Do you really like to keep yourself in pain?” I ask Kelly Hogan. After all, those are the very words she sings in the title song of her latest album.
“It’s about keeping yourself open, which can be scary and hurts sometimes,” Hogan replies. “That’s the way I’ve done just about everything in my life. I don’t want to do easy stuff. I want to do hard stuff.”
I Like to Keep Myself in Pain is Hogan’s first personally managed musical project in more than a decade. It’s also a debut effort for Andy Kaulkin’s Anti- record label, which has a reputation for supporting a diverse array of talent, from Tom Waits and Kate Bush to Merle Haggard, Marianne Faithfull and Eddie Izzard. Officially slated for release in early June, …Pain has already reaped a heaping helping of advance praise from critics who have hailed the album as “a masterpiece,” “a landmark” and “a celebration of… considerable vocal and interpretive skills.”
“Kelly’s voice is special because it evokes everything that is great about American music,” says Kaulkin. “It’s not R&B or jazz or country or rock ’n’ roll. It’s all of those things.”
And it’s all there in the music, which was recorded at EastWest Studios on Sunset Boulevard, where Brian Wilson played with Pet Sounds, and Frank Sinatra recalled when “It Was A Very Good Year.” Backing Hogan is a heavyweight crew including drummer James Gadson (Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye); guitarist Scott Ligon, a regular cohort of Hogan’s and member of the periodically reconstituted NRBQ; bassist Gabe Roth, founder of Daptone Records and The Dap-Kings, and Grammy winning engineer of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black; and legendary Stax organist Booker T. (as in “& the MGs”) Jones.
Like all but one of the 13 tracks on the album, “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain” was written for Hogan by a good friend, in this case, Robyn Hitchcock. The two initially met in the early 1990s when Hogan’s self-described “first real band,” The Jody Grind, was opening for the British singer/songwriter on a series of Eastern seaboard and Midwest tours.
“Kelly is what makes a song good,” says author Jack Pendarvis, who penned the lyrics for another track on the album, “We Can’t Have Nice Things.”
When he wrote them, Pendarvis thought his words were slated for a country song. Instead, they ended up complementing a funky little slice of retro-pop/R&B courtesy of Andrew Bird, another veteran of Hogan’s informal Chi-town posse.
Step around the wedding presents we’re returning to the store
The lamp inside the window isn’t burning anymore
The mirror only shows me someone else’s face it seems
I guess we just can’t have nice things
“Andrew’s music is more interesting than the lyrics, but Kelly transcends both the music and the lyrics,” Pendarvis says.
Currently transcending from Evansville, Wisc., Hogan grew up in and around Atlanta. As a youngster attending Kelly Lake and McLendon Elementary Schools in Decatur, she avidly listened to Top 40 radio and obsessed over popular Broadway show tunes from A Chorus Line and Annie. Shy and introverted, Hogan sang mostly to amuse herself and a few close friends.
Her first public performance transpired in 1976 at Camp Tanglewood in Augusta where she sang “Memories” from the movie The Way We Were for a group of Brownies and Girl Scouts.
“I used to lead sing-alongs in our tent, but I was too scared to sing in public, so they stole all my clothes, which meant I had to walk around in my bathing suit,” Hogan says. “They said they would give them back if I would sing at the end-of-the-summer closing ceremony. At first, I said, ‘No,’ but by the third itchy day, I had to say ‘Yes.’”
Even Hogan’s mother, Hilda, had no inkling of her daughter’s prodigious talent until she attended a high school production of Brigadoon.
“Growing up, she was very shy and wouldn’t look you in the eye,” says Hilda, a master gardener who lives in Rutledge with her husband, Blue Chilton, a retired welder and accomplished junk sculptor. “I always knew she was talented; she was very smart and made good grades. But the singing was a total surprise. When I saw her onstage, it was like seeing a different person.”
In 1971, Hilda and her first husband, Steve, had separated almost as soon as he returned from Southeast Asia where he piloted helicopters during the Vietnam War. “He came back all strict and army-style, saying he was going to whip us all into shape,” Hogan says. “That lasted just a few months before the divorce.”
This turbulent evolutionary period from childhood into adolescence is eloquently articulated in “Ways of this World,” which was written for Hogan by the late Vic Chesnutt a few months before he passed away in 2009.
Easter dresses and choir robes, ballet slippers and pierced earlobes
I was just a little girl, but I knew the ways of this world
County fairs and church bazaars, swimming pools and muscle cars
I was nothing but a little girl, but I knew the ways of this world
“That’s what I mean about the fewest words making the biggest pictures,” says Hogan. “Those words are so perfectly chosen and utilized to such vast and beautiful effect.”
The Jody Grind years
In 1987, the morning after graduation ceremonies at Douglasville High School, Hogan moved out of her father’s and stepmother’s house and in with her then-32-year-old boyfriend, who was a college teacher at the time and now is an award-winning novelist and playwright.
The couple followed a neo-bohemian trail through Atlanta lined with old jazz, blues and folk records, which led to a matrix of hip underground clubs and ad hoc performance venues (688, The White Dot, The Point, Cotton Club, Colorbox, Mattress Factory, Celebrity Club). Hogan dabbled with a number of short-lived bands, and from this fertile milieu emerged the first genuine opportunity to experiment and develop her interpretive powers.
In the winter of 1988 Hogan met guitarist Bill Taft at a former Lum’s restaurant (featuring “world famous hot dogs steamed in beer”), which had been transformed into an ersatz nightclub on 14th Street at I-75/85. Taft was playing with the Chowder Shouters, one of a multitude of bands based out of Cabbagetown, the ramshackle village originally built to house workers from the long-defunct Fulton Bag & Cotton Mill.
“I mentioned that I was listening to Hoagy Carmichael and Cab Calloway,’” says Hogan. “A few weeks later, Bill walked into Turtles [the record store] where I was cashiering and asked whether I wanted to start a band.”
With Taft on guitar, Robert Hayes on bass, Walter Brewer on drums and Hogan singing, The Jody Grind became the darlings of the alt-indie scene, enthralling audiences with a genre-blurring playlist of classic swing and jazz numbers, Appalachian ballads, lounge tunes and Dusty Springfield hits.
“Kelly has a pretty voice, but never uses it to hide from the ugly facts of life,” says Taft. “She sings like a great writer—she understands the power of understatement.”
With one album in circulation (One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure) and a second one soon to be (Lefty’s Deceiver), The Jody Grind was starting to venture beyond its subdermal playground and into wider territory until around 5 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning, April 19, 1992, when a drunk driver crossed the grassy highway median and smashed into a van returning from a gig in Florida, killing its three occupants: Hayes, Robert Clayton (who had replaced Brewer on drums) and Timothy Ruttenber aka Deacon Lunchbox, a poet/performance artist who often opened for the band.
Despite brave attempts to persevere with projects like Kick Me with Taft and drummer Alan Page (who would soon fatally OD), and Rock*A*Teens with whom she insisted on mostly playing guitar, eventually Hogan was compelled to get the hell out of Dodge, which explains why she ended up in Chicago on April Fool’s Day, 1997.
“I was tired of driving past the place where Alan died every day on the way to Kroger,” Hogan says. “I just wanted to see what it would be like to have a different perspective.”
Chicago or bust
The ensuing almost-10-year stint in Chicago found Hogan immersed in a series of mostly unplanned endeavors, which included a bartending gig at The Hideout, a local landmark dive, which morphed into a regular showcase for singer/songwriters from the Windy City and beyond; recording two solo albums for Bloodshot Records where she also worked part-time as a publicist, which put her in touch with a rising Americana artist named Neko Case; and a month-long residency with her jazz band, The Wooden Leg, which lasted two-and-a-half years.
In 2001, Hogan took a creative writing course taught by cartoonist Lynda Barry, one of her lifelong heroes (she had once unsuccessfully pitched to Barry an invitation to illustrate a Jody Grind album cover). She signed up again the following year and eventually became one of Barry’s assistants. In May 2008, Hogan left Chicago and moved to Wisconsin where she lives with her boyfriend and beloved dogs in a house about eight miles down the road from a refurbished dairy farm, which serves as residence and workspace for Barry and her husband, Kevin, a prairie restoration expert.
“I’ve always wanted to chase her around with a pitchfork until she agrees to make comics,” Barry says. “She can draw anything and she’s also a brilliant writer. Part of it is because she approaches these things the same way she does singing. She wants to play host to the image.”
I Like to Keep Myself in Pain is dramatically compelling and chock full of songs that will haunt you in a good way. Painful it is not, except perhaps in the exquisite anguish evoked by quirky fables concerning the fragile human condition rendered by a natural-born raconteur in vividly lyrical fashion. “It’s a cliché, but the girl can sing anything and make it sound good,” says James Kelly, aka Slim Chance, a country singer/songwriter with whom Hogan frequently collaborated when they were Cabbagetown neighbors. “Just hand her your next speeding ticket and see.”
Kelly Hogan’s Cheap-O Chicken Thighs with Pepper-Jelly Orange Mustard Sauce
6 skinless chicken thighs
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice (or Minneola or tangerine)
1 cup low-salt chicken broth (preferably homemade)
1/4 cup Creole or whole-grain Dijon mustard (any kind of hearty mustard is okay and I use more to taste)
2 tablespoons habanero (or jalepeno) pepper jelly, the hotter the better!
Extra pepper sauce to taste, if you like it crazy hot
Zest of the citrus that you squeezed for the recipe juice
Sprinkle chicken on both sides with salt and fresh-ground black pepper. Heat olive oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and sauté until brown, about 5 or 6 minutes per side.
Add orange juice and broth to skillet with chicken. Simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 6 minutes. Transfer chicken to plate. Add mustard and pepper jelly to skillet. Increase heat and boil, whisking pretty much constantly, until sauce thickens enough to coat a spoon. You’ll think this’ll never happen, but then all of a sudden you’ll have sauce. It’ll seem like forever, but really only takes about 7 – 10 minutes. It helps if you have some music playing—it takes about three pop songs (or two heavy metal songs) to finish cooking.
Return chicken to skillet. Add citrus zest to sauce, and then taste and swerve the sauce to your desired direction with more jelly or juice or mustard (or pepper sauce) and simmer chicken in this delicious stuff until heated through, about 1-2 minutes.
Transfer chicken to plates and serve with sauce on top. It’s so good—spicy, sweet, savory—great with steamed brown rice and a side of some dark bitter greens (spinach, kale, chard, collard, turnip, or my favorite: rapini) sautéed with a truckload of garlic.
P.S. I’ve found that there is never enough sauce for me—so sometimes I double the sauce ingredients, which takes longer to cook/whisk until it thickens, but people, let me tell you that it’s worth it.
P.P.S. And you can use any kind of chicken thighs, really. Skin-on (ooo, decadent!) or boneless, etc. I trust y’all to adjust your cooking accordingly.