I was 20 minutes late for my interview with fellow Bostonian and Letters to Cleo singer, Kay Hanley. I found her sipping her coffee and wearing silver sneakers. We chatted about her life as a mom, balancing music and family and about relocating and adapting to Los Angeles. You may have heard her voice in some of your kid’s Care Bears DVDs, in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You or singing back-up for Miley Cyrus. I love her attitude about just going with the flow and the story of how she transitioned from indie-rock power pop princess to big time behind the scenes work for Disney.
What is your parenting style?
My parenting style is to go with the flow. My husband Michael (Eisenstein) and I both work as full time musicians but our schedules are pretty flexible. We have a home recording studio in our guesthouse. Someone is always home to deal with the kids if need be. We sit down and eat dinner together every single night. That’s our time to connect with each other, talk and hang out. There’s a lot of joking around. We like to have fun together. A lot of people say that our house is the happiest place on earth and I think it is. It’s really fun. The one great constant in our lives is dinner. But I don’t think I have a style. I guess my style is that I don’t have one. It’s constantly moving and changing.
Tell me about your children. Do they like music? Are they musical?
I have two children. Zoe Mabel is about to turn 11 in June and my son Henry is 7. I’ve got real grown up humans!
Zoe took piano for a 1 1/2 years and I took piano for six years. I can read music but I was never good at it. I wasn’t a natural. We could see that Zoe was not happy with the lessons. We finally let her quit because I wasn’t going to let her struggle like I did. Although, she really likes to sing and has amazing pitch. She has the most beautiful sweet non-pretentious voice.
Lately she’s really has taken a shine to film directing. She’s learned how to use iMovie on her own so now she’s been writing and directing videos. She directs her friends and creates videos with her friends. She’s so creative and so good at editing and adding a musical score. Plus, she’s a really good writer. That’s where her creativity is blossoming.
Henry is also a great little singer. He has amazing pitch and memory for lyrics. He’s never really shown much interest in playing an instrument until yesterday. In our house there was a Fender Telecaster electric guitar leaning against the wall in the den. All of a sudden Henry picked it up and played it. After 45 minutes he said “I’m really good at this.” If they take an interest than that would be great. I don’t want to force them into it. If he decided that he wanted to play guitar than I’d be thrilled.
What do you think about parents who force their kids into lessons and into tons of extra curricular activities?
I have mixed emotions about that. Although I think it’s important when it comes to playing a musical instrument. I know that I resented having to take piano lessons. When I finally was allowed to stop my mother was like “you’re going to regret that when you get older” and sure enough, I do. I really wish I could play piano. But the thing is when I picked up the guitar I intuitively knew how to play it. I had a sense of melody and a sense of rhythm even though I never took guitar lessons. I play well enough to write and it’s my main instrument. Children are not grown ups. Children need to just screw around and have fun and play kick ball, ride a bike. They need those experiences of childhood.
Lately, homework for me is a full time job. I have no idea how parents do that thing where they go from ballet to piano to homework. I don’t know how people can do it. It’s all I can do to get the homework done and get dinner on the table. I know a couple of girls that are really serious swimmers so their parents put a lot of time into that because swimming is something that their kids feel passionate about. Right now, school and homework to me is serious business.
Do you sing to your kids?
Yes, I’m so happy that you asked that! Not only do I sing to my kids but each of our kids have their own theme songs. I’ll write theme songs for other people’s kids too. Our neighbor’s daughter is name Simone and I wrote her a song. (breaks into song) “Simone is the cutest little girl, cutest little girl in the whole wide world. Simone is the cutest little girl, cutest little girl in the world. Boop Boop.” That’s a song anybody can sing even if you can’t sing.
We recently got a dog, which I thought I’d ever do. I’m not a pet person but now I’m in love with this dog. We rescued this dog and Henry just loves him. It makes me want to explode with happiness seeing him with Ringo. I woke up Saturday morning and Henry said, “You know how you wrote a theme song for Zoe? And you know how you wrote a theme song for me? Can we write a theme song for Ringo?” Yeah, we totally can! Later on I asked him if he wanted to give me some thoughts on what should be in the song and we could work on it together
Both you and your husband are professional musicians. That must be exciting and challenging. What makes your work situation different than the normal 9-5 parent?
Zoe wrote a paper a couple of years ago about what are your parents doing right now. She wrote, “right now my parents are probably writing a song in our studio.” The end of her paper said, “I think it’s weird that my parents are doing this when other parents are doing a really important job.” Anybody who reads her paper thinks it’s hilarious! It’s funny because it’s true! Zoe has no idea that other school parents are doing equally non-important jobs like us!
Most families in our school’s community are in the entertainment business. They’re actors or writers. You would think the rock n’ roll musician parent being active in the music business would have trouble with schedules. But it’s so flexible it’s actually very conducive to parenting. Unless one of us is on the road. We really try to keep a limit on touring. I did the Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana tour for 1 1/2 years. That was a lot fun for me. I had my own hotel room every night and no responsibilities what so ever. But it was a lot for Michael. His career had to take a backseat for that whole time. He couldn’t really be hustling and gaining momentum because I’d have to leave. But for the most part we won’t take jobs unless there is good money. We try to keep the business at home as much as possible. Our home is all about creativity. I think it’s nice that my kids are growing up in a house where there are different types of people writing and playing instruments. I think it’s a great environment for a child.
How was your experience with Hanna Montana? How did you get the part?
It was awesome! Stacy the drummer of my band Letters to Cleo was the music director. When they were auditioning the rest of band Miley couldn’t be there for two days of auditions. So Stacy asked me to come down and sing Miley’s parts. By the end of two days I knew the manager really well and had a great time. It went so well that Stacy asked if I wanted to go on the road and be a back up singer. It was great but it was a very strange job for me. I’ve never done background vocals or choreography before. Challenging but a lot of fun. Although I’d never do anything like that again. I can sing but my voice doesn’t naturally blend. There are people who are only background vocalists and that’s all they do. That’s a characteristic and skill unto itself. Performing in that show is like going to the gym for 90 minutes a day. I was in amazing shape! But by the time I came home I was emaciated. For 3 1/2 months it was pretty much every night straight. It was so physically taxing. That and the audiences were deafening. I had my ear monitors in with a special mix and the sound was still deafening. It was crazy! I’ve never heard a sound like that. Plus, we were out with Jonas Brothers. The audiences for Hannah Montana and The Jonas Brothers were vastly different from what the ones I’m used to. I didn’t have a beer on stage!
Do you like Hanna Montana?
Yes, I think Miley is incredibly talented. She’s a total weirdo. What kind of child can work like that? She’s completely inhuman. What kind of person is driven to be that famous?
You were the voice behind Jose and the Pussycats?
That’s a fun story because Zoe was 11 months old when my friend Dave Gibbs, from the Boston band Gigolo Aunts, moved out to LA and was working on the music for that movie. Dave was working with the music producer Babyface and the movie directors putting together the songs for the film. At the time there wasn’t a soundtrack, just music for the film. Babyface had hired the singer who was a rock chick from his world. Dave suggested getting me to do the voices of the Pussycats. He thought I’d be perfect. So Michael, 11-month-old Zoe and I hopped on a plane and moved into Montrose in W. Hollywood. By the time we got to LA the directors had realized that the singer that Babyface had chosen, who was an amazing singer, was just too good. There was no way that you’d believe her voice was coming out of (star of the movie) Rachel E. Cook’s mouth. That left me in perfect position to swoop in and get the gig. It also opened up an opportunity to write and co-write a couple of songs featured in the movie. By far one of the most awesome things I’ve done that I feel proud of.
Tell me about the other children’s work you have created.
I composed music for the Care Bears that went straight to DVD. I also did voice work for Tigger and Winnie the Pooh. That included theme songs and segment songs my creative and business partner Michelle Lewis and I wrote. We also sold a show to Playhouse Disney last year. It’s animated, music based 3-minute show like School House Rock that teaches kids how to learn and enjoy yoga. The first 3 scripts are accepted we have all the music written. It should be on in July.
How did you met your husband?
My husband and I were band mates in Letters to Cleo. Michael joined the band in 1992. Our official meeting was when he auditioned for the band back in Boston. I met him the parking lot and we rode up together in the elevator. At first I thought “I’m in so much trouble. I don’t want to be around him.” I didn’t realize it then but I now realize that was my version of love at first site. I had this physical reaction to him. Not a necessarily good one but not in a grossed out way. I was scared of him. I had this amazing physical reaction to meeting him. Eventually we were together for 6 years before we got married. Now we’ve been together for almost 18 years. It’s awesome working together. We literally didn’t spend 10 minutes apart for the first 10 years of our relationship. I think that bodes well. I still really like him. I love talking to him. I love hanging out with him. He’s the smartest, cutest person I’ve ever met.
Tell us how you transitioned from Boston to LA. Was that a good career move for you?
Yes, I don’t know what I would’ve done if we stayed in Boston. I’d already done Jose and the Pussycats. We’ve already done a TV show with Letters to Cleo called Generation-O (an animated series for television). We were doing some composing work and I had done some film and television work while living in Boston. That was really the only way we were making a living. When it comes to being from Boston you usually don’t leave. At least I never thought I’d leave. Michael had wanted to leave for a long time. I had recently put out my first solo record called Cherry Marmalade and I was supposed to go on tour to support it. Michael was going to stay home with Zoe. Then he got a call to go on the road with the successful Canadian rock band Our Lady Peace for a year. He had to take it because it’s a big paycheck. I had to truncate my tour plans for Cherry Marmalade. Right after he left I found out that I was pregnant with Henry! So now, my husband is on the road, I have a toddler, I’m pregnant and I’m alone. (Read Kay’s essay on a near tragic health issue with her son Henry right before their move to Los Angeles: http://bit.ly/bIf6LE)
The first year we were in LA I felt like nothing was working out! Last year I got nothing but thank god for the two years before we were both working a lot. We both got residuals from those jobs. Basically the relationships I’ve built over the years have allowed me to work. One thing leads to another. When things are slow, things are slow. Then you think, “Oh shit! I may never work again!” But then the phone rings and something comes up and the work I started last year at this time is all of a sudden paying me dividends. Very rarely do I get paid immediately for my work. It’s like juggling 20 balls in the air. I’m always hustling.
Do you consider yourself a “rock star”?
As a state of mind? Yeah, I think I’m pretty cool! I’ve never thought of myself as being famous or anything like that. That’s a hard question to answer. I feel like a rock star in my head but not in the way I walk down the street. I don’t think people would know who I am. Plus, I’ve never understood the drive for fame. I like to call attention to myself by being a wise-ass. It’s such an Irish Catholic thing. I always felt so weird to calling attention to myself on stage. I just never really enjoyed it. Which makes it so hard to be in a band. I completely sabotaged our career by being embarrassed. Now, being behind the scenes is a very good place for me. I can do what I love and I don’t have to sell myself image wise.
How does someone deal with aging in a youth obsessed society?
Botox baby! I will tell that to anyone who asks. I feel pretty youthful. I’m not sad about the way I look now. I’m a businesswoman and creative person. My career has morphed appropriately to what someone my age, which is 41, should be doing. I wish I made more money more often but my whole life is just about rolling with it. I don’t see that changing. Although I do threaten my business partner that when our show finally goes on the air that I’m going to get an office over at Disney and I’m going to buy a business suit and briefcase. I’ll show up at 7 every morning and pretend that I have a job. She believes me! I’m so this close to buying that business suit. It’s my secret weird fantasy in life – that I’ll own a business suit and sensible shoes.
You sang the National Anthem 8 times for the New England Patriots home games. Are you a big sports fan? What was the biggest crowd you sang to/with?
I love football but baseball is my thing. I want to make love to the Red Sox! I can’t wait until opening day. My heart beats faster just thinking about it. This past season I blew it for the Patriots on the last game of the season. My record now is sadly 8 and 1. Every one knew that I had this 8-0 record. But I already knew that the Patriots were going down and weren’t going to win that game. The HotStoveCoolMusic.org benefit show that we do with the Red Sox every year was the night before. I ended up with such a hangover! I tweeted, “This hangover is not very patriotic”. The Boston Globe newspaper picked it up and used my tweets to blame me for the Patriots losing because I had a hangover. It’s hilarious but the thing that I thought was weird was that I think it’s very clear to anyone who follows my tweets or abundant Facebook updates that I make a lot of shit up.
What do you to unwind?
Cook. That’s my thing. Every night at 5:30 I’m in the kitchen. That’s definitely my hobby. That’s my Valium!
Do you have any regrets?
I haven’t learned anything in this life by things going well or executing things perfectly. I’ve learned everything I knew from fucking things up, sometimes badly.
What’s your proudest mommy moment?
I look at my daughter and it hurts me sometimes because she’s so beautiful inside and out. I’m sure there is something specific that I can think of but it’s mostly them and looking at them and say, “Wow! I grew you inside me”. It’s an overall sense of pride rather than one specific moment.
Anything else you would like to share?
I have a new band Palmdale with my friend Linus Of Hollywood. You can find us on Myspace. Palmdale just signed an EP deal with Oglio Records. The EP is coming out the last week of March. Come on down to the listening party scheduled for March 29 at Molly Malone’s 6-8pm. It’s free! or Click here and you can stream the whole EP AND download a song for free!
Check out Kay’s blog where she writes about her feelings on health care, her own health scares, music projects and whatever else that is on this talented rocker’s mind! http://kayhanley.com
Follow Kay’s tweets: http://twitter.com/kayhanley