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Q&A with Kelly Hogan
An interview with the singer
Singer Kelly Hogan may live in Evansville, Wisconsin, these days, but the Atlanta native was enjoying a late breakfast of a pimento cheese sandwich and “a baby glass bottle of Coke” as she discussed her upcoming show opening for Neko Case July 20 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. It is also the twentieth anniversary year of the tragic accident that ended the short but brilliant career of Atlanta indie act the Jody Grind, where Hogan first courted fame.
So, pimento cheese and Coke for breakfast?
What can I say? [laughs] When I get a cravin’, I bow down to it!
How often do you get to come home these days?
I was just home to see my dad, who’s a retired police officer down there. He took me to the firing range. I had never shot a handgun before, and my dad gave me a firing lesson. He’s got all this vast knowledge. Between him and my uncle, I think we had eight different firearms. It took three of us to carry in all the guns! I totally nailed it too. I kept my target. Lots of head and chest shots. Before I leave town on tour, I’m going to put it up as a window shade so nobody messes with my house.
On your new album, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, you’ve recorded songs written by Vic Chesnutt, M. Ward, the Magnetic Fields, John Wesley Harding, and others, while R&B legend Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the MGs fame contributes Hammond B3 organ. How depressed were you that you couldn’t find anyone talented to work with?
[Laughs] I know, right?! I went out on Sunset Boulevard in a gorilla suit with a “Musicians Needed” sign and started waving to cars, and that’s what I ended up with. I washed a lot of cars too. Isn’t that crazy? That’s all due to [Anti-Records president] Andy Kaulkin. I love that label so much. He’s my idol. He likes to throw different musical worlds together. He trusts music to be the universal language. He was the one who suggested Booker T., and he has the clout to make that happen. Pretty much, if you bait your trap with Booker T., everyone else will come.
The first single off the new album is “We Can’t Have Nice Things.” It’s a bit of an update of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic “A House Is Not a Home” but with some anger management and substance abuse issues, isn’t it?
Yeah, with the holes in the wall and the whiskey rings on the furniture and all that good stuff. It’s pretty tragic and gothic, but I’m kind of singing it with a smile on my face. It’s all pretty wry. Plus, I finally got to do my big [R&B vocal arranger] Charles Stepney choral arrangement homage in that song. It was fun.
For “Daddy’s Little Girl” on the new album, you sing in the first-person as Frank Sinatra. Was it fun to bend gender on that?
It was cool. When I cover songs, I rarely change pronouns. I like to honor the songwriter’s perspective. Plus, I love anything with lyrical detail and humor. It was like putting on Frank Sinatra’s suit, walking around in his clothes for a little while, and then discovering Marilyn Monroe’s phone number in the jacket pocket.
The most heartbreaking moment of the song is that last line, “Some guys need to be loved by a woman, I needed to be loved by the world,” and Nancy Sinatra comes into the narrative.
Isn’t that crazy? She’s doomed! I loved all that. She has the benefits of being Nancy Sinatra; but then again, she’s doomed to be Frank Sinatra’s daughter. When you look at the title, you’re asking yourself as the listener, “Where is that gonna come in?” I love that it arrives at the very end of the song, all wrapped up in a beautiful bow. That M. Ward, he can write a song.
Speaking of M. Ward, two summers ago when he and Zooey Deschanel played the Atlanta Botanical Garden as She & Him, one of their fans ended up in the lily pond. How rowdy do Kelly Hogan fans get? Does the garden need to hire bodyguards for the bullfrogs?
I can only hope for something as awesome as that! I play make-out music. When people listen to me, the worst that can usually happen is that someone gets pregnant. When I play Atlanta, my mom and my stepdad bring their giant posse. They’re the biggest troublemakers who usually show up at one of my gigs. My mom is a master gardener. I pretty much grew up in diapers playing on the swings in Piedmont Park, but I’ve never been to the gardens. I’m excited.
On this tour you’re pulling double duty, opening for Neko Case and then performing in her band as one of the singers during her set. How difficult is it to switch gears?
It makes for a really long day. I’m an old lady now! I will not be using the word “party” as a verb during the month of July. The hardest thing about singing backup is not about the singing, it’s about the shutting up. It’s what you don’t sing that’s as important as what you do sing. It’s all about what the song needs. It’s 90 percent listening and 10 percent output. When we’re onstage together, Neko almost solicits us to act out during her set, trying to get me to tell stories about feminine hygiene products and stuff. We’ve all played together for so long, we can all be ourselves. It’s a crazy big ole family picnic up there.
Twenty years ago this spring, the Jody Grind played its final gig together [the act disbanded after members Robert Hayes and Rob Clayton were killed coming home from a gig in April 1992]. People here still talk so affectionately about that band. What are your fondest recollections of that time, playing in your first band here?
We were total dorks and misfits but I like that we stuck to our guns. We wrote out an inner band constitution that stated we were going to do things on our own terms. Record company reps would take us out to dinner, but they always wanted to try and categorize us as either jazz or cabaret or punk rock. After our demise I remember reading music reviews in Creative Loafing and saw that we had become shorthand to describe other acts: “Jody Grind-esque.” I remember thinking, “All right! We’ve become an adjective!” I have tons of kick-ass memories. They were amazing people. We had some great times. I’m pretty sure there’s still a hunk of my hair nailed above the soundboard at Sluggo’s in Pensacola, too!
[Laughs] Long story. I had these two long ponytails for, like, forever; and one night onstage, we cut one off with scissors and then [Jody Grind guitarist] Bill [Taft] pulled a bowie knife out of his pocket and cut the other one off. It got nailed to the wall of Sluggo’s. We were all like, “Okay, next song!” I still have the other one in a drawer somewhere. Golden times.
One thing that struck me listening to the new album and then going back to listen to the Jody Grind’s 1990 debut on DB Recs is that you’ve maintained that stick-to-your-guns attitude of singing what you want and freely merging elements of jazz, R&B, country, and rock. You’re still resisting being put in that box, aren’t you?
I’ve gotten to where I love ramen noodles. I’m sitting on my thrift shop couch, looking at my thrift store bookcase, filled with my thrift store books. I’m only interested in singing great songs that make me feel something. The songs deserve that. The songwriters deserve that. I’m still abiding by that old [Jody Grind] inner band constitution. It was written in ink. I’ll shave my legs to play a show but that’s about it.
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW THAT RAN IN OUR JULY 2012 ISSUE
Photograph courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden