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'Singers get all the pussy': the triumphant return of Kelly Hogan 

The former Southern belle of Cabbagetown reveals the story behind her testimonial tramp stamp

Kelly Hogan's voice is like the dancing flame of a torch singer nipping at the heels of a honky-tonk angel. Roll that with her undying musical curiosity, skin-off-snake charming personality, a penchant for anything-goes weirdness rooted in her days navigating Cabbagetown's Redneck Underground scene, and her ability to slip into other writers' songs as if they're a eureka(!) thrift-store find, and you can see why she's been called on by artists like Jon Langford and Will Oldham.

Though her new solo album, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (available June 5), is her first in more than a decade, Hogan's been a busy little worker bee since she left Atlanta for Chicago back in the late '90s — fronting jazz bands, releasing a pair of solo albums for alt-country label Bloodshot (the last in 2001), and recording and touring with a variety of friends' projects, most notably as a backup singer for Neko Case. But why such a long break from putting out her own records?

"Being a peanut-sized musician," she says, "it's never easy to tour. It's not if you're gonna lose money, it's 'how much money are we gonna lose?' But if you make a record, you need to tour it, and I just couldn't afford to. I don't mind not paying myself, but I couldn't ask my band to do all that amazing work for nothing. Still, I love touring and playing live; I just had to wait all those years to forget what a stupid idea it is!"

As a self-proclaimed "bossy-ass Capricorn," Hogan was thrilled to take the reins again for I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, the circumstances of which seem like a well-deserved reward for her years in the indie trenches. With the ample financial and networking support of artist-friendly label Anti-, she was able to line up a dream cast of backing musicians, including soul legends Booker T and James Gadson, the Dap-Kings' Gabe Roth, and her close friend and collaborator Scott Ligon of NRBQ. At the suggestion of Hogan's handpicked engineer Ken Sluiter, the impressive crew convened at Los Angeles' famed East-West Studio in the very same room where the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Frank Sinatra's "My Way," and so many other classics were cut.

"Making this record has been the most amazing, baseball-fantasy-camp experience," Hogan says. "I was definitely the captain, but it was a group effort. We were all making the record together. We became a band for that week — we had to. And we were just serving the songs."

Having sung with so many incredible writers over the years, when Hogan began preparing for this record she decided it was time to call in a few favors. She sent "love letters" to about 40 different artists asking if they'd write her a song. A testament to the respect and good will she inspires, the tunes poured in — from Stephin Merritt, M. Ward, Andrew Bird, and dozens more. The first, though, came from Hogan's friend, the late Vic Chesnutt.

"When I heard 'Ways of This World,' it was like, 'How did that guy know my life story?' Vic has these great flash-bulb images — I could see my grandma's kitchen, standing behind her while she cooked, the Southeastern Fair, muscle cars in the K-Mart parking lot. I don't know if it's because we share Georgia DNA, but that song floored me."

The album's title track — which Hogan says she chose because it appealed to her sense of humor — was penned by Robyn Hitchcock. "The subtext of that song is, 'I like to keep myself in pain because it keeps me alive.' Tempting as it is to play it safe and stay home on your couch, you gotta hang your orangutan ass out there in the wind and just keep doing it. What the song means to me? I like to keep myself open to failure."

The thought launches this former member of influential Atlanta bands the Jody Grind and the Rock*A*Teens into a king-hell reminiscence.

"When I moved to Chicago," Hogan says, "I tried to quit music. I was 31, and I wanted to see if I could do anything else that would satisfy me. I went crazy pretty quickly — I think I lasted eight months before I started playing shows again. And I actually went back to Atlanta for Christmas, and I was walking down the street in Athens with my mom, and I saw my old friend Jim Stacy, who was working at the tattoo parlor, and he said, 'Hogan, when you gonna get that tattoo you been talkin' 'bout for seven years?' Something in me snapped because I'd just resigned myself to playing music and being poor the rest of my life. So I was like, 'Well, Jim, what are you doing tomorrow?' And I came back the next day with Mike Geier from Kingsized, and tattooed above my ass it says, 'Singers get all the pussy.' I've never told anybody this story, but I want to say it for the Atlanta crowd. And I was leaned over Mike Geier on this barber chair, trying not to make any noise, and Jim was tattooing my behind, and Geier goes, 'Go head and scream woman, you're between 13-foot of man!' I started yelling, and I've never looked back. That's when I knew I was gonna do this for the rest of my life, no matter what the cost!"

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