At 29, Frances Quinlan says she is coming to terms with her flaws.
“I’m really just beginning to realize how much of an idiot I was in the first half of my twenties,” says the singer and songwriter of Hop Along. “I cried when I turned twenty. I hope I never have that mindset again. At the time I thought I would be signed and touring, and I had none of those things, so I just sat at the kitchen table and wept. I’m excited to get out of my twenties. I’ve been telling people I’m thirty already.”
Quinlan and the band’s other members are in a van “somewhere in Arizona, about seven hours from Los Angeles,” where they kicked off a tour with Dr. Dog last week. In more than one sense, Hop Along is well on its way. Released last year, the Philadelphia band’s second album, Painted Shut, has landed on tons of critics' lists, lauded for its sharp storytelling and shuddering sonic power — guitar-driven music that seems to recall and mix up hallmark eras of rock: the cut-loose energy of punk, the angular noodling of math rock, the fuzzed-out, chiming melodies of emo.
Though it’s Quinlan who brings initial ideas to the group, she insists that “there’s nobody telling everybody what to do.” The bandmembers’ individual tastes range widely, she says, and all come to bear on finished songs. “I get sad when we get compared to the same thing over and over again,” she continues. “I want to stay engaged. I’m still thinking about the things that I could do differently with my voice.”
Which brings us to Quinlan’s spellbinding voice, the engine of Hop Along’s sound. Simultaneously as ragged, precise and ecstatic as the sensation of a stick-and-poke tattoo, Quinlan’s versatile vocals color her songs’ narratives with visceral emotion and unexpected turns.
When describing her performance, “people use the word ‘urgency’ a lot,” she says. “I appreciate urgency, but that’s not really the first thing I’m going for. Urgency means ‘What’s the quickest way I can get this across?’ I’d like to think of it more as ‘What’s the best way to get this across?’”
Although her current approach is based on intuition, Quinlan puts careful thought into her delivery. “Now I’m thinking there’s something I could do that would serve the melody more, if that makes sense. There’s so many things that I’m predisposed to doing in an emotive sense.
It’s so hard to sing quietly and emotively. There’s someone like Nick Drake and the quality and texture of that voice — I don’t know if I have that.”
It seems that Quinlan, who went to art school in Maryland and says she’d “probably be painting houses” if she wasn’t a musician, brings a fine artist’s suffering sensibility to her songwriting.
“It takes me forever to write,” she says. “Maybe I’ll have part of a pseudo-poem I wrote, but the phrase has to come off being sung. These days I probably have a riff first, then I’ve got to come up with a phrase and figure out if that phrase is worth expounding. It’s very boring. I have to be by myself for a long time to come up with something.”
The songs on Painted Shut tell memorable, off-kilter stories, including “Waitress,” wherein the title character deals with a vindictive customer who may have reason to be disgusted, and “Powerful Man,” in which the narrator observes a boy hit by his father.
“I want to be excited about what I’m saying,” Quinlan says on building songs around words. “I make sure they fit into some kind of melody, but in the beginning I’m usually squeezing as much as I can into a song in terms of a narrative. The hard part comes when I have to get rid of stuff and make the words fit the song better. That part is a big challenge for me.”
Fitting story and song together may contribute to Quinlan’s occasionally odd vocal phrasing, in which she changes tones or pauses mid-lyric. “Stopping for a second and letting there be a gap and [letting] something sink in...I think it takes a certain amount of trust — I have to build that with a song, trusting it. Saying, ‘That’s enough there.’ That’s a hard thing to admit: ‘Oh, this line I’ve been working on for months [is] not doing anything for this song.’”
Quinlan takes the same sharp eye she uses for her observant, probing lyrics and applies it to herself. She doesn’t seem to take the easy route, whether it’s songwriting or examining her complicity in ongoing iniquities. When asked whether she experiences sexism in the music industry, she replies, laughing, “Sure! But that happens when I just leave my house. It’s not isolated to music, in any sense, but in any business that’s predominantly male, there will be a guy exploiting his power, particularly toward people who he thinks are weaker than him. There are plenty of showbizzy scumbags out there.”
Does she feel that her role as frontwoman lends her some protection or makes her more vulnerable?
“I just feel kind of lonely,” she says. “Being the only woman in a band...my bandmates have total empathy for me, but they can’t know my experience. Sometimes I just wish there were more women in my life in the business. Sometimes you just need a level of understanding: ‘I know ’cause I’m there with you.’”
What would she tell her bandmates to help them be better allies?
“I think we’re all learning together,” she says. “Yeah, I’ve been hit on at the merch table. I don’t enjoy that so much. But I’ve only begun to realize my own sexism. The battle of privilege never goes away.”
Hop Along plays the Larimer Lounge on Thursday, February 11, with Strawberry Runners and Montoneros.
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Katie Moulton is a former Westword music editor. She's written about culture for alt-weeklies since 2009 and has also worked as a venue manager, radio DJ/producer and festival organizer. Her go-to karaoke jams are "Flagpole Sitta," by Harvey Danger, or "Ride Wit Me," by Nelly, which tells you a lot.