Your Summer "Baby Doll"
By John Conroy
"Some people buy Hummels to mark the different times of their life," the Boston-bred, critically-praised songstress suggests while lighting a cigarette poolside at her California home. "I write records."
If the infectious rock n' roll power of her much-anticipated new EP Baby Doll is any indication, Kay Hanley is indeed in the time of her life. Marking a welcome return to form of the consummate chick rocker, it harks back to Hanley's days as the soaring siren behind the influential alt-rock band Letters to Cleo. A series of sold-out performances in Boston in the summer of 2004 provided the impetus for releasing Baby Doll. "I made it for my fans," Hanley admits. "To go back to Boston without something for them to hear and love and sing along with would have bummed me out. They deserve it."
Letters to Cleo established Kay Hanley as one of rock's leading female vocalists. With a voice that swells from whisper to roar and an approachable, ebullient personality, the world discovered Hanley as that most elusive of rock stars - sexy without being threatening, feminine without being precious... the girl that girls want to be and guys want to be with. Awards and acclaim followed four major label albums and the hit single "Here and Now," and the band's gold records, global tours, cult animated television show Generation O (which featured Hanley voicing kid-rocker Molly), prominent and pivotal role in the film 10 Things I Hate About You, and Hanley providing the singing voice for Rachel Leigh Cook in Josie and the Pussycats saw Cleo's rabid following become legion.
Yet a moribund creative ebb following the band's dissolution stymied Hanley and her husband and musical partner, former Cleo guitarist Michael Eisenstein. "We had settled into a disturbing amount of familiarity," says Hanley. "Nothing is worse for a creative mind than getting comfortable with things." With Michael on the road for a year and her at home to raise their daughter Zoe and son Henry on the way, Kay saw the writing on the wall. This was the future: an absent husband and father paying the bills and a mother who's given up her life for her family. There had to be a better way, an alternative in which both could work as musicians and not have to be away from each other or their children.
The answer was found in a move across the country. Los Angeles freed Hanley and Eisenstein to examine their creative lives and afforded them greater artistic license. Now working on numerous individual and collaborative projects simultaneously, both artists recognize in Hanley an ambition never before demonstrated. "If you had told me before we moved out here that I would become the prolific writer I've become I'd have said you were crazy."
After just one year in California, Hanley is on track to double her lifetime creative output, having written and recorded more than 20 songs - a feat that took her five years to accomplish in Boston. "For the first time I'm learning how to do the thing I've been doing my whole life on a completely different level."
Kay's schooling comes principally from ladyapples, the female songwriting collective she leads with Michelle Lewis. Introduced by mutual friend Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt fame, Hanley started writing with Lewis as soon as she made the move out west. Before long the duo had the better part of an album written, a revolving roster of notable "third members" (including Gordon) and a development deal. "It's the most satisfying and exciting thing I've done since I joined Letters to Cleo," Hanley enthuses.
With L.A. providing plentiful channels for her commercial aspirations, paying her dues as a songwriter is what gave Hanley the itch to work on her own material again. "With Letters to Cleo or my solo thing I couldn't reconcile my desire to be successful with 'hey look at me.' But in L.A. you can make your living behind the scenes. I can write disposable songs... I just don't want to sing them. Having an outlet for that desire has given me a freedom I haven't had since I was 25. This EP is the start of the path back to that... with my solo thing I can satisfy my creative jones without having to apologize for being ambitious."
Baby Doll can, on many levels, be looked at as the perfect Kay Hanley record. It beautifully illustrates the artist's distinctly fresh and immensely accessible songwriting, a nod to the stream-of-consciousness style of her greatest influences (Michael Stipe, Bob Mould, and Bjork) and containing a visceral punch that adds, Hanley sighs, "some rock to the fucking set." It's an edgy departure from the graceful, conflicted serenity found in Hanley's fledgling solo effort Cherry Marmalade. While containing some of Hanley's most incisive and accomplished work to date, including "Fall," "Faded Dress," and "Galapagos," Cherry Marmalade was recorded during a turbulent time period. Written between the break up of the band she had fronted since high school and becoming a mother, Hanley found herself questioning where she wanted to go as a musician.
The driving, powerfully moving "In Clouds" was symbolically chosen to open Baby Doll because it was inspired by a near-tragedy that provided the catharsis for Kay to start writing again. It also was the first of Hanley's new songs to be added to her live set, where it instantly became a crowd pleaser. How the audience responds when field-testing songs provides Hanley with invaluable knowledge before laying tracks down. "I've never been one of those people who says 'I don't care what people think, it's my music.' If I'm going to go to the trouble of writing and recording the songs, I'd like to have people like it." Music fans have six new gems on Baby Doll, from the beautifully melodic "Stay Stay" to the sexually provocative "Brown Betty;" from the narcotic, Blondie-meets-Benetar "Lullaby Lucky" to the eponymous final track, a raw song laced with an old-fashioned, decidedly R&B feel.
The album also marks Eisenstein's first foray into producing. Perhaps most astonishing about Michael's debut as producer is that Baby Doll was recorded almost entirely at home. With some guitar tracks laid and Bill Lefler's drum tracks recorded at former Cleo band mate Stacy Jones' American Hi-Fi studios, Eisenstein used his and Hanley's home studio to add his guitar and bass tracks and Peter Adams' keyboard stylings to Hanley's vocals in two dizzying weeks. "Michael and I were both so inexplicably busy that there's no way we could have blocked off full days at a recording studio," Kay says of the daunting task. "So we took advantage of free fifteen minutes here and there to put the album together."
The pace shows no signs of slowing, and with the sun-drenched Pacific providing the backdrop for Kay Hanley's ascendance as a creative force of nature, her daily mantra has a resonance that will certainly please the ears of her grateful fans in the time to come. "The possibilities really are endless..."