Kelly Hogan: Sing ’Em If You Got ’Em

Kelly Hogan gets hurt with a little help from her friends

Neko Case has called her pal Kelly Hogan “the Zelig of rock ‘n’ roll.” Her name appears in the credits for albums by Mavis Staples, the Mekons, Will Oldham, Matt Pond PA, Amy Ray, Giant Sand, Archer Prewitt, Alejandro Escovedo, Drive-By Truckers, Jakob Dylan, Tortoise and many others, Case included.

“I’m a slut, all right,” cracks Hogan. “I get around.”

No wonder her peers solicit her services as a backup vocalist: Hogan is a truly impressive singer, soulful, sensitive and often sassy. She started in Atlanta in the late ’80s singing in the Jody Grind and Rock*A*Teens before moving to Chicago and entrenching herself in the alt-country universe, releasing three solo albums, 1996’s The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear, 2000’s Beneath The Country Underdog (backed by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts) and 2001’s Because It Feel Good. Her fourth album has been a long time coming, in part because she’s been busy as a crucial part of Case’s band (anyone who’s seen Case live has witnessed Hogan’s amusing banter), in part because of the nature of the project.

For I Like To Keep Myself In Pain, Hogan sent letters to her songwriter friends, many of whom she’d sung with, asking them if they would send her a song, either one written specifically for her or one that “you think I could do right by,” as she said. That process started several years ago, and results yielded songs from a veritable who’s who: Vic Chesnutt, Stephin Merritt, Andrew Bird, Jon Langford, Janet Bean, M. Ward and others.

“I was just surprised anybody wrote me back and sent me songs,” laughs Hogan. “I was going to call the record I’m Not Worthy! I got songs from way many more people than are on the record. People have asked, ‘How did you choose which ones?’ It was hard. It was like going to the pound: The puppies choose you.”

And then Andy Kaulkin, the head of Anti- Records, assembled a dream-team band—organist Booker T. Jones, drummer James Gadson (who’s played with Bill Withers and Beck), bassist Gabe Roth (Dap-Kings) and guitarist Scott Ligon (NRBQ)—and booked them all into the fabled EastWest Studios in Hollywood, where Pet Sounds and other ’60s classics were recorded.

“The whole frightening idea was to walk in on Monday with Booker T. and James Gadson and Gabe Roth and just create the arrangements all together,” she says. “I was driving the ship, but everybody else was on the deck. You want to hear what Booker T. has to say about how to arrange a song.”

She ended up channeling Kirsty MacColl and Tracey Ullman on the Motown-influenced “Sleeper Awake” by John Wesley Harding; Gadson helped turn Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Like To Keep Myself In Pain” into a Sons Of The Pioneers-like loping country tune; Robbie Fulks’ “Whenever You’re Out Of My Sight” veers into “gothic, Barbara Mandrell territory.”

The album is remarkably coherent; even knowing the work of the distinct songwriters, it can be hard to guess who wrote which track, whether it’s by Hogan (“Golden,” which is about Neko Case) or M. Ward (“Daddy’s Little Girl,” which is about Frank Sinatra) or the late Chesnutt (“Ways Of This World,” which Hogan says feels like it’s about her).

What it comes down to is Hogan’s care to sell the song in the best way possible.

“The harder the song is, the more I love it because I’m like, ‘I’ll be damned if this song is going to beat me,’” says Hogan. “My first focus is being the best singer I can be. I wake up every day wanting to explore that; I have dreams about it. I just want to bring you the song, because I love songs so much. It’s like going door to door. I’ve said before, I’m like a Mormon for a good song, saying, ‘Check it out!’”

Steve Klinge

“Plant White Roses” (download):