Part 1

Name: Letters to Cleo
Members: Kay Hanley, Greg McKenna, Michael Eisenstein, Stacy Jones, Joe Klompus
Interviewee: Kay Hanley

Nationality: American

Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current event: Letters to Cleo have announced a US fall tour. Catch them live here:

11/4 Soda Bar San Diego, CA
11/5 The Roxy Theatre West Hollywood, CA
11/17 Portland House of Music Portland, ME
11/18  Paradise Rock Club Boston, MA
11/19 Paradise Rock Club Boston, MA

If you enjoyed this interview with Letters to Cleo and would like to stay up to date with the band, visit their official website. They are also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.

Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?

For the last decade my job has been writing songs for animation. I write songs for cartoons all day, every day. And so my current inspiration comes from scripts, and sort of assisting in the process of realizing someone else's creative vision. So whatever story the screenwriter is trying to tell, I am helping them bring that to life with a piece of music. It’s pretty cool, I love that.

For me, it removes my ego from the process, which is probably one of my biggest obstacles in my creativity -  overriding my ego’s impulse to not reveal too much about myself, or being embarrassed about my thoughts, feelings or emotions. When I'm writing for animation, I can become a character, and it makes me kind of fearless. It's just a pure expression of creativity, with my ego completely extricated from the process. So, for me, it's the perfect job.

I'm speaking as a character, I'm not speaking as myself. Being able to see what a character is going through, what they would say, knowing what the character's personality is like, are they funny, are they serious – I can explore all of those things, and speak in a completely different voice. I can say things that I would never say on my own behalf.

For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?

That’s why working in animation has been such a creative boon for me, because nothing is left to chance.

For example, today I have to be at the studio at 10am. I know what scripts I'm working on and I know what the story is. I know the places where the songs need to go. I already have this story in my head. So now all that's left to do is find a melody and a lyric that assists in the goal of furthering the narrative of the story. So for me, this is perfect because I don't have to leave anything to chance.

Whereas in my personal writing as an artist, even if I become inspired to write something, I still have to have the discipline to sit down and do it. As an artist, a lot of times, I can only speak for myself, one of the things that I struggle with is having the discipline to sit down. I don't have this schedule built into my life as a recording artist, or as a songwriter for my own work. So I have to be very intentional about that. It is challenging, because there's a lot of stuff going on.

And sometimes sitting down with a guitar and a notebook seems like a frivolous use of my time, even though it's the best use of my time.

Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?

That's a good question. Early on, 35 years ago when I started writing songs with my band, recording was very expensive. You had to book your studio time in advance, we would all save up our money, I waited tables. I would save up my money to go into the studio, and we would start writing songs.

We'd have a tape recorder in the rehearsal space, and we would work out our songs in the rehearsal space. And then by the time you got to the studio, you had to be sure that whatever it was, what you were recording was something you really wanted to record.

So my training has been to let go of ideas that aren't working. I have a really good internal editing process. If things aren't working, you have to be pretty willing to walk away from ideas. I'm in the service of pursuing ideas that are working.

I always have a notebook and a pen, sitting at the kitchen table, and a guitar nearby. I need these things right next to me. Even the process of getting the guitar from another room is enough of an obstacle to completely disrupt the creative process. Everything has to be within arm's length for me to capture the moment when it happens.

Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?

Not for songwriting, but just for generally keeping myself motivated and energetic and keeping my mind active and acute. I have to have my morning cup of coffee, the one that I'm drinking right now is my new Danny Elfman mug that I got this weekend. My husband was playing with Danny at the Bowl this past weekend.

I can't seek inspiration or set myself up for inspiration. That's not how it works. Kickstarting my creativity usually comes from reading something, even a word on a billboard can make me think, “Oh, that's a great word that would make a great lyric.” Usually, it's more about a lyric or a melody than it is about a story. I rarely sit down and say, “I want to write a song about this.” For the most part, when I'm inspired, it's because I'm writing around a word or a melody idea that has come into my brain.

Seeing Danny Elfman this weekend, and seeing the contents of that man's imagination and how he just is able to get it out across all of these different mediums, whether it's score or song, it's just fucking insane to me. I was so inspired by that, it inspires me to not limit my imagination.

What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?

You always want a killer opening line. You know, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Just like that, the ideal is to have that killer opening line that just hooks and pulls me in, and makes me want to continue telling the story.

Finding the lyric is a process that continues throughout the song, the writing of the song. The melody is almost exclusively what comes first and I plug in a dummy lyric to help me map out the melody and the arrangement. Then I try not to get precious about lyrics at the beginning, because I find that the lyrics come to me over time.

Sometimes that can take, even if I finish the melody and the map of the song, about a day. Sometimes it can take me days to finish a lyric.

Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?

The lyrics are sort of disembodied from the melody a lot of the time. I start with a dummy lyric,  and a lot of times the seed of the song is embedded in that sort of stream of consciousness. I will choose words from that to build a larger idea.

A lot of times I have no idea what I'm even writing about. I've always said that if I want to know what my life is going to look like in six months, or 10 years, I should look at the song that I wrote last week.

What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?

That's such a great question. My OG lyricists were people who I had no fucking idea what they were talking about, like Michael Stipe or Björk. “What are you? What does this even mean?” It's all these words strung together that, I had no idea what it meant, we didn't have Genius at the time.

Like Cocteau Twins and Liz Fraser. I heard that she was making up a fake language. And because I had no way to access her lyrics, I just had to imagine what she was saying. That appealed to me, because as I mentioned before, I was really embarrassed about my thoughts and feelings, and didn’t want to let anybody know what I was really saying.

So I got into the habit of using a lot of subterfuge, a lot of metaphors and non-sequiturs to express myself. I really am so blown away by people who can tell real stories about themselves, like really reveal themselves. The people who write songs that are so just honest and fearless. I admire that so much. I've tried to, especially on this last batch of things that I've written for myself, really dig into difficult places and tell the truth in a very linear, literal way.

I think it definitely gets easier over time. In my 20s and 30s, the impulse to hide was very strong. I still was compelled to do this creative work, going behind the scenes, and really being able to gain my confidence as a writer in animation. This has been my day job for a decade now.

Having a lot of life experience means I have a lot of a lot more confidence, in the stories that I have to tell, and in the desire to share them in a way that I was just absolutely off the table when I was younger. So I think there's a fearlessness that comes with age and experience.

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