Interview: Kelly Hogan

Ashley Melzer

By Ashley Melzer

on 06.05.12 in Interviews

I Like To Keep Myself In Pain

Kelly Hogan

It’s no surprise that Kelly Hogan has made a few friends through the years. The Wisconsin-based singer’s career is a storied one. She started in Atlanta with The Jody Grind, changed gears for a turn as one of the Rock*A*Teens, then settled in for a spell as the honey voiced sweetheart of the Chicago roots scene. Along the way, she took a turn as publicist and then artist for Bloodshot Records, painted a few houses and stretched herself musically with everything from a kids band (the Wee Hairy Beasties, formed with the MekonsJon Langford) to a jazz residency (three years at Chicago’s The Hideout). She’s also done hard time singing backup for the likes of Mavis Staples, Andrew Bird, the Drive-By Truckers, Jakob Dylan and longtime friend Neko Case.

Thus, when Andy Kaulkin, President of the ANTI- record label, proposed she seek out a few songs for a new album, there was a deep well from which to draw. I Like to Keep Myself in Pain represents two years of work, asking old friends and collaborators to write songs she could infuse with her own country-soul spin. The album features tracks by Freakwater‘s Catherine Irwin, M. Ward, the Magnetic Fields‘ Stephin Merritt, Robyn Hitchcock, Robbie Fulks, The Handsome Family and the late Vic Chesnutt, among others. It’s a masterfully curated work that lets Hogan show off incomparable vocal skill over the melodic groove of a crack band including Booker T. Jones, James Gadson (Beck), Scott Ligon (NRBQ), and Gabe Roth (the Dap-Kings).

eMusic’s Ashley Melzer called up Hogan to talk about collaboration, interpretation and the benefits of keeping yourself in pain.

Reading over the concept for this album and then the list of collaborators you worked with, it’s remarkable. Did you ever feel like you were just dreaming?

It’s pretty amazing, yeah. It’s like waiting to ride the roller coaster and then the lap bar comes down and you’re like, “Well, all right. Here we go.” You just have to throw up your hands and make the best of it. It’s been quite a ride, for sure.

So how did this originally come about? I read something about you charming [ANTI- Label President] Andy Kaulkin at backstage events.

Andy and I…I’ve known him for a long time just because of Neko’s association with ANTI-; Andy comes to a lot of those shows. Then, when he would be in Chicago, he’d come see bands that I was in and hang out. I’ve had so many conversations, like hours-long conversations, with Andy about all different kinds of music. I love to watch him watch music. He gets so into it; his whole body is possessed by it. I’ve always loved the ANTI- record label and if you look at their roster and their output, you can tell that it’s a label motivated by their love of music, directed and informed by their love of music.

So, yeah, Andy came and asked if I would do a record for ANTI- and I thought he was joking, but he was serious. He’s very thoughtful, too, so before he even asked me, he had thought of this approach. I had played with all these people for so many years, so I should, I think as he said, “Call in some favors,” which is not how I think of it at all. I don’t think of these people as owing me anything. That’s why when they did send me songs, I wanted to call my record I’m Not Worthy. It was like a tidal wave of musical love.

It doesn’t seem that different from how you’ve worked before. You’ve always leaned toward singing other people’s songs.

Oh yeah. I’m an interpreter. Definitely. Asking people to write for me, though…the whole thing was fraught with terror. I was scared to write the fan letter. If it was me, I’d have been scared to get it, scared to send the song. I was scared to hear the song. That kind of gets back to the title of my record, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain.

I hadn’t thought of it that way.

To me that title just kind of means, you gotta just keep doing it. You gotta keep hanging your ass out there. You gotta keep going for it, keep taking a chance at failure. The subtext of that song is that it keeps me alive. It’s so tempting to stay in your house and not do anything and stay safe, but I just keep hanging my ass out there like an orangutan in the wind, for better or for worse. How vivid. Sorry everybody.

I’m glad you pointed that out, because the only song on the record you did write, “Golden,” is about that, about how you have to stick with it to make it. How nice to put that on an album of this caliber.

It’s crazy, ’cause yeah, I wrote that for Neko but it is just kind of a nice wish for everybody. Nobody’s more standing there in disbelief than me in that studio with Booker T.

The rumor is you sent out 40-some-odd requests. Did you send them all at once? Or person by person?

I sent a whole bunch of emails. I kind of just took two days to sit in front of my computer and write down what I wanted to say. Before I could lose my nerve, I just kind of boom — just sent them out there. I think I sat on my couch and panted a lot because it was scary.

Vic Chesnutt I didn’t ask for another month or so because I was too afraid. I’d known him for a long time, but I was just too in awe. Then we sang on the same bill on Mountain Stage. I had just seen him and so I finally wrote to Vic. He’s one of the first people that sent me a song, and what a song it is.

Did anyone send you something that you were taken aback by? Or you weren’t sure what you were going to do with it?

Well, people have asked, “What about people whose songs you didn’t put on the record?” But anybody that I wrote to is in the same position — I mean, I contribute to a lot of people’s projects whether live or on record, and I always say that I’m there to serve the song and what the song needs. I can go record with somebody for two days and when I hear the record all that’s on there is an “ooooh.” It’s just whatever the project needs. I always say, “Use some, none or all.” It’s not going to hurt my feelings because it’s not about me or us, it’s about the music and the songs. I pretty much believe that everybody I wrote to, and included in this project would understand that sometimes it just isn’t the right song for the right thing.

I’d also say for this record, it’s like you can go to the dog shelter and think you know what kind of dog you’re going to get, but the dog just picks you. It’s kind of like that. I want to get all the songs out of the shelter eventually and record them, if that makes any crazy sense. Anyhow, I would hope that anybody that I wrote to I was confident that they approached music in the same way — that the song is the most important piece and it kind of tells you what to do. The songs, I just tried them all on and that’s what I do with any cover song, any song I’m going to try to interpret. I just try to wear it around like clothes and see what fits and roll up the sleeves and fix it how I want it. These are just the ones that ended up working for that week and that time and this record. There’ll be another ANTI- record and so maybe we’ll see what happens.

That’s interesting, because I was curious, when you ask for a song, do you ask for anything more then just lyrics or a demo? Do you talk to the songwriter about their intentions?

Well, I wanted to give people freedom, but I also know that when I do write songs, I do best with parameters. If you start with a whole blank page, it’s like, “Well now what do I do?” You need to have like, “This song needs to have this in it or these elements or we’re shooting for this mood.” When we first were soliciting folks, we thought we were going to do a record that was more kind of uptown sounding — like with strings, Dionne Warwick style. I talk sometimes about that period in music where everything suddenly had a harpsichord — ’64-’72, the Lurch period in music with the Addams’ Family, Dark Shadows influence, when everybody had a puffy shirt. I like that kind of baroque, gothic pop. I sort of said that in the letter and it went to people that know me, people I’ve worked with in one-way or another, so they know the sort of stuff I like. But I was open to anything. I got all kinds. I think John Wesley Harding and Chris Von Sneidern wrote me some song about Technicolor pants and all kinds of things. I’m open, I mean, like I said, I like to keep myself in pain, I like to keep myself open. I don’t ever say no without checking it out.

I didn’t realize writer Jack Pendarvis [who wrote the lyrics for "We Can't Have Nice Things"] was also a songwriter. Why did you write to him?

I’ve known Jack since I was with Jody Grind. We used to play Mobile and his band Zydeco Elvis would open for us. He played accordion. He actually wrote me a song like in 1992. We used to do it live. It was called “Blue Magic.” I love that song. I think he’s a great writer. I love his writing. So when I was sending letters, I sent it to people who might just write lyrics or might just write music. I thought it would be cool to mix up some lyrics with something somebody that just does instrumental music wrote. In that case it worked out with Andrew Bird. I sent him some of Jack’s lyrics and Jack, speaking of country weepers, he thought based on the lyrics that it was going to sound more like a George Jones song. Bird took it uptown. I love how it turned out and I love putting people that I love together like that.

I read you were in a children’s band with John Langford. Did that inform your song with him?

I’ve known Langford…He produced my first Bloodshot record. Actually, when Langford heard my version he said, “Oh, it sounds like the Bay City Rollers.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” I had all these mixing notes for all the other songs, but the only note I had for his song just said, “Make it smell like beer,” because he has gusto. He could call me up and say, “Hogan, meet me down at 63rd and Kedzie because we’re going to play on the street corner,” and I wouldn’t even have to ask what songs, I would just say, “All right, I’ll be there,” because he has that attitude like I have: Let’s just do it. That kind of informs my treatment of his song. Make it smell like beer — sing like pirates and smell like beer. I like the gusto of that one.

I love working with him in Wee Hairy Beasties. I love that band except when you get in a kids’ band, you forget that a lot of times your sound check is going to be at six in the morning, not six at night because you do these early children’s shows. There were some painful mornings for The Wee Hairy Beasties, but I hope we make another record someday because I love it. I had fun writing songs with them too.

It’s neat the way the whole record is, in a way, a map of your history. Was it also a way for you to employ all these tools you’ve acquired through the years?

Oh, for sure. I haven’t made a solo record in a long time but I’ve been ridiculously busy doing all different kinds of music and working in all different capacities and getting thrown into these crazy situations and singing with Neko and doing things with her and working more writing vocal arrangements — getting free reign from Neko to do that has been really cool. Now, I get called in on stuff where it’s not just, “Hey sing this part, it goes like this,” it’s “Do what you do,” so I get to invent stuff. So yeah, I used everything, all my listening skills, my singing skills, interpersonal skills, bartending skills. The only thing I didn’t do was paint a house that week, but I could have.