The Rumpus Interview with Kelly Hogan

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Never underestimate the value of knowing how to play well with others. Georgia native Kelly Hogan first garnered attention as singer for jazzy combo the Jody Grind, and later played guitar in the Rock*A*Teens, but she’s best known for singing backup with a staggering array of artists: Neko Case, Drive-By Truckers, Mavis Staples, Jakob Dylan, Amy Ray. Though blessed with a powerful set of pipes, Hogan uses her gifts in service of the music, not her ego; her vocal timbre recalls the queens of Golden Age country, tempered with a mix of sensitivity and chutzpah that rivals Dusty Springfield.

For her fourth solo album, I Like To Keep Myself In Pain, Hogan called in years of accrued favors, soliciting material from musicians she’d collaborated or crossed paths with over the years. The response yielded new or rarely heard compositions from Andrew Bird, M. Ward, Robyn Hitchcock, John Wesley Harding, and the Handsome Family; Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields and Vic Chestnutt—both of whom Hogan has recorded in the past—also submitted songs. Raising the bar even higher, the studio band for her first record since 2001’s Because It Feels Good features R&B icons Booker T. Jones and James Gadson (Bill Withers, Beck) and Daptone Records stalwart Gabe Roth.

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The Rumpus: How did you go about soliciting this material? Did you do it in increments or one fell swoop?

Kelly Hogan: I’m a Capricorn, so I put stuff in alphabetical order and get it organized. I made a list of all the people I’d worked with and might want to contact. It was a big long list! I’m like, “Damn! These people owe me!” I figured if I thought about it too much I might chicken out, so I did an initial push and sent requests to twenty or twenty-five people, and then later I asked the people I was too scared to write to at first.

Rumpus: There are only thirteen tracks on the album. Does that mean there are a bunch of songs we haven’t heard?

Hogan: There are two songs that we’ve already recorded that didn’t make the record. One’s by Edith Frost and the other’s by Wilco, although Wilco ended up putting that song on their new record, too. There are people I really like whose songs I didn’t get to include, like Tom Brosseau and Sonny Smith, and even some people I didn’t write to. Alison Levy from San Francisco sent me a great one. Eventually I want to record every single song that people sent and put them out, even if it’s just online. I’m like the door-to-door Mormon for good songs. I’ll proselytize all day long.

Rumpus: How did you go about developing your relationship with these songs? It must be different from singing something you wrote, or covering a longtime favorite.

Hogan: I just had to try on all the songs and wear ’em, walk around the house in my underpants and sing along. The songs resonated with me for different reasons. Certain ones were a direct hit, and others, I thought “Oh, I could never sing this.” Like the M. Ward song (“Daddy’s Little Girl”). I’m not a person who worships at the altar of Frank Sinatra, so I was feeling kind of bad, “I can’t sing this song, it’d be hypocritical.” But once I realized the song wasn’t singing “Frank Sinatra is so great,” but singing as him, then it became a really interesting experience. I also like a song that looks at me and dares me to sing it. “You can’t sing me. You’ll never get me?” Oh yeah? I’ve died trying a couple times.

Rumpus: You’ve often said you’re the servant to the song. How did you develop that sensibility?

Hogan: I used to listen to music from the frosting down. As a word nerd, lyrics are really important to me, and then the melody. Playing in the Rock*A*Teens was the first time I ever heard music from the bottom up. I was hearing songs I’d heard a million times on oldies radio, and I’d be like, “Wow, listen to what the bass is doing!” When I was first singing in bands, I’d just get out there with my machete, wildly whacking away at the foliage. But you learn how to listen. When I feel I’m doing it right, it’s 90% listening and 10% output. It’s not “look what I can do!” It’s all about “check out this awesome song!” Songs just blow my mind, constantly.

Rumpus: How did you assemble the band? Did you have another legal pad full of names?

Hogan: No, that was all done by the witch doctor of ANTI- Records, Andy Kaulkin. Andy loves to put all these disparate musical elements together and find common ground. The first time Andy threw me into something, it was at SXSW in front of all these people. Me, Tim Fite, and this rapper from Minneapolis, P.O.S.. We’d just met, and poor P.O.S. is freestyling on “Long Black Veil.”

Originally, I wanted to go to Nashville and work with Mark Nevers again, maybe do the record with some of the people I know from the South as my band. But then Andy said, “What if you came to Los Angeles?” And he adds, “I’m thinking about Booker T., and James Gadson for drums.” I had just watched the documentary Still Bill the night before, and Googled James Gadson. Andy’s the type of person that can think of these ideas, and has the clout to make them happen. Gabe Roth only had one week off between these two really long tours, so we had to get a note of permission from his wife to release him to us.

Rumpus: Even though those are some big names, I imagine it was kind of centering to record with them. They have a lot of experience, with a variety of projects.

Hogan: Definitely. And, once again, I’m a Capricorn. I’d done all my research and seen that Booker and Gadson had worked with giant folks and little peanuts, too. That just showed me that they’re musicians. They’re not just interested in doing the big ones, they’re interested in doing stuff that—pardon the expression—gives them a boner. I’m like that, too. I don’t want to just do easy stuff. I want to keep myself freaked out all the time. Hence the title of the record, I Like To Keep Myself in Pain.

Rumpus: I like to keep myself on tenterhooks.

Hogan: I love the word tenterhooks! That’s a good one. Do you get the Miriam-Webster Word of the Day e-mail? It’s really great. The word today was “cahoots.”

Rumpus: How does being such a word nerd shape your singing?

Hogan: All of that minutiae comes into play when I’m attacking a song. “Am I going to sing with my speaking vowels? Am I going to sing the way I sound when I’m talking to my mama on the phone, and my vowels start to dangle, and eye becomes ah? What does the song need?” It’s not like you’re being fake, it’s just the way you color it, like a guitar player uses pedals or different effects. That’s why I get so mad about people who are down on vocal reverb. It’s not a crutch, people, it’s an aesthetic choice!

Rumpus: You did a month of Monday night shows with guitarist Scott Ligon at the Hideout in Chicago before you went to L.A. to record. Did any of the songs undergo radical transformations as a result of those gigs?

Hogan: We tried the Robyn Hitchcock song (“I Like To Keep Myself In Pain”) a different way every week. The demo he’d sent was very basic, just him and a guitar, and we weren’t sure how we were going to do it. So we did it as a doo wop song, as a jazz torch song, like an Elvis song in 6/8 time. That was one that came together in the studio with everybody’s input. Gadson was like, “Which one? Oh yeah… that’s the one that goes like this.” He started playing this cowboy beat, and then Scott threw in these overtly Willie Nelson bits on nylon string. Suddenly it came together as this bizarre, black humor, country song.

In the studio, we would do a song for ten takes, and change stuff around all the time, transpose it up a step or down a third. The demo version of “Sleeper Awake,” the John Wesley Harding song, is very gentle… the way I would want to be awakened. We’d already done it like, fifteen times, in this nice, gentle way, and then Andy Kaulkin suggested doing it [the way we did]. “Okay, but you’re gonna give me a heart attack.”

Rumpus: I love “Sleeper Awake!” Your version swings like Petula Clark or Lesley Gore side. It’s very groovy.

Hogan: When I listen to it now, all I see is those old David Naughton “I’m A Pepper” TV commercials where he’s dancing around with a Dr. Pepper in his hand, but I was thinking about Kirsty MacColl and Tracey Ullman records, and, yeah, Petula Clark. We were just doing it all as we went along. We had the luxury of these amazing musicians, so we were just trying everything we wanted to try. It’s all for the song, man!


Kurt B. Reighley is the author of United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties, and Handmade Bitters: A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement and the forthcoming Say Hello, Wave Goodbye: The Fleeting Fame and Lasting Legacy of Soft Cell. His alter-ego, DJ El Toro, can be heard Wednesday nights on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. More from this author →