Kay Hanley Interview

Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo

Letters to Cleo singer Kay Hanley had one of the biggest aural impacts of 2001, singing the lead vocals for Josie in the grossly misunderstood film, Josie and the Pussycats. Chris Neumer talks to Hanley about hair metal, learning under fire and, once, even manages to get serenaded.

by Chris Neumer

Extra Information

INTERVIEW NOTES: Near the end of my interview with Kay Hanley, I asked her a question about the time signatures of the song “Three Small Words” on the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack. After thinking about the question for a moment, Hanley began singing the song, going through a whole verse before stopping and answering my question. As I mentioned to her at the time, I would have asked her to sing for me a lot earlier in the conversation had I known that all it took was asking.

KAY HANLEY: I’m doing my dishes and that’s about it. Really, I would much rather talk to you.

CHRIS NEUMER: You know, I just don’t hear that enough from the people I talk to. If I could ask for one more thing, that would probably be it.

KAY HANLEY: (laughs)

CHRIS NEUMER: I absolutely loved Josie and the Pussycats!

KAY HANLEY: Really?

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s strange. No one that I know didn’t like it. Granted, we’re the anti-target demographic.

KAY HANLEY: (laughs)

CHRIS NEUMER: But we all liked the film and the soundtrack as well. It’s the only CD I’ve bought all year. With you covering the lead vocals for Josie, I wanted to talk shop with you.

KAY HANLEY: That’s awesome!

CHRIS NEUMER: Yes. Indeed. Can I take it from the disbelief in your voice at the fact that we enjoyed the film that you did not?

KAY HANLEY: No, actually, I liked it. I was just sad, I thought it could have been–I thought the premise was interesting and timely and, knowing the directors’ sense of humor, I was really expecting a lot more out of it.  I thought it could have been a lot better. That’s all. I had pretty high expectations for it though.

CHRIS NEUMER: When was the last time you saw the film?

KAY HANLEY: I went with my husband about two months ago.

CHRIS NEUMER: So this isn’t something that might get better with a second viewing or age.

KAY HANLEY: Well, I didn’t hate it, I thought it was cute, I just thought it was going to be better.

CHRIS NEUMER: Sometimes high expectations can be a given films worst enemy.

KAY HANLEY: That’s true.

CHRIS NEUMER: I recently saw From Hell and I was all geeked up for it to be the best movie ever–

KAY HANLEY: And it wasn’t…

CHRIS NEUMER: How could it be? But I know in four months I’m going to see it on DVD and realize that it’s a damn good movie and wonder where the hell my head was back in October. But that’s that.

KAY HANLEY: That’s that.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’ve done a fair amount of research on you–well, as much research as is possible on someone like you who has a limited amount of info and interviews out there–

KAY HANLEY: As opposed to someone like Julia Roberts, right?

CHRIS NEUMER: And I wanted to ask, how did you first get involved on this project?

KAY HANLEY: My friend, Dave Gibbs was in a long time Boston band called the Gigolo Wants.  He moved out to Los Angeles to make the scene, I guess, and once he got out there he started writing songs for what was becoming the Josie and the Pussycats project. He was collaborating with a lot of other [people]. So, they had hired a Josie and my friend Dave was like, “Guys, my friend Kay would be awesome for the Pussycats, you should get her.”

CHRIS NEUMER: Who was the original Josie?

KAY HANLEY: Babyface was the executive producer of the soundtrack and he had hired the original Josie. He’s only worked with, and I mean almost exclusively, black artists.  This being a rock record he remembered he’d worked with this singer years back who he thought sounded like a white rock singer. She had the most phenomenal voice, but once the songs started to get down on tape, everybody was like this voice would not be coming out of Josie… you know Rachael Leigh Cook’s mouth. She didn’t lose the job because she wasn’t good, I think she lost the job because she was too good. But she wasn’t anybody famous, she was just this woman who had been in some rock band in Atlanta.

CHRIS NEUMER: I must say, you did a very good job of not mentioning her name in there.

KAY HANLEY: Well, I don’t even know her name. That’s how I managed to be so coy. I don’t even remember what her name was. She really wasn’t anyone famous.

CHRIS NEUMER: So this wasn’t one of the deep down and dirty secrets of the production then.

KAY HANLEY: No.  I got out there to do one of the voice of the Pussycats and I was supposed to be out there for a couple of days doing the backup vocals. By the time I got to Los Angeles, they had let the first Josie go which left me in a perfect position to swoop in and claim the job for myself. Which I did! (laughs)  Not without a fight though. There was a lot of kicking and scratching and screaming and fighting.

CHRIS NEUMER: As one might figure, given that you were trying to become the lead pussycat.

KAY HANLEY: Exactly. There were other Pussycats vying for my rightful job. I mean there were other Josie’s trying…

CHRIS NEUMER: But you got the ears in the end.

KAY HANLEY: I did!

CHRIS NEUMER Well, you did a very, very good job. I was most impressed at how your voice and Rachael Leigh Cook’s voice seemed to match in the final product. Was this just a happy coincidence or was there some work in post that took place?

KAY HANLEY: Um.. What you hear is what was on tape. There were no whistles and bells on that. It was a very, very briskly recorded rock record. I mean we did it really, really quickly.

CHRIS NEUMER: How quickly is ‘really, really quickly’?

KAY HANLEY: Well, maybe the Babyface stuff didn’t go by as quickly, but the last six songs with the last six Josie and the Pussycats songs that were on the record were recorded, mixed and mastered in seven days.

CHRIS NEUMER: Wow.

KAY HANLEY: Yeah. No studio trickery involved. It was a rock record from top to bottom. And I think one of the reasons that I got the gig in the first place was that you really could imagine my voice coming out of Rachael’s mouth. And Rachael and I worked together on a sound stage and lip-synced to Who records and stuff like that in a mirror.

CHRIS NEUMER: That was your band camp experience?

KAY HANLEY: Yeah, that was band camp. Exactly.

CHRIS NEUMER: You’ve got to feel cool saying that out loud.

KAY HANLEY: (laughs) So we worked together so that she could kind of get the way my face looks as I’m making the sounds and she was a quick study. She kind of got the mannerisms down and the way a person’s mouth moves when they’re making certain sounds.

CHRIS NEUMER: This is the kind of course aspiring singers need to get involved in?

KAY HANLEY: You think?

CHRIS NEUMER: I ask facetiously, but it’s interesting to think about nonetheless. When she was singing on these takes–I know the girls learned to play the guitars at least suitably so they looked like they could be playing the songs–but were they also lip-syncing along the whole time?

KAY HANLEY: They did it the same way a rock video is done. You just play the song over a loud speaker and you sing as if you’re singing and play as if you’re playing the song.  If you look at their fingers to see if they’re playing the actual chords, I’m sure their probably not.

CHRIS NEUMER: I just don’t have that time on my schedule.

KAY HANLEY: Right. But that’s the way you make a rock video–you lip synch and pretend you’re playing the chords.

CHRIS NEUMER: It all turned out pretty well. The videos on the DVD turned out to be incredibly funny in a satirical way.

KAY HANLEY: Oh good.

CHRIS NEUMER: They have some very interesting Dujour videos, including the one for “Backdoor Lover”.

KAY HANLEY: Omigod, did they make a video for “Backdoor Lover”?  I bet that’s so funny!

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s incredibly well done. Those guys seemed like they were having so much fun.

KAY HANLEY: Yeah, they really are.

CHRIS NEUMER: Were you involved in the song writing process? I know you wrote “Shapeshifter”, but I thought you brought that along from somewhere else.

KAY HANLEY: No, Michael and I wrote that for the film. We wrote two songs for the film, one did not make the cut and “Shapeshifter” did make the cut.  Then I ended up co-writing a song called “Come On”.

CHRIS NEUMER: Really? That was my favorite.

KAY HANLEY: Oh really!? Good, good good. I’m so glad. The demo for that, we were like cringing when we were listening to it. We were like, “this is the worst, worst song ever and we’re never going to be able to do anything with it.” It was charmless and like really gross. (laughs) But it did end up being one of my favorites.  The demo of it was bad though.  We just all sat around like, “I can’t fucking believe we have to do this song.”  I think you’re right, I think it came out really, really well.

CHRIS NEUMER: I was impressed. The fact that I actually went out and bought the CD with my own money.

KAY HANLEY: Wow! I’m so pleased.

CHRIS NEUMER: Had Napster been around, I’m sure that wouldn’t have been the case, but it isn’t so, whatever.

KAY HANLEY: That’s not on Napster?

CHRIS NEUMER: Napster is down. Gone.

KAY HANLEY: Eviscerated?

CHRIS NEUMER: For all practical purposes, I mean, I was looking around on line last week for some Kirsty MacColl stuff and had no luck at all. Now I’m at the point where I’m thinking about buying a CD, which I haven’t done, since, well, Josie and the Pussycats.  As a consumer, I though Napster was the best invention since the advent of the wheel.  As a recording artist, I’m sure you have a slightly different take on the matter.

KAY HANLEY: I never really formed an opinion either way on it. I thought there were lots of great things about Napster and I thought there were lots of bad stuff about Napster. I never had an absolute opinion either way.

CHRIS NEUMER: I did manage to find a copy of your version of I want you to want me–

KAY HANLEY: Yes?

CHRIS NEUMER: That is one of the best versions of that song I’ve heard.

KAY HANLEY: Thank you.

CHRIS NEUMER: Man, will you listen to me? I’m like a gushing fan with you here.

KAY HANLEY: (giggles warmly)

CHRIS NEUMER: I guess it just helps that you make good music.

KAY HANLEY: Well, Thank you. I’m a huge Cheap Trick fan; all of us in Letters to Cleo were Cheap Trick fans.  We have a long history with them and never would have done them wrong by recording one of their songs. We made sure that we did it right. I’m glad you liked it.

CHRIS NEUMER: I guess I’m just saying all the right things today.

KAY HANLEY: Yeah, you are! (laughs)

CHRIS NEUMER: Going back to the writing of the Josie CD, there was a lot of talent there. Babyface was there, the lead singer of Counting Crows was there as was the Go Go’s main guy, Jane.

KAY HANLEY: Yeah, Jane Wiedlin.

CHRIS NEUMER: and you… saving the best for last.

KAY HANLEY: Right. Of course.

CHRIS NEUMER: Is there anything that can account for that? These are big names associated with a fairly small motion picture soundtrack.

KAY HANLEY: First of all, the directors of the film sort of travel in that Adam Duritz, Counting Crows kind of circle.  They knew Jane Wiedlin and hang out together.  It wasn’t bringing together all these wildly different talents, you know?

CHRIS NEUMER: It was like working with friends.

KAY HANLEY: Exactly. Exactly. I think the common thread that brought us all together was Dave. That’s how I got the gig anyway, through Dave–Dave Gibbs–who I talked about earlier.

CHRIS NEUMER: Gigolo Wants, right?

KAY HANLEY: Right.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did you fit in well with this, I don’t want to call it a clique, but this group of friends who’d known each other for a long time?

KAY HANLEY: I’ve known Jane for a long time because she had a band called Frosted that played with Letters to Cleo a couple of times.  I’ve known her for a while. But to be honest with you, by the time I got out there, all the songs were written and all that work had pretty much been done. I worked with Dave a little bit, but he then went on tour, so most of my involvement was done–for the first batch of songs it was just me and Babyface and the engineer at his house in Beverly Hills. The rest of it was done here in Boston with my guys. My husband played guitar and Dave was involved too.

CHRIS NEUMER: I was just about to ask: when you say ‘your guys’, do you mean your band?

KAY HANLEY: Right. Guys I brought into the thing.

CHRIS NEUMER: Which goes a long way towards explaining why a lot of these songs sounds like some of the other Letters to Cleo songs.

KAY HANLEY: (laughs) Exactly. I’d sort of think of it as the fifth Letters to Cleo record. If someone didn’t know, if it didn’t have the Josie and the Pussycats cover, it would easily be able to pass as a Letters to Cleo record, if you ask me.

CHRIS NEUMER: Was it at all liberating to work on a project like this–

KAY HANLEY: Omigod, I loved it. I loved it. I loved it so much, I can’t even tell you. I wish I could do a thousand more.

CHRIS NEUMER: Man, and I didn’t even get to finish my question!

KAY HANLEY: (laughs)

CHRIS NEUMER: It must have been good. But to finish my question, it seemed like this project gave you the ability to experiment a little bit with some different styles, it seemed like that would be freeing and in that sense a good experience, but apparently it was a good experience already.

KAY HANLEY: Yeah, we didn’t really experiment. As I said, it sounds a lot like my old band.

CHRIS NEUMER: Album number five.

KAY HANLEY: We didn’t experiment.  But it was really liberating because I never had any ego attached to it because it wasn’t really me.

CHRIS NEUMER: Whereas, if it were a project that you were doing, you’d be this 800-pound super bitch yelling and throwing things around the studio.

KAY HANLEY: Exactly. You can tell that it’s in my nature.

CHRIS NEUMER: I was merely reading between the lines.

KAY HANLEY: No, I think that it was liberating to not care so much about every little thing and I think because of that it’s got a lot of really good energy. Do you want a cookie? I think it’s got a lot of energy.

CHRIS NEUMER: It certainly does. I think that was what captured my attention and captivated so many. It had flair.

KAY HANLEY: Good. Good. Because that’s how it felt. It felt like, I don’t know, I just felt like I was in a race car, doing that whole thing. That’s the memory of it for me: being in this really, really fast race car, winning. I loved it, I had such a great time.

CHRIS NEUMER: How long did you actually work on the project? Three weeks? Four weeks?

KAY HANLEY: There was a lot of fucked up stuff that happened when I first got out to Los Angeles.  That kind of left us stranded out there for three weeks, almost a month. With really no salvageable material making it out of those recording sessions, we just got out of there. We were like, “We’re not hanging around any more.” And we got on a plane and went back to Boston.

CHRIS NEUMER: You said ‘we’ a couple of times. Was this you and Dave or you and your husband?

KAY HANLEY: Me and my daughter Zoe and my husband Michael. No, Dave is in Los Angeles permanently. So Michael, me, Zoe. My family.  We came back here and Babyface called and said, “You have the job, come back, let’s do this.” I went back out and I guess those sessions–we recorded the whole thing–they got rid of all the tracks that other musicians had done. So we started from scratch with me, Michael and our friend Jason Sutter on drums.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m never not amazed by southern California’s excess and waste, but even so, this seems amazing. You were out there for a month at their expense. You did a lot of prep work and all this and it all got scrapped?

KAY HANLEY: Yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: What were the problems? When you put in into those terms, it just seems very hectic.

KAY HANLEY: Just that beginning thing. After that everything was fine and we moved very quickly.

CHRIS NEUMER: So once you got rid of the original Josie voice, everything went smoothly?

KAY HANLEY: Well, no… (laughs) Once I got out there and I was going to start doing the Josie voice, the directors were like, “We’re not sure who the voice is, yours sounds a little bit sweet.” And then they started to bring in other singers to audition while I was there!

CHRIS NEUMER: This was after you had gotten the job?

KAY HANLEY: Well, they never quite gave me the part. They kind of did, but they kind of didn’t. That’s what I mean by ‘all sorts of fucked up stuff’. It was like, “You have the gig, be here at 1:00.”  Then, “You don’t have to come at 1:00, just whenever.”  And meanwhile, I know that there are other people that they’re bringing in because their managers are calling my manager. It was just insane, but like I said, once all that was done and Babyface put his foot down and was like, “I like Kay. Her voice is fun. Let’s go with this,” it got better.  We got back out there, scrapped all the shit that they had already tracked, got rid of the other musicians and brought in our people–and not to say that with arrogance–Babyface has never done a rock record and he was learning as he went along. And I thought he was exemplary in the whole situation. He was kind of trying to get a feel for what this was supposed to sound like–he didn’t know what it was supposed to sound like when the thing started and I think he developed that sound very quickly once he figured it out.

CHRIS NEUMER: Learning under fire can occasionally result in the things you mentioned, I’m sure.

KAY HANLEY: Yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s good that it turned out so well though.

KAY HANLEY: I think so.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did you ever angle for a cameo in the film? Elbowing people going, “Put me in somewhere.”

KAY HANLEY: No, not really. I was perfectly happy to do my job and go home.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s admirable and unusual at the same time.

KAY HANLEY: You think?

CHRIS NEUMER: Talking to some of the people I’ve talked to, yes.

KAY HANLEY: Okay. Thanks, I guess.

CHRIS NEUMER: Were you involved in anyway to the Dujour songs?

KAY HANLEY: No. Again, those were already written by the time I got involved. The directors did a lot of the writing.

CHRIS NEUMER: Song lyrics or music?

KAY HANLEY: Lyrics, lyrics. They wrote a lot of lyrics. I don’t think they wrote much music.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s a shame. It’s seems like a great thing to tease people about. You have heard the songs though, correct?

KAY HANLEY: Absolutely. Yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’d be interested to hear your take on them. I was thinking about this before the interview: you and Letters to Cleo and Dujour are the exact opposites in music.

KAY HANLEY: Probably.

CHRIS NEUMER: I don’t know how you can get much further away from Letters to Cleo than that… Maybe Squirrel Nut Zippers. But the excessive, obsessive nature of the band and the lemming like fan reaction, it seems very interesting. I’m intrigued by your take on it.

KAY HANLEY: On Dujour or bands like Dujour?

CHRIS NEUMER: Sure, both.

KAY HANLEY: The Dujour thing, I thought, was really, really funny. In fact, the first time I heard that song, “Backdoor Lover”, it was a demo version of it and I did realize that it was going to be in the film.  I thought it was one of Babyface’s artists. And I was thinking, “Omigod, do they realize what this song sounds like?” I thought it was a serious song that was going on somebody’s album. (laughs) So I guess that, in and of itself is sort of an indictment of how absolutely silly I think these groups can be.

CHRIS NEUMER: Boy bands?

KAY HANLEY: Yes. But I’ll tell you this: I am far less offended by groups like that [than others]. In fact, I kind of like N*Sync. They don’t bother me at all. (laughs) They’ve had a couple of songs that I’ve really, really liked. But even as a concept, I find that so less offensive than what I hear on rock radio right now, which makes me want to vomit. It’s absolutely pointless and artless.

CHRIS NEUMER: Just to get a gauge on what you’re saying, groups like–

KAY HANLEY: Groups you’d hear on the radio.

CHRIS NEUMER: Like Blink-182?

KAY HANLEY: Blink-182 being an exception.

CHRIS NEUMER: [laughs] The one example I can come up with…

KAY HANLEY: What about Linkin Park… and Creed…

CHRIS NEUMER: Slipknot?

KAY HANLEY: No, Slipknot is good. They’re weird and crazy and they scare me. But all this other stuff it’s just–Puddle of Mudd is the perfect example. Oh, God, it’s so depressing how bad [they are]. It’s not even bad, actually, it just doesn’t exist. It’s like it’s not, uh–

CHRIS NEUMER: Vacuous?

KAY HANLEY: Yes, vacuous. Thank you. And that’s how I feel about most of the people today.

CHRIS NEUMER: Do you see this trend getting better or worse?

KAY HANLEY: It’s kind of like ’80’s metal and how it just ate itself. It became such a parody of itself…

CHRIS NEUMER: The hair bands?

KAY HANLEY: Yes.

CHRIS NEUMER: There is something to be said for a good hair band though.

KAY HANLEY: I miss all of that.  In retrospect, I see what happened to bands like Poison and how that whole scene went from something that was in clubs and underground and was really rebellious and, over the course of a decade, turned into a parody. And it turned into something that people laughed at and refused to love. I think that’s what’s starting [to happen now]. And then Nirvana came along and changed all that. I think we’re at that stage where popular rock music as we know it is about to implode and will be replaced.

CHRIS NEUMER: That bodes well for people who are sick of boy bands and untalented rock groups then.

KAY HANLEY: Right.

CHRIS NEUMER: One question, and this is near the end of the list, I want to ask you is for my brother, who is aspiring to be a musician. He wanted to know if there were any unusual time signatures in “Three Small Words”.

KAY HANLEY: (singing) He can get the guitar tabs off the Josie and the Pussycats website.

CHRIS NEUMER: He can?

KAY HANLEY: Mm hmm. But no. There were some stops and starts but no. (singing) No, I don’t think so.

CHRIS NEUMER: I didn’t realize I could ask you to sing for me. Had I known that, we would have covered that a long time ago.

KAY HANLEY: (laughs) You can get me to do almost anything if you ask me the right way. Well, that’s not true.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’ll keep that in mind for future interviews. Your manager had mentioned that you have a solo album coming out in the spring, right?

KAY HANLEY: Yup.

CHRIS NEUMER: Do you have any release dates set?

KAY HANLEY: I’m hoping for February 1, but it’ll probably be a month later. So I’ll tell you the first of April to be safe.

CHRIS NEUMER: You can’t miss with that one. What is the title of that?

KAY HANLEY: Cherry Marmalade.

CHRIS NEUMER: And this is your first solo album?

KAY HANLEY: Yup.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’ll looking at a quote of yours right now where you’re going a little Liz Phair on us saying that things are going to be different because you’re older, wiser and now a mom.

KAY HANLEY: Probably. Did I say that?

CHRIS NEUMER: It is attributed to you. Granted I got it off-line, so…

KAY HANLEY: That’s definitely true to an extent.

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