“When you feel like someone has seen you and then rejected you, what could be more heartbreaking than that?” Frances Quinlan wants to know. The musician and bandleader of indie rock revivalists Hop Along is talking through the band’s deeply personal nine-track Bark Your Head Off, Dog, an album that might well be their most delicate, revealing and direct work to date.
It’s a cold, rainy night at Headroom, her bandmates’ studio, and Quinlan has just finished up recording back-up vocals for Thin Lips. She’s explaining the feeling of being exposed after queried on the vulnerable lyric in ‘How Simple’: “how simple my heart can be, frightens me.” She mulls it over for a second. “I want to connect with people and I still feel that I want to be understood, but there is a humiliating aspect to that.”
Quinlan describes feeling small and summed-up; each question triggers a complex thought-cycle unravelling within her. There’s a certain curiosity and warmth to Quinlan that I’m yet to see in an artist before her. While to one ear her style of singing might sound derailed, to another it breaks in all the right moments. Moving from raspy shrieks to buttery croons, her voice is an arrow meeting its target with near-perfect expressive accuracy.
“Every time I’m a part of making a record, the biggest challenge for me is the permanence of the piece,” she explains. “Being at peace with my performance and feeling that it is a good enough representation is always a huge struggle.”
She’s spent the past two years patiently tidying her thoughts in order to build Bark Your Head Off, Dog. This dedication, particularly when combined with the band’s apt musical and technical skill, is what sets Hop Along apart from other folk-rock and indie bands. “They were so eloquent at interpreting what I had to say,” she says of her bandmates.
Influenced by Flannery O’Connor’s satirically dark writing, Quinlan’s lyrics are more akin to short fiction; Bark Your Head Off, Dog ties together imagery of pale banshees, biblical references to fratricide and ever-relatable reflections on heartbreak.
For this record I wanted to be a little more deliberate.
“The lyrics I do all on my own; that’s a very solitary act,” she says. “A lot of the songs writing-wise were collaged together from all sorts of sessions.” Indeed, the band’s poppiest track to date, ‘How Simple’, was originally written for a coming of age film. “I wanted it to be accessible. Some of my writing can be ultra-personal and pretty strange and dark. I just thought, well, you know, singing about a relationship ending; it’s pretty universal.”
Soon, her thoughts take a sharp turn and she explains how the characterisation of women in fiction she read growing up let her down: “I read stories that were mostly written by men and the women characters, I just didn’t relate to them at all.” She picks at their recurring traits: they were indecisive, passionless, designed to serve the male characters she related to more.
“I think I distanced myself to such a degree that I thought I was even above women I knew at a younger age. I mean, I’m really beginning to realise my own sexism over the last decade,” Quinlan explains. “I think a lot of women think that by virtue of their sex that they’re not in any way participating in sexism, but I’ve realised in recent years my…” She breaks to sigh. “I guess my innate hostility and anger towards the fact that I was born a woman.”
Her interpretation of her lyrics are in constant flux: “[‘How Simple’] already means something different to me now than it did when I started writing it two years ago … By the time you’ve made [a song], you’ve changed.
“And people aren’t going to understand you if you don’t explain [yourself] to them,” Quinlan says. “For the longest time, in any record I have made in the past, I have not quite known how to express what I mean, even with my solo work. I had an idea of the feeling I wanted to convey but I just did not have the skills to do that.”
While proud of Hop Along’s second album Painted Shut, she still feels that sense of incommunicability. “The solo version of demos for songs on that record are very strange. I mean, when I go back to them, I totally forgot how they used to sound. For this record I wanted to be a little more deliberate: ‘How should the song sound?’ and ‘what needs to be here?’ I was far more thoughtful.”
Over the past few years, Hop Along (which includes her brother Mark Quinlan), have toured the States relentlessly, allowing Quinlan to grow and write more complex arrangements. “I never consider myself a guitar player. I mean no one’s gonna hit me up to play guitar on their record,” she says. But the growth of her technical skills, she says, “created more space for everyone else to express themselves too by virtue of just my being better.”
Bark Your Head was self-produced by the band and engineered by their guitarist Joe Reinhart and Kyle Pulley at Headroom. “It is rigorous,” she says of their recording process. “Even though we had that extra time there was still so much we wanted to add that we were still, as usual, up all night the very final night of recording just adding whatever we could think of.”
They left room to include strings and a wider breadth of instrumentation, deciding not to worry about how they would present the record to a live audience. As a result, a significant difference between Painted Shut and Bark is that the band’s focus lent more towards mood, rather than specific energies. “We wanted to be subtle enough to let the melody convey what we meant,” she says.
What is it with human beings and a sense of purpose? I mean everybody needs that.
When asked how the two concepts differ, she explains, “Well, I think energy is very immediate. And I think you can hear right away when someone is angry or hysterical or aggressive, and you know, that’s an easy thing to convey with sound: now it’s quiet, now it’s loud! Whereas mood, it just requires more.” Rather than relying on dynamics, the band implemented a wider use of tools and would ask whether a section needed to be “tense” or “snappy.”
Philly is home to a plethora of bands with strong DIY roots – Modern Baseball, The War On Drugs, Cayetana and Sheer Mag are just a few of the bands that have shot out of its various scenes. This year will mark a decade since Quinlan moved to the rainy city with her brother, who’s now married and has a daughter.
Over the years she’s been a dog walker and a dishie, but her longest running career started when she was 14 and began painting houses for her Aunt’s business, which is largely comprised of women painters. “A lot of the jobs I’ve had for money, I’ve not been among the top people there.” She laughs. “But making music and just writing in general, doing these things, these are moments that I actually feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
When asked what drives her to make music, she takes a moment to think. “Generally, it’s the feeling of not having said what I meant to. What is it with human beings and a sense of purpose? I mean everybody needs that.”
Bark Your Head Off, Dog is out this Friday April 6 through Saddle Creek / Remote Control. Header photo by Tonje Thilesen.