Most bands that stage a reunion along with a new record are looking to re-entrench themselves in the marketplace. But not Letters to Cleo, the ’90s alt-rockers who revisit their home turf at the Paradise on Nov. 19 and the Sinclair the next night, capping a five-city tour behind punchy EP Back to Nebraska.
“All of it is really just about getting our kicks,” singer Kay Hanley says. “I don’t see any long-term scenario for this situation. We recorded new music because we had time to do it and organically that’s what happened. We had no plans to play any shows.”
After all, three members of the band—now all in their 40s—live and thrive in LA. Michael Eisenstein toured as a guitarist for Melissa Etheridge and Tonic before settling into production work at his Death Star studio, where Cleo made their new record. Drummer Stacy Jones became Miley Cyrus’ music director after fronting American Hi-Fi, arranging for Hanley to sing backup on Cyrus’ 2008 tour. Hanley writes music for TV shows, including Disney’s Doc McStuffins. Greg McKenna remained in Boston, swapping his guitar for a mechanical engineering career. (Bassist Scott Riebling stuck to producing and his Stoked pizza business and was replaced by Joe Klompus on tour.)
Periodic reunion talks would usually fizzle. Letters to Cleo last played Boston in 2008 and hadn’t released new music in 17 years. But this time was different. “The next thing I know I had some work tapes in my email from Greg,” says Hanley, who convened with Eisenstein and Jones at Death Star to bang out songs from McKenna’s chord progressions. “We sat on the floor with guitars and tacos from a taco truck and just wrote the arrangements and finished the lyrics in the studio that day.”
Honed by band members’ musical maturation through their varied experiences, the resulting five-song EP yields crisp, familiar power-pop that bridges punk and bubblegum, from the bracing “4 Leaf Clover” to the yearning title track about Hanley visiting a friend in Nebraska who had cancer. “After she died, I’d call her cellphone just to hear her outgoing message so I could hear her voice,” Hanley says. “That’s probably the most literal song I’ve ever written.”
In skill and perspective, Hanley’s come a long way since Dorchester, where she grew up across the street from Donnie and Mark Wahlberg. She recalls a more recent chat with Donnie when New Kids on the Block were rehearsing next door to Cyrus’ band. “At one point, he said to me, ‘Can you believe we got out—and we’re doing this!’ There are some things that you can imagine doing to get out, but being in the entertainment business is wild. It seems so frivolous to someone when you come up in a family that’s struggling to make ends meet.”
Even when Letters to Cleo broke out of Boston, signed to a major label and spun “Here & Now” into a national hit, Hanley says, “Being like a famous pop star felt deeply uncomfortable to me, which is probably why I ended up sabotaging quite a few opportunities.” That included her refusing to co-write with major songwriters and resisting attempts to have her “step out in front of the band,” she says.
Now Hanley loves LA, where she gained confidence through her “transformative” first job-for-hire, singing for the lead character in the 2001 movie Josie and the Pussycats, with encouragement from producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
“I always wanted to do the work that I do, but behind the scenes, and not have to sell myself,” she says. “This is like the happiest balance that I can imagine. I get to write songs every day and I’m in the studio every day, but I don’t have to put on lip gloss if I don’t want to.”
Today, Hanley keeps studio hours that let her get home to her two children, co-parented with Eisenstein since their 2010 separation. “Getting together to write songs was harder for me than learning how to raise kids,” she says. “That was the last frontier for us. I’m really grateful that we have a new version of our family.”
Letters to Cleo play the Paradise Rock Club on Nov. 19 and the Sinclair on Nov. 20.