Kay Hanley’s house in Quincy isn’t exactly the kind of place that screams rock and roll. There’s an upright piano in the music room, a TV showing cartoons in the living room, a baby photo of her two-year-old daughter Zoe displayed proudly in the kitchen, flowers on the doorstep, and people mowing lawns down the street. On the day I visit, Hanley’s mom is over for lunch, and Zoe is sipping on pink lemonade. Husband Michael Eisenstein — like Hanley a former member of the well-liked local band Letters to Cleo — is on tour with the outfit he’s lately joined, Our Lady Peace. But the place isn’t stacked with tapes, beer bottles or Cleos memorabilia: the only obvious sign of their rock-band life is the pair of gold records (both for the Cleos’ soundtrack contributions to Ten Things I Hate About You) in the hallway — plus the recent Elvis Costello backstage pass that’s proudly displayed atop a toy piano in Zoe’s room.
"You should have seen the last place we had, the loft in the Fenway," Hanley admits over coffee. "I have a picture lying around somewhere, and it’s hilarious — beer cans everywhere, a bong lying around, straws all over the kitchen table from people doing lines. Believe me, we lived our 20s to the fullest. It was total craziness, and it’s best left in the past — it’s great to have it there in my mental picture show, but I wouldn’t want to still be living in it."
Such is Hanley’s new life as a full-time musician and full-time mom. The following day she’ll be singing the national anthem at Fenway Park. And this coming Tuesday will see the long-delayed release of her solo debut, Cherry Marmalade (Zo‘/Rounder).
It wasn’t that long ago that she was living temporarily in Los Angeles, recording the vocals for the Josie & the Pussycats soundtrack. (Produced by R&B starmaker Babyface, the soundtrack is the biggest hit of Hanley’s career, having sold more than half a million copies.) Unlike many Boston rockers who’ve done time in LA, she has no qualms about loving the place, and she says she’ll go back in a minute if more soundtrack work comes up. But when it came to putting down roots, real life was beckoning. "That was another great one for my mental movie archives. We were living in Beverly Hills for a while, and when Babyface wanted to work, we’d hop a limo and go over to his house — I just loved it. I want to experience everything that I can — that’s what life is all about, right? But ultimately, I’m a Yankee. More specifically, I’m an Irish Catholic girl from Dorchester, with a daughter who’s about to start school." In deference to that status, Hanley has resolved to abide by a household rule and not use any cuss words in this interview.
So is Cherry Marmalade the work of a brand-new, grown-up Kay Hanley? To some extent, sure. It doesn’t sound anything like the last all-new Cleos album, the loud and sassy Go! (Revolution) — but then, that album came out six years ago. It’s more what you’d expect from a similar core of musicians (Hanley, Eisenstein, later Cleos drummer Paul Buckley, and friends like Gentlemen/Gravel Pit bassist Ed Valauskas and former Juliana Hatfield keyboardist Peter Adams) a half-decade down the line. The pop sound is hardly gone; the first single, "This Dreadful Life," even sports a tongue-twister chorus that harks back to the first Cleos hit, "Here & Now." And darned if the opener, "Fall," doesn’t sound like vintage Fleetwood Mac. But there is a general preference for melodies over guitar licks, and the two standouts, "Gal‡pagos" and "Chady Saves the World," show a level of sophistication that the Cleos often reached for but never quite got. (The latter song, co-written by Eisenstein, is Hanley’s first visit to Bacharach pop/jazz territory. "That’s Mike and his four-dollar chords. We knew that what he learned at Berklee would come in handy some day.")
What’s more, Hanley sings in a warmer tone instead of relying on the bratty sneer that’s served her so well. "Some of the fans can’t deal with that. I’ve been taken to task for the lack of snottiness. Someone who posted on my message board thought that ‘Mean Streak’ [the sole nasty song, actually a reject from the Josie & the Pussycats sessions] was the one thing he wanted to hear. And I’m thinking, ‘Dude, sorry I didn’t make another Letters to Cleo record, but I wanted to shut the fuck up for a little while.’ [Fortunately, Zoe is now out of earshot.] It would have been so easy to make another fast, snotty record, but I just wasn’t feeling it. In fact, I threw out a lot of the songs I wrote while I was pregnant, because I was writing some really slow-ass shit. But I don’t think I would have been happy going all the way with it." The disc’s title is a reference to motherhood, coming as it does from an all-red character in one of Zoe’s favorite children’s books. "It sounds more like it’s about sex and food. Which is fine, because they’re two of my favorite things."
You’d think that the release of her first solo album would be one of the more intense points of Hanley’s career — but you’d be wrong. "Making the record was a very laid-back experience — I’d write a few songs at a time. We literally went in every few months and made the album in three-song blocks. So there was never a point where making the album was the central focus of my life. It was always something I did when I wasn’t doing anything else. When I sit down and listen, I can think, ‘I like this, it’s pretty good.’ But when I don’t listen, it doesn’t feel like an old friend, the way Go! did." And despite having come within spitting distance of pop stardom with the Cleos, she isn’t thinking much about that now. "I really don’t think the album is that kind of endeavor. Success isn’t a bad thing, but my head’s not in that space. I just feel like a humble songwriter from around these parts. But that can change — maybe in five years I’ll get a boob job and get on the cover of Maxim."
As a lyricist, she’s always tended toward the abstract (quick, sum up "Veda Very Shining" in 10 words or less), and the words on Cherry Marmalade are a bit more elusive than usual. Which, in her case, is a giveaway that she’s revealing something more personal. "I’m not a literal writer. I find it pretty difficult to say exactly what I mean; I usually have to dress it up with allusions to other things. Maybe it makes me feel naked if they’re too personal. But you can probably tell that ‘Happy To Be Here’ is about growing a person inside me." I venture the guess that "Gal‡pagos" is about leaving band life behind. "Exactly. That one comes straight out of my journals on the last Letters to Cleo tour. The record wasn’t doing too well, I didn’t feel we were connecting with audiences, I was partying too much and not taking care of myself. It was a pretty bleak time, and I could feel that the band’s days were numbered."
"Sheltering Sky" ranks as the album’s most oblique song. It’s also one of the most personal and the one she’s most reluctant to explain. "I was talking to one journalist who heard the line ‘Now the world is saved from lipstick, boobs and paint’ and thought it was about me holding onto my man for dear life. But really, I don’t know what it’s about. Sometimes I just play chords and some words will come out of me." Still, I suggest, the random words must hold some personal significance. Finally, she relents. "Okay, it’s about Michael and how I love him desperately and how he’s the center of the world as far as I’m concerned. And I can probably say that only because he’s not around right now. It’s about being in love, which I still am after all these years." With that she turns away and gets more coffee; it’s the first time I’ve seen her get embarrassed by anything she’s spilled in an interview.
"You know what the problem is?" she continues. "I’m talking in my house on a morning instead of being in the Middle East finishing my third Budweiser. One of these days, I’m going to make my comeback into the world of debauchery. But not right now."
Kay Hanley will play a CD-release party at the Paradise on Thursday September 12. Call (617) 423-NEXT.