Kelly Hogan brings together country, soul, friends
If you hear just one song from Kelly Hogan's soulful new album — which would be a shame, by the way — make sure it's the title track. It's all over after that.
A sublime country tune with a tinge of after-hours sophistication, "I Like to Keep Myself in Pain" starts in Tammy Wynette mode. Written by Robyn Hitchcock, it's sweet and serene until it suddenly isn't. Out of the blue, Hogan lets loose a brassy exclamation. "Oh, yeah!" she sings for 10 full seconds, the words growing tattered by the end.
That's surely the same sensation Hogan's fans feel after waiting so long for a new solo album. It's not easy being a Kelly Hogan admirer. She's a singer's singer, usually in the role of sassy sidekick. She's kept busy over the past decade on the road and on records with the likes of Neko Case (as a full-time member of Case's band), Mavis Staples, and Jakob Dylan, among others. Those projects mean she hasn't released a solo record since 2001's "Because It Feel Good."
She roars back on "I Like to Keep Myself in Pain," enlisting some friends to write or at least give her songs for the album.
"Very on purpose I kept it to friends and family," says Hogan, 47. "I kept my Rolodex limited to people who are in it for the music, not just getting their name on it. I always say the song is my boss, and I wrote to people who feel the same way."
The Globe recently caught up with Hogan, on the phone from her home in Wisconsin and nursing a hoarse voice that hopefully has healed by the time she arrives at Johnny D's on Tuesday.
Q. It's nice to see you step in the spotlight. When did you feel the pull to do another solo album?
A. Anti- Records [which also releases Case's albums] approached me about doing a project, and I love them so much. I had gotten to know Andy Kaulkin, one of the honchos at Anti-, and the more we got to know each other, we would talk about project ideas. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. He's the one who said, "You've worked with all these people for so long, so let's call in favors and see if people will return the favor." I didn't think of it that way — I didn't think anybody owed me anything.
Q. Were these songs written expressly for you or did they exist already?
A. It's all different forms. They were all given to me, except for "Pass on By." I've always been a fan of Margaret Ann Rich, Charlie Rich's wife, so I'm glad we got to do one of her songs. But some of them were written very specifically for me for this record, like the Vic Chesnutt song ["Ways of This World"]. When I asked Robyn Hitchcock to write me a song, he said, "I started writing you a song six years ago." Claudia [Gonson] from the Magnetic Fields sent me "Plant White Roses," which she felt like hadn't gotten its moment in the sun.
Q. You sent a letter asking people for songs. What did it say?
A. First of all, "I'm not worthy." It was written in the language of a dog rolling over and peeing on himself, wagging its tail. Sticking with the dog analogy, I said, "If you give me this song, I promise to take care of it, I'll take it for a walk every day, I'll feed it." And I also said they could write a song for this album, or it could be an orphan that they've had kicking around. At that time, we had talked about the style being country pop with strings, so I gave people some parameters.
Q. When the songs came in, was it telling to realize how these songwriters thought of you?
A. I'm still trying to figure that out. Sometimes it's like onion skin and peels itself away. It was scary for me to ask for songs, scary for me to hear them — it was this whole awesome, delicious terror project. I didn't want to push "play" and have the song talking about, I don't know (adopts a Marlene Dietrich cabaret croon), "C'mon, boys, the party is just startin' in my skirt."
Q. You wrote "Golden" for Neko. How do you describe your relationship with her?
A. We're more like family than just friends now. We're just like effed-up sisters, as you can see on our Twitter exchanges. We say one day we're going to have our restaurant, our goat farm out back, and fight about who made the gravy. I started playing with her band in 1998, and we're all a family, for good and bad.
Q. Do you learn from each other?
A. I constantly learn from her, and she says vice versa. She's one of my heroes. I just got back from recording my vocals for her new record. She's brave. Her lyrics are brave. She's inspiring to me in that her songs don't necessarily follow verse-chorus-verse form at all. A lot of times when you first get the demo, you're like, "I'm never going to get my mind around what this song is doing." You have to let it be its own thing, and then it makes perfect sense.
Q. This new record showcases your versatility, but has that also been a detriment? If we could say, "Kelly Hogan is this particular kind of singer," would that have made things easier for you?
A. Oh, yeah. Totally. I just can't decide who to throw out of the lifeboat, man. I just like music too much. I've got rabies for music — I want to know it, all different kinds of it. My priorities weren't to make it. My priorities were to be able to do music until I die.