Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley: ‘I work on my recovery every single day of my life’

Kay Hanley
Courtesy of Joshua Pickering

You can take the girl out of Boston, but you can’t take Boston out of the girl, and when Kay Hanley gets tickled, she subconsciously pulls the R’s out of some words and tacks them onto the ends of others.

The Ties That Bind UsAnd the thought that someone from her rock ‘n’ roll past, who knew her back when Letters to Cleo was part of a wave of alternative bands that took over the collective consciousness of popular culture in the early 1990s, might be surprised to learn she’s now clean and sober … well, that’s a good one, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“There’s no one in the world who would be like, ‘Kay got sober? I can’t believe that!’” she said, laughing. “No one who knew me would say that. But even if they did, part of the (sobriety) is helping another alcoholic. That’s what I’m here for, and if there’s a way for me to help, I will. Besides, I just don’t think that the stigma is the same as it used to be, at least in the music industry.

“Alcoholism and addiction are the common colds of our industry. I think that so many of us have chosen to get sober is a great story, and there’s no shame in it.”

No shame at all — because that’s an albatross she learned, through recovery, to put down. The guilt over the things she put her children through … the self-loathing when her ex-husband would find handles of vodka stashed away in a boot in the back of the closet … the anguish of defeat when the part of her that didn’t want to drink anymore always lost to the dark and hungry need of her alcoholism … they’re not pretty parts of her past, but feeling shame for them? She’s done with all that.

“I work on my recovery every single day of my life,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not doing something that’s completely about preserving my recovery — and not just my sobriety, but my recovery, and that’s about a thirst for life: of doing shit that not just makes me happy, but makes other people happy, of being a person who has a fulfilling life in all areas.”

'Gory,' 'Fish' and Go': A brief history

Kay Hanley

Letters to Cleo: Kay Hanley (from left), Stacy Jones, Michael Eisenstein and Greg McKenna. (Not picture: Joe Klompus.)

She also works on music — “for cartoons, all day, every day,” she added.

Now living in California, she composes the music for “Doc McStuffins,” “DC Super Hero Girls” and a number of other animated television shows. She’s also the co-executive director of Songwriters of North America, an advocacy group that “fights for protection of songs and songwriters in the digital music business,” she said.

“Songwriters are uniquely screwed in the streaming economy, just because of the way our antiquated laws are,” she said. “We fight to change laws, we do lots of grassroots advocacy, we lobby for ourselves and we show up in (Washington) D.C. and yell at lawmakers. It’s great fun!”

And, always on the back burner — at least since the members (Hanley; guitarist/keyboardist/backing vocalist Michael Eisenstein, Hanley’s ex-husband; drummer Stacy Jones; guitarist Greg McKenna; and bassist Joe Klompus) started playing regularly again in 2016 — is the band with which she made her bones, Letters to Cleo. In 2016, the band released the EP “Back to Nebraska” and mounted a small tour to see if the water from its 1990s heyday was still warm. It was: All the shows sold out, and everyone had fun. Ever since, Letters to Cleo has returned every November to its hometown of Boston, where a two-night stand at the Paradise Rock Club always get the members a heroes’ welcome.

“We’re hoping to get our shit together enough to get our shit together enough to make a full-length (album) this year for our trip home, but I’m thinking that might be a little unrealistic,” she said. “We’re trying, though. We’re writing as though we’re putting out a full-length album!”

If so, it will be the band’s first studio album of new material since 1997’s “Go!” On the heels of 1993’s “Aurora Gory Alice” and 1995’s “Wholesale Meats and Fish,” Letters to Cleo elbowed its way to the forefront of the 1990s alt-rock scene, which was a patchwork that ranged from the rough flannel of Nirvana’s grunge to the funk-bass freak-out of Primus to the pop-rock of Hanley’s outfit. The band rose to fame on the strength of “Here & Now,” which gained a foothold via the Fox show “Melrose Place” and peaked at No. 10 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Singles chart.

That TV placement was a harbinger of Hanley’s long association with Hollywood. The band itself appeared in the film “10 Things I Hate About You” (and in the season six finale of the NBC show “Parks and Recreation”), and she provided vocals for the 2001 live action film “Josie and the Pussycats.” Now regarded as a cult classic, it’s proven to be more influential than initial box office numbers might have indicated, Hanley said.

“There’s a huge ’90s resurgence at the moment, between fashion and music and movies, so I’ve heard a lot of young bands, female led and not, talk about how Josie was kind of a seminal moment in their evolution into becoming people in rock bands,” she said. “With Letters to Cleo, whatever influence we might have had, I think, is hard to say. I will say that there is this presumption that because a band is female-led, they have to have been influenced by other female-led bands.

“I was not influenced by other women, really, until I became a songwriter, and then other women definitely influenced me — but the women who did in terms of my musicality were, like, Shannon, because I was really into disco!”

Kay Hanley: Straight outta Boston

Kay HanleyTo be fair, Hanley has always been into a lot of genres. Music was part and parcel of growing up in a “very strict Irish-Catholic family” in Boston, where the TV — if it even worked — was rarely on. She spent a lot of time tethered to the radio, where the AM state WBZ broadcast anything and everything, she said.

“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. “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 was 7, maybe, and I saved up my allowance for weeks to buy Barry’s double-live album.”

Life in the Dorchester neighborhood revolved around alcohol, she added — specifically, her father’s. She remembers how, as a girl, the family home was a focal point of conviviality: priests and nuns and working-class friends and neighbors showing up to laugh and sing and have a good time.

“I had a very early association with alcohol and happiness, and it wasn’t until the progression kicked in — as it does — that our whole lives ended up being in the service of not poking the bear of my dad’s alcoholism,” she said.

In 1986, Papa Hanley got sober, and his wife became an acolyte of the family support program Al-Anon. Around the same time, Hanley herself started experimenting. She had too much Catholic guilt to turn into a party girl, but there were some episodes that made it clear that the disease had been passed on from father to daughter.

“I wasn’t an alcoholic because I was still too much of a good girl and didn’t want to break any rules or anything, but I was definitely doing that thing of when I started, I couldn’t stop,” she said. “I had a couple of problems, and back in those days, in the late ’80s, insurance would cover anybody who wanted to go to one of those country club rehabs, so off I went.”

That was in 1987, around the time a wave of young sobriety seemed to sweet through Boston. She stayed that way for four years, graduating from high school sober and even turning 21 without touching alcohol. She even got her start in rock ‘n’ roll sober: When her (distant) cousin, Greg McKenna, started putting together a band, he remembered that Hanley sang at mass with her mother.

“He asked me to sing backup vocals and I said, ‘Fuck yeah!’” she said. “I didn’t even start writing songs until two years into that. Like so many things in my life, I fell ass-backwards into it.”

Rock ‘n’ roll, especially done Boston style, encouraged her to reconsider her sobriety, however. Looking back, she wondered: Was she too young? Did she really have a problem? Had her family simply overreacted? All signs pointed to “yes,” as the Magic 8 Ball says, and so she had a drink. It wasn’t long, she said, before the drink had her.

“I went out, and I stayed out for 20 years,” she said. “And I’m not going to lie: A lot of that was a lot of fun. I had the best, most fun rock ‘n’ roll life, and at first, I didn’t get into a whole lot of trouble. A lot of that was being in a rock band, I could do the shit that I loved to do, like getting into fights and not having consequences like I would if I had worked at the bank.

“People were like, ‘She’s crazy!,’ and sooner or later, you become completely beholden to your own story, and I became the crazy party girl, the life of the party, the bad influence that keeps everybody up all night.”

The downward spiral

Letters to Cleo

Excess was both expected and encouraged at the level Letters to Cleo had reached, however. For the band’s first three albums, it was associated with Giant Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, and tours with such ’90s peers as Sponge, Everclear, Our Lady Peace and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin kept the group on a demanding tour grind that often began in one city, ended in another and became a blur along the way. Booze and drugs became coping mechanisms, Hanley said, although there were warning signs here and there that triggered that familiar internal whisper so many addicts and alcoholics hear long before they ever reach the end of the road: “This isn’t normal.”

“Growing up like a poor girl, and then having all the free booze and food backstage, a lot of (the excess) was because I had never seen that much stuff before, so I wasn’t going to leave it behind! We’d take it to the bus!” she said. “And then there was the time, probably in ’96 or so, when I had a panic attack. We had just put all our stuff on the plane and were headed to a radio show in New Orleans. I was completely hungover and really shaky and was trying to have a little ‘medicine,’ when I had a panic attack.

“They pulled us off the plane and called an ambulance. Later, as the ER doctor was examining me, he paused and looked at me and said, ‘How much do you drink? Because I can feel your liver. It’s enlarged, so you should probably stop.’ The basic message was, ‘Chill out,’ and after that, I really did stop drinking hard alcohol and switched to beer and wine only.”

She still drank daily but justified it as “moderate” drinking. She went through a cocaine period but stopped when she got pregnant (“I didn’t realize it at the time, but that saved my life,” she added), and after she and Eisenstein moved to Los Angeles, where film work became more plentiful and lucrative as Letters to Cleo went on hiatus, she developed an addiction to prescription opioids. That, she said, is when the downhill train began to pick up speed.

“When I became addicted to opiates, I had to take my medicine every morning, or I’d get sick,” she said. “I was a Studio City mom who walked our kids to school in our affluent neighborhood every morning, and I was fucking dopesick!”

She managed to overcome the prescription problem thanks to Subutex, but without a therapeutic component, she simply replaced one habit for another, and her first love — alcohol — stepped in to fill the void.

“I started drinking in the morning, and I started sneaking it,” she said. “I never had any reason to sneak alcohol before — if I wanted to have wine with lunch, I had wine with lunch, because that was what I did, and that’s what was expected of me. But hiding my alcohol consumption? That was completely new. That was a change, that’s when things got dark, pretty fast.”

Kay Hanley reaches the end of the road

Kay Hanley

Courtesy of Joshua Pickering. EDITOR'S NOTE: Pickering, a Boston-area music photographer, recently launch a website "to sell photo prints to benefit hourly workers of clubs in Boston closed by the coronavirus, as well as musicians in the greater Boston area." If you like this photo, peruse others and help out the Boston scene at: https://www.darkroombrightlights.org/

She gets tickled again at the irony: Coming up out of the hardscrabble Boston scene as a teenager, being in a famous rock ‘n’ roll band that rode the ’90s alt-rock wave of stardom … and coming to the end of the road as a “strung-out-on-opiates soccer mom.”

“It was like, the moms of Studio City were the things that took me down!” she said with a laugh. “We would open a bottle and walk to each other’s houses. I got fucked up constantly with those ladies.”

On the home front, it wasn’t nearly so fashionable, and Eisenstein soon didn’t recognize the friend, partner and spouse who shared his bed.

“It got to the point where there were just vodka bottles hidden everywhere, and Michael would find them and ask, ‘Kay! What the fuck is going on?’” she said. “I would have this fight with myself every morning at 7: ‘Kay, you don’t have to have a drink before you walk the kids to school. You don’t have to do this.’ I would fight and fight and fight, and I’d lose the fight, and eventually, I stopped having the conversation.

“Every morning, I had to take a tug off the vodka bottle, and I had to stop scheduling anything after noon, because I didn’t know what kind of condition I would be in. That was what it looked like at the end.”

It all came crashing down one morning when Hanley awoke to find Eisenstein packing her bags. Despite the miasma of fear and anger and resignation and sorrow that was etched into every line of his face, she still couldn’t, for the life of her, remember what had happened the night before.

“I know that I did horrible things that were witnessed by my children,” she said. “The next morning, Michael said, ‘I called your parents last night. I bought you a plane ticket. They’re waiting for you in Massachusetts. You can get on the plane, or you don’t have to get on the plane, but you can’t stay here anymore … because I have to protect myself and the children from you.”

That was in October 2010, and back in Massachusetts where her parents had moved to Cape Cod, Hanley fought for her life. A stay at a drug and alcohol rehab got her started, but a relapse in a sober living facility led to a 48-hour hold in a mental institution. Over the next seven months, she was hospitalized or institutionalized seven times, she said, before finally getting sober in June 2011. Even then, she said, the desperation that led her to that point was born more out of the inability to die.

“There was no point along the way where I was like, ‘I want this. I want to get sober,’” she said. “If I did, it was because, for whatever reason, the family didn’t get the courts involved in things with my children, so there was a glimmer of hope that maybe I could repair things with them. I didn’t think I deserved that, but I think maybe there was a part of me that wanted that.”

Kay Hanley finds a new way to live

Courtesy of Chris Sikich

Despite her initial unwillingness, however, Hanley went into treatment for the last time in Texas in June 2011. Her marriage didn’t survive, and at first, she didn’t think her family would, either.

“My daughter wouldn’t speak to me for a couple of years, and I had to go into anger management just because of not knowing how to be a mother to my son,” she said. “It wasn’t like I got sober and, ‘Yay!’ Shit got fucking worse! If you want to find out why you drink, stop drinking. It was literally one day at a time, one interaction at a time.”

Those first 18 months were the most difficult, she added — not because every waking moment was a white-knuckled exercise in excruciating cravings, but because she felt so broken, so unworthy and so unforgiveable.

“I didn’t think I deserved anything special to happen to me — I didn’t deserve to get my shit back or my friends to want to speak to me,” she said. “I processed that through my experience working with other women, and I was lucky enough to work with other moms. And I identified that what we call willingness is really fear. In the beginning, I was fucking terrified of what would happen if I drank again, and I wasn’t afraid I would die; I was afraid I would have to live through it.”

That place of terror, however, is no place to linger long, and Hanley looked long and hard for a network of women who helped her transform the paralysis of fear into the motivation to act. That, combined with a little bit of grace, led her to take the suggestions handed down by other recovering women, which in turn gave her a new outlook on life itself.

“I think I was able to see for the first time that there were people who were sober who weren’t just working (a program), but who were just fucking happy!” she said. “I was introduced to this woman when I came back to L.A. who just looked like she had this aura, this happiness about her. She looked like she went to bed at night and put her empty head on a pillow and just fell asleep.

“Even though she was a 25-year-old rich girl from Manhattan who was down with the god stuff, and I was a rock ‘n’ roll atheist twice her age, I saw it and said, ‘I fucking want that!’”

That woman, along with all of the others who surrounded Hanley and brought her into their sisterhood and lifted her up as a woman worthy of redemption, helped her survive the dissolution of her marriage, and showed her that “family” has many definitions.

“Michael remains my partner in raising these kids and making music, and his behavior in the days when he could have hurt me as badly as I hurt him but chose not to where some of the moments of real grace in that very tumultuous time of 2010 to 2011,” she said. “He left the door open to what our lives transformed into and where we are now.”

And where is Hanley now? In the place she’s worked so hard to get to, the same place she imagined that Manhattan socialite occupied all those years ago: putting her head on the pillow at night and falling asleep untroubled by words, deeds, actions or thoughts that are polluted by drugs, alcohol and the trauma and pain that accompanies both.

“I have regular life stuff, but there’s not much that torments me,” she said. “I have big girl problems today. 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.”