Kay Hanley

Kay Hanley plays the Moroccan Lounge on Saturday, Sept. 24.

Kay Hanley is extremely busy. She writes and records music for animated TV shows like “Doc McStuffins” and “Vampirina” and movies. She advocates on behalf of songwriters for fair streaming royalties. She’s an accomplished solo artist and also the lead singer of the alt-rock band Letters to Cleo. She’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of her debut solo album, “Cherry Marmalade,” with a Saturday, Sept. 24, show at the Moroccan Lounge in DTLA. 

Hanley discussed why “Cherry Marmalade” is a defining point in her career. 


What made you want to revisit and reissue “Cherry Marmalade”?


It was uncharacteristically forward thinking of me last year. Something came up — some kind of reminder that “Cherry Marmalade” was going to be turning 20 this year. And I was like, “Oh! Maybe I should do something for that!” I talked to my manager, Creamer, and our friend, Jay Coyle, who does a lot of the merchandising planning for Cleo. We were like, “Well, we have a year. Why don’t we put in an order for vinyl?” Because as you probably have heard, the queues for getting vinyl are very long. So, we put in an order and in the time that it took to have to get my (stuff) together, I reached out to Andy VanDette and got it remastered. (VanDette said) “In order to keep the fidelity of this, I can’t really fit the whole record on two sides of vinyl. Would you consider doing a double album?” And I was like, “OK!” (laughs) The thing just kind of took on a life of its own. And I’m very glad that it did. 


Did revisiting those songs bring back good memories or melancholy ones?


Oh, amazing memories. When I went back to listen to the songs, it was a time capsule of a really special and important time of transition in my life. And I didn’t realize how much I liked those songs. We had just finished the Cleo tour, which was actually pretty dark, and I think we were all kind of seeing the end of the road and Michael, my ex-husband, was getting ready to leave for Maui to go make (Veruca Salt singer) Nina Gordon’s solo record. Two days after he left for this eight-week recording session, I found out I was pregnant! (laughs) I’m without my collaborator, without my band, and all of a sudden, without all of my party friends. I just picked up a guitar and started writing. I remember taking the first batch of songs to Mike Denneen, who had been Cleo’s longtime producer.

He said, “We gotta make a record!” And that’s exactly what we did. I took a little break from writing it to go do “Josie and the Pussycats” (laughs) All this new stuff was happening for me. I got pregnant, had a baby and did this job that I had never done before. It was literally like … I turned a page and the next chapter of my life unfolded. And with “Cherry Marmalade,” I wrote all about that experience on this record. I didn’t realize how … autobiographical it was until I went back to it. Cleo was very collaborative. It was very much like a family making a record. We were just always together. And in making “Cherry Marmalade,” it was not like that. It was very much my record. And me being challenged to do things differently in the studio than I had before was really cool.


You mentioned that it was around time, you started doing “Josie and the Pussycats” as well. Was that your gateway to writing for movies and television? 


That’s exactly what happened. The first batch of songs was for the movie. There was no soundtrack at the time. (Hanley’s daughter) Zöe Abel was 11 months old at the time, so we like came and lived in a hotel and I would meet Babyface at this studio or that studio or at his house, where he had a studio in the backyard. I saw how much control he had over his creative life and his ability to make a living at it. How people valued his work and would pay him for it. So, it was kind of a revelation to see how he lived a purely creative life, but he was also a businessperson. And I had never seen that before. I had nobody modeling that to me. And it changed my life. Now I see how I could make a career out of this. 


You’ve given the next generation not only the roadmap to how they can do this and make a creative life, but you’re fighting for their rights with the Songwriters of North America (SONA).


Damn right.


A lot of young fans are discovering your music through your animated TV work, “Parks and Rec” or movies like “10 Things I Hate About You.” How does it feel to have this younger fan base look up to you? 


It feels great. When Cleo got back together in 2017 and went out on the road, we were stunned by the response of people who became fans of ours after the band broke up through movie soundtracks and stuff like that. It was enormously gratifying because these were people who just assumed that they would never see us play and we had never met them before. It gave us so much. When you play for an audience, you’re really feeding off of them. And for us to play in front of an audience that was so psyched, we weren’t expecting that. To hear that people were afraid about letting their kids watch TV and then discover a show like “Doc McStuffins,” which has such incredible empowering themes for girls — especially girls of color — and that they love the songs, that’s awesome. That’s why I do it. 


Revisiting the songs from “Cherry Marmalade,” did you have to relearn any of them?


All of them! (laughs) I’ve forgotten all of them. I’ve started playing them on Instagram and not practicing them in advance. Just going on Instagram and learning them cold and playing them very badly. It’s basically showing the process of what it’s like to try and relearn your own songs.


Has that process sparked anything new? Where you start playing something and say, “That’s not right, but it sounds good and I’ll save it for later”?


I haven’t, but that’s a really good question because I could see that happening. I did start writing a new record last year. I’m not going to play any of the new material on this tour, but I do have a bunch of new stuff in the pipeline.


“Kindergarten the Musical” was recently announced. How exciting is it that you get to produce your own show? 


My God, what have I gotten myself into? (laughs) Michelle Lewis, Dan Petty and I have been writing and production partners working in animation for the last decade. So, this is what I do. I write music for cartoons all day, every day. I’m very familiar with it. Right before the pandemic, we sold a show to Disney called “Kindergarten the Musical,” and it got greenlit in the spring. Usually when we’re writing for a show or a series, all the work is done. The script is written, the characters have been created, the world has been built, and we get the script and we write to the script. Now it’s not like that! We are the writers. We are the executive producers. We’re involved in literally every aspect of the series, which is the coolest thing ever, but it’s also an extraordinary amount of work and responsibility. I really have to keep my head on straight. I have to make sure that I get enough sleep. I need to make sure that I’m exercising. I need to make sure that my mental health and my emotional health is on track. Because I don’t want to miss any of this. I don’t want to feel burdened by it or stressed out. I just want to show up for work and bring my best self and really enjoy this unbelievable opportunity that I’ve been given.


Will there be any surprises or guest appearances this Saturday? 


I don’t have any bandwidth to plan any surprises. The whole thing is going to be a surprise. (laughs)


So you’re going to go the Jack White route and not have a set list? 


No way! I have to have a plan, you know? The band is flying out here and we’re going to rehearse for a couple of days for the LA show. These are people who I’ve been playing with off and on for 30-some-odd years, so as soon as we get in the room and start playing, I’ll know what feels right. 


Kay Hanley w/Maryleigh Roohan

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24

WHERE: Moroccan Lounge, 901 E. First Street, LA

COST: Tickets start at $25

INFO: themoroccan.com