Frances Quinlan is outside a cabin near Knoxville, Tennessee. The house belongs to a friend’s parents and a hen is pecking at her feet. Later in the day, and a hundred miles or so down the road, her band, Hop Along, will open for The War on Drugs in Chattanooga. For now, though, she’s talking about death.
“I like albums that feel real,” she says. “Writing about death I find really difficult. There’s this idea of having respect for the dead. But life is grimy. It gets ugly.”
At the heart of ‘Painted Shut’, the Philadelphia band’s intense, beautiful second record, are the stories of Buddy Bolden and Jackson C. Frank, two groundbreaking musicians beset by mental health problems. Their deaths - each of them lonely, destitute ends - were characterised by a broad lack of empathy and understanding.
“If you had mental illness in the early 1900s, you were in major trouble,” she reflects. “You still are today. [Bolden] died in an asylum, his sister couldn’t keep up with the payments of the burial so they basically kept digging him up and burying people on top of him, to the point that they don’t know where he’s buried.
“I felt so many complicated feelings after writing that. I didn’t want to be disrespectful. He was an immense talent. But when you talk about mental illness, it’s not pretty and there’s no glamour in it. I don’t know that we know quite how to admire without attaching mythology to it. There’s a lot that we don’t like to talk about concerning our heroes.”
“Writing about death I find really difficult.”
— Frances Quinlan
Frank, a singer-songwriter from Buffalo who made one influential record with Paul Simon in 1965, was regarded as a leading light in a folk scene that resembled a blanket of stars. He learned to play guitar while recuperating in hospital as a child. A fire at his school had killed a number of his classmates. The tragedy never left him. He died in 1999, having lived with depression for most of his life. He was forgotten by the world at large.
“I’m just telling these stories,” Quinlan continues. “I’m not forming any solutions, but there should be a discussion about it. The whole ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ thing just isn’t going to work, you know? People might not agree with what I have to say about these individuals. I didn’t want my opinion to get through as much as an interpretation of what happened. I’m 29 and from the suburbs, what do I know?”
A bit, actually. Quinlan has a deft hand with artefacts from the lives of others. She writes with grace and sensitivity and is analytical but not judgmental. Her voice, meanwhile, is the sort that reaches into your chest and takes hold.
Her gaze has always pointed inward as much as outward, too. As with ‘Get Disowned’, Hop Along’s sprawling, brilliant debut, ‘Painted Shut’ is a morass of personal writing as much as observational. ‘Powerful Man’, the second song to emerge from it, shone an unflinching light on a moment from Quinlan’s past. Aged 18, she walked away after seeing a father beating his son outside a school.
“I witnessed a frightening part of myself that day,” she wrote at the time of its release. “In a time of crisis I was not there for a child, I froze up.” The song, though, is direct and unfailingly melodic. It’s the most straightforward pop tune Hop Along have ever put their name to but, amid the hooks, Quinlan’s words bite down.
“It’s troubling that it’s catchy, right? They’re forced to live with it,” she says. “When we started working on that song, I thought of it as being heavy. It was slow and drawn out. Something just wasn’t coming off sincerely with that. Sometimes, if you assume people aren’t going to get something, you ruin it by overstating. I like to write assuming that people will understand.”
“There’s a lot that we don’t like to talk about concerning our heroes.”
— Frances Quinlan
‘Powerful Man’’s bare-bones arrangement is emblematic of changes across the board. Album two is a different beast to ‘Get Disowned’. That record could be pulled into a thousand constituent parts, each arranged methodically. Hop Along’s approach was revised to suit a fresh set of obstacles. During the writing process, they were in a position many bands inhabit the second time around: time was finite, expectations were raised and motivation had to come from somewhere new if they were to avoid a retread.
“As you get older, sometimes it gets harder,” Quinlan says. “Your challenges get greater because, hopefully, you’re getting better. Complacency shouldn’t be the answer. We went pretty far from what’s comfortable for us to strip songs to a more straightforward sound.”
For Quinlan, everything begins with pen and paper. The words come first. It’s here that the band - her drummer brother, Mark, bassist Tyler Long and guitarist Joe Reinhart - enter. If it’s possible to tie yourself in knots with a Hop Along lyric sheet, then it’s just as easy to do it while following their competing guitar lines and idiosyncratic time signatures. Her bandmates find the things that Quinlan misses, with their imaginative writing complementing her narrative drive. Beneath the surface, ‘Horseshoe Crabs’ and ‘The Knock’, the album’s first song, bristle with complex, yet unshowy melodies.
“The lyrics are with me from the beginning,” she says. “I’m not really much of a musician. If I’m playing guitar, it’s because I’m writing something. That’s just the way my mind seems to go. The lyrics changed a lot over time. In the past I’ve been very precious with lyrics, but with this record I was more willing to edit and to start over. Sometimes the lyrics are in battle with the music if you’re not putting them totally in service to it. I’m not as interested in serving the melody sometimes as I am in getting a point across.”
Certain bands become obsessions. Hop Along have the raw materials to take over a segment of your heart and refuse to let go. Bolden and Frank are the ghosts at the edge of the frame, along with a boy from Quinlan’s youth. ‘Painted Shut’ is visceral, intelligent and, at times, devastating.
Taken from the May issue of DIY, out now. Hop Along’s new album ‘Painted Shut’ will be released on 4th May via Saddle Creek.