just fucked it up for everybody. You have to do both or you don’t get any respect. But whatever. I wake up every day thinking about singing and being a great musician. I wake up, like, every third day about maybe writing a song.
AVC: What’s the story behind how you came to write “Golden”?
KH: That is a song about Neko and for Neko—about how me and her are cursed. We know what we do is really hard but we can’t stop doing it. I wrote that quite a while ago for her. It struck me later that all the references in it are kind of antique, you know? There’s pay phones and transistor radios. I wrote it pre-cellphone. She actually did call me from a pay phone one morning, when she was in the middle of nowhere in Canada, and the van broke down. I was like, “Oh, dude. I feel ya. I feel ya, man.” That was like 1999 or something. On the way to work—it’s totally true—I saw her face on a Ted Nugent billboard. On Ted Nugent’s body. I was, “Yeah, man!” That’s just my wish for her. And just kind of our little friendship and how we’re doomed.
AVC: The two of you have already had great stage banter together.
KH: Tampon, tampon, vagina, vagina, tampon, penis.
AVC: And now you do it on Twitter.
KH: Yeah, it’s fun. I love talking to her that way. Actually, we tone it down it for Twitter. We hit it off immediately when we met. We just spoke the same language.
AVC: You really open yourself on some of your Tumblr posts. You had a very moving post last year about a photo of your old band, The Jody Grind.
KH: Phew, that took a long time to write. But I’m glad I wrote it. Yeah, I’m really enjoying Tumblr. I don’t write songs, but I like to write write. That’s using my Lynda Barry method. It’s just whenever something sparks, like a photograph. It’s just memory stuff. What draws me to certain song lyrics is when they’re visually evocative. Like the Vic Chesnutt song. That song only has, like, eight words in it, but they’re all like visual flash bulb images: Easter dresses, choir robes, muscle cars.
AVC: How does it feel to sing the song Vic Chesnutt wrote for you, now that he has died?
KH: I don’t know what they’re doing with any posthumous release for him, but the demo, he recorded it with Elf Power over in their basement one night—and the demo is stunning. It just floored me. It’s great. He put in his e-mail, “I was too high to hit the high notes.” Bullshit, Vic, it sounds awesome. Yeah, I’m really glad that it’s out there. I don’t want to talk too much about Vic not being around. You know, he had a hard—just getting up every day and going to the bathroom was harder than most of us—it’s like having to do your taxes every day. I don’t know. So, yeah, it’s really sad. I played some of my record for Patterson Hood from Drive-By Truckers in October, and he said, “Oh, that little bastard would’ve loved this.” And I was like, “You think so?” I just hope he hears it somewhere, and I hope he likes it.
Kelly Hogan plays May 28 in Millennium Park, June 8 at Space in Evanston, and June 9 at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn.