Kelly Hogan likes her singing with a degree of difficulty

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJuly 12, 2012 

Kelly Hogan will perform Saturday at NC Museum of Art.

COURTESY OF BLOODSHOT RECORDS

  • More information Who: Kelly Hogan with Neko Case When: 8 p.m. Saturday Where: N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh Cost: $20-$30 ($10 for children 7-12, free for children 6 and under, general admission only) Details: ncartmuseum.org or 919-839-6262

There is a moment about halfway through “I Like To Keep Myself In Pain,” the title track of Kelly Hogan’s terrific new album, that will put your jaw on the floor if you’re paying attention. Somewhere between a scream and a moan, it’s a from-the-depths howl that perfectly evokes the nuances of something that Hurts So Good in 10 easy seconds. Except there’s nothing easy about it.

“That’s a hard part to pull off, too,” Hogan says, calling from behind the wheel on the way to her next tour stop. “It goes from ‘ah’ to ‘oh,’ so I’m changing the vowel while holding the note. But it’s also one of my favorite things to do, even if I always get scared right before I get to that part.”

The harder something is to sing, the better Hogan likes it. That’s one reason why the Atlanta native has acquired a reputation as a singer’s singer over the past decade, the go-to backup vocalist for everybody from Drive-By Truckers to Mavis Staples. One of her regular gigs is backing up Neko Case, who she’s touring with this summer in a double-duty capacity – opening act, then headline-set backup singer. It’s a demanding regimen, and not just because of the summertime heat.

“I’m thinking of getting a surgical mask like you see people wear in airports, or maybe wearing a sign: ‘I’m sorry, I love you, but I cannot talk to you,’ ” Hogan says. “It’s gonna be tough, like doing a run of ‘Cats’ or something. I’ll be missing out on a lot of drunken backstage good times because I’ve got to sleep, especially the way I perform. Anytime I’m singing, I’m never just ‘singing.’ Like you’re driving while on the phone, you hang up and wonder, ‘How’d I get 20 miles down the road?’ No, anytime I’m singing, I’m in the song, hearing the words and living them every time. It’s why I get so danged exhausted. But the more terrifying and wrenching, the more I get off on it.”

Hogan’s main onstage order of business will be to show off “Pain,” her first album in more than a decade and easily her best ever. Featuring a stellar backup band centered around the great keyboardist Booker T. Jones, “Pain” has a late-night salon feel perfect for drowning sorrows. Hogan comes across as a sort of left-field Adele. Not that she sounds anything like the much-lauded young British star, but Hogan shows a similar sense of command over both her voice and her vision.

The 13 songs on “Pain” were written by underground stars from Hogan’s roots-rock orbit, including Andrew Bird, John Wesley Harding, Robyn Hitchcock and Mekons/Waco Brothers main man Jon Langford. Hogan makes each and every song her own with vocal performances ranging from powerhouse to whispered restraint. Every song on the album is wholly, thoroughly convincing.

But that’s nothing new for Hogan, who always gives herself to every song completely. That even goes for some of her odder vocal jobs over the years, like commercial jingles.

“I did this Suave shampoo annual meeting where I went in singing: ‘You don’t own me /Don’t tell me what shampoo to buy,’” she says, laughing at the memory. “I did a song about unwed mothers in Atlanta, and another about dialysis: ‘Stick to your plan, keep your health in mind.’ Stuff like that is just the purest ninja assignment. I love that kind of thing, where you have to stick to a feeling no matter how ridiculous. It’s a challenge. ‘Oh yeah? Bring it on, I can do it.’ The harder it is, the better I like it.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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