When I call Kelly Hogan one recent afternoon, she’s sitting in her old car, Marge, staking out the Piggly Wiggly parking lot near her house in Wisconsin.
“I’m gonna go in and buy some jalapeños,” Hogan says. “But I like to sit in the parking lot and see what people buy. Lots of Mountain Dew. Lots of Mountain Dew. Oh. This lady is walking toward my car and she has seven cases of Diet Mountain Dew. Wow.”
Hogan grew up in Atlanta. But she hasn’t lived here for a long time. Way back when, she worked as a record store clerk at Turtles and Wax n’ Facts. She lived in Cabbagetown and played in the Jody Grind and the Rock *A* Teens .
Later, she recorded three fine low budget solo albums, then put her considerable vocal talents to work with the likes of Neko Case, John Wesley Harding, Jakob Dylan and Mavis Staples.
Longtime fans’ pleas for another Kelly Hogan album were finally answered when Anti- Records signed her up earlier this year. I Like to Keep Myself in Pain is her first new album since 2001’s Because It Feel Good.
It’s a powerful work of termite art, burrowing through the boundaries of American pop, country, soul and rock music, with tunes written especially for her by songwriter friends such as Vic Chesnutt, Robyn Hitchcock, Catherine Irwin, Jon Langford and M. Ward.
The backing band on the album is pretty darn cool, too, with R& B legends Booker T. Jones and James Gadson, plus Gabe Roth of the Dap-Kings and Scott Ligon, who’s played with Terry Adams (NRBQ) of late.
I love the album. And I’m really looking forward to seeing Hogan perform the new songs out in front of her own band, again.
Right now, though, I’m obsessed with here Tumblr log, Hogan Here, where she’s compiled some writing so great it makes me jealous – including a devastating piece on the tragic van crash that ended the Jody Grind, and a vivid time capsule of 1972 Atlanta inspired by an old photo of her mom.
Go log on to Hogan Here now. You will thank me. And read up on more of the crackling, cackling conversation between the Piggly Wiggly parking lot and an undisclosed location in Cabbagetown here:
Well we need to get some work done now and sell some records. We both have a job to do, evil as it is…
“Yeah. I was just talking about that Bill Hicks line, ‘sucking Satan’s cock.’ I might give him a hand job. But I’m not going to put on my kneepads.”
OK… Well… I guess I don’t really understand why you are living in Wisconsin…
“You and my mom. My mom came up to visit me a couple of times, and she was like, ‘Kell, if you were going to live somewhere like this, why didn’t you just move back home?’ It is the same. It’s the Pig and tractors and ball caps. Just like Rutledge, where my mom lives.”
But it’s so cold in Wisconsin.
“I love it here. I think it’s really beautiful, with big rolling hills. I love it in every season. I like snow. Turns out I like winter. I still work out of Chicago a lot. I get the luxury of going there every few weeks, and eating sushi and going to shows. But then when I come back here, I don’t have to dodge gunfire from 15 year olds. I was tired of dodging gang gunfire and having my neighbors dogs bark in my window. I lived all over Chicago in my eleven years there, but my last neighborhood was especially abrasive. Lynda Barry was up here and I was up here a lot working with her and she would watch my dogs. And I was touring so much with Neko, I was gone most of the time.”
Do you mind if I ask you some stuff about your “formative years”?
“Go ahead, man. I love that term.”
The reason I ask is that I discovered Hogan Here, which is really cool, and has a lot of stories from your past.
“I give all props to Lynda Barry and being her assistant for her writing class.”
There’s some wonderful writing there, including the really evocative 1972 piece with the photo of your mom. The feeling I get is of a sad and wonderful and weird childhood that’s likely the deep well of your artistry.
“I was always a loner kid. My brother was very gregarious. I was much more happy to be reading my dad’s Joseph Wambaugh books under a magnolia tree by myself. I guess happy people do art, too, don’t they? But I was always weird. I was always a freak. They called me Witchy Poo in school. It was all very 1972. I was really into Euell Gibbons and I would go out after school and eat grass and flowers. And everyone was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?'”
How did music come in to your life?
“My mom said I used to blow her mind because when I was two or three years old I knew all the lyrics to everything. As soon as I could talk, I was singing. I used to just hang on to the record player and hug it. It was one of those giant coffin-like console record players. I was always getting my fingers slammed in the lid. They finally got me my own record player when I was four or five and I never came out of my room.”
When did you work at Wax n’ Facts?
“I started off at Turtles on Ponce, when it was in the little spot, around 1988, I think. I started working at Wax n’ Facts on the weekends. I guess I worked there full time from 1989 to 1991.”
Then you got the Jody Grind going with Bill Taft. Another amazing, powerful piece of writing on Hogan Here is your forensic junkyard images of the terrible end of the band.
“I hadn’t talked about it very much. And I’d never written it down. It took me a long time. It feels good to get it out. It was awful and wrenching. But now maybe I don’t have to tell it anymore. Maybe it’s because my dad was a homicide detective. Even when it happened, I wanted to know as much as I could. I don’t like not knowing.”
Anything you want to say about the Rock*A*Teens?
“Chris Lopez was the captain of that band. But it was the best musical thing I ever did growth-wise, because it flipped the birthday cake upside down. I used to only hear the frosting. I was pretty much the bass of that band, on a guitar with one string. It changed the way I looked at music, plus I wasn’t the front person. I loved it. That’s my favorite band I’ve ever been in, by far, to date. I cried at the last show at the Point. But I used to cry at Rock*A*Teens shows a lot because my arm was hurting so much.”
So you did the three records on your own but then you went on what was like a decade hiatus.
“I wasn’t idle. I was really busy. But I was exploring music from other angles. I’d always been doing that, in a way. My last record came out almost the same month as 9/11. It was kind of a crazy time. Nobody was touring. Nobody was buying records. Everybody was just sort of sitting and staring. I just got to the point where I couldn’t ask my awesome musicians to go out on the road and lose money. When you’re in a band it’s one thing, but when you’re fronting the band it’s different.”
So you became this go-to side woman, which has been amazing in it’s own way. But you were like the side meat…
“Oh yes. Oh man. I should have made my record Side Meat. Maybe if I make another record. But every day, my main thing is to be a better singer – the best singer I can be. So I was taking all comers. When John Wesley Harding asked me to be in a band doing a cappella Elizabethan songs, I was like, ‘Alright.’ So we did that. We did the Love Hall Tryst. It was supposed to be a month residency that ended up being like three years. My record is called I Like To Keep Myself In Pain. But I like to keep myself afraid. I like to stretch myself out all the time.”
But why no Kelly Hogan record for so long? That was painful to me, you know?
“Because I couldn’t afford it, man. But that’s super nice. The fact that anybody gave two shits about it and kept asking me, I was going to call this record I’m Not Worthy, you know, for all kinds of reasons.”
But after all this time, in all the big ways, like a much bigger budget, this is the best record you’ve made, isn’t it?
“My mind will remain blown that this has happened. Really, the faith and confidence Anti- had in me is amazing. Anti- is a great label. They love music. That’s the motivation from the top to the bottom. I’d known Andy Kaulkin for a number of years through Neko. We’d always have these long conversations about all kinds of music. We’d be at in-stores for Neko and we’d get into the stacks and talk about stuff. That’s actually where he asked me to be on Anti-. I was holding a Jack Sheldon record. It was crazy. I was looking around for Ashton Kutcher, thinking, ‘Am I being punked?'”
So it ended up being the right time and the right place for you?
“It’s an amazing place to be. And it came from all the stuff that I’ve been doing, I don’t know if I could have walked into that studio on that Monday with those people without having built up my singing muscles. Like when I went to sing on the Mavis Staples record with my friend Nora (O’Connor). Usually by the time you go in to sing background vocals, you’re the only one there, and you’re singing on stuff that’s already been made. We walked into the session with Mavis and her band and it was just all kinds of stuff going on.”
You have one song on the new album, “Golden,” which is golden and brilliant. Why don’t you write more?
“Because the songwriters do it so much better than I do. What I’m doing is what people did for a long time. My friend Scott Ligon says, ‘Hogan, you don’t write songs because you don’t play.’ I used to write more when I had my guitar hanging around. I knew like eleven chords, courtesy of Chris Lopez. I write stuff down. But I do have a little of the shrunken writer penis, like I’ve been swimming in cold water, I guess.”
Your method of gathering the songs for the new record was interesting…
“I wrote like 40 fan letters to songwriters I love, saying I would love for you to write me a song. Most of the songs were written for me. At that point we were thinking of it being a kind of Dionne Warwick thing, with a small string section. I call it the Lurch period, where everything had a harpsichord. I like that crazy, dark, gothic pop. But it sort of went another direction.”
I think title track is quite amazing, both for the song and the source, Robyn Hitchcock.
“Robyn said he started writing a song for me after an e-mail exchange we had, so he said it was a good reason to finish it. That title is so perfect. I like to keep myself in fear and terror and pain. Vic was one of the first people to send me a song. He said, ‘Here’s your Southern Marlene Dietrich song.’ It blew my mind. In the afterworld, I am gonna punch him.”
And you have some pretty darn cool musicians on the record, like Booker T.
“Is that fucked up or what? That man is deep. He was really into the Handsome Family song. I can still remember him looking at the lyrics and saying, ‘These lyrics are wonderful.’ And I remember he got us into a huddle and said, ‘OK, we’re going to do this song and I want us to think of this song as water, and there’s a tide and waves and birds.’ He had all kinds of deep ideas.”
Speaking of deep ideas, I heard you say you’re never going to move back to Atlanta – is that true?
“I try to never say never. But I do like to be cold and not hot. If I can ever afford central air-conditioning, maybe. Maybe a nursing home with central air. I miss it so much and I’m never there long enough to kind of spread out. I never ever get a fraction of the time I want to see people or just walk down the street.”
Photo by Neko Case.