Nada Mucho

A Voice Forged From Diamonds: An Interview with Kelly Hogan

Posted by August 17th, 2001 No Comments »

By Adam “don’t call me D.H.” Lawrence

There are few singers who can honestly say, “I can sing anything” and mean it. Kelly Hogan, however, is one of those few. Born with a voice forged from diamonds, she’s just as comfortable belting out a tear-in-your-beer honky-tonk number as she is tackling the intricacies of jazz vocals. And she does it all without an ounce of pretension. So naturally I was elated when I found out that Nada Mucho was sending me out to talk to Kelly after her set opening for Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire at the Crocodile Café in Seattle.

I call her cell phone the afternoon of the show, but she doesn’t answer. No problem, I’ll just make arrangements on the fly. After all, it wouldn’t be a genuine Nada Mucho interview if everything went smoothly. I hop in the shower to prepare for my big night. While rinsing, I hear a knock on the bathroom door. It’s my roommate, Russ: 

“Hey man, that was Kelly.”   

Wow, Kelly Hogan called my house. I am the coolest guy in the apartment right now. 

“She said she’s decompressing at a friend’s house and that you should give her a call after ‘You’re all dried off.’” 

I am now the coolest guy in the apartment complex. 

I finish my shower and get dressed. For some reason, I am more confident on the phone when clothed. I immediately get through on Kelly’s cell and introduce myself. She cheerfully agrees to sit down with me after her set, which leads into the inevitable issue of identifying myself. 

“What do you look like?” is probably my least favorite question. Eager to make light of my non-svelte-ness, I reply wittily, “Well, let’s just say I’m sturdy.” 

“Oh, that’s okay. I’m 36-and-a-half.” 

I am now not even the coolest guy in my bedroom. My cat, Janis, seems to be smirking. 

“No, I mean I’m sturdy, as in you couldn’t really knock me over.”

“Oh, like you could bale some hay or something? Well how tall are you?”

Now, although I am of average height for an American male, I’m still not swelling with pride when I reply, “5’ 7””. For some reason I fear more probing questions, so I add, “I have specs on, too.” 

“Great. So do I.” She then asks if I will need a place on the guest list for anyone beside myself.  

“No, I couldn’t find a date,” I have to reply. She promises to see what she can do about that. Soon afterward, I’m on the road and definitely the coolest guy in my truck.

I arrive while the band is sound checking. This is my first visit to the Crocodile Café and I can’t help but turn my head around, scanning for Peter Buck or Eddie Vedder. No sign of them. I am now at least the coolest guy at my table. Admittedly my only competition is my salad, but this is the Crocodile, so I try not to take anything for granted.

Soon the show starts, kicking off with the local band, Evangeline. Just as they start getting the crowd interested in their country folk tunes, it’s time to make way for Kelly and her band. It’s obvious that they’ve been playing together for a while, and Kelly is in excellent voice. She builds her set around tunes from her last album, Beneath The Country Underdog, and showcases new songs from her new record, due out in October. She is gracious and a little shy, thanking the audience after every song, as though she still can’t believe that people actually pay to see her perform.

After an encore of “Wild Mountain Berries,” she’s offstage in a flash. I panic, as our agreement was that she’d look for me to give her a sign from the crowd as soon as she was done. I am suddenly living my worst nightmare… well my second worst after that deep space prison one. My second worst nightmare would be the elusive singer and the magical vanishing interview. Luckily, I ask one of her musicians to let her know that I was outside the backstage door, ready for the interview. A few minutes later, we are face to face in a backstage area that is genuinely no bigger than my townhouse’s kitchen. I am no longer in the running for coolest guy in the room, as even the guitar cases are ahead of me, but fuck it – I’m about to interview Kelly Hogan. For the next hour or so, we talk about her new album, Hee Haw and crusty seamen.

Nada Mucho: Do you like your new album?
Kelly Hogan: Yes. It’s stuff that I like to listen to, not your party down, dance-in-your-panties record. It’s more like a cry-in-your-panties record.

NM: What’s it called?
KH: Because It Feel Good.

NM: Is there a story about the title?
KH: Yeah, there was this girl back in elementary school who used to get the merry-go-round spinning really fast, and then she’d jump on and hang her butt over the edge until it almost dragged on the ground. Somebody asked her why she did that, and she had to think about it for a minute, then she said, “Because it feel good.” I always liked that story.

NM: What song makes you cry every time you hear it?
KH: A bunch, there are so many, but I’ll just say the first one that ever made me cry – we just heard on the way to the show last week and we were all getting off on it, we played with Alejandro in Chicago and we heard Nillson’s version of “Without You,” by Badfinger. That’s the one.

NM: Do you still feel the need to scare yourself by moving to another city or doing something equally as life changing?
KH: Oh, yeah. Shit yeah. Whether it’s playing with Andrew Bird or singing “Hot Legs” with Alejandro Escovedo. Every time I make a record, I’m thinking, “What am I doing?” Or just touring, going to a new town every night. It terrifies me. I don’t want to sound like a total hippie, but everybody needs to do that once in a while, don’t you think? If you do something and it starts to feel easy, or if it doesn’t freak you out in some way… when that happens to me, I add a different element, or I change the way I do it or I turn it upside down.

NM: You’ve done a whole bunch of different types of music through your career, different genres on each album. Is there something you’d like to try next? 
KH: The next thing I’m wanting to do really badly is… well I’m taking the summer off; my album comes out in October. My friend Tom Ray, the bass player who played on Beneath the Country Underdog, he works with Blue Man Group in Chicago, that’s why he hasn’t toured with us and we’ve talked about doing bass/vocal duets, not necessarily hard-core jazz, but more weird sort of jazz/blues-based songs, very pared down. The big news is that Jon Rauhouse (Pedal Steel player extraordinaire) is moving to Chicago and we’ve been talking about him getting in on that little trio. And there’s a drummer, I don’t want to say his name and jinx it, but he’s one of my dream drummers. He lives in Chicago part of the time and Australia part of the time, but he came up when we were practicing for a Sweet Relief benefit in Chicago. He was there, drinking some martinis, and we were talking about the project and he said, “You know, if you need a drummer…” I tried to act all cool: “Oh yeah, that might be alright,” and then I went in the bathroom and I was just, “Aaaaaahh!”  I mean I can’t say it. I’m very superstitious. He’s a very nice guy and an amazing drummer, but he’s drummer to the stars, so that’s why I’m not gonna say it. So that’s what I wanna do. In Atlanta I did my little duct-tape-on-the-shoe bands, but I knew enough players to do jazz, or even a piano bar type of white dude jazz songs, like Bob Dorough, Dave Fishberg, Blossom Dearie, or Duke Ellington, you know, the classics. Because vocally, that stuff is really challenging and I think I suck at it, so that goes back to the scaring yourself thing. It’s really, really technically hard. So that’s kind of what I want to explore, freak myself out in a pseudo jazz vein. The songs we’re talking about doing are like – well, I love that Elvis Costello song “Baby Plays Around”, it’s on that Spikerecord. Ohh, it’ll gut you like a fish, it’s really good and it’s really hard. We’re not gonna do songs by Dave Brubeck, but Elvis Costello is really challenging, not just vocally, but musically too.

NM: How did you get hooked up with Andrew Bird? 
KH: I was cocktailin’ at the Hideout where I bartend… I graduated from cocktailing to bartending, thank God; my arm couldn’t take it. I hate cocktailin’. I salute all ye cocktail waitresses everywhere, it’s a shitty job. Ugh. But I cocktailed for one of his shows, cause I had heard about him, I’d never seen him. He was trying out his new songs and I thought it was very interesting. It actually goes back to that same thing of having moved to Chicago four years ago, I don’t really know anyone in the jazz scene, so I didn’t really know anyone to play with. I happened to do an interview with Chicago Reader when my record came out and one of their questions was ‘What do you want to do?’ and I talked about what I was gonna do with Tom Ray in the summer and they quoted me as saying that I’d like to do something with Andrew Bird. What’s weird… I can’t remember what came first. I think he had asked me already to sing backup with him. I think he had seen me play or something and asked me to sing backup with Nora on a song. A sort of Raylettes kind of thing. Have you heard his latest record?  

M: I’ve never heard him before tonight. 
KH: We’re gonna do it tonight. It’s kind of a Ray Charles backup singers, the Raylettes kind of thing, a “Na na na.” So he asked me to come sing and then I’d wanted to work with him and it was in the paper. He’s a very quiet, enigmatic guy. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but he asked me to come sing and I was like, “Shit, yeah!”  

NM: Tell me about opening for Nick Cave in New Orleans. 
KH: Ahhhhhh. I love Nick Cave; he’s one of my favorite singers, songwriters, drama, drama, drama ‘cause I’m a big drama hag. I was very frightened. It was just me and Andy [Hopkins]. They didn’t want a full band, because it was just Nick Cave and Jim White and Warren Ellis and it was the first show of their tour so they were all nervous. It was in this opera house right on the edge of the French Quarter. It was the best live sound I’ve ever had. We were really scared. Me and Andy had a default plan in case it was a bunch of goth people who were talking and heckling us. We were just going to do “Thirty Days In The Hole” over and over again. But we didn’t have to go there. The crowd was nice and quiet; best live sound ever. I got to meet him, he was all nervous and he’s got a cute little bald spot. The new record’s great. Yeah, I’m a total, total dork for Nick Cave. He was very dreamy. I was not worthy, but they let me do it anyway.  

NM: How did you get that gig? 
KH: That was another weird thing. Speaking of enigmatic, the guy who runs the Billions booking agency, his name is Boche. He was at the Hideout for the New Pornographers show back in January or February. But anyway he’s just a very quiet guy and he came up to me and said, “Uh, Kelly, uh I’m thinking about Nick Cave.” And I said, “Yeah?”  “I’m thinking about asking you to open.”  Once again, I’m trying to be cool, “Oh yeah, that’d be cool… (Aaaahh!), I’ll be right back.”  I ended up screaming into the Kleenex box. So Boche thought it was a good match.

NM: When did you know that you first wanted to be a singer? 
KH: I always knew that I loved music. When I was a little kid I knew all the words to all the pop songs. That was my favorite thing. When it was my birthday, I wouldn’t ask for Barbies, just more records. Sesame Street, Buck Owens, The Monkees. My mom used to play records all day long. My dad loved soul music. I was a Hee Haw obsessed little girl. I had Hee Hawoveralls. I used to watch it every week with my grandma. I was in love with Buck Owens. Then I got my own record player in kindergarten, a little Kozy Play-type record player and all these records. That’s all I would ever do. I just really liked it. Then they got me a record player with an attached microphone…  

NM: Like Mr. Microphone? 
KH: Yeah, me and my brother would play Disc Jockey. I sang at Girl Scout camp in 7th grade and all the Brownies applauded. I was extremely shy, painfully shy, and I felt like that was something I could do and people seemed to like it. Then it was all over from there. I joined chorus and I really liked it. I mean I don’t try to do it for a “living”… believe me there’s no living for what I’m trying to do. But I can’t not do it, believe me.  

NM: What’s the hardest part about being in a touring band?  I read your tour diary online. I thought that was cool – and kind of sad.  

KH: Well I didn’t mean for it to be sad, I was just telling it like it is. That wasn’t ever for publication, I wrote it for my booking agent because it was the first tour she had ever booked for us and while I was writing it, I figured I might as well put in some stuff for Bloodshot and I can send it to them too, whether there were posters at the club, that kind of thing. The reason it was sad was, at the end of the tour we lost so much money because we had to rent the van, we couldn’t do the west coast tour, we were all broke and we had taken time off work. You go through this tour where you’re working your ass off, then you get home and you’re broker than ever because your haven’t been at your job. You break even if you’re lucky. The other part that’s hard is, as a singer, every club is different and unless you have your own sound man or sound system…The Indigo Girls come in with their whole thing – that was a mind blowing thing, touring with them. They can count on sound being good. So the variables like the clubs, the limitations of the sound system, the room, the soundman, or woman. You never know if you’re gonna get off or not, you’re so grateful when you do. But, I love touring, for the most part. I have to bring my dogs too. If I couldn’t bring my dogs, it would totally suck.      

NM: What have you been listening to in the van?     
KH: Well, this whole arrangement this time is that Andrew Bird has their own van, and Andy usually rides with them because they usually have radio shows to do because it’s their headlining tour, so we miss Andy. He’s my Atlanta buddy for 14 years and I’m not liking that part. So how it’s split up, without Andy being the tie-breaker… the two Mikes, they’re younger and they’re either driving or in the back. So there are the two young Mikes and then me and Rauhouse, Grandma and Grandpa – we’re older than everybody else. When it’s me and Rauhouse in the front… well today we listened to this 1940s compilation of country music, Blossom Dearie’s self-titled record on Verve, this Judy Garland CD that I bought for $4 which is very interesting and kind of sad, Bob Dorough… But when the Mikes are up in front, they listen to Unwound, which… I like that stuff too, but today the line was drawn. Lately my favorite record and Neko’s favorite record since I got it four months ago, is this record by this guy from Chicago named Chris Ligon. He and his wife Heather McAdams run a record store named Record Roundup and he has a self-produced cassette called Crazy Daisy. That’s my favorite right now, but it drives Rauhouse nuts so I try to not play it too much. I can’t even try to explain it; it’s just one deranged guy who writes these weird songs. On the first song, his cat Gwangi supposedly sings along. Everybody should have it.    

NM: What’s the worst song ever written? 

KH: I have my top three most hated songs ever, I don’t know if they’re the worst songs ever, but my most hated song of all time is “I’m Proud To Be An American, Because At Least I Know I’m Free”, by Lee Greenwood. Also “Having My Baby”, by… who did that?      

NM: Paul Anka.      
KH: Thank you, that’s what I thought. Then there’s this one song… I can’t remember who does it. I used to be this super-feminist kid, and there’s this song by, I think it’s the Spinners or the Four Tops. We were listening to it just the other day and the big culmination line is “She’s so great because it’s my word she obeys.”  And I get all mad. Those are my top three worst songs ever, right there.  

NM: Top Five Albums? 
KH: I’m sorry, I can’t say. I don’t even go there in my mind. It’s like they’re children, I couldn’t even choose.  

NM: How about the one album you couldn’t live without?
KH: See I can’t even answer that one. I can say, like, road sign albums, certain albums that changed my life in terms of when I heard them. There was a Billie Holliday Verve double album set that a friend of mine gave me in high school. He handed it to me and said, “Here, I’m trying to save you from yourself.”  I was into Van Halen, AC/DC at the time, which I still love. There was a Sarah Vaughn record, it’s on some really cheap label, like Pickwick or something, but she does “Gloomy Sunday”… So there’s high school. Then there’s Bob Dorough, the Blossom Dearie self-titled record… 

NM: One more… 
KH: See, but I’m not saying that these are the top five… And then, there’s this Emmylou Harris record, I think it’s called Sweetheart Of… no that’s not it. I guess it’s an acclaimed record, sometime around 1984…That introduced me to Gram Parsons, and I worked backward from there. I saw her on tour where she did the whole album. That was great. We’ll stop with that, there’s so many more. 

NM: What are you going do with your summer off?   
KH: I’m supposed to take the summer off, but I’m still going to be busy. I want to work in my yard and house painting is very therapeutic for me, I like to be active. And then there’s the thing with Tom Ray to do. I told everyone I was taking the summer off, and all I’m going to do is work, work, work. I was thinking, like, “Are you an idiot?  Yes you are an idiot.”  I’m going to do Ladyfest in Chicago in August also.      

NM: How about covers vs. original work. Does your new album have a similar ratio of these compared to your past releases? 
KH: I haven’t really thought about that. We just picked songs that were making us happy. We do a Charlie Rich cover; I’m always in love with Charlie Rich, even posthumously. We do a Smog cover; I really like that song “Strayed”.  It’s just stuff that was making me happy and I really don’t think about comparisons to the last record. There’s also a Statler Brothers song.     

NM: What’s the worst place you’ve ever played and why? 
KH: (laughs) It’s called Dog Alley in Charleston, South Carolina. It finally closed down. We thanked them for closing down on our second Jody Grind record. So many reasons why that’s the worst place. It was upstairs, the carpet was just squishy with vomit…The first time we ever played there, this chef, this… old, drunk sailor guy, he wore this white Captain and Tennile sailor’s hat. His name was Jo Jo, [in an old man voice] “Hi, I’m Jo Jo, the ex-mariner. I tried to sail across the Atlantic Ocean, but I couldn’t fit enough beer in my boat, it was too heavy.” He had all these stories. He used to eat cockroaches for money. All the frat guys would pay him. He would make this chili with a two-inch long ash that would drop off of his cigarette. The first time we played there, we had had these posters that the label had sent out that I didn’t like, because they had a picture of me with, like, va va voom boobies and I was horrified. The rest of the guys look like regular guys and then there’s me. So we get there and Jo Jo comes running out to the parking lot, he’s about 55. And I look like I regularly look when I get out of the van, you know, like a regular lady. He goes, “Hey!  Jody Grind!” And he looks at me; he was so bald-faced. He said, “You don’t look anything like your poster, aah!” Then he went back upstairs and made his chili. So we had all our gear to deal with and we go up these rickety stairs. There was one light bulb above the stage, which can be cool. Oh! There was the bartender; he was all drunk on Rumple Minze. I’m singing one song, and this one guy is holding a flashlight on me because we couldn’t see anything or play our instruments. I had my eyes closed and the next thing I know, someone’s French kissing me, and the bartender has come around and clobbered me. We were trying to get paid at the end of the night, our hundred dollars, and the guy won’t pay us, saying he had hard times and all. Our friend Deacon Lunchbox who was touring with us, he was this big burly biker guy. He had to come in and pretend that he had a gun so we could get paid. Dog Alley, don’t rest in peace.  

NM: Paper or plastic?         
KH: Depends on what I’m using it for. Mostly plastic for picking up dog doo.

NM: Jerry Lewis or Jerry Lee Lewis?      
KH: Oh, Jerry Lee Lewis. Need you ask?     

NM: Cubs or White Sox?      
KH: Cubs. American League… phhhbbt.  

NM: Favorite Powerpuff Girl?      
KH: I don’t know, I’ve never seen the show. I like that monkey on the commercial…     

NM: Mojo Jojo?      
KH: Is his name Jojo?  Even better

NM: Which question is worse:  What does your band sound like, or Are you related to Terry “Hulk” Hogan?     
KH: (laughs) I guess ‘What does your band sound like?’  The other one just gets a resounding ‘No!’  What’s worse though, is when people come up to me and say ‘Hoooooogaaaaan!’ like Col. Klink, on Hogan’s Heroes.

NM: Dogs or Cats?      
KH: Dogs. 

NM: Any psycho fan stories?          
KH: Yes, but I don’t want to encourage people to become copycat stalkers that are gonna show up to my house when I’m in the shower. That’s when I was younger, though. I’m an old lady now. I don’t inspire stalking nearly as much anymore.       

NM: Do you believe in God?      

KH: It would take too long to define what that is.  

NM: How about a capital “G” god? 
KH: Like a Christian God?  Not necessarily, no. Maybe an all-encompassing deity.  

NM: When are you going to settle down and get married?     
KH: (laughs) I’ve been married already, so I got that out of my system.  

NM: Finally, what does it all mean?      
KH: Hard question man strikes again! I don’t know. My grandmother knows, but she won’t tell me.  

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