When jangly guitar-pop band Letters to Cleo burst onto the Boston music scene in the early-Nineties, the rest of the country was consumed with the burgeoning grunge movement. By 1997, when the group's third album was released on a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Records, musical attention was being focused on the burgeoning youth pop movement, featuring 'N Sync and Britney among others.
The group flirted with fame when their single "Here and Now" became a radio hit thanks to Melrose Place, but despite making blissful pop, Cleo couldn't catch a break. "We were just this roving gang of musical miscreants," remembers former Cleo singer Kay Hanley, who has just released her solo debut Cherry Marmalade (Zoe/Rounder). "We got in the van and toured, and when we got home we'd hang out and shoot pool together. We were really, really good friends and shared a common musical vision together."
In an era of SoundScan and bottom lines, a shared musical vision wasn't enough. The band finally imploded from the weight of its own industry-forced ennui, and in its aftermath birthed a solo career for the thirty-three-year-old Hanley, whose instantly recognizable voice evokes alternating images of a coquettish sex kitten and little girl wanting to front her own rock & roll band. The perfect combination, in fact, when Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds was looking for a singer to voice the musical character of Josie in 2000's rock & roll dreams-denied film Josie and the Pussycats.
Hanley and husband Michael Eisenstein, Cleo's lead guitarist, had just become parents and were on the verge of taking day jobs when the Josie job came along. A paycheck to save the day, but even more importantly, the opportunity for Hanley to take her unique vocal style, a crack ear for the perfect melody and a still-burning desire to rock, and just work at it with hitmaker Edmonds.
"He really built my confidence up a lot," Hanley says. "Kenny was the first person aside from my mom to tell me I had a lovely voice. I've always kind of looked at myself as a one-trick pony. I've never really considered myself a 'vocalist.'"
But Hanley is a vocalist. And a songwriter. And Cherry Marmalade reveals this charmingly. The twelve songs feel, well, like home. From "This Dreadful Life," her self-acknowledged addition to the canon of "three-minute band autobiographies," to the driving summer pop of "Satellite," which under its sheen reveals a sad farewell to Hanley's best friend, the music on Cherry Marmalade -- and Hanley's role in it -- finally seems to have found the stars in alignment.
While Hanley says that writing songs is a smooth process for her, the album was still two-and-a-half years in the making. Having just become a mother, she had a lot of home time to start sketching out ideas. And when little Zoe Mabel was old enough to stay with a babysitter, Hanley and Eisenstein, who co-wrote about half the tracks on Marmalade, would take one night each week and get together with musical friends for jam sessions. "I just had to get out and play guitar," she remembers. "We'd hang out, grab a case of beer and indulge in all of my favorite behaviors that you can't do as much when you're a mother."
Slowly the songs began taking shape and Hanley soon found herself in the safe environs of Boston's Q Division studios, where owner and legendary producer Mike Deneen (Aimee Mann, Morphine) tightened the songs into a warm, edgy package.
Hanley's lyrics are stronger than they've ever been -- literal, rather than poetic, snapshots of growing up and out while still maintaining a passion for youthful indiscretion. The album, in fact, wasn't sold to Rounder until after it was completed. "[Marmalade] is a lot more personal because I was more open to the lyric-writing. I was a complete free agent -- I could do what I wanted," she says. "Even in Letters, to an extent, being signed to a subsidiary of Warner Bros., there was always more of an expectation to write hits. This time around there was none of that."
To hear constant mention of the major label experience is to wonder whether Hanley holds any bitterness for that time in her career. But unlike friend and former Bostonian Aimee Mann, the horror stories do not define her experience. "I have a much more Zen attitude about it," Hanley says. "It's pop music. I can't on principle take it real seriously. I've had such a good time, that to be real victimized by it seems ridiculous for me."
While Cherry Marmalade is resolutely Hanley's album, she is rehearsing with a band once again, to take the songs out on the road. "I'm a benevolent dictator," she laughs. "Luckily, I'm in a band with a bunch of guys who just know what they're doing." And while Eisenstein has been by Hanley's side, musically and otherwise, for more than a decade, he is presently on tour, playing with Canadian rockers Our Lady Peace. "Not only am I home by myself raising a child, but my husband's left my band for another!"
Regardless, Hanley is sage on the prospects for success. The time may just be right for her flowing pop to hit big, but if it's not, no big deal. "At one point my whole world revolved around rock & roll and what was happening, and finding the next big thing. But my life has filled up with so many other things," she says. "Music is always somewhere in the pantheon of the important things in my life, but not enough for me to give a shit any more about whether I'm gonna be a pop star.
"That's not to say that putting out this album and wanting people to hear it isn't important. The music that I write is very straightforward and accessible. It's important to me and I hope people like it, and I hope I get it out to as many people as possible."
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