I hear you're living in Wisconsin now.
Yes. I love it. It's like the northern South. Or the southern North. I lived in Chicago for 11 years, and four years ago this month, I was like, "You know, I need to be closer to a creek, to be able to stand in a creek whenever I need to." I'm actually driving right now, taking my dogs to the dog park.
When you left Atlanta for Chicago back in the late '90s, you said you tried to quit playing music for a while. What kinds of things did you try in the meantime?
When I moved to Chicago, I was just going to get a job at a hardware store. I'd been painting houses in Atlanta for a long time with [my former Jody Grind and Rock*A*Teens bandmates] Bill Taft and Chris Lopez, so I did a little of that when I was in Chicago. But I accidentally got a job at Bloodshot Records, doing publicity. It was just a total coincidence where they needed somebody, and my boyfriend at the time was best friends with one of the Bloodshot people. I needed a job and they needed a publicist. So I didn't do very well trying to distance myself from [music]. I did paint a lot of houses, though, and I wanted to get a job at this hardware store called the Crafty Beaver. I wanted to work there because I wanted a T-shirt. I thought it was cool. And I love hardware stores.
It's been 11 years now since you made a solo record. Why did you take such a long break? Also, tell us a little about what you've been up to in the meantime. I know you've done a lot of singing on other people;s records.
I've been busy! Really busy. I made my last record (2001's Because It Feel Good) in Athens with David Barbe, which was a killer time, of course. But my record came out just a few weeks after 9/11. It was a weird time. Everybody was just kind of sitting and staring, which I understand. It was just a tough time to tour. ... For 11 years, though, I was doing music from all sides, being all different kinds of bands, anything. I just wanted to always try and be a better musician every single day.
Having done a lot of sidework over the last decade, how did it feel to take the reins again for I Like to Keep Myself in Pain?
As a bossy-ass Capricorn, it felt pretty good! It appeals to me. ... But my label, Anti-, I love them. You can just tell by their roster and the things they put out that they're driven by their love for music. Which is why I do what I do. I'm certainly not trying to quote-unquote "make it," you know? I sent my Dad this article that came out [about me] yesterday, and he's like, "Awesome. Keep up the good work. Maybe you'll be an overnight success!" My poor Dad. He's been with me the whole way. ... [But with this new record], I have no regrets. It's exactly how I want it to be. And I had the luxury, because of being on Anti- with a bigger budget, to actually have the time I needed. I worked my ass off on this record. Lots of 18-hour days with my engineer, Ken Sluiter - he's one of my heroes of the record.
When they asked if I'd do the record in L.A., I said, "Yes, but I'm going to have to work with Ken." And he's the one who suggested East-West Studio. It used to be called Universal Western. There's a great book that came out a few years ago called Temples of Sound has a great little write up [on it]. I mean, we were working in the same tiny little studio where Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys was made, the Mamas & the Papas, the Association. The studio opened in 1951. It was where Frank Sinatra did "My Way" and "It Was a Very Good Year," the Monkees, Gene Kelly "Singin' in the Rain," AC/DC, Van Halen - it's this really famous studio on Sunset. So even if I hadn't been playing with [soul legends] Booker T and James Gadson, just going in that crazy old space was enough to make me have to wear Depends.
Were you feeling the vibe? All those old ghosts running around in there?
Definitely. You could feel ghosts, and they were, on the whole, benevolent ghosts. They were wishing us well. It was so crazy - [NRBQ's] Scott Ligon and I were sharing a hotel room, and every day, going to the studio and coming back, we'd listen to oldies radio in the rental car, and each way we'd hear at least one - sometimes three - songs that were made in that very room where we were working. So much good music came out of that room. You should check it out - that Temples of Sound book is killer. It's $50, or I'd buy it, but I check it out from my library as often as I can.
The title of the new record - I Like to Keep Myself in Pain - what does it mean to you, and what kind of vibe were you going for? What sort of thematic territory were you trying to mine?
I always say the record reveals itself to you. I never try to put a framework over it. I just let it show itself to me, and you just have to listen to it and not force your opinions on the songs. I'll say it 'til the day I die, "The song is the boss." I mean, going back to the fact that this is my record, and I had "yes" and "no" power - I consider myself middle management, and the song is the boss. The song is driving, for sure.
On the new record, there are all these incredible songs from all these amazing songwriters - Vic Chesnutt, Stephen Merritt, Jon Langford, M. Ward. How did you end up choosing what went on the record?
It's kind of like I try [the songs] on, like thrift-store clothes. Whatever resonates. Definitely, that Vic song ("Ways of this World"), when he sent it, was just a slam dunk. That was just my life. ... But Scott Ligon and I sat in his living room a frigid February and went through the songs a million times in all these different ways. It's like going to the dog shelter - you think you know what kind of dog you're looking for, but the dog always picks you. I'm kind of a believer in some fate in that way. I wrote these love letters to about 40 people I wanted to send me songs, and I got this waterfall of songs back - a tidal wave. I want to eventually be able to record all of them in some capacity. I was gonna call my record, I'm Not Worthy, Man.
With Vic's song, what is it about that tune that really speaks to you? Why do you relate to it so much?
Well, he's a fellow Georgian. And I love Vic's amazing economy of [language] - it's just the right word. Really, there are only like 11 words in that whole song. But he has these great flash-bulb images. He's my idol of detail in song. ... I love the tuffness of that song, T-U-double-F. There's a demo - he did a demo [of the song] with Elf Power, and I hope one day that gets put out because the demo itself is magnificent.
You do a lot of covers, and you also write songs - do you consider yourself more of an interpreter than a songwriter?
Definitely. By far. I mean, I wake up every day thinking about songs. But I never think of myself as being any good at songwriting. It's an insecurity - I don't know, I'm just kind of a chicken-shit songwriter. And my friend Sally Tims [of the Mekons] always says, "Oh, let the songwriters do it! They do it so much better!" Interpretation of songs, though - it's an age-old tradition. I always say, "Bob Dylan fucked it up for everybody. After Bob Dylan, you had to sing about your own boyfriends and girlfriends!" But I think [being an interpreter of songs] is an honorable thing. Actors don't write their own plays, you know what I mean?
How do you think that knowing the writer of the song personally affects your interpretation?
Well I certainly want to do my best because they know where I live and they come can come punch me in the face. ... Any time I cover a song, I feel protective of it; I want to do right by it. Like I said, it's my boss. What broke my heart with [I Like to Keep Myself in Pain] is that I can't make a record with 40 songs on it. It broke my heart to pick and choose. [Knowing the writer] just makes me feel even more protective of the song. And the one other thing I like about being an interpreter, in my peanut-sized realm, is I love being the champion - and this goes back to people I know; I love waving their flag. One thing I think about when I'm covering other people's songs, I leave a breadcrumb trail so people go back and buy their record - Katharine Irwin or M. Ward, I love to cross-pollinate and shrink the world in that way. So it's like waving a little flag, like "Check out this awesome person!" And that's why playing live I always say the name of the song and who wrote it. That's one of the reasons I'm doing this, to connect the dots.
The people you've got playing on the new record - Booker and James Gadson, Gabriel Roth (of the Dap-Kings) and Scott Ligon. How did you get this disparate bunch of folks together, and what was it like playing with them?
Andy Kaulkin, my beloved head honcho at Anti- Records - we've been friends for a long time. And Andy loves to prove the theory that music is the universal language by putting disparate elements or different types of music together: Mavis Staples & Jeff Tweedy, Joe Henry & Solomon Burke, Booker T with Drive-By Truckers - people that might not normally work together. So Andy had the clout to assemble this group. He's very respected. And I swear, if you put Booker T in your mouse trap, all the mice will come. He's so revered. Everybody wants to work with Mr. Jones. The sessions - it was crazy. It was frightening because we had five days in the studio, we had never worked together as a band, [the other musicians] only had these skeletal demos that Scott Ligon and I had done with acoustic guitar and vocals, so we could have definitely crashed and burned, but these guys were all consummate musicians - they were as interested in all the songs and as invested in the project as I was. Everybody had input as far as arrangements - even my engineer, and Andy Kaulkin was there. It was scary but so rewarding. We were a band, and we gelled. We were a band, listening to each other and cracking each other up. Every time I talk about it, it sounds like I'm talking about some movie I saw on TV. It still doesn't seem real.
I was listening to one of your old Jody Grind records and, of course, the Rock*A*Teens, and checking out some of your work with Will Oldham and Neko Case. You've explored so many different sounds. Looking back, are there any you relate to most or feel like most accurately capture your personality?
I don't think so. I always say, "Don't make me choose which music to throw out of the life boat. I'd rather jump out myself!" The Jody Grind, we were very - the word "eclectic," I guess. And record labels would take us to dinner and go, "You know, if you could just swerve in this one direction - a country direction, or a jazz direction, you'd be marketable and we could sign you." And we'd be like, "Mmmmm.... nope." Because we liked all kinds of music, and liked to mix it together. ... And I loved being in Rock*A*Teens, that was one of my favorite things, and one of the most beneficial things I did as a musician. I didn't front the band, I played the bass notes, so it was like listening to music from the bottom up. I had always listened to it from the top down. So I'm always learning. Shit, man, who knows what I'm gonna do tomorrow?! [Producer] Steve Albini used to called me in as this backup-singing ninja - I did all kinds of shit over there [at his studio Electrical Audio] - screaming, anything they wanted. I love that. The more challenging something is, the more I gravitate toward it, and want to see if I can do it. ... I always go back to a thing Bill [Taft] said to me one time. He'd stopped playing guitar to learn how to play cornet, and he was my favorite guitar player ever, and I'm like, "Bill, why don't you play guitar anymore?" And he just said, "Well, I know how to play guitar."
What's the most important thing you've learned in your life as a musician?
To listen more than you put out. The best musicians to me are 90-percent listening and 10-percent output. I'm always trying to listen more. Because you hear what the song needs and what other people are doing. I learned a lot of that in Rock*A*Teens, too. I was concentrating so hard because I wasn't a guitar player, and I look up and everybody else has stopped playing, and I'm still going. But just listening to each other. I really like that feeling of a band. I don't like it to be Kelly Hogan and the So and So's. It's always felt like a band.
And this has also applied in other parts of your life?
Oh, my god. I am so full of hot air. As you've probably figured out from this interview. Um, yeah - I try to listen more. [laughs] I'm still trying to apply that more in my regular life. I'm a better musical listener than I am an everyday listener. Except when it comes to dogs. I hear what dogs are sayin' all the time.
I know you've been gone from Atlanta for a long time, and it seems like you're settled in Wisconsin, but think you'll ever come back?
I don't know. I don't want to say never. ... But I urge you guys to visit southern Wisconsin - I shop at a Piggly Wiggly, there's tractors and ballcaps and cornfields, but then somebody will open their mouth and have that crazy [Wisconsin accent] - "Oh, ya got the good feelin'. Jeepers. Oh, good on ya!" - and I get snapped out of it and realize I'm not in the South. Where I live right now is a nice compromise between Chicago and missing the South. But I come back to Atlanta as often as I can. I gotta get my Varsity chili slaw dogs. And I miss my friends. I never get enough time to see my friends.
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