In 2016, Letters to Cleo returned with Back to Nebraska, their first release in 17 years, and started a tradition of short annual tours. While Covid-19 led them to skip a year, they are heading back out again this month. The tour will conclude with two homecoming shows at The Paradise in Boston.
Vocalist Kay Hanley and guitarist Greg Mckenna formed Letters to Cleo in Boston in 1990. They developed a large local following and gained national attention with their 1993 single “Here & Now.” Their music was featured in many TV shows and films in the 1990s, with the band themselves appearing in 10 Things I Hate About You. The current line-up is rounded out by original members Michael Eisenstein (guitar), Stacy Jones (drums) and bassist Joe Klompus, who joined in 2008.
All of the members are involved with other projects outside of Letters to Cleo. Hanley’s primary focus has been writing music for kids’ television shows such as Doc McStuffins. She is also a co-founder of Songwriters of North America (SONA), a rights advocacy group for professional songwriters. In a phone interview, Hanley discussed the upcoming Letters to Cleo tour and her other work.
Other than last year, these tours have been a regular thing. Could you talk about how you came to get back together after many years of inactivity?
Kay Hanley: I guess we started doing it in 2016 or 2017. We’d been talking for years about doing a show, writing some music. Every time we would see each other out and about, we would talk about doing stuff, but the follow-through just wasn’t there. You know how artists are. There are big ideas, and a lot of the time you don’t follow through. One year, we just did it. We got together and wrote a bunch of songs. It ended up being the EP Back to Nebraska, which was just a very quick and dirty EP. We then hit the road for that.
When we got out on tour, we realized that many people have become fans after the band broke up, like from movies, ‘Josie and the Pussycats’, ’10 things’: all that stuff had happened after we broke up. A lot of people had been fans for almost 20 years and had never seen us. It was super cool to have all these people we never thought we’d see. To connect with a whole new audience was really gratifying. Writing together was always fun. We had plans to — we had started writing a full-length album that we were talking to Adam Schlesinger about producing. Up until the pandemic hit, Michael and I were getting together almost weekly to do like 90-minute writing sessions.
We had a bunch of stuff recorded. Greg was contributing remotely. We had kind of a groove going. When Adam died, it just took the wind out of us. We had planned to have a full-length album out by now, for this tour. That was the vision, and that is not going to happen. Instead, we are just going to do our best to — obviously, no one is used to going to shows. I haven’t been to a rock show in two years, so this is going to be a first for me. It’s super uncomfortable. I think that’s what’s going to make it special is that it’s just weird. Everybody feels weird.
Do you feel that your show will be much different from the previous ones in terms of song selection? Are you leaning towards any different directions for the setlist? What can people expect?
Kay Hanley: That’s a good question. I think really this one is about comfort food. We’re not trying to do anything different. This is really like hitting reset, you know? So for us, we’re leaning into what feels really familiar and comfortable to us. I would say expect to hear all the stuff that you know. I think we actually might throw in one or two of the new ones that we’ve written. There’s a song called ‘Bad Man’ that I really love. We have a couple of other ones, like there’s another song called ‘Aiming and Missing’ we might do.
In terms of the EP and the new music you’ve done in preparation for an album, what was it like getting back into creating music as a band again?
Kay Hanley: With us, there’s just such a shorthand after all these years. We’ve been writing together since we were kids. We really do finish each other’s sentences, musically, so it felt very easy. Where we started writing was at the Deathstar over in Korea town here in LA. That used to be Stacey’s studio and is now Michael’s studio. Even just the way our paths have continued to intertwine, it feels like we’re a family. Even though we’re out and doing other things, we all have different careers now, different lives, and live in different places. It always feels natural when we get together and write stuff. The stuff that we did for Nebraska was just like really, really quick and dirty, and that’s what it was supposed to be. I think the idea for the next one, especially after everything that happened with — we kicked off our new musical history with the death of Adam Schlesinger and like having to — I was thinking about how the only two people I wanted to make an album with are gone, Mike Denneen and Adam Sussinger.
There’s just like a lot of sadness about that, but then I think the challenge is, well, can we do something new? Now is a time to delve into different territory. I mean, we’re always going to sound like us, but we’re definitely talking about challenging the ease with which we kind of fall into our patterns. I think we want to kind of deconstruct that a little bit on the next record. So I think challenging ourselves will hopefully — I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t want to fall into the patterns on this next time out into the studio.
Have your other projects had any influence on new Letters to Cleo music?
Kay Hanley: Well, I write for cartoons all day, every day, that’s my day job. So maybe there’s like a sense of fun that I have, or like a different melodic sense. I remember when we put out Back to Nebraska, there’s a song called ‘Four Leaf Clover’ and someone said to me that my cartoon lyrics were showing. I was like, ‘wow.’ But then again, I don’t think that’s bad, because I’ve learned so much from writing for other people. When I’m writing for pictures, I’m working with a script. I’m working with someone else’s creative vision, and so my job is to understand what that vision is and support it. So it’s a completely different creative motivation, which really works for me. It helps; I love having a directive. When you’re writing for yourself, you really don’t have that. It’s like your ego is so tied up in it. ‘What do I want to say?’ ‘What am I embarrassed to say?’ So I think writing animation has really given me a bigger sense of freedom and like ‘just say what you’re going fucking to say, just say it,’ you know? If people get it that way, they get it. And if they don’t, they don’t.
Do you think you’d ever want to make Letters to Cleo your main focus again?
Kay Hanley: I don’t think so. I think this really works for us. Michael is getting his master’s degree right now, and he’s probably going into academia with his music degree. We all have very demanding careers. So doing this the way we’re doing it is really fun. And I don’t think it would be fun to do Cleo full-time. I don’t think any of us feel that way.
Do you feel any pressure in doing these tours?
Kay Hanley: I don’t feel any pressure at all. This is very low risk, very low stakes. It’s like, once a year we hit the road and we have cool new shirts. Usually, we have new music; this year, again, that is not the case. But there’s always like, some kind of goody. It’s really just like, it’s about community and having fun. And so there’s no pressure. Of course, we want to sell tickets. We don’t want to ever play to an empty room. That’s not what we want to do. But other than that pressure of just making sure that we’re getting the word out so that people come to the shows… that’s the reason to do it like this just once a year. It’s like, we’ll be there once a year.
Could you talk about the Boston music scene at the time, and what it was like emerging in it?
Kay Hanley: There’s so much to say, I don’t even know where to start. In the eighties, Boston was an incredible place to be a fan of music. It was just an embarrassment of riches. And then, to be in a band in Boston, especially in the ’90s, was ridiculous. The two major market stations, WFNX and WBCN, both played local bands in their regular rotation. There were also all the college radio stations that just like, dedicated themselves to all this incredible indie music from Boston and from around the world. So we heard just the most unbelievable music. I feel like no one else got the musical education that we did in terms of the music that we heard. It was just so nutritious, everything we heard.
And then we had a very vibrant zine scene. So all these zines were covering the scene. The Boston Phoenix – everybody rushed to those boxes on Friday to get the Phoenix and read it, cover to cover. So to be there during this time… I was waiting tables and I had a song on the radio, but that felt totally normal to me. So by the time we kind of took off, I feel like we just had a deep sense of humility about what it meant to be a working band, part of a community, part of a scene. Like, there were no starfuckers in Boston. We were all just like, had a million roommates and one bathroom and all worked jobs. And we all had songs on the radio. It was fucking weird. But like, how cool is that? I could cry. I feel a little bit emotional just thinking about it.
You mentioned new fans who have never seen Letters to Cleo live. Did any of them get into it through the music you did for kids’ shows?
Kay Hanley: Oh, not for nothing, but like, all of the kids’ TV shows are composed by nineties rock people. So there’s that. We are still are determined to subvert the minds of Gen X children. One kids’ show at a time.
But it’s the other way around. Parents will find out; like, their kid will be like, watching a show and they’ll hear the music in the background and be like, ‘that sounds familiar’ and they’ll look at the credits, and they’ll see my name and be like, ‘holy shit.’ So it’s usually the other way around. They’ll come upon the show, recognize that it’s me writing it. And I think it makes them feel better about it. I don’t even want to tell kids it’s music, because I don’t write children’s songs. Like, I’ve never written a children’s song in my life. That’s not my gig. I write awesome music for animated TV that kids watch. But these are songs that, lyrics aside, I would put on my own albums. Michelle Lewis, my writing partner and I, and Dan, our production partner. The three of us are very snobby about pop music and we don’t dial shit in. It’s like, this is all like, very rich, we are loyal to the pop music canon.
“Josie and the Pussycats” seemed to be ahead of its time and has developed a cult following over the years. What was it like being part of that?
Kay Hanley: It was literally life-changing; my entire view of what I do shifted after that. Working with Babyface, and just seeing how the whole thing worked. I mean, I had never been hired to sing before. All of my singing had been done as the singer in Letters to Cleo, because I wrote stuff. So I figured that was like really the extent of what I would ever do as a singer. I never really thought of myself as a singer. I just wrote stuff, so who’s going to sing it but me, right? Doing that project was like … I guess I had never understood the way musicians get paid, like, why did I never make any money from selling albums? This is something that I just always accepted. That in order for Cleo to make money, we would have to go on the road and sell merch, sell tickets, and that was how we would make money. And when I was working with Babyface in LA on that project, I was a new mom and seeing how he was an intensely creative person…he was all about music, just like morning, noon and night, but he got paid for it, and he didn’t fucking show up for the job unless he was getting paid. And I was like, ‘oh, wait a minute, people just like pay you to do this?’ I know it sounds crazy, but this was like a revelation to me that you provide a service and people pay you for it.
So there was that. And then in terms of the movie, just working with Deb [Kaplan] and Harry [Elfont], the writer/directors, and standing in front of a mirror with Rachel Leigh Cook practicing rock moves and stuff. It was very different from any experience I had ever had. I was a new mom and seeing like a completely new creative path and career path for myself. And then, of course, it’s intensely gratifying to see, 20 years later, ‘oh, shit, people, like now they get it?’
I mean, I understand why it resonates more now. At the time there wasn’t this culture of like artists just like immediately selling out to the highest bidder. That wasn’t true with rock bands at the time. Like we were just at the beginning of that, but now it’s like as an artist, you think about tailoring your songs for, like, the Target commercial or the Nokia ad rather than your album. It’s not my jam but, like, I get it.
You co-founded SONA (Songwriters Of North America) to advocate for songwriters’ royalties in the streaming age. At what point did you realize that things were shifting, in terms of digital music distribution? Were you following it since Napster and things like that? At what point did it really hit you?
Kay Hanley: That’s a really good question. I, like everybody else, was confused during the Napster stuff. The streaming and downloading and pirating thing kind of took me by surprise. And I didn’t really grasp it. My career as a recording artist was kind of ending around that time. I was moving into work for hire, which was music for pictures. As a result of my working in television, I had not been paying so much attention to what was going on with YouTube, Spotify, and all the streaming platforms.
I knew that Apple iTunes had kind of like re-valuated music again. So people were willing to pay for it again. But I wasn’t really paying attention. So Michelle Lewis, my writing partner, had written a hit song called ‘Wings’ for this British dance group called Little Mix. That was Michelle’s old career; she wrote pop hits for Cher and all kinds of other people. So when she had this hit, she was thinking about what a hit meant for a songwriter in the olden days, just doing the math in her head about getting paid. And she started getting statements for this song and seeing something like 17 million streams on YouTube. And she got a couple of bucks for it. And she was like, “That’s weird.”
And there was this music attorney named Dina LaPolt. We heard that she was working in this area, doing like legislation and trying to just attack this problem. And so someone made an introduction, and as it turned out, she was a Letters to Cleo fan. So that was good. Michelle and I are like, all right, we’re going to go meet with an attorney. We’re going to go talk about what the fuck is wrong with YouTube. And we’re going to fix this. And we get to her office on Sunset Boulevard, and we walk into her office, and she’s just like this tall, like Amazonian New Yorker.
And she literally says to us, she’s like, “Where the fuck have you bitches been? You’re the first fucking songwriters to walk into my fucking office. They’re eating you for lunch”. And we’re like, [gasp], so she told us all about the issues. There are so many, and we have been pulled into this whether we wanted or not. I know more than I ever wanted to know about this issue. And you know, and it’s not about hating streaming. I want to make that really clear. I have never listened to more music in my life. I’m listening to my old music and rediscovering records that I used to love, and finding new music. And, you know, like I love the new Lil Nas X record, so much. And I would never go to a store and buy that, but I will listen to that shit in my car. Because it’s on my phone. Like it’s awesome, streaming, but they do not want to pay us. None of the platforms want to pay. Spotify, for example, pays out something like 65% of revenues to music creators. But they pay it all to the labels, and they’re fucking assholes too, as always. The labels are always involved somehow. It’s a fight, and it’s going to be a fight for a long time. But we are hoping that if you’re a songwriter or a music producer, a composer, a recording artist who writes your songs, please join SONA. We need you. And even if you don’t want to go to war with us, [it helps] just being able to include your name, just having the numbers. It has been really difficult to rally the troops. And I understand why I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t even know what my ASCAP statement was for until like 10 years ago. I get it, that like the business is over there, and we create over here. But those days are over.
TOUR DATES (for tickets & more info visit letterstocleo.net)
November 11 The Parish at House of Blues Anaheim, CA+
November 12 Troubadour West Hollywood, CA +
November 16 Bowery Ballroom New York, NY ^
November 17 Space Ballroom Hamden, CT **
November 19 Paradise Rock Club Boston, MA **
November 20 Paradise Rock Club Boston, MA **
** w/ Charly Bliss
^ w/ Tracy Bonham