Nine Songs: Frances Quinlan
Frances Quinlan has had a busy few weeks. Sure, there’s the small matter of her solo album Likewise, the first music she’s released outside of Hop Along, but before that there’s been press to do, DJ sets to perform and a few tribute concerts to get involved in.
“I did a show with David Bazan for my friend Chris Ward, who’s a really brilliant member of the music community in Philadelphia. He was the promoter at Johnny Brenda’s where I used to work and he’s getting a different job, so it was really nice to be invited to be a part of that.”
The following Saturday, the Philly music community were rallying around two separate losses, most notably a concert put together by Sadie Dupuis to mark the life and work of David Berman. “They absolutely slayed,” Quinlan says of Speedy Ortiz, who served as the house band on the night. Quinlan performed an intense version of “Punks in the Beerlight”, one of Berman’s most affirming rallying cries, and while it was an ostensibly sombre occasion, it took on an even greater significance.
“I got to play with my friend Dom, who was the first person I ever toured with when I was 18 and to see Andrew from Field Mouse, who I’ve toured with and Karl Blau, who I saw play in Baltimore when I was 19. It’s such a rad community of people to get to watch and participate with it was crazy, because the same day a venue known as Everybody Hits, which was a batting cage as well as a DIY venue, was having its last show. So a ton of people went to the batting cages show at two in the afternoon first and then showed up to the Berman show that night. The commitment is really humbling and a very cool thing to witness. It dawned on me how lucky I am to have moved to Philly when I did and to meet all those people when I did.”
The community spirit has been integral to Hop Along’s development, and even though Quinlan is on the verge of releasing a solo album, it’s still very much a part of Likewise. Although two of its nine songs came from the sessions for the band’s most recent album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog and sees her once again working with her bandmate Joe Reinhart, the album marks a breakthrough for Quinlan as a songwriter, musician, and arranger.
It’s a shift that she’s very much aware of. “2020 marks ten years that I’ve been working with Joe, and being able to work with someone in the studio who can so quickly understand where my head is, even if I don’t quite have the words to explain was certainly something I dreamed of for years. Making Bark Your Head Off was the most fun I’ve had on a Hop Along record, because of how good we’ve all gotten at listening to one another and playing to one another’s strengths.”
“Even though I bring the initial songs to the band, we all work on them so much that by the time they’re done they generally change quite a bit. In editing, something might spark but something else might have to go for that to happen. And while that usually is an improvement, I have missed the initial sparks of things. That’s what serving the song is, if there’s something else in the song that’s driving it, you should follow that lead, even if you’ve grown attached to something previous. It’s about what’s best for the song.”
By contrast, with no formal band to work up the songs, most of the material on Likewise had a far shorter gestation period, leaving more arrangements to be tried in the studio on the fly, rather than being worked out long in advance. “A lot of these songs were written a few months before they were recorded. The songs felt ready and we didn’t have the time to really dig in. Perhaps if we had, it would be bigger sounding, but I wanted to come at it another way, and not like I’ve ever done before.”
Compared with the extended process of writing, jamming, editing and arranging that goes into Hop Along’s music, Likewise's arrangements are characteristically intricate, the songs as knotty and complex as any of her work to date. Instruments weave around the distinctive-as-ever vocals while her lyrics, although slightly more plainspoken, still revel in unexpected imagery and compelling storytelling. And it’s arguably the best album you’re going to hear in 2020.
Anyway, all of this is to say that if the process of creating Likewise was less intensive than any of Frances Quinlan’s other work, you’d never be able to tell from hearing it. “It was just about being flexible”, she elaborates, thinking about the increased instrumental palette which sets Likewise apart from her work with Hop Along. “The guitar’s just one vehicle to create and I certainly didn’t want to make a guitar-prominent record. I do not look at myself as a skilled guitarist in any way, I just use it to write.”
“Hop Along is still active and I certainly want to work on songs for the band, but we didn’t have time on our side for this and I wanted to see how that went. I’m really glad to have made this record at the age I am now. Honestly, I don’t think I was really ready to collaborate in this kind of sense before, where I’m the director and needing to properly explain the moods I’m going for. It’s not that easy for some people and it’s certainly not that easy for me. For a long time, I didn’t know how to communicate mood. Language is a really restrictive thing! But it’s fun to play with and knowing we’d be going into a fantastic studio like Headroom, Joe and I both wanted to mess around with all the stuff in there, even if we didn’t really know how to play them. We weren’t worried about how it’ll translate live.”
There’s a pause, where both of us clearly thinking about her imminent Five Day Forecast show at The Lexington, which is due to take place less than a week after our conversation.
“Of course,” She laughs. “I’m dealing with that now.”
“This is something we were listening to in the process of mixing, and certainly beforehand this was a song that I always loved the feel of. When I first heard it I was like “Oh yeah, Belle and Sebastian”, but it’s one of those songs that’s been in the back of my head. I’ve always wanted to make something with that kind of vibe - sunny, but not perfect, if that makes sense? Sunny and kinda raw and relaxed somehow.
“It definitely inspired “Your Reply” a lot, and I sat at the piano for a while. I think piano is one of the more powerful instruments, in that it can create a mood so quickly and I really wanted to use it to aid the song in that way. Though I’m not sure if there’s actually piano in “Hazey Jane II” or if it’s the horns that do that.
“It’s almost corny, but I love the mood this song creates. I get the feeling of nostalgia. There’s been a number of times similarly where Astral Weeks has been in my head, where there’s this mood that I want to emulate that artists like Van Morrison and Nick Drake did so well on their records. Just this feeling of intimacy, but also inviting at the same time, but I’m probably getting a little too abstract!
“I like the idea that an album can be similar to a novel or film and you can follow a person’s work and find connections later. There are a number of artists that bring up names from previous work - maybe The Beatles were doing that and making fun of themselves a little bit with reprising things like “The Fool On The Hill” offhandedly - but I love the possibility that once you establish a song, the lyrics do take on a life and they have their own space.
“There’s a song on a Hop Along 10" from 2009 called “Sally”, about an unfortunate situation; this person with paranoid schizophrenia, and I can’t remember if this was after he had passed away or not, but he passed away in his room. I won’t go too into that story, but a few years later we were working on songs for Get Disowned and I wrote another chapter of that person’s story, which was called “Sally II”, so that really is a sequel to that previous narrative.”
“God, that song is amazing. And the fact that that album is all vocals, and she’s able to take her voice and completely transform it, but it’s not as if it feels like an acapella song. They take the vocals and turn them into synthesisers.
“I would think anyone that likes Björk is probably going to have to make peace with the fact that every record is going to be a huge transformation. It’s similar to a band like Radiohead, where I almost feel like it’s pointless to get upset with a record not sounding like the one before, or you’re going to get used to getting your heart broken. Artists like that are moving at such a pace that I can’t imagine they’re able to take time to worry about how people will interpret it.
“I don’t even know if this is true, but I think at one point Thom Yorke said that for each Radiohead record he’d sit with an instrument he wasn’t familiar with so that he wouldn’t write so automatically. You know, you write for so long, you develop certain habits that become solidified. You become comfortable, maybe, with your instrument. I think Bob Dylan once said he wanted to disorient himself; that idea of putting yourself on unfamiliar ground in order to try new paths.
“Someone once asked Björk about writing such unique material and at one point she just said ‘I’m trying to write the perfect pop song!’ And I thought that was such an incredible answer, and it makes perfect sense! Some of the greatest pop songs take everything that we thought was a rule and completely prove us wrong – how exciting, you know? And this is one of her most exciting songs. It’s so positive. I think it is the perfect pop song, in a way.
“The other great thing is that she’s taken that song live, had an orchestra behind it and interpreted it in more traditional ways live. She doesn’t have rules and I was certainly trying to keep that in mind, just because you feel yourself being identified in some particular way, but there’s always room for experimentation and there’s always room for adventure. And of course with that always comes the possibility of failure, but I think if you leave yourself open to that possibility, other great accidents can happen as well. And that tension is exciting.”
“This song came up through one of the algorithms on a Discover Weekly on Spotify. It’s not a known song and it just struck me - I love his cadence and the way he sang, and I loved how simple it was.
“This was another one I was thinking of while working on “Your Reply”. I finished writing it after we’d gotten back from a Europe tour, a couple months before we went into the studio. Joe and I were in the van coming back to Philly from a show on New Year’s Day, I put that song on and Joe said, ‘This is really interesting, it sounds like your kind of cadence.’ It’s funny, I was kind of moved by the fact that my friend recognised something like that, that I didn’t even know.
“I love the idea that the rhythm is so vocal. I think it makes sense, if you’re really trying to include as much lyrically as you can, you’re going to want it to sit in the beat somehow. And Allen Wachs certainly does that, so I wanted to play into that even more with the lyrics to “Your Reply”.
“I wonder if it reminded me of Stephen Malkmus when I first heard it. I just got into Mirror Traffic and didn’t realise what a fantastic album that is. Stephen Malkmus ripped this song off? I can’t wait to go back and listen to that!”
“The singer of the Delfonics has a beautiful voice, but it’s very, very distinct. I wanted to include the instrumental side of this, because there’s so much of a mood that the instruments provide on their own. It feels cinematic to me, and that’s another thing I’ve always wanted to be able to do - make an album that could be a soundtrack.
“The whole of last year I would put the instrumental side of this on to get into a particular mood. I try to put unexpected moods together when I DJ too. That’s the funny thing about DJing, you can go in thinking that it’s going to be one kind of room, so you bring all these particular records. Then you get there, and people are more tired than you may have expected, or maybe they want to get on their feet more. You have to sort of improvise.
“It’s much more of a collaborative effort than making a record or even performing. The room needs to be a part of it for a performance as well, and of course the artist and the audience feed off each other. To me, DJing is essentially supposed to be the background for someone’s evening, but also I like to trip people up. If there’s people in a bar, and people are hearing Bill Callahan and thinking ‘What’s going on?’- I like that too. It’s not like I’m trying to cater people. I’m just trying to enhance whatever mood is already present. Hopefully.”
“Astral Weeks is one of those records, like In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel or something, that exists completely on its own. It really can’t be mimicked, but it’s encouraging to know that that is possible in musicians and songwriters. Unfortunately, as human beings we rely so much on comparison, but if I ever could make something that has that impact, I’ll do that.
“I think I heard it during the couple of years when I was hearing a lot of absolutely pivotal albums. I’m having difficulty remembering who showed it to me but I think I was in college, or just after college. The friend who showed it to me is going to be pissed when they see this. Maybe it was my friend Dom, or my friends from school.
“And it’s one of those records where people certainly talk about the story of making it. And of course, Van Morrison, probably wisely, has stayed out of the spotlight for much of his life, so people speculate about him being difficult to work with. Apparently that album was a challenge for all the musicians involved and yet it sounds so light and improvised, and I don’t want to say ‘easy’, but natural. Everyone just plays so well together even though it’s like jazz, how could you possibly notate something like that? People are off beat, there’s these random-seeming strings coming in. If it’s built in an exacting way, it’s kind of brilliant in a crazed way that I could never try to emulate.
“I really love that feeling of spontaneity, and yet it’s light, not intense. It doesn’t even matter if you caught that flute that came in for a moment. You don’t know why you’re feeling what you’re feeling - maybe it’s the shuffling drum, maybe it’s the strings. It’s like all the musicians are stepping in and then suddenly stepping out. No one’s soloing. It’s like butterflies are traversing and going in and out of the space.
“For the song “Lean” I really wanted that effect of not really needing to establish any kind of exact structure. Molly Germer - who I believe plays strings and arranges for Alex G as well - she’s absolutely fantastic and she’s really great at interpreting mood, because I cannot speak strings. I don’t know most of the terminology and I can’t imagine arranging in that way, but she was so easy to work with and understood me so quickly. I love the way she put the strings together for that song.
“Again, I think as a writer it’s important to keep things fresh for yourself and not fall into any routine or steady pattern, because you’ll bore yourself and you’ll bore the people you work with. I’m excited to bring these new possibilities to Hop Along as well. I have a new attitude towards the guitar, in a way, and I still love playing the guitar but it’ll be interesting to see how this affects everything down the road creatively.”
“’Show me the way to shake a memory?’ I mean, who isn’t troubled by that on some level? It’s so hard to put the past away in a healthy way, right? To let things go. Who couldn’t relate to that?
“Eid Ma Clack Shaw is a love song, or it’s a love-lost song, but I think that’s part of what makes it a brilliant song - it has a multitude of dimensions. It’s certainly not just a song about love lost, that’s just the backdrop in a way, it’s really about thinking you have this idea within your grasp and then you look at it in the light of day and its nonsense, or impossible to decipher. And he repeats it, so he believes there must be something there in that phrase.
“I think it really is this abstract, and yet vivid, short story. He’s just an incredible writer. You think of a short story and how many words, if you were to count, to even a page, it’s still more than what most songs can do, unless it’s like “Highway 61 Revisited” or something. You’re really limited to what you can explain and I love how Bill Callahan is so able to give you such a strong picture and still keep it brief. I’m thinking of “River Guard”, when he talks about how he loves seeing the prisoners swim.
“And I love that there’s a humour there as well. It’s a challenge with so many songwriters not to take yourself too seriously, and I love that he can be so fearlessly silly. A song like “The Well”, when he’s shouting “Fuck all y’all” or “Too Many Birds”. The fact that he can blend poetry into song writing, and it’s not boring and it’s not too serious. I think that’s so brilliant, how he dances that line and somehow it all works.
“I don’t think the music is just the backdrop to his singing either, it’s all playing into it, especially on “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”. The bass and the drums really hit. It’s very visual, sort of like walking down a darkening street.”
“I was definitely thinking about this song as far as something with a lot of synths, with no discernible organic instruments but still hits on such an emotional level. Or a group like Daft Punk, who can take digital sound and make it so emotive.
“I’ve heard the Jose Gonzales version but it’s so different from the original. I mean, the lyric and melody is the same, but when the original version comes on at a dance party everyone is suddenly animated. That percussion is such a huge part of the emotional drive and major catharsis and everything is unified to get this one feeling out, and that’s why it’s so successful. All the synths are behind her almost-weeping vocal.
“It’s a pop song but it sounds so stressed and vulnerable, even though it’s this powerful, percussive song. It’s artful in the way it’s done and that’s something I was thinking about when we were trying to work out beats and synth parts. I wanted it to aid with the emotion, and not be a garnish or a layer.
“When we started “Now That I’m Back” we laid down this scratch guitar, just to get the beat settled and all the sections established. Then towards the end Joe tracked me playing drums, but we had to track each of them separately because my rhythm is so off. I can play tambourine great! But drums take more skill.
“So all these things were laid down and Joe called me into the control room and said ‘Check this out.’ He took out that initial guitar that was underneath everything and suddenly the song transformed completely. That was really a stunning thing to come across, when you realise that all instruments can be vehicles and you can really step back and think ‘What does this song need?’ It didn’t bother me that the guitar was gone, and that was a different way of looking at what studio work could be as well. So once we had that, I said ‘Let’s approach all the songs this way.’”
“Most of my favourite versions of Beatles songs are covers. Richie Havens’ version of “Here Comes The Sun” is stunning and I think Nina Simone has a few. This one is from a record called Mother Nature’s Son and it’s just Ramsey Lewis covering the Beatles, switching from piano to Rhodes.
“The keyboard is such a powerful instrument and I was listening to so much solo piano over the course of the year that we were making the record. I’m always on the lookout for great solo piano records; Mingus Plays Piano is one, Thelonius Himself, I absolutely adore Bill Evans’ From Left To Right, and one of those radio stations led me to Ramsey Lewis.
“Joe and I were talking about how much of a mood the Rhodes creates. Neither one of us is a pianist, I took piano lessons when I was a child and I regret not sticking with it. Piano is such an incredibly emotive instrument. I don’t know what it is about it, it fills space in a way I don’t know that any other instrument does.
"So that’s another reason why, over the winter, I sat myself down and wrote actual parts to a couple of songs. I wouldn’t call myself a good player, so I had to force myself to know something rudimentary so that I could lay the groundwork of a song. I really had to learn the very simple part on “Your Reply” but I love how it feels on that song and I didn’t know that I could do that! Even though any piano player would hear that and probably laugh, it’s fine.
“When it came to covering “Carry The Zero” by Built to Spill, we knew we didn’t want to do a recorded acoustic version, especially after doing “Now That I’m Back”. Doug Martsch would bury me! There’s no way I’m going to try and come up against chops like that! We knew we wanted to mess with it and turn it into this pseudo-pop song. Joe came up with that shuffling late ‘90s beat and I was just blown away.
“My favourite versions of covers are often major departures from the original, a great song leaves a lot of room. There’s no denying that you can do so much with a great melody - there’s entire instrumental covers of particular albums, like Christopher O’Riley playing Radiohead all on piano, where I can’t even tell you all the instrument parts he played on this song from Kid A, but it’s all notes and there’s so much melody.
“Somebody interpreted one of our songs on piano and I almost started crying. It was magic to me that one of our songs could be played in full on such a sophisticated instrument.”
“Can as a band is such a mood to me. Especially with those early albums, I’m put into a space right away. Everyone in Hop Along is really great at picking up mood, so Mark [Quinlan, Hop Along’s drummer] started playing something for “Rare Thing” and he understood the vibe of the song immediately. I was like ‘Yes, that sounds like Can, fantastic!’
“Creating a mood like that is an amazing thing to be able to do with percussion as well. I mean, there are notes but I couldn’t tell you what they are, I couldn’t do that with the guitar either! But you hear people tuning their drums and I think ‘God, what a science! What an ear you’d have to have to tune a drum.’ And Mark understands mood very well, so the fact that he got that beat right away was perfect. He knew exactly what the song needed.
“We were working the drum part on “Rare Thing” out at one point and Joe and I both said ‘Can you play more like Ringo? Like almost accident-sounding, like a mistake?’ Poor drummers, always being told to play worse! It’s like when great actors who can sing brilliantly have to pretend to sing terribly. It’s a massive challenge to act like you can’t sing when you can. We just wanted this moment that was playful and tumbling and he got it. It’s one of my favourite parts of the record.”