Kelly's Heroes

Kelly Hogan takes great songs by great artists and makes them her own.

Many performers haven't a clue about the inner workings of their own hype machines -- but Kelly Hogan is a big exception. From 1997 to 1999, a few years before Chicago's Bloodshot Records released her latest album, the wonderfully evocative Because It Feels Good, this indie-music veteran worked for the company as a publicist, learning things along the way that might have scared a weaker person into choosing another career.

"We were a tiny label, especially at that time, in this little basement bunker," says Hogan, whose charm and chattiness illustrate why she was hired as a publicist in the first place. "It was tiny, and you'd bang your head on pipes because it was so cramped in there -- and we were definitely there for the music, because we weren't making any dough. But what proved my undoing was I felt the pain of all the bands in the vans. I'd stay there twelve hours, sixteen hours a day making phone calls I didn't want to make to a bunch of people who didn't want to get them because I know how it feels to play on a Tuesday in Paducah and not even have your name in the Thrifty Nickel.

"It was a lot of pressure, and it made me crazy, because it was too much for one person, and I always felt I was letting the bands down -- and bodily I just could not do it all. I always likened it to, 'Who do I throw out of the lifeboat? Whose calls don't I make today, because I can't make them all?' Aaargh!"

Kelly Hogan covers a wide array of artists on her new album, just Because It Feels Good.
Kelly Hogan covers a wide array of artists on her new album, just Because It Feels Good.

That wasn't the first time Hogan's empathy for her fellow musicians had unhealthy repercussions. In 1995, half a decade after the appearance of One Man's Trash Is Another Man's Treasure, an LP Hogan made as part of a combo dubbed the Jody Grind, she quit working at Wax 'N' Facts, a record store in Atlanta where she was in charge of returning discs that didn't sell. "Talk about a depressing job," she says. "It was like I was on the Island of Misfit Toys, having to take all these copies of albums by indie bands looking so hopeful on the cover and tell them, 'Sorry, you guys, but I've got to send you back.' After a while, I was like, 'God, I'll never make music again! Why bother?'"

Despite such doubts, however, Hogan eventually returned to the microphone, and thank goodness for that. In an era marked by undistinguished warblers desperately in need of digital enhancing, Hogan is the real thing: Her voice is rich, full and as smoky as a cigar bar following a stock-market rally. This last quality has generated innumerable comparisons to the late Dusty Springfield, but while Springfield vacillated between caressing tunes and sending them to the moon, Hogan nestles into the material on Because It Feels Good, creating moody, late-night sounds that seem heartfelt because they are.

"For me, the common thread I look for is integrity -- lyrical and melodic and emotional integrity," she says. "And I like all kinds of different styles. I try not to exclude anything; if I like it enough, I'll fit it in there somewhere."

She's not exaggerating. Because It Feels Good sports two fine tunes Hogan co-wrote with guitarist and longtime cohort Andy Hopkins -- the pop-symphonic "No, Bobby Don't" and the sassy and sweet "Sugarbowl" -- but the other eight songs on the platter hail from disparate sources. "I'll Go to My Grave Loving You," the creepy opening number, comes courtesy of country-harmony act the Statler Brothers, while the closer, "Stay," was penned by C&W category-buster Charlie Rich, whom Hogan especially reveres: "I love the very-special-love-song Charlie Rich, I love the 'Philadelphia Baby' Charlie Rich, I love all of Charlie Rich." But she also tackles "In Time," a supper-club show-stopper she first heard on an LP by '60s chanteuse Ketty Lester; "Living Without You," an early Randy Newman composition; "Please Don't Leave Me Lonely," an obscure offering by King Floyd, the vintage R&B practitioner best known for the 1970 hit "Groove Me"; "Strayed," by Will Callahan's one-man cult band, Smog; "Speedfreak Lullaby," borrowed from a defunct Georgia act called Greasetrap; and "(You Don't Know) The First Thing About Blue," by Nashville tunesmith John Paul Keith, formerly with the outfit now known as the V-Roys.

That's an eclectic array by any measure, which is just how Hogan likes it. "I've got to have my country, but I also have to have my Fugazi," she says. "And the other day we drove from Philadelphia at two in the morning, and this 'N Sync song, 'Gone,' came on the radio -- and I listened to the whole thing. Everybody else was like, 'Turn it! Turn it!' But I was like, 'No, no, I need to hear this. I've got to get educated.' You know, I hesitate to say any type of music is bad, because it means something to somebody. I mean, I loved the shit out of Donny Osmond, so who am I to talk?"

The relatively high percentage of covers on the disc (and her repertoire as a whole) has been a topic of debate among some reviewers, to Hogan's chagrin. "I get asked that all the time," she concedes. "Like that somehow discredits me or something. I always say Bob Dylan fucked it up for all of us interpreters. Me and Neko [Neko Case, a Bloodshot signee and Hogan's current roommate] talk about that for hours, and she gets really pissed about it, which isn't that surprising, because she's a firebrand, a hothead. But as she says, the country-music tradition is to cover other people's songs. One night, Andy called me and said, 'I was looking through my Loretta Lynn records, and you're working at the Loretta Lynn ratio of covers to originals -- and she always worked with co-writers, too.' And if it's good enough for Loretta Lynn, it's good enough for me.

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