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Kelly Hogan Wraps Her Pipes Around Modern Classics

Kelly Hogan knows the audacity of favors.

But if you're going to make an album, starting with a fantasy batch of songwriters and ending with a fantasy band is a hell of a way to go about it.

For I Like to Keep Myself In Pain, her first solo album in 11 years, Hogan started by writing 40 fan letters, buttering up songwriter friends like Andrew Bird, Robyn Hitchcock, and Vic Chesnutt to ask for contributions.

"I sat down and had a good think about all the people I've worked with since I was playing at bars when I was 17. It was one fan letter skeleton that was swerved to each person. It was really, really frightening to send it," says Hogan.

Frightening, but fruitful. Hogan ended up with more than 30 songs, from M. Ward, the Mekons' Jon Langford, Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, John Wesley Harding, and Robbie Fulks.

"They trusted me with their songs, which meant a lot. I can't even explain how humbled I was."

Some of the early results were a surprise. Hitchcock said he'd already started writing a song for Hogan a few years earlier, after an e-mail exchange. The one song Hogan penned, "Golden," was written years earlier for Neko Case but emerged as a good fit. And "Ways of This World" from the late Chesnutt was so customized for Hogan it's as if he were psychic. 

"Vic Chesnutt just blew my mind. It was one of the first ones I got back and it became the masthead of my album ship," she says. "I'm not surprised the song is so great because I love Vic and his work. We're both from Georgia, so maybe it's our shared DNA, but he surprised me because, lyrically, it was the story of my life."

Hogan selected 12 to record and began the process of discovering her own way to approach the songs.

"I feel like a hippie, but the songs just reveal themselves. It's a weird thing. I have to live with them for a while," she says. "At first, I like to have it sneak into my head. I'll always listen to a song while doing something else, like washing dishes or [shaving] my legs. I don't put it on and stare at the speaker. I'll let it get into my groundwater by doing something else for a while."

To work the arrangements out, Hogan enlisted friend and guitarist Scott Ligon. They'd play in his apartment in the dead of winter with a hissing radiator and try the songs out in different ways. Then they stage-tested the songs, tinkering all the while, during a Monday night residency in March at The Hideout in Chicago (where she'd tended bar).

"I figure it out playing in front of people because of the element of terror. It's like a galvanizing element for me. I like to keep myself in pain and terror," she says, riffing on the album title. "You can practice in your bedroom a million times, but just playing in front of people is the way I find out about songs and learn what they want to do."

To record the songs, Anti- president Andy Kaulkin brought Hogan to Los Angeles and assembled a dream team: the legendary Booker T. Jones on keyboard, drummer James Gadson (Bill Withers, Beck), bassist and Dap-Kings producer Gabe Roth, and Ligon.

"I love working with Andy. He likes to pull these disparate elements together," Hogan says. "It's crazy. You put all these people together and you don't know if it's going to gel or not. But everybody was super-invested and devoted to these songs."

In the end, Hogan says, Pain came out as exactly the record she wanted. And while it's whetted her appetite for another solo album, the jack-of-all-trades collaborator will keep trying new things.

"I want to come at music from all sides. Every day I wake up wanting to be the best musician I can be. I like it all, but vocal arrangements and harmonies are my favorite part. I don't have to be the frontwoman," she says.

"I'm a harmony junkie. I harmonize with vacuum cleaners and there's a train that goes through my town, so I harmonize with that six times a day. When I put together my touring band, everybody has to be able to do kick-ass harmonies."

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Eric is a freelance writer covering music, travel, science, and food and drink.
Contact: Eric Swedlund