By Al Kaufman
Kelly Hogan is one of the queens of the Atlanta music scene. Her band in the ‘90s, The Jody Grind, were on the verge of stardom before a drunk driver killed two members. She then sang for the Rock*A*Teens before putting out three fabulous solo records that showcased her amazing vocal prowess. Anything from rock to country to blues to torch songs, Hogan could make sure you were either crying in your beer or kicking up the dust with your boots on the dance floor.
She moved out to Chicago to be closer to her friends at Bloodshot Records, and has since moved to Wisconsin. She has spent a large chunk of the last decade singing back-up for her BFF Neko Case, as well as appearing on albums by everyone from Drive-By Truckers to Jacob Dylan to Mavis Staples.
I Like To Keep Myself in Pain (Anti-) is Hogan’s first new album in 11 years. On it, she is backed by R&B legends Booker T. Jones and James Gadson, as well as Gabe Roth and Scott Ligon. She sings songs written for her by friends. Vic Chesnutt penned the haunting “Ways of This World” before his suicide some two years ago. Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields offered up the beautifully morose “Plant White Roses.” Robyn Hitchcock gave the title track, while M Ward donated a track told from the point of view of a contemplative Frank Sinatra. Other good friends, such as Jon Langford, Catherine Irwin (Freakwater), and writer Jack Pendarvis and singer Andrew Bird help fill out this collection of songs that show off every aspect of Hogan’s treasured singing voice.
While sitting in her car with the Kiss air freshener in front of the Piggly-Wiggly in Wisconsin, Hogan talked about her new album and why it took so long to make, as well as how she ended up in Wisconsin, why she doesn’t have hair on her chest, and why you may not want to trust her hotel reviews.
The obvious question is why did it take 11 years?
Ah, yes. I have a tortoise metabolism. But it’s not like I’ve been sitting around. I’ve been busy as hell. When I put my last record out, it came out around 9/11, and so all sorts of things got blown up, and mine is nothing to cry about, but touring was impossible and nobody was buying anything, nobody was doing anything. It was really difficult to tour. It’s hard to tour. There was no tour support, and it was almost like I just couldn’t afford to do it. I’ll go out and flog away but I need enablers because I don’t play instruments, and I couldn’t ask other people to go out and play for nothing, or for $100 for two weeks. So I just couldn’t afford it anymore.
So you didn’t do an album because you didn’t think you could do the supporting tour?
That was one thing. After my last record I was like, okay, I’m not going to ask dudes to go out with me for no money, because I was touring with amazing people and I can’t pay them. That’s not right. So I just stayed closer to home.
I mean I was busy like crazy, just insane. I had to have six colors of highlighter. I was looking at my datebook on a plane one time and the guy sitting next to me was like, ‘Can you just put that where I can’t see it, it’s kind of giving me a heart attack.’ I was always singing on other people’s records and stuff. I wanted to try to explore all the other angles of music, like being a side man.
I wanted to ask you about that. You like to play with friends. You tour with all your friends. And you just kind of do your own thing in the music business. You’re not a household name or anything, but are you where you want to be in the music business? Do you consider yourself a big success?
My thing is I haven’t had a day job in a while. It was a night job, I was bartending and bar managing at the Hideout. And that’s due to Neko’s success, because that was my main anchor and that enabled me to do all this other stuff. So that to me, anytime I can not have a day job . . . but I take stuff here and there. I still love to paint houses. I painted Neko’s living room last February. And I like doing other work. I traveled with my 30 paint brushes to Neko’s house. I didn’t even trust them in my checked baggage. I carried them on. Those are my babies. So to me, to get to explore music . . . I’m broke right now, and I’m kind of always borderline broke, so that’s kind of a drag. And the health insurance issue is a pain in the ass. But I never went to a seminar on how to make it or networking. I’ve kind of just been following my own little divining rod.
I never wanted to play arenas. There are all kinds of compromises for that stuff and I don’t want to compromise.
What kind of compromises are you worried about?
Oh like, I don’t know, I played this thing last week for iTunes. I did a promo tour. It was cool, it was awesome. It was at a winery and it was amazing to be on this bill. There were 8 other bands like Best Coast, and this lady on One Tree Hill, Janet Cramer. I mean I looked at the line-up the day before and I was like I’m definitely the Bad News Bears. I had the greyest teeth of anyone there by 14 shades of grey.
But you had the best voice.
Well, no. I mean what was cool was that it was like a whole pack of Lifesavers. There was Brother Ali, this awesome rapper, and Tank, this kind of super hot six-pack R & B guy. And everybody was really nice and it was really cool, but there are just these certain cosmetic things that just to me have never been attainable. Even in my youth I was always looking like I look. So stuff like that. It’s like Bill Hicks, sucking Satan’s cock, and all that. I think the iTunes thing was just like a Satan’s hand job or something. But it was really fun.
As you would expect a Satan’s hand job to be.
Well, you know, yeah. There was wine. There was free wine. So that kind of stuff. When I was in the Jody Grind in Atlanta I remember we were getting all these offers and labels were taking us to dinner. Everyone liked us and was interested in us, but they weren’t sure what do with us because we were eclectic and did all different kinds of music. So a lot of the labels were like, ‘If you just concentrated on this jazz thing, or this country thing, because we don’t know where to put you in the record store.’ And we had a band meeting around this time when everything was getting swirly and drew up this band constitution of what we would do and what we would not do. We’ll work our asses off, but you have to listen to your gut. Or as my dad says, ‘You have to be able to look yourself in the eye while you’re shaving.’ And I keep having to remind my dad that I shave my legs.
Did dad want a boy or something?
No, he has one. But I have this army dad and he was always like, ‘Eat it, it will put hair on your chest.’ And I’m like, ‘Uuuhh.’ And now finally in my forties I heard the perfect retort for that and I wish I’d heard it back then. If they say it will put hair on your chest all you have to say is, ‘Hey, grass don’t grow on no playground.’ It took me 30 years to find the perfect retort. I can’t wait for my dad to tell me that this Thanksgiving.
You’ll give the man a heart attack.
Well, he knows me. He raised me.
How long have you been working on this album? I know you got the song from Vic, so that had to be a couple of years ago.
Yeah, I’ve been working on it about three or fourish years, which I think is cool. Going back to my metabolism statement from before, and it was because Neko’s Middle Cyclone record blew up and we were touring our asses off, and we actually had to commit to ten months of touring when Fox Confessor came out, and it ended up being two-and-a-half years. It just went wild and that kind of put stuff off, but that didn’t bother me at all. Plus, I would hate for someone to put a gun to my head and say, ‘Write me a song.’ Different people work at different paces and I just collected these songs as they came in, and it enabled certain people that wanted to send me a song but were busy at the time, like Andrew Bird. I saw him last February at a show and he said, ‘Oh, it’s too late to send you a song.” And I said, ‘Actually, it isn’t.’ So that’s how he was able to contribute. It’s like hatching a giant egg.
That’s got to make you feel pretty good to have all these friends write songs for you.
Yeah, I keep saying I was going to call the record I’m Not Worthy. It’s scary to write letters to these people. Andy Kaulkin at Anti- said, ‘You know what, it’s time to get some people to return the favor. You’ve worked for so many people.’ Neko called me the Zelig of rock. It was scary to write 40 fan letters. It was crazy. I can’t even believe it really happened, or is still happening. I’m trying to be worthy.
When you get something like a song from Robyn Hitchcock called “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain,” do you look at that and say, ‘Is this what you think of me?’ or do you say, ‘Thanks for thinking I can sing that great torch song.’?
It was perfect. His demo wasn’t torchy at all. And he’s another person who said yes he would a couple of years ago, and I was sending out emails to people about every six months or so. So towards the end I was doing the last call for alcohol sort of thing on the project and it spurred him to finish it. He started writing that song for me about six years ago, he said, (in a proper English accent) ‘After a rather moribund email exchange we had,’ before I even asked him to. And that title, too. When I decided to name my record that title my manager said, ‘Oh Hogan, that is so you.’ I said, ‘I know, I like to wallow in stuff.’ I pick the dark stuff. The label was like, ‘Are you sure?’ I had to fight for it. But now they’re like, ‘Okay, we get it.’ The other thing is there’s another line in that song, “It keeps me alive,” which is really kind of the unspoken thing about I like to keep myself in pain. And I just thought that was kind of implied. They wanted me to call it It Keeps Me Alive, but to me that’s just kind of understood.
M Ward’s “Daddy’s Little Girl.” Are you a Sinatra fan?
No, and I had this kind of quandary. I didn’t want to be dishonest. And I was having this trouble like, ‘I don’t know if I can sing this song.’ And not because it’s a man. I hardly ever change pronouns. I don’t mind singing from that point of view, but . . . I respect Sinatra, especially stuff he did like controlling your own music, and producing, and the whole thing about almost inventing the LP and concept album, but it’s one of those things where everyone is like ‘Oh, Sinatra,’ but you just don’t get it. I just don’t get it. I was trying to get it. On my tumblr I was writing about it and asking people, ‘Help me to get it.’ And we were recording where he had recorded “My Way” and “It Was a Very Good Year,” [East West Studios] and I just realized after a while that I’m not singing a song that says, “Frank Sinatra is awesome.” I’m just singing a song from the point of view of Frank Sinatra, which was really fun to do. And I love that song. M Ward had written it and was going to put it on a record, and then when I asked him, he said, ‘You know what, I have this song and it wasn’t working for me. It’s destiny. It’s perfect.’ So he gave it to me and I, I got it. So I had my little Frank Sinatra epiphany. And the echo chambers that Frank sang through were still in operation, so I sang through the echo chamber where he recorded “My Way.”
That song is all about fame and trying to keep it all together, and then you do Charlie Rich’s “Pass On By,” which is about trying to resist fame’s temptations, and that all seems to match with your not wanting to sell out, or not wanting to give in.
Yeah, just putting stuff in perspective. Do you want to wear knee pads or what? I have private life knee pads, but in my music life, no way. Plus I can paint houses, I can tend bar. I can look myself in the mirror while I’m shaving.
And as long s I’m not a burden when I die. I already told my mom just get a back hoe, bury me in the garden and plant some corn on me. As long as I’m not a burden. I’m just living within my means, my Ramen Noodle means.
Did you think you’d be living like this when you were in your 20s?
I feel like I’m Donald Trump. I’ve never owned a house; I’ve never had a new car. I barely shop, and when I do it’s at thrift stores for everything. The EPK (electronic press kit) came and filmed at my house. I was cleaning up and I looked around and every piece of furniture in my living room, and pretty much my whole house, I either found in an alley, thrift store, or dumpster. I’ve never aspired. When I tour and every now and then I get to stay in a nice hotel I just get my little taste of what it must be like. I’ll write reviews on Trip Advisor sometimes, and some people would write, ‘Oh my God, there was a crack in the ceiling,’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, where do you guys live?’ So my Trip Advisor stuff is probably a little skewed because when I say, ‘It’s awesome. It smells great.’ You might want to take that with a grain of salt. Compared to where I live, this is the Taj Majal.
So, no, I never had those goals. I wanted to sing and I’m doing that right now, so that makes me happy.
So when you said to yourself, ‘I want to sing,’ you decided the best place to do that would be Wisconsin.
One of my side jobs was working for Lynda Barry, one of my idols. She’s a writer, comic, artist and she and I became friends and I became her assistant for her writing classes. So I was booking the classes and the traveling and all that stuff. And she lives up here about eight miles away (I’m in the Piggly-Wiggly parking lot right now about to go buy some jalapenos). She and her husband live up here. They have a farm and he has a native plant nursery and prairie restoration. So I was up here a lot because they would watch my dog for me when I would go on tour, so I was just back and forth, and I was familiar with the area. And I was on tour so much with Neko and other stuff that when I was home . . . I lived all over Chicago for the 11 years I was there, but the last neighborhood I was in was particularly bad and gangstery and not restful, so I was kind of tired. I was home about 10% of the time, so that 10% I needed to actually get some sleep, and I couldn’t do that in my neighborhood.
How often do you get back to Atlanta?
Quarterly on average, for family and playing. I go The Varsity and Manuel’s and get my fix. My mom lives out in Rutledge, about 45 minutes east, and dad lives in Douglasville, where I went to high school, and that’s about 45 miles west, so I try to cover all my ground.
“Golden” is the only song you wrote on this. You usually write two or three per album. So do you do that at a slow pace, too, just whenever you feel like it?
I’ve written stuff for projects before. Actually “Golden” was in this project – I didn’t write it for it but it was in it. Have you seen the wrestling documentary Lipstick and Dynamite by former Atlantan Ruth Leitman?
Well you’ve got to check it out, like right now. Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling. Ruth was my landlord. She hates when I say that, but she was my landlord in Cabbagetown, and my friend, also. She’s just a cool filmmaker, and she asked me to do some music for her. I had that song “Golden,” that I’d written about Neko, that I’d been doing live for a couple of years before that. But for the movie, I actually some songs for that movie. Sometimes it’s easier for me to write with parameters, where you’re not just sitting around with a piece of paper trying to write Moby Dick. So I had certain parameters where she wanted a song about travel and what it meant for these women to finally be out on their own and have their own car, and stuff like that. So that was fun. And I wrote “Sugarbowl” for the Benjamin project, Benjamin Smoke [a movie by Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen about Benjamin Smoke who, along with Deacon Lunchbox, was the driving force behind the Cabbagetown music scene in the ‘80s] and that was really fun to do. So I’ve been trying to experiment with giving myself parameters. It’s kind of cool what Lynda Barry teaches in her class. I’ve used some of those things, like you never start with a blank piece of paper. You have these things to grab onto. It would take too long to explain it right now. You should get her book, called What It Is. That’s the recipe for the class. It’s about working in a series and remembering in details. It takes too long to explain, but if we ever have a drink in a bar I’ll do some exercises with you on a cocktail napkin. We’ll have fun.
That sounds great.
And I always say, ‘Let the songwriters write the songs, man.’ That’s a time honored tradition, before Bob Dylan fucked it up for everybody. Now you don’t get any props unless you sing. It used to be Tin Pan Alley.
But you’ve written some great stuff.
Well, I like it, but obviously I have a little shrink writer penis. I’ll get up and whip it out and sing it because I’m constantly . . . I mean the first thing that occurs to me every day is singing and how to be a better singer. I’m just very interested in it. And I’m very interested in songs, but by other people. I write words down, and I do like writing. I’ve really been enjoying my tumblr, but I don’t do it every day. So I write stuff down. And I know some chords on a guitar but it’s not like I play. My friend Scott Ligon says, ‘Hogan doesn’t write because she doesn’t play.’ He said, ‘If you started playing. . . .’ And I used to play more. I keep meaning to set up a little spot in my house in Wisconsin, but since I’ve moved here I’ve just been gone so much of the time. There are still boxes, four years later.
Looks like you’ll be coming back to Atlanta to play in July.
Yeah, I’m doing some dates with Neko in that Eastish Coastish thing. I’m opening the show and singing in her band. But definitely I’m going to be at The Varsity, eating chili dogs, then burping my way through my set.
Kelly Hogan plays with Neko Case at Atlanta Botanical Gardens on July 20th.