Kelly Hoppenjans to play Greensboro
Nashville-based singer and guitarist tackles 21st-century situations
Kelly Hoppenjans may have written the quiet anti-mansplaining anthem of the era. Let me explain it to you. Just kidding. Well, actually, “The Hmm Song,” from her 2015 debut EP Simple Thing, is about patiently summoning a reserve of endurance and feigned interest while some self-regarding windbag steamrolls the conversation and belligerently insists on their point of view above all others. It’s set to a light, jazzy ukulele strum and has the feel of something that Fats Waller or Hoagy Carmichael might have cooked up, had they experienced the early 21st century. In the song, the singer/narrator just hums along with a playful wordless tune in response as the offending egoist obliviously cripples conversation.
Hoppenjans is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter who is touring the region this month. She’ll play a show in Greensboro on Saturday, Aug. 17. It will be put on through Sofar Sounds, a company that helps coordinate small semi-secret concerts in intimate settings, at people’s houses, in retail spaces, and at other non-standard spots. It’s one of several companies that helps to connect artists and fans in places outside of sometimes-noisy clubs and bars, creating a more hushed and focused listening-room atmosphere for concerts in unconventional venues.
It makes perfect sense that Hoppenjans, 30, would seek out these subdued shows that reward focus and attention. In their way Hoppenjans’ songs are often about the ways that we pay attention to each other and ourselves, listening to the voices in our heads — or ignoring them, for better and for worse. Or about how we get hung up on certain details. Her song “Counting 1-2-3,” also off of the Simple Thing EP, is about how we sometimes fail to act on the lessons that we’ve learned, and also about how hard we are on ourselves for not being able to change the direction of our lives on a dime.
I spoke with Hoppenjans last week by phone as she drove through Georgia on her way to her next gig. By day, Hoppenjans is a voice teacher at Belmont University, teaching students who are essentially studying in the commercial music program there. As a voice student, as a singer, and now as a voice teacher, Hoppenjans has spent a fair amount of time focusing on the importance of enunciation and diction, to ensure that the verbal punch of a sung gets conveyed.
At these non-conventional Sofar Sounds shows, and on other small out-of-town tours, Hoppenjans generally plays solo. She likes the stripped-down way of presenting her songs, which generally originate as vehicles for just voice and guitar anyway. She likes that people can hear and understand what she’s singing.
“I’m really proud of my lyrics,” Hoppenjans said.
Hoppenjans is preparing to release a new record in October. The first single, “Growing My Hair,” was released earlier this summer. It pokes playful fun at the seemingly endless, and potentially pointless, merry-go-round of grooming routines, trimming one’s hair so that one’s hair can grow back nicely, washing make-up off of one’s face to put more make-up on, etc. “I keep growing my hair just to cut it all off again,” she sings. The song touches on the expectations put on women to present themselves in a certain way out in public, but also on how those imposed ideas can complicate one’s sense of what one wants. She seems to be saying that making your mind up is tricky when an entire culture is based on weighing in on your decisions.
“I like to empower people with my music, particularly women who might need help with that,” Hoppenjans said.
The forthcoming record, OK, I Feel Better Now, showcases a slightly more grunge side of Hoppenjans. “Growing My Hair,” with its growls and howls, would be at home on a PJ Harvey record. Hoppenjans worked with fellow Nashville-based artist Brandy Zdan, who produced the record.
Nashville is obviously known as a place filled with talented musicians and singers. Hoppenjans, who grew up in Ohio and lived in New York City before heading to Music City, finds that atmosphere to be conducive to working on her craft.
“It’s a great music town,” she said. “What’s really special about it, I think, is that it’s a town where songwriting is a big deal, no matter what type of music you do.”
One of Hoppenjans’ most successful recordings, in terms of streaming numbers on platforms such as Spotify, is a decidedly non-Nashville creation, a cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”
Hoppenjans took the metal song and focused in on the creepy nature of the lyrics, giving it a sort of spooky horror-movie treatment, with spare, plinky piano in place of the monumental guitar riffs.
Hoppenjans has a longstanding and deep connection to the guitar. It was the instrument that got her into songwriting and singing. And it was the guitar that got her thinking about gender and rock music, after seeing a guitar magazine with one of those mega lists of the all-time greatest guitarists that only included two women. Hoppenjans has questioned the ways that male performance styles and modes on guitar are celebrated and prized while something like a female aesthetic on the instrument isn’t necessarily championed (by the often male writers who make those lists). She got her first guitar when she was 10.
“I thought girls who played guitar are cool,” she said. “Genuinely, that’s why I wanted it.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Find out more about Kelly Hoppenjans’ Greensboro show on Aug. 17 by visiting kellyhoppenjans.com.