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    Letters to Cleo bringing it back home

    After a reunion last year, Letters to Cleo members (clockwise from bottom left) Kay Hanley, Greg McKenna, Michael Eisenstein, and Stacy Jones are assembling again for a three-night stand in town.
    Justine Unguaro
    After a reunion last year, Letters to Cleo members (clockwise from bottom left) Kay Hanley, Greg McKenna, Michael Eisenstein, and Stacy Jones are assembling again for a three-night stand in town.

    ‘You didn’t say it was gonna be a Lynn phone number!”

    These are the first words Kay Hanley says, teasingly, when she answers my call, dropping that “r” at the end like a bad habit. Sometimes she tones down her accent for television interviews, but over the phone Hanley’s Dorchester roots are immediately audible.

    As a young teen, Hanley was trucked around in the family station wagon to Saturday afternoon shows featuring neighbor Donnie Wahlberg and his group Nynuk — later renamed New Kids on the Block — at the Joseph Lee School in Dorchester. Later, her own band, Letters to Cleo, progressed from Thursday night opening slots at T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge to become one of the rising stars of Boston’s mid-1990s alternative rock scene — before dissolving after a few years out of a general lack of enthusiasm for the rock star enterprise.


    After a reunion last year, Letters to Cleo assembles again this week for a three-night stand at old haunt the Paradise Rock Club, featuring a complete performance of one of its three albums each night. Breakout hit “Aurora Gory Alice” is set for Thursday, followed by “Wholesale Meats and Fish” the next night and “Go!” on Saturday.

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    “It just feels very natural and unforced,” Hanley says. “We know each other really well and we love playing music together. Doing something like this is literally just like: Let’s get the band back together! And then we go back to our jobs.”

    In its first life as a band, the last thing Letters to Cleo did all together was to appear onscreen in the 1999 film “10 Things I Hate About You,” earning new fans who were disappointed to learn the band was all done. They got together for a short series of shows in 2008 and 2009, but perhaps the more meaningful reunion happened when they released a five-song EP last year (“Back to Nebraska”) followed by some more shows.

    Much of the band is now based in Los Angeles. Hanley’s main gig is writing songs for the Disney animated series “Doc McStuffins.” Drummer Stacy Jones is the longtime musical director for Miley Cyrus and a much in-demand drummer-for-hire. Guitarist Michael Eisenstein also plies his trade with multiple bands.

    Guitarist Greg McKenna, who cofounded the band with Hanley and provided the demos that jump-started the current reunion, still plays around Boston with his band City Rivals when not busy with his day job as a mechanical engineer. Original bassist Scott Riebling declined to join the reunion; in recent years he’s devoted much of his time to the pizza place he opened in Brookline. (Longtime friend Joe Klompus now handles bass duties, and true to the album’s original lineup, drummer Tom Polce will replace Jones for “Go!” on Saturday.)


    Letters to Cleo’s debut album was out for a year before “Here and Now” became a hit, with help from placement on the “Melrose Place” soundtrack and some end-credits plugging of the video. (“We didn’t know we’d be answering questions about ‘Melrose Place’ for the next 30 years,” Hanley adds wryly.) But even at the height of the band’s success, the machinery of the music business proved an awkward fit for some of the band.

    “I felt very conflicted about selling myself,” Hanley says. “Growing up in Dorchester, it’s sort of: What, you’re too big for your britches?”

    McKenna, who is also from Dorchester, had a similar response.

    “I find it a little bit embarrassing,” he says, when someone puts on a Letters to Cleo song these days. “None of us were enamored with the idea of being a rock star. I love playing music and I’m glad people like it, but I’m from a working-class family so having that kind of attention is [uncomfortable].”

    Jones, however, loved “every minute of it,” he says. But he left the group after its second album when he was drafted in to join Veruca Salt. To him, Cleo’s compact oeuvre feels unfinished.


    “It was a nice trajectory there and I think the band was really hitting it. I wish we could have done more,” he adds.

    The current reunion seems all the more unlikely when you consider that, between the 2009 shows and their work together the past two years, Hanley and Eisenstein — who were married with two kids together — got divorced. Her substance abuse issues, she says, were the problem.

    “I’d think anybody who has spent any amount of time with me in the last 20 or 30 years knows I can knock ’em back with the best of them,” she says. “But my drinking and other substances took a pretty dark turn, and it wasn’t OK anymore. I lost my marriage because of it and could have lost a lot more if the people in my life had decided to take a different attitude towards my struggles. But I got help and was ultimately able to get sober.”

    Part of her prep for these shows, she says, will be listening to the band’s albums in full for perhaps the first time ever.

    “If I write something, I’m obsessed with reading it over and over again. But listening to my voice? No thank you.”

    Her fans feel differently.

    Letters To Cleo

    With Blake Babies. At Paradise Rock Club, Nov. 16-18. Tickets $29.50-$35, 617-562-8800,

    Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.