Kay Hanley of Letters To Cleo

by Nicole Roberge

Her journey from Letters To Cleo to Doc McStuffins, with stops along the way for 10 Things I Hate About You and Josie And The Pussycats.

"People love their '90s shit," Kay Hanley tells us. And she's a big reason why.

Fronting the band Letters To Cleo, Hanley delivered the hella fly hit "Here And Now" in 1994, used in an episode of Melrose Place and featured on the soundtrack. In 1999, the band showed up in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, playing in a key scene where Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles have a moment, then at the end of the film when they play "I Want You To Want Me" from a rooftop as the credits roll.

After Letters To Cleo disbanded in 2000, Hanley released a solo album called Cherry Marmalade, an endearing, witty, and honest look at her life through lyrics both joyful and evocative. She went on to release two more solo albums, The Babydoll EP and Weaponize, before becoming a maestro of music for cartoons, most famously for Doc McStuffins, one of the more delightful Disney Jr. offerings.

Hanley's songs are catchy, with a fast-paced musicality and vocal styling, but the clincher is, they don't tire. With a unique sound and style, Hanley's voice is distinctive and unmistakable - often sweet and playful, and sometimes moody, but if you listen closely, especially on Cherry Marmalade, there is a yearning reaching out beneath the gentle surface. The longevity of her music is a testament to her songwriting, even when it comes in the form of a cartoon.

Letters To Cleo has since reunited, but Hanley's focus is now aimed at a new Disney Jr. series called Kindergarten: The Musical, which is in development. She's also on the front lines of the fight for songwriting royalties in the age of streaming, and has recently re-released Cherry Marmalade. Hanley spoke with Songfacts just before her birthday as she reflected on where this journey has taken her, how she got her foot in the door at Disney, and hanging with Heath Ledger on set.
Nicole Roberge (Songfacts): It's the 20th Anniversary of Cherry Marmalade. Why did you want to re-release this and celebrate it on tour? What does this album mean to you?

Kay Hanley: Last year, I realized that the record was turning 20. It just hit me in a different way than Cleo records did. It was my first solo record. It's a very emotional record for me. I wrote it at the end of Cleo and while I was pregnant with my daughter, and my life was changing a lot at that time. I made it with Mike Denneen who has now passed away. It's such a time capsule for me, just thinking of where I was and what was going on in my life at that time. It has a different resonance than a Cleo record. With Cleo, it's all five of us, and this one was a solitary experience and just really special.

Songfacts: Was that a difficult transition for you, going from Letters To Cleo, and was the songwriting process different?

Hanley: Yeah. Cleo was so collaborative. If you look at the writers on the Cleo stuff, it was all five of us. We really did write together. Even if I came in with an idea for a song, we would go into our rehearsal space to work everything out.

I was married to Michael Eisenstein, the guitar player in Cleo, at the time. Cleo had just finished up our last Go! tour. I was partying my ass off at the time. It felt like the end was near for Cleo. It was kind of a dark time. Michael left for Maui to make Nina Gordon's record. He was gonna be gone for a couple of months, and two days after he left, I found out I was pregnant with Zoe.

I stopped partying, I picked up a guitar, and started writing alone. I had never really done that before. I had written songs before, but I had never taken up songwriting with the idea that I was going to be writing by myself and finishing songs. I didn't have an agenda. I wasn't like, "I'm gonna make a solo record." I was really inspired. I wasn't drinking or smoking or going out with friends. I didn't have anything to do but be creative. These songs just started pouring out of me. When Michael came home, we would write. By the time I brought a couple of songs to Mike Denneen, who was the Cleo producer, we started working on the arrangements. He was like, "You've gotta make a record, Kay." It was incredibly empowering. It felt very natural. It didn't feel difficult or like I was on a mission. It felt very organic. By the time I went in to record the record, Zoe had already been born. I think she was a year old, and she was napping at the studio.

Songfacts: That's impressive on its own that you were able to do all that while pregnant and with an infant.

Hanley: It all felt like it was supposed to be happening. In retrospect, the changes were dramatic and quick. At the time it didn't feel that way. Maybe because at the time, my life was always like, OK, I guess I'm doing this now. Tell me where to be, and I'll be there. Everything in my life up until then had been like, alright, here we go!

Songfacts: You've maintained that mentality throughout your career and I think it's served you well. It worked on this album. You do a nice job in "Fall" of evoking a feeling of the season, and it sets the mood of the album. What is the undertone of that song?

Hanley: It's funny, I'm realizing now that had a little bit to do with Josie And The Pussycats. My friend Dave Gibbs from the Gigolo Aunts had moved to Los Angeles, and he was living in Adam Duritz' guesthouse, having what I think is this very quintessentially LA kind of life. He had started working with people I didn't know at the time: Deb (Kaplan) and Harry (Elfont), who were the directors of Josie And The Pussycats. They were writing songs for the movie. There was no soundtrack or anything like that at the time. He wanted me to come out and do the voices for the Pussycats.

That second verse is all about talking to somebody about the seasons and me being so tied to the idea of being in Boston and never leaving. Trust me, when I wrote that song, I had no plans whatsoever to move to Los Angeles. It was like, how can you live there? I'm happy to visit, and I did. But it was all inspired by Dave moving and me being like, why would you do that? Why would you leave Boston? And here I am 20 years later. I've been here since 2003. I say I can't wait to get out of here. I do want to go home eventually, but I'm not done with this place yet.

Songfacts: "Trans-Neptunian Object #1" is about your daughter, and you even put the sounds she made as a baby in it. This must be a sweet memento for both of you. Was it emotional to write it then and how do both of you feel about it now?

Hanley: It's very emotional for me now. Zoe Mabel is 23 now and lives in Boston. She's gonna be at the shows. I told her, "I am going to just bawl and I'm never gonna get through this song." A lot of the songs are about her. "Happy To Be Here" is about her. It was about going to a movie by myself with little baby Zoe in my belly. I went to see this movie called Little Voice. The movie was very much about discovering things about yourself that you didn't know you could do and one of the things I really didn't know I could do was motherhood, and so being pregnant with her was like, What is she gonna be like? What am I gonna be like? What is this whole thing gonna be like? And of course, now I know.

But "Trans-Neptunian Object #1," I was obsessed at the time with the idea that Pluto had been downgraded from a planet to a trans-Neptunian object. I was really upset about that. I don't know why I decided to make the connection between that and this beautiful creature that I got to hang out with and wipe her butt every day and clean spit up off my shoulders. I was always covered in her activities. Again, it was just the sort of wondering... who are you? And making promises to her that I'd take care of her always.

This is where I'm gonna start crying. Thinking about singing this with her in the audience is too much for my heart. I loved her then and I love her even more now if it's possible. I still feel the same that I did when she was a baby and talking in that gibberish language. I want everything for her.

Songfacts: Does she get emotional?

Hanley: She does not. She might though. She's a pretty cool customer. She's not a crier like I am. But I know that it means a lot to her. I don't think she'll cry but she is moved.

Songfacts: It must be nice to have these little time capsules.

Hanley: It really is. I'm so grateful for songs. Every song I write, I know exactly what was going on in that moment when I wrote it and why I wrote it. Even though, especially in Cleo, most of my songs were not very literal. The songs on Cherry Marmalade were. That's one of the things that was unusual, was writing such linear stories. I had never really done that before.

Songfacts: You do some incredible things here musically that contrast with the lyrics. "Chady Saves The Day" is a great example of that dynamic, as well as "Princely Ghetto." Were you focused more on the lyrics here or sound with this album?

Hanley: This record was such a collaboration between me, Mike Denneen and Michael Eisenstein, who really got to stretch out with his sound. We had the time and the luxury to experiment. They would spend hours swapping out pedals and amps to get some of those sounds.

I'm psyched that you made the connection between "Chady Saves The Day" and "Princely Ghetto" because those songs were kind of a set piece. We spent a lot of time micing up different drum kits and we made that record to tape. It was sort of like a tape-Pro Tools hybrid. Cherry Marmalade was a very tapey experience and we had all the time in the world to stretch out and dial up sounds.

Songfacts: "Galapagos" seems to be a personal song and takes us on a real emotional journey. Can you share a little about that?

Hanley: That was the first song I wrote for the record. That was a revelation for me because it's one of the saddest songs I've ever written. That was about the journey coming home from the end of the Go! tour for Cleo. It was a bummer. We were all bummed. The record did not do well. I was partying my ass off. We were all drifting in different directions. None of us were having a great time. I didn't know what I was going to do next, personally.

Usually when I'm going through something like that, I don't have any capacity to write about it. I think that with something really sad, if I write about it, it will take me over. But I was in such a crazily optimistic place because of being pregnant and feeling healthy and clean, I felt like I could write about all this hard stuff because it couldn't touch me and I could face it head on. "Galapagos" was the first song I wrote, and it was the most honest thing that I'd ever written up until that point, and it feels that way. It was an important milestone for me, that song.

Songfacts: It's very vulnerable. And the song just feels like a road trip.

Hanley: That's exactly what it's supposed to evoke. I appreciate that you get that.

Songfacts: Letters To Cleo was pretty iconic. You had a real cult following, starting in Boston, through that '90s era. Being a female lead in a rock band is a powerful thing, and you had such a fast-paced sound. There were so many different elements there. How did you keep up with that?

Hanley: We had been touring and recording for years before we ever got on the radio or made our debut record. I had a lot of time to hone. There's this process you had to follow in the Boston music scene in the '90s. You'd work your way up the club tier. You had to really work hard to go from an opening slot on a Tuesday night at T.T. the Bear's to headlining on a Thursday. That took a lot. That took a long-ass time. Luckily Greg [McKenna] and I had all our friends and family from Dorchester who drank a lot of beer, which is really all the clubs wanted. They didn't care if you were good or not. They wanted people in there drinking a lot of beer. We delivered that. We had a lot of time to test out our songs and we wrote a lot. We wrote so many songs. For as many songs that made it to our records, we wrote twice as many that we never recorded.

When we played live in front of audiences, we developed our style. We experimented with a lot of different styles. There are songs of ours that sounded like total college rock, like Barenaked Ladies. There was stuff that was funk or ska. We experimented with a lot of dumb-sounding things before we arrived at what we ended up sounding like. But we felt very supported coming up in a band in Boston because there were so many outlets. We had all the college radio stations, and it was an incredible zine scene with magazines like The Noise and Northeast Performer.

We also had WFNX and WBCN who would play local bands. You could become kind of famous in Boston without ever leaving Boston, without ever getting played on national radio, or covered in Rolling Stone. I think of bands like O Positive, Tribe, or The Sex Execs. Heretix, The Bags, Dumptruck. These bands that just got huge in Boston without ever having a national profile. So it felt really fun and encouraging. I never felt like I had to strive for this national profile. I didn't even know that was a thing. I was just a fan of Boston bands.

Songfacts: You have such a vast catalog. Is there a song that is your favorite to play, and conversely, one that you get tired of singing?

Hanley: There are songs I can just sort of dial in for. Even "Here And Now." A lot of people resent having to play their hits, but I love that song. I love playing it. I love singing it. It's hard now - it challenges me. I can't sleep on that song. It's hard, but I love it.

My favorite Cleo song is probably "Veda Very Shining," and my favorite solo song... I'm about to find that out. There's gonna be 20 songs working in on tour and I can't even believe I have 20 solo songs to choose from.

Songfacts: Film has had a positive role for you. 10 Things I Hate About You is still such a celebrated movie and Letters To Cleo brought a new component to the film by both being on the soundtrack and in multiple scenes. You went on to do that with Josie And The Pussycats as Rachael Leigh Cook's singing voice. How important was it for you to get those elements right in a film and what does a medium like that do for music?

Hanley: The '90s was a completely different time. On 10 Things I Hate About You, we had traveled from Boston to LA to do a couple of songs for the soundtrack. We were there recording at Ocean Way. The director of 10 Things was in Seattle filming the movie while we were in LA recording some of the songs. The producer, Ralph Sall, was kind of amazing. He had come from the television world and found his niche as a producer of movie soundtracks. Basically, he just hired all his favorite bands to do cover songs for movies, which is why that was such a thing in the '90s. He had us come out to LA and while we were there, Gil Junger, the director, called and said, "Hey, I need a band to do the prom scene in the movie." Ralph said, "Letters To Cleo is here." And Gil asked, "What do they look like?" Ralph sent him a picture and he said, "They look great, send them up."

The next thing you know, we're in the movie. That's how it happened, and it was pretty crazy.

And Josie, I was supposed to come out to LA to do voices for the Pussycats. Before I got to LA, they had gotten rid of the voice for Josie, not for being bad, but for being too good. They couldn't imagine her big, soulful voice coming out of Rachael's mouth. By the time I got to LA, I was in the perfect position to swoop in and take the job for myself. I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

I feel like those movie projects and the music in them has had a lot of lasting impact. I would argue at the time no one really thought much of them, but today people freak out. I get more attention for my movie soundtrack work than I do for Cleo or my solo work. People have such a connection to Josie, and 10 Things I Hate About You is pretty iconic. People love their '90s shit.1

Songfacts: That was such a big role for Heath Ledger also.

Hanley: That was his first American film and I sat next to him in hair and makeup a couple of days. The day we did the roof of Stadium High School, that shot at the end, when we sang "I Want You To Want Me," I was in hair and makeup with him that day. He was telling me how incredible it was to be on his first American film, and he couldn't believe it. He was just the sweetest, nicest person. What an actor he turned out to be.

Songfacts: What a nice memory to have. I would have to argue your work on Disney Jr. is probably up there for a lot of '90s fans who might be parents now. You write the songs for Doc McStuffins, and have written for Vampirina, as well as the WB/Cartoon Network's DC Super Hero Girls and the Netflix series Ada Twist, Scientist. You are also the composer and executive producer of the upcoming Disney Jr. series Kindergarten: The Musical. How did you get on this path, and did that area of songwriting always interest you?

Hanley: I'm so glad you asked this. When I moved to LA, I met up with my friend Nina [Gordon] from Veruca Salt. She introduced me to Michelle Lewis. This is in 2003. We started writing songs together.

Michelle and I, once we met, we were magnetized. It was this creative explosion. We had this band called The Dilettantes. We were managing bands for a minute - we were doing outsourced A&R for some labels finding new talent. We would go on hikes and have talks called our "cockamamie schemes." On one of our cockamamie schemes, we said things like, "We want to do this, but we don't know how to do this, but we know someone who does." One of these things was creating TV shows. We had this idea for a TV show called Miles And Maisie's Musiquarium, and we sold it to Disney. The way we sold it to Disney was - we were from the music business, everyone took our calls. We had no idea you didn't just call the president of Disney Jr. programming and say, "Hey, we have an idea, can we come in?"

We came in, we made a CD of all the songs for the show, and we had all the characters. We came in with a guitar and performed all the songs live. They were like, "Hell yeah, we want this show," because no one really did that. To cut to it, we ended up selling two shows to Disney in the mid-'00s and none of them went anywhere. They never went into series, but we did limited development periods on both. It showed people at Disney that we were fun to work with, great with deadlines, and wrote great songs for this world. We didn't write babyish songs, we wrote fun, accessible songs that sounded like pop songs.

In 2010 we got a call from one of our executive friends at Disney Channel at the time and she said, "I have this show that's going to series called Doc McStuffins. We were wondering if you could come in and consult on the music." We thought, this is great, we're going to be consultants at Disney. We went and met the creator of the series, Chris Nee. She was telling us about the show, and we said, "Let's see if we can come up with some ideas you can work with for composers," and we went home and wrote a bunch of songs. We sent them back in and literally two weeks later we had a deal to be the series' composers.

This was our first job, and that's what I've been doing ever since. I write songs for cartoons all day, every day, and 10 years later we sold another show called Kindergarten: The Musical. Fifteen years later, after we sold our first show to Disney, which has now gone to series, and we're knee deep in production on that. We're executive producers and we're also series composers. It's a very big job but we love it. I pinch myself every day. I cannot believe I have the career that I have.

Songfacts: What are the challenges with that, and is it hard to go from composing for children's television to writing your own music?

Hanley: Yes. It's very, very difficult to write songs for myself at this point. For me it turns out the creative sweet spot is this: When I write songs for myself, there are all these questions. If I say it this way, what will that say about me? Am I revealing too much about myself? Is this gonna make me sound stupid or smart or cool?

My ego is so attached to songs I write for myself. I try for that not to be the case. I really do want every song for myself to be super vulnerable like "Galapagos." The reason it resonates is because it's so honest. That is a rarity for me. I'm often paralyzed by my ego.

When it comes to writing for animation, I'm literally writing a character. It's not about me. It's always in the service of a story, someone else's story, and that frees me up creatively in a way that allows me to have a truly, purely creative experience where I don't have any of the fears that plague me when I'm writing for myself.

Songfacts: How did you get involved with Songwriters of North America (SONA) and why were you so impassioned to protect songwriters and their rights? Were you personally affected?

Hanley: That was another one of me and Michelle Lewis's cockamamie schemes. After we were in animation for about five years and out of the pop songs game, Michelle had a hit with a British band called Little Mix.2 When you write a song that gets on the radio, when you get your ASCAP or BMI check, you expect to see certain money rolling in. Michelle saw 17 million plays on YouTube to which she got like $32. We were like, "That's not sustainable, that's not gonna work for people."

We heard about this attorney working in Washington and trying to get legislation passed to address inequities in streaming. There were all kinds of shenanigans in streaming at the time that have gotten better now. We went into her office and she said, "Where have you been? You guys are the first songwriters to ever show up in my office. They're eating you for lunch."

The issues why songwriters are so uniquely screwed in the streaming music business, there are reasons for it that go beyond Spotify not paying us fair rates. It's a perfect storm of a lot of different things that makes songwriters really vulnerable. We started SONA in 2015. The thing that keeps us moving in this fight is that songwriters are the first line. Without songwriters, there is nothing for an artist to record, there's nothing for a label to sell or distribute, there's nothing for a streaming service to play, and there's nothing for a fan to love. If you don't decide to protect songwriters and make sure that we protect their livelihood and safety in the workplace, then we're not gonna have music. The fight continues.

Songfacts: You've had a really diverse career. You've explored so many avenues of music and taken your talent in an impressive approach to music. What is your focus next now that you're rereleasing this record? Would you explore a new solo project?

Hanley: I remastered Cherry Marmalade for vinyl for a double album release. I printed up 500 of those babies. I'm gonna tour to support that. Maybe do another one next year. I have started writing a solo record. I've also been writing another Cleo record with Michael and Greg. Now that I'm really in the thick of it with Kindergarten: The Musical, I have no idea. It's a lot. I have found that everything that I do supports everything else. Kindergarten: The Musical is the thing that I do that gives me a life. I have that experience so that I can write for myself, for my solo stuff. When I do solo stuff, it cleanses the palate so I can come fresh to my animation work. I constantly have to be feeding all the creative beasts to keep them all alive. My life is like, if a door opens, I just walk through it.

September 27, 2022

For information on tour dates, visit kayhanley.com

More Songwriter Interviews:
Tracy Bonham
Linda Perry
Adam Duritz of Counting Crows

Photo: Justine Ungaro

Footnotes:

  • 1] Josie And The Pussycats was 2001, but yeah, it feels like it was the '90s. (back)
  • 2] "Wings," the first single from their debut album, released in 2012. (back)

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