It's mid-afternoon on a spring day when I speak with Kelly Hogan, Neko Case's star backup singer. She's at her home in Evansville, Wis., about a half-hour drive from Madison, and she apologizes for seeming a little groggy.
"I'm on a funky tour schedule, and I can't shake it no matter what I do," she says. "It doesn't pay for me to get on farm time. I know Evansville by night."
Hogan is on break from touring with Case, so she's catching up with her life in the small, rural town she barely sees while on the road. The weekend prior, she played a show in Madison, at Kiki's House of Righteous Music, with her own band, the Flat Five. And she'll perform with Case again at the Orpheum on May 14, as part of the indie rock queen's backing band. The two artists have been touring together for more than a decade. Right now they're promoting Case's latest album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.
Hogan began her singing career in her hometown of Atlanta, but it didn't take off until she moved to Chicago in the late 1990s with the intention of quitting the music business. By landing a job with famed alt-country label Bloodshot Records, Hogan made connections that quickly put her in the spotlight. In addition to giving her solo act a boost, Bloodshot helped her become a sought-after backup vocalist for such artists as Drive-By Truckers, Mavis Staples, Iron & Wine, Alejandro Escovedo, Andrew Bird and Jakob Dylan.
But Case is more than just a colleague. She's one of Hogan's best friends.
"Our life together is like this weird buddy movie," Hogan tells me. "With tampons. And Jägermeister."
She also tells me about her move north, life on the road, and her most recent solo album, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain. Here's how that conversation went.
How'd you get to Evansville?
I left Atlanta in 1997, and I moved to Chicago. I'd lived in Atlanta my whole life. I wanted something really different from Atlanta. I considered moving to Austin, but I was like, "You know what, I need to blow my own mind." So, I went up north. It took me a while to get the right winter clothes.
Then I took a writing class. One of my favorite authors and visual artists is Lynda Barry, who is now a professor [at the UW]. I guess that was in 2001. We ended up becoming friends. I'm a house painter, and she needed her house painted in Evanston, [a suburb of Chicago], because she was selling it to move to Wisconsin.
[She] would watch my dog when I would go on tour, and I was helping Lynda with her writing classes by that time. And that's about the time when Neko, who I had been singing with since 1997, had her album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood come out. That record just took off. The whole band at the time, we committed to about 10 months of touring, and ended up touring that record for two years.
I was touring, touring, touring, and I was never home in Chicago anyway. And the last neighborhood I lived in Chicago, your landlord should tell you when you're moving in [there] that you're on a gang-turf boundary line. You find that out the hard way. I was in a violent neighborhood, and it was really destructive. I bartended a long time at this place called the Hideout. I would be coming home by myself at 3 a.m. and dodging gunfire from 15-year-olds who couldn't even grow a mustache yet. No grasp of mortality. I was a little rattled. When I was home from tour, I couldn't rest.
[Evansville] is just where I landed. I'd looked all around. I just kind of wanted to be out in the country. Once again, just like moving from Atlanta to Chicago, it was like moving from Gotham City to Mayberry. I really wanted to blow my mind. I considered moving to Madison, but I just wanted to be out in the country and sit out and soak it in.
When was that?
That was in May of 2008. Oh my God, I've been here six years. I haven't really been here; I've been touring. I'm looking at boxes right now I still haven't opened. I haven't been home for more than four days at a time for quite a while. It's more like a forensic excavation than housecleaning.
It seems that coming home to Wisconsin is more like a vacation.
It is, in a way. It's my little hidey hole. My landlady is always like, "Why do you want to move here? Nothing ever happens here." And I say, "Bingo. Exactly." I live right behind the bowling alley. On a clear night, if I'm sitting in the porch, I can hear a really aggressive strike. I can hear the pins striking against the wall. That's a great sound.
I instantly became Evansville's crazy old lady. I wear overalls naturally. So I was wearing overalls, pulling a 15-year-old dog in a Radio Flyer wagon down to the post office.
In the early 2000s, you put out a couple records for Bloodshot, and then there was an 11-year gap until your next record. I assume that's when you started touring a lot with Neko.
In Atlanta, like in Chicago, everybody's in a bunch of different bands at one time. Once I started doing music again in Chicago, I was playing under my own name, [and] I started playing in the Pine Valley Cosmonauts with Jon Langford.
I met Neko right after I moved to Chicago...because I was working for Bloodshot Records. We met in September 1997 in New York City. We were friends for a while before Neko even knew I was a singer. She just knew I worked at Bloodshot. She punched me in the arm really hard when she found out and said, "You didn't tell me you sang, motherfucker! Sing on my record now!" We ended up doing shows together.
The time between my records, [from about 2001 to 2012], that was the busiest I've been in my whole life. I was so busy I didn't even have a day job. How about that? People must think, "Why didn't you do anything for 11 years?" I had to have seven colors of highlighters to get through the week. My calendar was just nuts.
Releasing records is not how I get around the Candyland board of music. I was recording all the time on other people's records. I don't get up every day and think about how I'm going to advance myself. My musical life is very rich. I'm not carving a naked-lady masthead on my ship. I like to row for a while.
The connection with Neko, is that how you got to perform on Jakob Dylan's Women and Country album, and on that tour?
Yeah, Neko suggested me for another voice when [she was] doing that record with [award-winning songwriter and record producer] T Bone Burnett. In August of 2009, we flew out to L.A. to record vocals. Women and Country was kind of a different record for Jakob. It wasn't like a Wallflowers-y rock record. So Neko suggested her entire band for touring.
What was it like working with T Bone?
Well, first it was scary. But by the end of the two days, I was making his gin and tonics just like he liked them. Once a bartender, always a bartender. It was really nice. He sort of just lets you go and pursue your ideas. He's just a big, tall drink of water. Is "laconic" the right word? Gary Cooper-ish. He has a slow tempo to him, and he's very open to lots of ideas.
When I listen to your most recent solo album, 2012's I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, I find myself thinking that it's a really Southern record. I don't mean a country record, but that it has a Southern soul. Was that record kind of the sum of your musical experience, up to that point?
Exactly. I took everything I had learned up to that point into that studio. To be able to work with Booker T. [Jones, of Booker T. & the MG's] without passing out — I was proud of myself for not fainting. To work with Booker T. and James Gadson [drummer for Bill Withers and other R&B legends] in the room where Pet Sounds was recorded, I mean, come on.
How do you plan for your next project, once you decide what it is?
Sometimes it just happens. Ask my accountant how weird it is. It's strange. That's why I have jars of quarters all over the house to buy ramen noodles in between. I have to plan it because I know there'll be dry times. We're going to tour this Neko record through September. We go back to Europe in August.
I'm pretty content. I'm sitting on a thrift-store couch; I'm looking at thrift-store bookshelves full of thrift-store books. I never have fancy tastes. From time to time, I still help Lynda Barry. Her work is awesome. That class she teaches, I use it every day.
I still paint houses. I still have my tools. My band, the Flat Five, we're thinking about making a record this fall. But I'm just busy as hell. There's always something going on, mostly for fun, not often for profit. Mostly for joy. I'm always looking for joy. There's music, there's dogs, there's cooking, and there's a prairie outside of Evansville I love.
I can't wait until it's warm enough for me to go sit in the creek. People say, "Why'd you move away from Chicago?" I say, "I needed to be closer to a creek."