Bad Bad Hats frontwoman Kerry Alexander knew she wanted to go big on new album Psychic Reader. A cutsey, folk-pop sound marked the Minneapolis band's 2013 debut EP, It Hurts, but plugging in and amping up was the goal while writing the songs on Reader. "I feel like we had that rock-star sound in us all along," Alexander says.
Alexander and her bandmates Chris Hoge (drums) and Noah Boswell (bass) gather at a coffee shop in Uptown on an early summer evening. The three young musicians, none of whom grew up in Minnesota, formed Bad Bad Hats while enrolled at Macalester College. They decided to stick around after being named runners-up in Vita.mn's Are You Local? contest two years ago.
Alexander's infectious energy comes across in her animated smile and lilting voice as she shares a story about high school jazz history class. Hoge and Boswell let out groans and snickers when she reveals the extent of her jazz knowledge prior to taking the class: Kenny G. Alexander, 24, ended up digging a little deeper for influences.
"I heard Billie Holiday for the first time and began studying what she did with her voice," she explains. "I was inspired by the fact that she built her sound around being an untrained vocalist. I took from that, and I got the confidence to try and sing."
On Psychic Reader, which has already attracted national buzz from Spin, NPR Music, and Stereogum, Alexander pushed her lyric-heavy songwriting in a more melodic direction, something evident on opening track "Midway." She wrote the first verse of the song while cruising down Lake Street during a late-night food run to Taco Taxi. The charging and poppy track eventually bloomed into an endearing, heavy-hearted love song. "So we have tacos to thank," Boswell, 24, smirks.
While Alexander does the majority of the songwriting, she collaborated with Hoge on much of Reader. When Alexander brought "Midway" to Hoge, he identified a glaring need: It was missing a chorus. "There's a bridge, maybe, but you need to have a chorus," Hoge, 25, says. So Alexander put the song's pieces down and Hoge, as if solving a puzzle, rejiggered "Midway" until it made sense. "Usually it just takes Chris pointing things out," Alexander explains. "It was a good thing, because what I ended up writing was infinitely better than what was intended."
Bad Bad Hats also didn't intend to work with producer Brett Bullion (Bon Iver, Poliça) on the new album. At first, the band took the same home-recording approach they did on It Hurts, but results fell short of expectations. Ian Anderson, who's issuing Psychic Reader Friday on his label Afternoon Records, met Bad Bad Hats in 2012 when Alexander asked him to judge a band contest at Macalester. He recognized something special in their sound.
"Bad Bad Hats stepped on stage and ripped through their only three songs in about eight minutes," Anderson remembers. "But I was completely blown away by their raw energy and great songwriting. The band possesses that special something that is so rarely seen these days, and I immediately knew I wanted to contribute to what they were building."
It was Anderson who suggested Bullion step in to help the band energize and beef up their sound.
"Brett is like a mad scientist," Alexander says. "He's got an amazing ear for stuff that the normal person can't hear. We went in knowing we wanted to be louder and make a bolder-sounding album. He wanted to add synths, but we were hesitant. We're an indie-rock band!"
But the trio trusted Bullion's instincts, allowing the producer to add synths and subtle counter melodies, the results of which surprised them. The dreamy keyboard touches on single "Fight Song" — not to be confused with Rachel Platten's recent anthem — disarm the listener before a carefree flurry of love-potion-laced boxing gloves arrives for the guitar-spiked "Fight!/Fight!/Fight!" chorus.
Psychic Reader arrives at an especially thrilling time for female music fans and woman-fronted bands. "It feels like there can be a lot of competition between women in the industry," says Alexander, who grew up idolizing Letters to Cleo and the Josie and the Pussycats movie. "We need to be each other's champions. With so many women like Courtney Barnett and Wolf Alice once again making their mark on the music scene, it feels like the '90s again. It's an exciting time to be a musician."
Bad Bad Hats celebrate Psychic Reader with an album-release show August 14 at Icehouse (11 p.m., $8-$10)