Open to Interpretation: The Knotty Songs of Hop Along
Frances Quinlan has spent nearly half her life in Hop Along and now, performing songs she wrote in her teens, 20s, and 30s, she raises interesting questions around identity, the self, and the way that music continues to evolve after the artist is done with it.
Bark Your Head Off, Dog
6 April 2018
Francis Quinlan, the songwriter behind Hop Along, was signing autographs in London last fall, after a sold-out show where everybody knew the words when a young man stepped up to the table.
"He asked me to write for his friend, 'You look like a powerful man,'" says Quinlan. The line was from the song of the same name from her 2015 album Painted Shut, and Quinlan was a little taken aback. "I wanted to say, you know that song's about child abuse, right? It was pretty directly based on a trauma."
When we talk, Quinlan is 33 and a couple of years short of having been in Hop Along for half her life, meticulously detailing her thoughts and experiences throughout young adulthood. Her latest album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog has been out for a year by this point, and she's flying to Denver the same night to start a tour. I ask her how she feels about performing highly personal material that's now two to three years old. That's not the half of it, as it turns out. She has songs that are decades old. It starts a conversation about time and memory, the changing nature of the self and the tension between what songs meant when she wrote them and what they come to mean to fans, critics and concertgoers.
"The second you finish a song, the journey has ended for you," she says. "Well, not ended, that's the wrong word, but changed and shifted. And there is this sort of reconciling. Perhaps you feel like you've grown so much since you even wrote that initial thought down. You feel kind of funny ... my brain does tend to jump around a bit. We have one song I wrote when I was 18 that we still play."
How does current-day Quinlan feel about that long ago songwriting self? "I try to go easy on her at this point. That's probably the best," she says, chuckling a little. "It's fairly easy for me to be all right with the 18-year-old version of myself. That person was so lacking in experience. It's perhaps easier to reconcile with that person than with the 30-year-old version of myself. I really think anyone in any line of work ... if you're learning, it's a good sign if there are parts of your former self that you might have trouble forgiving."
Quinlan started Hop Along as a solo project in 2004 when she was still a senior in high school. It was known as Hop Along, Queen Ansleis at first. She recorded one album, Freshman Year, under that name in 2005. The band took its current shape three years later when Quinlan's brother Mark joined as a drummer and Tyler Long took up his job on the bass.
Hop Along's first full-length as a band, Get Disowned, came out in 2012. PopMatters' Matthew Fiander reviewed the reissue of this album in 2016, writing "[A]ll over Get Disowned, the first nascent steps of freedom -- from the past, from family, from relationships, from baggage -- feel like the first swings in a long fight. Of course, sometimes they're just the careless sprint towards anything else, while other times each powerful, blistering moment of these songs, all isolation and freedom boiled up in them, feels just plainly alive."
The break-out Painted Shut came three years later in 2015. Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone called it, "a deep dive into raw emotions and ragged melodies". Bark Your Head Off, Dog followed in 2018. More polished and intricate, the album ranked on a number of year-end best-of lists, including Pitchfork's Best Rock Albums, where Jillian Mapes, wrote, "Frontperson Frances Quinlan, the vocal force of nature that makes Hop Along the crowning jewel of the Philly indie-rock scene, pushes beyond her signature punkish fray to show more range than ever before -- befitting of a work that dashes from dramatic string crescendos to angular synth-rock bops."
Yet even though Hop Along's career as a band now stretches into the middle of its second decade, links and songs and references connect the earliest days to the present. The title of the current record comes from a line in a song Quinlan wrote in 2013 but never got to use until now.
What the Writer Meant
Quinlan's lyrics are knotty and evocative, hopping from one striking image to the next and packing bits of autobiography, imagined events, news items, works of literature and political stances into their headlong rush. Asked if her songs reflect her own life -- or a fictional narrative -- Quinlan is ambivalent.
"A close friend of mine was talking about how fiction is becoming more news-like and the news is becoming more fiction-y, which is a little bit dark, but it's interesting," says Quinlan. One of her favorite authors, Karl Ove Knausgard, blurs the lines between memoir and novel, and she sees that ambiguity as a fruitful line of inquiry. Plus, Quinlan admits, her own life is finally far enough along that she has some interesting experiences to write about. "I think it's just that at my age, I'm getting more experience, or at least more experience that I can actually use," she says. "When I was 18, I didn't have any experience, so I couldn't dip into that well at all. I had to make up most of what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about felt true to me, but I had to fabricate experiences."
Even so, she still reaches into fictional narratives for her songs. "Not Abel", for instance, was partly inspired by Knausgard's book, A Time for Everything, and its fascination with angels. Quinlan also taps into the news of the day for content, though not in the earnest, linear, proselytizing manner of most protest music. A line in "Somewhere a Judge" references a controversy about death penalty drugs ("Notification: eight executions by drug to beat the expiration / A shelf life of reason, is that what this was, oh Arkansas?"), but it comes and goes so fast that you don't have much time to process it.
"I wouldn't call it a throwaway. I agonize over the lines. All of them," Quinlan says when asked about this quick hit of political controversy. But perhaps, she thinks, it reflects the way we process a constant stream of incoming information, moving from one topic to another without really absorbing any of it. "Often, a piece of something really jarring flashes across the screen, and yet it's not major news of the day. It's here and gone. Even though it's incredibly upsetting," she explains. "Just the other morning there was a piece about refugees trapped in these camps without decent food or water and their kids in jeopardy, and then it went immediately into the Mueller Investigation."
Not that no one noticed the reference. Quinlan says that she recently met a lawyer who worked on death penalty cases, who loved the song and the line. "That made me feel really good about the song," she said.
What the Songs Need
Quinlan sings in a distinctive style, alternating bird-like pop precision with raspy swoops and yelps. She seems always to be zooming off the melodic line into the atmosphere, then zig-zagging back to home bass. "I'm still working on it, to be honest," she admits, when asked about how she developed her approach. "But it's funny, for this last record, I actually was trying to work more with the idea of limitation and subtlety. We wanted to hang back."
That was a change from earlier records, more concerned with gusto than precision. "It is so much fun to let loose and let parts be huge crescendos because that's just where your feeling immediately goes. I mean, so much of Hop Along's work in the past has been just this joy of performing, and I love that," says Quinlan. "I love playing live, and I love being able to wild out on stage and just scream. But I wanted to channel restraint a little bit more and see what the songs could do without us all thinking so much about our individual performances. That was a huge aid to us, to approach it in that way."
The song, "Prior Things", for instance, came together shortly after Quinlan and her band discussed this new concept of restraint. "It was like, 'Let's like let the song speak for itself. Let the song carry the mood,'" she says. "But having that thought in mind, having that approach in mind, when I started playing that riff, we immediately sort of knew. Everybody understood. That's what was so rewarding, especially about this album."
Quinlan says that her band cohered on Bark Your Head Off, Dog, as it never had before. "Mark and I have been playing together for 11 years now. Tyler joined the band ten years ago and Joe a few after that. It took us a while. We're four very different people. It's not like we walked in with all the same tastes and approaches to playing," she says. "It's taken us a long time to learn how to speak about our sensibilities. Even me, on my own, it's taken me a long time to speak up for myself and trust in my own instincts and giving everyone room for theirs. I am grateful for what we've worked for, and that's something ... that process became for us really gratifying. It just took us time to learn that language, and that song to me is evidence that that language has been developed."
"Prior Things" is also one of a handful of songs with intricate string arrangements, credited to Sara Larsen, a Philadelphia-area multi-instrumentalist who has worked with Dr. Dog and other bands, and Rachel Icenogle. "The string part for 'Prior Things' was completely her idea, and it was such a service to the song. It's a perfect example of someone who speaks that language of 'What does this song need?'"
Girl groups were another touchstone for Quinlan as she made Bark Your Head Off, Dog. "I liked the idea of having an album with lots of girl group parts -- like the Marvelettes or oh gosh, the Chantelles. There's something gratifying in that, the beautiful shouting in parts, they're singing, but it's so robust and more about this group energy rather than just one person," Quinlan says. To achieve this vocal density, Chrissy Tashjian of Thin Lips came in; she has sung back-up on the last three Hop Along records. "In 'Look of Love', it's just so much fun to sing those parts with her," says Quinlan.
How the Lines Land
Hop Along is on the brink of another tour as we speak, and Quinlan says that she's looking forward to another round of bringing her songs to the fans. On the last tour, in London, audience members knew all the words to even the new songs and shouted them back to her as she performed. Yet she acknowledges that what the songs mean to her and what they mean to listeners isn't always the same thing. "I like when people have their own ideas about what songs mean. It is very gratifying, and I love when people approach me with them," she says. But, she adds, sometimes reconciliation is required. "It is a huge chunk of my identity that goes into these songs. I share so much with words."