It happens the moment you listen to any tune by Hop Along: getting bowled over by “that voice.”
Frances Quinlan’s vocals are a unique and otherworldly instrument—part rasp, part sweetness, a chameleonic tool that can mutate seamlessly from croon to howl.
“That voice” is the perfect vehicle for breathing life into the flawed and tormented characters in Quinlan’s song-stories, most recently revealed on Painted Shut, the acclaimed record Hop Along released in May.
Although critics laud her vocal skills, the polite and unassuming Quinlan insisted during a recent phone chat that she isn’t enamored with her voice. I caught up with the singer/songwriter just after the Thanksgiving holiday, as Hop Along prepared for a December gig in New York City. We chatted about her songwriting process, painting houses, and how Hop Along has evolved over the years.
You were only a senior in high school when you first formed Hop Along. At what age did you first begin performing?
I wanted to sing ever since I was really young. When I was seven, I was in this after-school drama program, and I sang “What’s Love Got To Do With It” by Tina Turner—that was the first time I ever performed onstage. I remember my mom took the tail off of my Halloween cat suit and I wore that onstage. After that, I took some singing lessons and wrote a couple of songs on piano that I’m sure were not good. (Laughs)
I have an older brother Andrew who gave me lots of tapes of female artists and I got really into the idea that I could do the same thing as them. He gave me music by Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco, Patty Griffin, Lauryn Hill. We used to write together, and had a project for a few years. He took me to my first open mic, and took me to buy my first guitar when I was 16. It was purple. Then I had to go away to school and that’s when I started playing on my own, and I learned how to record myself during freshman year. I felt comfortable writing and singing my own songs right away.
Hop Along began as a solo act, but eventually evolved into a full-band unit. How does having a full band change the way you perform and present your songwriting?
Well, it’s a lot louder now. (Laughs) When I was by myself I was more like a freak-folk type of project, and I was also only 19. I used to go on tour solo and see bands play and I would envy them because I thought that a band inherently carries more energy than a person does solo. I suppose you could argue that point, but when I was playing by myself it was just out of necessity. I wanted to play and I just couldn’t seem to get a band together. I wanted to write and I didn’t want to wait for anybody.
The band just worked out organically, I guess. I really wanted to hear how things would sound with drums and electric guitars. It was kind of awkward at first because there were songs that were written on my acoustic and maybe I hadn’t really considered how they would sound with a full band. So there were a few songs that were a little confused when we first started playing together. It took us a few years to figure out our own language. But I’m really glad that we have. It made it all the more interesting when it finally came together.
It’s taken a long time for me to figure out how I wanted to play and sing with a band. I still feel I don’t have it figured it out yet, but it finally feels natural. I think most artists are like that. Once you feel like you have it all summed up, there would be much less to say.
Artists typically make less interesting music once they think they have it all figured out.
Yeah. Maybe the reason people make something new each time is because they haven’t yet said it the way they meant to.
What are your plans regarding a follow-up for Painted Shut?
We’re not there yet. We’re taking some time in 2016 to sit down and write together.
So much of the attention paid to your band is centered around your voice. Would you prefer that people acknowledged the ensemble more?
What the media says compared to how people react when they see us live are two very different things. When people come see us live, they’re absolutely reacting to the entire band. On a performance level, I’m not the type of person who moves around a lot. Mark [Quinlan, drummer] and Joe [Reinhart, guitarist] are extremely emotive performers. I’ll look up and see people just staring at them.
Lyrically, your songs touch on some dark themes, like poverty, abuse and mental illness, but musically, your songs are not the least bit brooding.
A few songs on the latest record started out [less upbeat] and came out in a very different form. Especially the song “Powerful Man,” that was actually a very brooding song originally. It was very slow and chugging, but we didn’t feel right playing it that way. My style hasn’t been all that dark, melody-wise. When I write, I’m just sitting there waiting for something to sound good.
Do you consider yourself a perfectionist when writing songs?
Yeah, absolutely. I would say that I definitely tend to hone in on a lot of particulars in songs, especially when it comes time to lay down vocals. I’ve had to change lyrics just because of my voice; I don’t feel like it’s that versatile. I’ll get really attached to a phrase in a song and I really like what it conveys, but then I’ll go to sing it, and it’ll just sound lousy with me singing it the way it’s written, and so I’ve had to go back and adjust things.
I think most voices have limits. I read an interview with Kate Bush where she said she still feels so limited in her voice. And I really could relate to that. I’m constantly aware of my limitations as a writer, and maybe as a vocalist too, just so there’s more room to grow.
I understand that you spent time as a house painter.
Yeah, that was the first job I ever had when I was about 14 or 15. I would spend my summers painting houses, both inside and outside. I’ve done it on and off over the past decade, but I haven’t done it in about a year. I consider myself a decent painter.
I’ll keep that in mind if I ever need painting done. For now, though, this music thing seems to be treating you well. Painted Shut has received an incredible amount of critical acclaim, with many people calling it the best record of the year.
It’s great, and very kind of people to say. It’s wonderful to see that. It’s something we have no control over. I think we should just enjoy it while it’s here and continue to write good music.
Hop Along will perform at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City on Saturday, Dec. 12. For more information, go to facebook.com/hopalongtheband and hopalong.bandcamp.com.