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Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley Talks Disney Music and Motherhood

Hard to believe it was (gulp!) fourteen years ago when Kay Hanley, lead singer of ’90s band Letters to Cleo, had us wondering what the hell she said during the rapid-fire chorus of “Here and Now.” Since then, Hanley has gone from singing for beer-soaked indie-rock fans to serenading an audience of millions atop a Care Bears float in last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.This is a typical day at the office for Hanley, a mom of two who’s lent her voice and songwriting agility to kid and teen flicks like 10 Things I Hate About You, Josie and the Pussycats (she was Josie), Care Bears: Oopsy Does It and Disney shows like My Friends Tigger and Pooh.

Babble caught up with Hanley (whose new digital releases for grown-ups are available for download on her MySpace page) fresh off a stint singing backup for Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana on her “Best of Both Worlds” tour. We got the inside dirt on the kid music biz and the real Hannah Montana. - Vivian Manning-Schaffel

What’s up, Kay? I feel like every time I turn on Playhouse Disney, I hear your voice.

I do quite a bit of voice work for Disney. Michael [Eisenstein, her husband and former guitarist for Letters To Cleo] and I wrote and produced music for the Care Bears: Oopsy Does It movie. I loved writing those songs! “Caring Changes the World” is one of the best songs I’ve written with Michael. My main focus these days is behind the scenes. My business partner Michelle and I have a company called Art Is War Productions. We do artist development, management, and music for TV and film.

Has motherhood changed your outlook on your career?

I’ve learned that you can still do the thing that you love and adapt. You can pay the bills and live a creative life. But my mommy brain and my work brain are completely unrelated.

How was the view from your very own Thanksgiving Day float?

Let me tell you, if you haven’t seen Manhattan from atop a Care Bears Thanksgiving Day float, you haven’t seen Manhattan! American Greetings is relaunching the Care Bears brand, and they asked me to do it last year and I said sure. But I didn’t grasp the enormity of it. They don’t really do much to prepare you, so the next thing I knew, I was on this float. It was so surreal . . . amazing to see Manhattan like that, but it didn’t make any sense. The only reason I can recall any of it is because I blogged about it!

Lyrically, you’ve always put forth a higher level of intellectual discourse. How do you shift your headspace to write for kids?

I love the challenge of writing. To be honest, I’m better with a directive. Show me a script, where you need music here and it has to generate this mood there, and the lyric needs this topic and I’m stoked. My creative mind responds to this kind of direction. It’s harder to write for myself. I think too hard about what’s worth writing about. There’s so much ego involved. When it comes to something like the Care Bears, I have zero ego. I have confidence in my ability to do the task. And if it needs to be fixed, I have no problem doing that either.

Many kid’s songs tend to be pedantic . . . any favorite kid’s musicians that break the mold?

Michael and I have never been into kid’s music, per se. We have the attitude that we were here first, and you kids are going to have to adapt to our tastes. To me, it all begins and ends with Dan Zanes. He makes great music that we all really enjoy listening to together. And, of course, there’s the Beatles. My kids, especially my daughter, loves the Beatles. Through listening to a wide variety of stuff, she’s developed her own awesome taste in music. image1.jpg
My mommy brain and my work brain are completely unrelated.

Okay, so what’s Miley Cyrus really like? She actually seems like a positive role model for kids these days.

She really is! First of all, Miley puts out pop music that’s good. Second of all, this girl walks into a room and she’s so self-assured. She acts her age, and she’s not slutty. I like that she’s not a pushover and she’s modest, but she’s no Pollyanna either. She’s a great person. And, as a mother, I’m thrilled that my daughter has this choice. If it were ten years ago, in the time of Britney Spears and exposed midriffs, I’d be ripping my hair out. That made me mad. The sexualizing of children in general makes me really, really mad.

Do your kids want to be cool musicians like mom and dad, or are they showing signs of leaning toward some polar opposite, like accounting?

If that’s what they wanted to do, they could make music. Sure, it’s an evil business, but what business isn’t evil? Of course if my kids wanted to become famous cardiovascular surgeons or active physicists, I’d prefer that! All I want for my kids is for them to be happy, healthy and exceedingly well adjusted. I want to be like my mother, who was accepting of my choices, for better of worse. She allowed me to fuck up and make weird choices and supported me no matter what. I’m a very lucky person.

Photo by Justine Ungaro

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