From The Desk Of The Flat Five: Thoughts On The Documentary “20 Feet From Stardom”

In music, a flat five is a passing chord that harmonizes well with almost any sound. The singers in Chicago’s Flat Five—Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall—are as versatile as the name of their group implies. They’re all well-known songwriters, musicians and side-persons in their own right, but when they sing as the Flat Five, they touch on something transcendent. Their complex, intertwining harmonies bring to mind the shimmering sounds of the Four Freshmen, Beach Boys, Lambert, Hendricks And Ross, Harry Nilsson and the Everly Brothers—singers who could create breathtaking emotional effects using nothing but their voices. The Flat Five will be guest editing all week. Read our brand-new feature with them.

O’ Connor: I really enjoyed the movie 20 Feet From Stardom, but that title bugs me a little. I’ve never felt 20 feet away from anything. I’m very comfortable and feel super-valuable singing harmonies and supporting other singers. I didn’t want to be Elvis Costello—I wanted to be the ladies who sang “I’m giving you a longing look/Every day, every day I write the book!” Or the ladies who sang on “Lay Down Sally.” Or the ladies from Schoolhouse Rock: “Verb!/That’s what’s happenin’!”

Hogan: When it came out, so many people told me, “Hogan! You have to see 20 Feet from Stardom!” And a few years later when (sitting on my couch at 2 a.m. with wine and my laptop), I finally did see it—far from making me feel removed from stardom (or anywhere else some folks think I might rather be, or ought to be). On the contrary, my drunken notes from that night start off like this: “20 feet from my asshole! I’m a band person. A band person!”

Speaking purely for myself, I only ever wanted to make songs happen—it didn’t matter in what capacity. It’s just a blast to be part of a good song—whether that means singing the lead vocal, playing a bass part on a beat-up one-stringed guitar in the the Rock*A*Teens or singing backing harmony vocals. Which, on a few Neko Case numbers, means singing two or three words just once, a minute and 45 seconds into the song. So when people ask me, “What’s the hardest part of singing back-up?” I can honestly tell them, “Not singing.”

We are “The Noble Sidemen”—that’s what we sometimes say in the Neko band, and it’s true. There is an honor to being in the band. But nobody looks at the guitar player or the drummer and imagines that, while they’re playing their hearts out and kicking ass, they’re really wishing they were center stage at the mic—with all the pressures, scrutiny and uncomfortable undergarments that go along with that job.

There’s no All About Eve bullshit in what I do. When I’m singing harmony, I’m not holding a dagger behind my back, waiting for my “big break.” Hell no. I’m in the band, man. And that gives me great joy. The movie 20 Feet From Stardom actually confirmed the happiness and pride I feel from being just another part of the machine that serves the song.

I do love all those amazing singers featured in the movie, and I want all members of any band to get their due. I’ve pretty much had the good fortune to only work with bands who do just that—no caste system, all pulling together, sharing good times and bad. I’ve been treated with respect. I’ve tried to earn it with every note.

My Flat Five band member Casey McDonough was aghast the other night when I told him I wasn’t a big fan of The Commitments movie and had only seen it once. “Why?!” he asked. And I told him. Because at the end when they were onstage and the lead singer introduced the band, everyone was introduced with their full name, first and last. Except the backup singers. They were just introduced with their first names. And maybe it seems crazy to you, but that bugged me then and still bugs me now. Those singers were in the band. Just like the guitar player. Just like the drummer.

In the band, it’s the best place to be. That movie proved it for me. Reading my last wine-soaked revelation from watching that movie makes me laugh my ass off, and it 100 percent came true: “I’m a band person. Oh god I am gonna be so much happier from this day forward.”