Frances Quinlan takes cues from Norwegian authors, Fleetwood Mac, birdfeeders in songs that embrace 'the beauty and freedom of ambiguity'
In the last few years, Hop Along singer Frances Quinlan got heavy into Norwegian literature, particularly Karl Ove Knausgard's A Time for Everything, which borrows its title from a passage in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
“[Knausgard] wrote about the Bible from a familial, domestic standpoint. He talks about Cain and Abel as day-to-day siblings,” said Quinlan, who took inspiration from the approach on “Not Abel,” one of nine tracks on Philadelphia quartet Hop Along's newest record, Bark Your Head Off, Dog.
“Not one word of all the time they spent growing up brothers,” Quinlan sings, yearning for a more intimate look at a sibling relationship known only for its murderous culmination: “What if the details there were suddenly shared? Tender moments siblings keep secret.”
Quinlan also discovered Tarjei Vesaas' 1968 novel The Boat in the Evening. “It's a monumentally quiet book — very visual and big and stunning, but quiet. That struck me,” she said. “I love authors that give you small moments but slap you in the face with them.”
The same could be said of Quinlan, whose literary lyrics revel in ear-catching specificity yet still somehow retain a sense of open-endedness that keeps the songs mysterious and absorbing listen after listen.
“The way I write is, I draw pieces from the past — fragments from my journal, or a song I was working on that didn't pan out. Some ideas sit for years and then they join songs that otherwise have very new lyrical parts,” she said. “There are songs where I'm speaking to multiple people. I have a hard time sticking to one subject. I guess that's the beauty and freedom of ambiguity. You're more free to move throughout time and reality.”
“Prior Things,” for example, seems to jump around from place to place, landing at one point on a domestic scene. “I watch the birdfeeder out back in my parents' yard/The weight of that blue jay/The bully steals it all,” she sings.
“I remember when I was really young, my mom would take me to these oil painting classes, and one of the first things I painted was a cat, and then I painted a blue jay in the trees. For a while the blue jay was my favorite bird. I thought they were so cool,” Quinlan said. “Then someone told me, ‘You know they're assholes, right?' And then by observation, I see them, and there he is, pushing another bird away. My parents do have a bunch of birdfeeders, and we always tend to notice the blue jays are jerks! And they've got that punk-ass mohawk.”
On paper, Quinlan's words read like poetry but rarely seem like they'd form naturally melodic phrases. In the context of Hop Along, though, the songs become undeniably hummable even at their most idiosyncratic thanks to Quinlan's painstaking experimentation with permutations of melodies and words. “I drive myself crazy doing it,” she said. “I'm also the kind of person who takes the long way to figure out a simple thing. … But especially in the studio, when you come to that moment where you know it will be final, something about hearing your voice and knowing the finality of that — it makes it all the more dire to me to sing it in the way that I feel is good to last and be heard.”
In making Bark Your Head Off, Dog, Hop Along wanted to follow up 2015's punk-inspired indie-pop LP Painted Shut with a more layered effort. “We knew we wanted to not worry at all about how things would translate live. We just wanted to make a studio record. We wanted to have strings. We wanted it to feel lush, like its own space,” Quinlan said, adding that a newfound love of Fleetwood Mac likely also made its way into the writing and recording process. “We wanted more time to explore and play with other instruments and have strings come in and more background vocals. … Every time I work on a record I want it to have that feeling of being an environment you can step into.”
Playing countless tour dates in support of Painted Shut also helped the band not only find its voice but also its chemistry. “It just became easier to play together, which is such a rewarding gift,” she said. “The fact that we went into this record more able to communicate with one another, that was huge. When you're younger, you might have a strong idea, but it's so difficult to communicate that and be understood. One thing I'm glad about was that I feel more confident to express myself in a way that can be understood, and inviting people to understand.”