Best known as a musical sidekick, Kelly Hogan steps out front on a great new album and in concert Thursday.
It’s fitting that when singer Kelly Hogan returns to the Twin Cities on Thursday, she will appear at St. Paul’s pleasantly funky Turf Club. The feel-good story of her charmed life over the past year seems less like a fairy tale than a scruffy indie movie.
Her early career was a litany of hard luck. After a rough-and-tumble upbringing in Georgia, Hogan was the singer and guitarist for the Jody Grind in the early ’90s, recording a pair of well-received albums before a car crash killed two of her bandmates. She spent the rest of the decade in the garage band Rock*A*Teens, moving to Chicago where she recorded a couple of obscure solo albums, found steady work as a backup singer and became a publicist for the roots-rock label Bloodshot Records.
When her third solo record — ironically titled “Because It Feels Good” — was a commercial disappointment in 2001, she entertained thoughts of leaving the business. She started tending bar at the Hideout, a neighborhood nightspot with an Old Style sign over the doorway.
But as Hogan colorfully conceded in a phone interview, “I have rabies from music.” Her sweet but soulfully heartfelt voice was still much in demand, backing up everyone from Andrew Bird to Mavis Staples to the Drive-By Truckers.
Her closest musical alliance, though, was with Neko Case. After they met in New York in 1997, Hogan dragged Bloodshot owner Rob Miller to a Case show. The label wound up releasing Case’s first three records.
The two were fast friends before Case even knew Hogan was a singer. “She punched me the first time she found out,” Hogan said with a laugh.
As Case blossomed into an indie-music darling, Hogan became a fixture in her band. Andy Kaulkin, who runs the Anti record label that has been Case’s musical home since 2004, encouraged Hogan to think about another record. He further suggested that, given the yeoman service Hogan had performed to assist the careers of many fine songwriters, it wouldn’t be out of line for her to hit them up for material.
“I didn’t think anybody owed me anything, but Andy’s suggestion interested me, and frightened me,” said Hogan, who spent the next few months writing to about 40 artists — “fan notes saying how much I loved their work and asking if they had a song in them with me in mind.”
That was back in 2009. “But then Neko’s record took off” — “Middle Cyclone,” which finished at No. 1 on that year’s Top Independent Albums chart — and so I put it off, which I didn’t mind, because it was awesome for Neko and I’m a fatalist about that stuff anyway,” Hogan said.
It also gave the songwriters time to deliver the goods. And, inspired by Hogan’s talent and authentic, effervescent personality, the goods were very good indeed.
From Andrew Bird came “We Can’t Have Nice Things,” a searing look at the parallel dissolution of one’s emotional and physical environment. Robyn Hitchcock contributed “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain,” which plays like a honky tonk on a hangover Sunday morning. M. Ward imagined a latter-day conversation between Frank and Nancy Sinatra on the breathy “Daddy’s Little Girl,” and Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields offered a classic country weeper, “Plant White Roses.”
One of the earliest submissions came from Vic Chesnutt, a fellow Georgian and ace singer/songwriter who committed suicide in December 2009. His “Ways of This World” is a harrowing Southern gothic family drama through the eyes of a young girl that had Hogan feeling like Chesnutt had gazed into her past — and she vocally knocks it out of the park.
How good was the material? A song by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy didn’t make the cut.
Hogan workshopped the tunes with her friend and jack-of-all-instruments Scott Ligon, best known as part of the new NRBQ. The plan was to record a demo to entice a big-name producer, but Kaulkin enjoyed what he heard and suggested that Hogan instead spend the money on a dream band. That’s how Memphis organ legend Booker T., Dap-Kings bassist Gabriel Roth and session drummer extraordinaire James Gadson, who has backed Bill Withers, the Temptations and dozens of others, came to join Hogan and Ligon in the studio.
The record landed on more than a few best-of-2012 lists and Hogan seems belatedly poised to follow her dear friend Case into the hearts of enough indie-music fans to earn a living on her own artistic terms. Which is why the song “Golden” stands as the ideal centerpiece to “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain.”
A rare composition by Hogan, it was originally written for Case when she was despondent over her career. To a lilt that settles in like a vintage Nashville groove, Hogan’s lyrics cheerlead her friend: “So go on, show ’em what you’re made of/ With all my heart I wish these things for you/ That someday you, and all you put your hand to, will turn golden.”
A Turf Club set climaxing with “Golden” would make a fine finish on that heartwarming indie-film story. But Hogan and her life are real, and respond accordingly.
“Oh, the Twin Cities, it’s been a while since we’ve been up there,” she said excitedly. “I love Trip Shakespeare and Dan Wilson, so we’ll probably do some covers of that. And I think I still have an old drink ticket from the Turf Club. You think they’d let me have a PBR, or a Leinenkugel?”