Letters to Cleo came roaring out of Boston’s early 90's music scene, at a time when other local juggernauts like Belly and Buffalo Tom were well on their way to the national spotlight. Their debut Aurora Gory Alice was an instant hit, charting on the Billboard 200, and the single “Here & Now” immediately charted on the Billboard Hot 100.
But we all know how the saying goes – it takes a lot of hard work to become an overnight success.
The band spent years forming and reforming, practicing, and playing around town before recording an album locally – which showcased at SXSW and quickly snatched the band a record deal. Two more albums – and songs on an endless number of popular 90s soundtracks – followed before the band called it quits in 2000. It would be seven years before they got back together, and after playing a few shows "here & there," they released the 2016 EP Back to Nebraska, performed a sold-out homecoming show that we were thrilled to capture, and established an annual trip home for a series of performances at the Paradise (2018 dates & tickets can be found here.)
Singer Kay Hanley lives in Los Angeles now, and has turned her experience into an entertainment career – a path she never thought possible for herself while being raised in a blue collar household in Dorchester. But her road to success hasn't come without its bumps. We caught up with her to talk about that journey, the female-forward music scene in Boston that inspires her, how the band got its footing, and where exactly that infamous “Here & Now” chorus came from. (We guarantee you won't get this one.)
Kay Hanley and guitarist Greg McKenna are cousins.
Long lost, very distant cousins. We are both from Dorchester. He’s from St. Peter’s Parish in Field’s corner and I’m from St. Greg’s Parish on the other end of Dorchester at Ashmont. He knew that I sang songs with my mom at mass, so when he was starting a band (Rebecca Lula) he was like, ‘Hey! Want to be backup singer in my band?’ I was like, ‘Yeah I want to be a backup singer in your band!’
Hanley and McKenna formed Letters to Cleo in 1990. Guitarist Michael Eisenstein, drummer Stacy Jones and bassist Scott Riebling joined in 1994 to round the group out.
We would rehearse a couple of nights a week, and someone would come in with an idea and we would just flesh it out together as a group. And Greg and I had at least had a good you know, 4-5 years of songwriting together under our belts.
They all held day jobs to pay the bills...
I was working at a restaurant, Michael was working at Harvard, and Greg was probably working for an architecture firm. I would work a double shift on Thursday and then we would all pile in the van for a gig in New York on Friday, then Philly, D.C. And then come back again for work on Monday. We were playing clubs around like 200 people, but definitely not selling them out. Not even close.
… but were still able to record an album and tour it at a time when major labels were eager to find the next big alt-rock hit makers.
Billboard ran a review of Aurora Gory Alice the same week we got our showcase at SXSW, so that created the situation where our manager and our booking agent went to Kinkos and ran off a million copies and handed them out at the bar at Four Seasons (in Austin) where all the A&R people were hanging out. Our showcase was packed for the first time ever and we got into a bidding war with a bunch of labels. We went with Giant.
Aurora Gory Alice became an instant hit, and the single “Here & Now” charted on the Billboard Hot 100.
The chorus — the fast part — was written in the living room of our former bass player’s apartment in the South End. Someone started playing ‘daga-daga-daga’ and I just came up with it. That was the first part that was written, and we wrote outward from there.
Hanley was going through a breakup while writing the record…
Oh yeah. It was a pretty big breakup.
… and things that happened in that relationship made their way into the song.
He always used to tell people that, 'you’re a parody of yourself.' Like that was his ultimate diss that he could give someone. And honestly to this day he's like,'Where are my royalties for that line?' I think he just asked me that again like 2 years ago. And he had a book called The Comfort of Strangers under our coffee table for years. I never read it but the title stood out to me. So that became ‘comfort of knowledge’ and it’s about karma and energy. And the ‘comfort of a knowledge of a rise above the sky above,’ is like you know you’re going to heaven so just do whatever you want while you’re here. It’s a rejection of that idea.
She believes that your time on earth is finite, and that you should be the best version of yourself while you’re here.
You should be good while you’re here. You should live the best version of yourself while you’re here as opposed to relying on this huge sky ghost to take care of you later.
And it’s that belief that has motivated her to be her true authentic self, despite industry expectations.
It was a clash of art and commerce after the ‘Here & Now’ video where I had the blonde pigtails. I showed up to a photo shoot with fire engine red hair and the label was like, ‘How could you?’ I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I am now a product.’ And I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it then, and I never liked it, and I never got over it, and I never got used to it.
Hanley railed against being packaged and sold as a product...
I was a real pain to work with because I just couldn’t. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t, it was that I couldn’t. I just didn’t have that thing in me that wanted to be a pop star, and be paid attention to and in that way.
… and when Letters to Cleo broke up in 2000, she turned her experience into a songwriting career in Los Angeles.
I just assumed, being from Dorchester, that this was just a hobby and I would work in a restaurant or work at Gillette. It never occurred to me that I would find my career in the entertainment business and that’s exactly what I did. And I’m so respectful of other people who do this work. And I still look up to people who are doing things differently than I am, I always have so much to learn.
In 2015, she co-founded SONA, an advocacy organization for songwriters.
We are all riding this wave together and trying to maintain the value of what we do. I’m still a big mouth, I’m still a fighter.
“I mean we are who we are, right?”
In many ways, I’m the same exact person that I was in the first grade. The feelings and my process of discovering things, of operating the world, of learning, of not learning.
At the same time Hanley’s vastly changed.
I’m a mother now. I write songs for a living now, which is something that I never thought was possible, that I would ever even want to do.
But if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, it’s her reverie for the female-forward music scene in Boston.
I remember at the ‘92 Rumble, somebody from the local television station pointing out that I was the only female in the whole Rumble. Which wasn’t true because there were 2 of us out of like a 100 people on stage. That stands out to me, somebody asking me about that and saying something flippant about being the token female. But the reality of it was that nobody cared, no one paid attention. There were tons of girls in bands.
Lucky for us, female-fronted bands are still thriving in the area. And Hanley has nothing but love for them all.
Charly Bliss, Speedy Ortiz... it reminds me so much of that blip, that 5 minutes that I got to be a part of in the 90s where girls were setting the pace. We were on the radio, we were headlining the festivals, it was an incredible period of time. And to see women taking that on again makes me feel really happy.
(This interview was edited for clarity.)
Upcoming 2018 Tour Dates:
November 9 - Los Angeles, CA The Hi Hat
November 13 - New York, NY Bowery Ballroom
November 14 - Philadelphia, PA Underground Arts
November 16 - Boston, MA Paradise Rock Club
November 17- Boston, MA Paradise Rock Club