Kay Hanley

Kay Hanley grew up on the hardscrabble side of Boston and spent a decade in in one of the hippest alt-rock bands to arise from that city – or any other, for that matter. When that group split, she reinvented herself in Hollywood as a crazy-busy songwriter for film and television and lived for a number of years as what she’s called a “strung-out-on-opiates soccer mom.”

If that sounds like one helluva wild ride for a flaxen-haired former Catholic school girl, well, it should because it was. But the now 54-year old survived all the madness, mayhem and mania that the rock ‘n’ roll machine threw her way – and a lot of self-abuse she threw her own way – and says she’s arrived at a calmer place, particularly since she’s been booze- and pill-free for about 12 years.

“I have regular life stuff, but there’s not much that torments me,” she said in 2020. If she’d made that statement at any time in the ‘90s, anyone who knew anything about her would’ve laughed – hysterically.

Musical Beginnings

Born on September 11, 1968, Hanley grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, across the street from future New Kids on the Block member and Hollywood star Donnie Walberg’s family. Hers was what she’s called a “very strict Irish-Catholic family” where she was rarely allowed to watch TV and spent her time listening to the radio instead, particularly WBZ as it played a wide variety of music, from R&B and rock to soul and top 40.

Hanley cites her early influences as ‘70s pop acts and musical scores from theatrical productions including Annie, Man of La Mancha and Jesus Christ Superstar. “I would listen to, back-to-back, ‘The Boy From New York City’ by Manhattan Transfer, then ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ by Elton John,” she said in 2010. “The first song I ever became obsessed with on my own was ‘This One’s For You,’ by Barry Manilow – that one just ripped my fucking heart out. I saved up my allowance for weeks just to buy Barry’s double-live album [1977’s Barry Manilow Live].”

Rebecca Lula, Letters to Cleo, Early Shows, Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble

In high school, Hanley sang in the band Rebecca Lula, which billed itself as a new wave act but played rock covers to appeal to a broader audience. In 1990, she and the band’s guitarist, Greg McKenna, formed the power-pop quintet Letters to Cleo. The band name is based on Hanley’s childhood friend Cleo, whom she would visit every summer in Nova Scotia and kept in touch with as a pen pal.

The original lineup was Hanley, McKenna, guitarist Tad Bouve, drummer Ted Garland and several bassists filling in as needed. By early 1991, the final lineup was in place: Hanley, McKenna, guitarist Michael Eisenstein, bassist Scott Riebling and drummer Stacy Jones. Letters to Cleo cut its teeth at area clubs including the Rathskeller and T.T. the Bear’s Place, the latter of which became their de facto home base. In 1991, they scored a local hit with “I See” and in 1992 they made the semifinals in the WBCN-sponsored Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble.

Aurora Gory Alice, “Here and Now”, Wholesale Meats and Fish, Go!, Sister

The attention from their Rumble appearance helped the band land a deal with the indie label CherryDisc, which released their debut album, Aurora Gory Alice, in 1993; it was later reissued by Warner Bros. sublabel Giant Records. The LP reached #3 in the Billboard Heatseekers chart while the single “Here and Now” – with its hilariously silly, lightning quick, 28-word chorus – reached #10 in the Billboard Modern Rock Singles chart, was played regularly on MTV and became known to millions when it was used in the television show Melrose Place.

The follow-up album, 1995’s Wholesale Meats and Fish, was edgier than the debut but equally melodic, full of high-spirited hooks; it hit #11 in the Billboard Heatseekers chart. The band’s third disc, 1997’s Go!, went to #45 on that chart before Giant issued their seven-song, cassette-only EP from 1991 along with four B-sides as Sister in 1998.

Disbanding, Reunions, Back to Nebraska

In 2000, by which time Hanley was performing regularly with her then-husband and fellow Letters to Cleo member Michael Eisenstein outside of the band, Letters to Cleo broke up. Since then, they’ve reunited several times for short tours, most recently in 2016, when they recorded the EP Back to Nebraska and played two sold-out gigs at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston.

Asked in 2020 about the likelihood of a full-fledged reunion, Hanley said she was skeptical. “We’re hoping to get our shit together enough to get our shit together enough to make a full-length album this year,” she said, “but I’m thinking that might be a little unrealistic.”

Kay Hanley

Career Shift, Josie and the Pussycats, Animation Projects

Hindsight shows that “Here and Now” being included in Melrose Place was a harbinger of Hanley’s future long-term association with Hollywood. Letters to Cleo had appeared in the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You and in NBC’s Parks and Recreation and provided 13 songs for the 2000/1 Kids WB cartoon Generation O!, but now Hanley was ready to dive into televised media on her own – in a big way.

Hanley moved to Los Angeles in 2000 and her first solo foray in Tinsel Town was as the singing voice for Rachael Leigh Cook’s character, Josie, in the 2001 satirical musical comedy Josie and the Pussycats. Since then, she’s worked on a host of other film and television projects, such as recording her rendition of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” for the soundtrack of the 2005 film  Just Like Heaven.

A large part of Hanley’s focus has been on animated programs, and in 2022 she won an Emmy Award for her musical contributions to the Netflix series We The People, produced by Kenya Barris and Barack and Michelle Obama. Other animated programs to which she’s contributed songs include My Friends Tigger & PoohWe Are Care Bears; Care Bears: Oopsy Does It!Care Bears to the RescueSonic the Hedgehog: Sonic HeroesDoc McStuffinsDC Super Hero GirlsHarvey Girls Forever; and Ada Twist.

Cherry Marmalade, The Babydoll EP, Weaponize, Other Projects

In 2002, Rounder Records released her first solo effort, Cherry Marmalade and that same year she appeared on the album Face to Face vs Dropkick Murphys. In 2004, Hanley recorded The Babydoll EP, followed in 2008 by her only other solo album to date, Weaponize, on the DeGuerre label.

In 2007, Letters to Cleo drummer Stacy Jones, then musical director for Miley Cyrus, invited Hanley to join Cyrus’ Best of Both Worlds tour as a backup singer, which she did for a year and a half. In 2015, Hanley joined the all-female rock septet Band of Their Own, which played in and around Boston and included Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses, Belly and The Breeders and celebrated indie-rock singer-songwriter Jen Trynin.

Songwriters of North America

Hanley is co-executive director of Songwriters of North America, an LA-based non-profit which advocates for fair pay and other rights for songwriters. In 2018, her efforts were instrumental in getting the US Congress to pass the Music Modernization Act, a major breakthrough in modernizing copyright laws for streaming. “Songwriters are uniquely screwed in the streaming economy, just because of the way our antiquated laws are,” she said before the bill became law.

Comments on Sobriety, Aging

Asked in a 2020 interview about her no-longer-chemically-dependent life and what it’s like to be a fiftysomething, Hanley’s reply was a positive one. “I have big girl problems today,” she told the online sobriety group The Ties That Bind Us. “I’m a mom, I have parents who are getting older, I have a career that’s demanding, I have a lot of people who depend on me for things and I depend on people for things.

“But I wouldn’t change a thing. For as long as I’m engaging in the world, the world’s given me a lot of things to deal with and be a part of, and I love it.”

(by D.S. Monahan)

Published On: September 5, 2023