In 2015, Philadelphia band Hop Along garnered critical raves and established a growing cult audience with its third LP, Painted Shut. The album’s chunky, straight-forward riffs lumped Hop Along in with the city’s thriving punk and emo scene. But the band’s raspy-voiced singer Frances Quinlan was a more thoughtful lyricist than many of her peers, exhibiting an expressive, conversational intimacy associated with many of the singer-songwriters she listened to as a teenager, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and Conor Oberst.
Hop Along’s latest LP, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, sounds more like the artists that Quinlan heard in her formative years. Whereas Painted Shut essentially was a “show up and plug in” affair, Hop Along took its time crafting Bark Your Head Off at the Philly studio owned by guitarist Joe Reinhart and local musician and engineer Kyle Pulley.
The string sections and layered instrumentation of standout tracks like “How You Got Your Limp” and “One That Suits Me” are immediately apparent. More subtle but no less important is the polished pop songcraft of “Somewhere A Judge,” which could be a bookish Paramore song. The result is a “grower” record that isn’t as immediate or visceral as Painted Shut, though it will likely deepen over subsequent listens.
Quinlan spoke by phone recently about how the album was made, and how she succeeded in finding her own voice by failing to effectively mimic her heroes.
I’m going to give you my reductive music-critic take on the record and I want you to tell me if I’m wrong.
It’s your interpretation!
I know, but for the sake of conversation: Painted Shut is Hop Along’s “band” album, in that it sounds like four people playing together in a room live. But Bark Your Head Off, Dog seems like a “singer-songwriter” record, in that the focus is on you and the maximizing the possibilities of each song.
That’s definitely pretty on the nose about Painted Shut. I mean, we didn’t even really have time to record anything besides our main instruments. That was the main issue — time was very limited for that album.
Instead of calling it a “singer/songwriter record,” I would just say it’s a studio record. We knew we were going to Joe and Kyle’s studio. Knowing the place we were going into and all the tools that we would have at our disposal, we just wanted to use all of them and see what we could do with a little extra time. Maybe we wanted strings and Rhodes [piano]. I mean, there’s tons of Rhodes on the record. That’s all played by Joe.
Everybody had ideas. I’d be off in one room with Kyle working on my vocal parts and harmonies. And then Joe would be in another room laying down some Rhodes and guitar, doing his own thing. And then we’d just kind of mash it together at the end of the day.
Is this how you would’ve wanted Painted Shut to sound if you would have had the time?
I don’t know that we were where we needed to be. The good and bad of the time after making a record is, we’re so much better at playing those songs now, just by playing those songs constantly on tour. We’re so much better, all of us, as musicians and arrangers. I would like to think I’m a better writer at this point. I hope so.
Did knowing that this record would have more going on production-wise influence your songwriting? Did you feel emboldened to try things you hadn’t attempted before?
That’s always the case. Anytime I make anything — and obviously the whole band shares this sentiment — you don’t want to mimic what you did before. You want to expand on that. I would certainly work on a song and then say, “Man, this would be great with strings.” But then the idea would be shaped in my head because there’s four of us with opinions and sensibilities that are great assets.
I wanted to ask you a nerdy songwriting question: My favorite track on the record is “Somewhere A Judge.” The titular phrase appears just once in the lyrics, and not in the chorus. I’m wondering: Why is it called “Somewhere A Judge”? What was it about that phrase that made it stand out for you as a title?
A lot of my lyrics can be very vague and abstract. So, once in a while, I do like to have as a strong visual. And even the idea of “Somewhere A Judge,” while that’s still pretty vague, there’s at least a visual to it. And there is a pervasive feeling of being judged, I think, in the song. While it only appears once, it does permeate the work.
What is your songwriting process? Do you write every day? Or do you have to make yourself come up with material when it’s time to make a record?
That never works. Pressure is a funny thing. A unique pressure here is that we basically threw out everything we had at this record. We do that with every record. We really never hold back as a band. There’s hardly ever B-sides. There’s just songs that either make it or they don’t. The only songs that didn’t make this record were forgotten solo songs. They’re not even really whole band pieces.
Anyway, I do write every day. I would say 90 percent of it does not become a song. It’s generally journaling, mixed in with poetry and just passages of things I’m reading. Later on, I just peruse as much of that as I can. I’ll piece together items from that. Or there are songs where a big chunk kind of comes out all at once. On this record, “How You Got Your Limp,” those lyrics all came out within the same couple of days.
The lyrics for “Not Abel” took a while. The second half of that song was written mostly before the first half of it. “How Simple,” I wrote lyrics for that within a few days because we thought it was going to be in a movie that just didn’t come to be. Then we had that song sitting for a while and we recorded it.
It’s a messy process. I don’t think that there is really one way that I do it. I try to make it a habit to sit down and write a whole piece. But my attention span is lacking, especially when there’s so much to be done.
When you were getting started, were there certain songwriters that you studied in order to learn how to do this?
I wouldn’t give myself that much credit. I don’t know if I studied. I think that’s why this process has been so slow for me. There were certainly songwriters I obsessed over and wanted to emulate. Like, obviously Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as I got older. Bright Eyes, hearing that for the first time blew my mind. And Belle & Sebastian. Neutral Milk Hotel was a big one. And also, growing up in middle school, Ani DiFranco was my hero for a while.
Actually, it took quite a while for me to shed the idea that I really could mimic anybody. I failed so hard mimicking all the people I really admired, which is a good thing because how far can you really go doing that?
I heard this interview a while back with Kate Bush and she talks about the limitations of her voice. Personally, it was a shock to me because I think she has an incredible voice. But it is very characteristic. The fact that she was conscious of that and worked with it, that was a huge turning point for me. Hearing that and being like, “Oh, yeah, my voice is my voice. I’m never gonna sing like Nina Simone or Joni or any of them.”
Do you remember the moment when you discovered your own voice?
You know, I never really had that. Life is messy. I don’t mean to sound overdramatic or anything, but those big moments are romanticized about being a writer.
A really, really great book that I recommend when possible is The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. She talks about how there is such a lack of glamor in the actuality of what writing is. It’s just a slog, a lot of the time. You’re alone in a room with a bad view. You’re creating a problem out of nothing and then you have to solve it, which is … I love it.
Hop Along’ Bark Your Head Off, Dog is out on April 6 via Saddle Creek. Buy it here.