What Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan Thinks About “The Notebook”
When I speak with Frances Quinlan near the close of 2018, she is, like so many of us, reflecting on the past 365 days, and mentally preparing for what’s ahead. Her band, Hop Along, released their fourth studio album in April, to an abundance of critical acclaim, and Quinlan herself is prepping a solo set before opening for The War On Drugs at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater.
“Everything just kind of swims together for me. I’m horrible at compartmentalizing,” she says. “I think a lot of people, no matter what line of work they’re in, have to deal with that whole refocusing at the end of the year, as far as plans going forward and trying to make sense of what even happened this year.”
Quinlan is working on a solo project, which she hopes to release, she says, later this year. Over the course of a nearly hour-long conversation, we talk about the ways in which she balances painting with music; her uniquely narrative songwriting style; and just what, exactly, was up with those two hotties in “The Notebook.”
Catch Hop Along on their 26-date tour this April, which includes two performances at Coachella, and keep your eyes peeled for more on Quinlan’s solo record.
When did you move to Philly?
This year marks ten. The fall of 2008, not long after I graduated from MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art]. A while ago.
Does it feel like home to you now?
I think so. I certainly found my niche here, that’s for sure. At least, I feel like I have.
What’s it like to be in a band with your brother? Do you ever fight? How do you resolve tension?
I think in any business, working with family directly is a challenge, regardless of what work you go into. Certainly, when you have a person like that that you’re working with, there are buttons that either one of us can push, and the other person will react. But it’s still one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experiencing the challenges of having a working relationship with someone you love deeply, you know?
And I’ve also known Tyler and Joe for a sizeable time, at this point. They’re practically like brothers. So we can also certainly have the buttons. I think that goes for any group that’s been working for a long time, all together. Love complicates things. We love each other.
You’re also a visual artist, and you painted the cover for Bark Your Head Off, Dog. How do you feel like being a visual artist informs your music, or how do the two play off each other?
I’m so close to myself that it’s hard for me to sometimes see. I’ve been painting and drawing longer than I’ve been playing the guitar. I think Joni Mitchell said that she considered herself a painter who wrote songs more than a songwriter that painted, and I really like that. I feel a kinship with that. Because there really is a whole side of myself that I consider separate from the band when it comes to art-making, even when I’m painting on the road. Even though I’m on tour with the band, that’s a side of myself that I just consider separate. It’s rewarding to another side of myself.
Except for a couple of designs regarding posters that other people have done here and there, I have pretty much managed the visual aspect of the band as far as album art or merch, and that’s been nice, to get to access that part of my interest. I’ve been painting and drawing since I was a child; I think most kids start when they’re pretty little. I kept going and was serious about it. My mom took me to painting lessons when I was in, like, third grade, oil painting. I was a painting major in college, too, so painting’s always been a passion.
So many of your songs are also very literary. They’re each kind of their own little universes in terms of being narrative. Who are some of your favorite writers, past or present?
I wanted to be a short story author for a long time. I always kind of knew I didn’t necessarily have the ability to write a novel in me, but I’ve always loved writing. From early influences, I mean, Nine Stories [by J.D. Salinger] was a big one, The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Hemingway—I read a lot of male authors when I was younger. There weren’t really a lot of women that I knew about, unfortunately. So in middle school through high school, I remember reading books like Johnny Got His Gun. I was really into Steinbeck in high school. I read as much Steinbeck as I could, and then getting into college—it’s funny. Mark, my brother, got me really into Pedro the Lion, and I read in an interview, someone was comparing David Bazan’s writing to Flannery O’Connor.
I got into her short stories, I read that really thick book—The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor, and I was just blown away by that. That really hit me hard. Currently, the last year and a half, I was super into those Elena Ferrante books, the My Brilliant Friend series—those are incredible. Also, my cousin got me really into a few Norwegian authors, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I read My Struggle and A Time For Everything—those were fantastic. I really into Cormac McCarthy for a while, and then, you know, lots of poets—Louise Gluck. I just read Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, another killer, killer book.
Yes! That book is incredible.
I hadn’t read her yet, and I watched that documentary on her, and was really interested.
I actually have not watched the documentary, but I’ve heard a lot of people say that it’s amazing.
Yeah, it’s great. I definitely want to read more books by women. It feels like I deprived myself for a long time.
It can be hard. That was something I was not really mindful of growing up either, and especially in high school, so many of the canonical authors are male. It’s just something that you sort of take for granted, I think.
A lot of authors wrote women in such a particular way that I never—I would almost never relate to the characters who were women in these books, so I just assumed that I didn’t relate to women in general. I would relate to the male characters, and narrators, and [I realize] now how wrong I was. There was this whole perspective I was missing out on. I will say that—one of the few male authors that I think actually writes women pretty well is James Baldwin. I was a really big fan of him.
“I would almost never relate to the characters who were women… so I just assumed that I didn’t realte to women in general.”
It can be a rare thing, definitely. In an interview with Stereogum, you were talking about the bands and music that you were into when you were younger—Saves The Day and Insane Clown Posse and stuff that your older brother Mark was into. I thought it was interesting, because you said that you didn’t take your gender into account at all when you were listening to all of these bands.
At that time, I didn’t think of music as having an identity in a personal way, if that makes any sense. A lot of music, I could only relate in a very basic way. “This song is angry, and I relate to that anger.” Or, “This song is off-putting.” You know, a lot of things I was listening to—not necessarily to shock my classmates, but to distinguish myself, to at least feel that I was different, and that I could access that in the music I was listening to. “I’m not like you, I like Marilyn Manson,” you know? And it wasn’t until—I’m trying to think of the first artist that I heard— you know, I remember hearing Sleater-Kinney and thinking, “There’s something about this that matters to me in a special way, that I can’t explain.” I mean, Radiohead was kind of like that. They were one of the first bands where you would hear it and think, “This makes me feel weird.” The extremes of emotion was what I was into until I started growing up and realizing there was more of a spectrum, if that makes sense.
But certainly, the lyrics in a lot of those songs—I really didn’t relate to that. A lot of songs regarding violence towards women—I remember hearing Dashboard Confessional and just trying to ignore the extreme one-sidedness of his experience. You know, being on the other side is being a woman. I mean, certainly, I think everyone can relate to breaking up, there is truth in that. But there is something about a very male experience of a breakup.
Yeah, and so many of those bands, like Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday are so vindictive toward the women that they’re blaming. The blame is not shared at all.
Yeah, women who use their beauty to wrong a man—that’s actually very Hemingway-esque. They’re either ugly and silly, or they’re beautiful and mean. There’s these two sides. Or beautiful and impossibly angelic, and impossible to emulate.
Yeah, and there’s no in-between, and there’s no room for a woman’s narrative or perspective.
Yeah, there’s just no spectrum—you look at a character even in Steinbeck, you look at a character like Casey, the preacher—Casey’s a complicated man with good and fallible qualities, and you look at someone like Ma Joad, she’s just impossibly good and strong, and then you look at Rose of Sharon, and she’s more on the other side of—not a fallen woman, but she’s certainly—they’re not given the same kind of dimension as the male characters, they’re far simpler in how they’re defined and explained.
Switching gears a bit, Hop Along’s sound keeps evolving in really amazing ways, I think. One thing that I read about you—at one point you wanted to be as famous as Conor Oberst. Can you tell me about that particular metric that you set for yourself?
[laughs] I was 18, and I remember—I can even remember what stretch of road we were on. I was driving with my cousin, and I was at that point—there was a long stretch of time where I was really obsessed with how old people were when they made certain accomplishments. I won’t say that I don’t still check on the age that people were when they made what, in my mind, is their greatest work. I think it just comes off a fear of when I’ll cease evolving. But at that time, yeah—I thought that youth had so much to do with the definition of success. I mean, we certainly as a society, as Americans, I think, love the idea of being young as long as possible, if not forever. We instill that in young people early on, and I certainly bought into that. I don’t still feel that way. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Conor, and I think he’s a lovely man now, at his age. I think age only creates experience—I’ve only benefitted from mine. I certainly wouldn’t want to play the way I played when I was 18, I was terrible. I think I’m much better now; I hope I am. I’ve enjoyed the gifts of experience, and I hope there’s more to come.
That’s something that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough, is that artists are always evolving, and I think that’s something that they should strive for, no matter what age they’re at.
Yeah, I just think there’s whole chapters that we don’t believe we’re interested in. You look at the passage of time in a movie, and it’s montage. You don’t actually see the passage of time. I just saw the movie Roma yesterday, and in that movie, the passage of time is very slow. I don’t want to give anything away, but it kind of shocked me, making you feel like time is passing, and what that must have felt like for the characters.
This might be off-topic [laughs]. I’ve been thinking a lot about how faulty it might be, the way that movies portray what falling in love is like, and what being in love is like, because you look at—in a movie, you have maybe two hours or less to explain the whole story, right? I watched “The Notebook” with one of my friends, she told me I was soulless for not crying. I eventually cried. [laughs] But I didn’t understand! I thought, “All these two people have in common is they’re both very hot and they live in the same town.” I can’t see what they have in common and what makes them love each other all this time. You’re not showing me their experience together. We operate in such a way for so long that we think that romantic love looks a certain way and familial love looks a certain way, and there’s only, you know, certain tropes—certain manners in which to show that. After you’ve lived a little bit, you have a better idea of what love can look like.
“After You’ve Lived A little Bit, You Have A Better Idea Of What Love Can Look Like.”
That’s what I’m trying to capture as a writer, being as honest as I can about what an experience is, and making a song. I mean, we all work on that together as a band, and I think Bark Your Head Off… really benefitted, talking to one another, what should really shine in the song, and not worry so much about translating them live, because Painted Shut, the one before that—you know, we wanted to make sure that we could play all the songs on that album live, which was sort of reacting against Get Disowned. I don’t even know some of the parts that are on that record, it’s so layered. One was a reaction to the other.
There are so many new elements in Bark Your Head Off… You know, in some of the songs there are strings and mandolin, and all of these different things, which makes for a really rich experience, I think.
But yeah, maybe more challenging to execute live, as well.
In not worrying about it, once we were done, we had to sit down and go “All right, how are we going to do this? We said, ‘Let’s not worry about it’, but now we’re here”—we knew we eventually would. I don’t believe that a live performance should be a replication of a recording, personally.
I was reading an interview with Mitski from this year, and she was talking about how people frequently tell her that they connect with her songs on a very deep, emotional level, and they cry to her songs. But she almost finds that sexist, because she feels like just because she’s a woman, people assume that she’s not creating a character and that this must be her experience, and that she’s not singing from any kind of remove, or trying to tell a story. Since you so often create stories and characters in your songs, as a female songwriter, what do you think about that?
I’ve had things said to me in the past—I mean, people have said, if we’re talking about sexism, people have said to me, “I don’t normally enjoy female vocalists,” and part of me just thinks, “What are you talking about?” You’re outside, and half of what you hear is upsetting to you? Because, I mean, we occupy half of the planet. Like, what do you mean?” Yeah—I think we’re very different songwriters, so it’s hard for me to really compare my experience to hers.
I feel really fortunate—the people that have approached me, and even over this last year, have talked to me generally—maybe it’s because we’re a band and it would be very different if the project were more of a solo project. I think it would be viewed a bit differently. Some people don’t even know that I’m the lyricist in the band or, you know, the songwriter, rather. I come up with a song and bring it to the band, and we arrange it together. I mean, even that, I have to explain it often because it’s not cut-and-dry, the way other bands might work—they jam until the song is right, and that’s how the song is created. Our approach is, I come up with a first draft of a whole song, generally, and bring it to the group. It often changes completely.
From the beginning, even when I was doing my solo work, songs like “Bruno Is Orange” and “Bride And Groom Hot Air Balloon”—those are songs that were so obviously from the viewpoint of maybe multiple people, or people much older and more experienced than myself. There was just this obvious coming in from the outside aspect going, and not too many songs with “I” in them maybe, even. Or if there was an “I”, it was just so clearly a caricature. That separation was created early on. So maybe the project benefited for that. I’m not sure.
I think it’s much more explicit in your work, but it’s interesting because it’s more unusual.
Even people—looking at somebody like, mentioning Conor Oberst. I think he was approached in a far more personal way, because his songs are very “I” sounding. I remember connecting to that in a very intense way, and there’s this thing that happens—it saddens me because I remember feeling this way, I remember being 17 and feeling like a song connected so much with me, personally. There’s this loneliness to it in the knowledge that you can’t connect to the creator in the same way that they connected to you. And also, you make a song and you almost immediately are a different person after that. So the thing that people connect with isn’t even you, it’s this thing that you made and left behind.
As people, we have a hard time separating work from the creator. That’s why when people do awful things, a lot of us don’t even look at the work anymore, myself included.
“As People, We Have A Hard Time Separating Work From The Creator.”
There’s been a lot of conversation around that recently.
It’s hard. There will be artists that I excuse from times past, like John Lennon or something, who I’m pretty sure was not a stand-up gentleman, from some of the quotes I’ve read.
We really tend to give people from the past a pass. I know that around David Bowie’s death, there were a lot of things that came up around him sleeping with underaged girls and things like that, that maybe people hadn’t really talked about before as much.
I was just talking with a friend about, “Imagine if history weren’t written from the perspective of white men.” How different history would look. I mean, how completely different the way that we’ve celebrated particular individuals would look. It’s pretty messy.
I feel like maybe some of that is changing now, but it’s a gradual process, for sure.
I think it will be. We’re at this point now where we have this opportunity to teach young men ways of conducting themselves and living and treating other people that would benefit them far more than telling them, “It’s yours, just take it.”
I did want to talk to you a little bit about “Waitress”, because it’s a song that I love so, so much and have listened to a million times. I think it’s such an incredible example of this little capsule narrative—it’s so brief, but so well-fleshed-out.
It really was just this idea of a person being trapped in a moment—trapped by their position. I haven’t actually even served, personally; I’ve never been a server. I don’t think I could even do it. First of all, you have to just let everything roll off your back. You’re essentially this middleman between the customer and the kitchen, two completely different experiences, and you’re supposed to placate both. And also, when you can’t, which happens often enough, [you have to] let that go. [I’m] someone who never could do that, I just want too badly to make people like me. The position of the server has always been compelling to me. What an amazing level of character and fortitude to be able to do that job well and not have it just totally bring you down.
It’s a very challenging position to be in, definitely. It’s like—your emotions are your own, but your time is not your own.
That ownership of time—isn’t that so crazy, that we have to think of work that way? Who’s in charge of your time, and how you live from this bracket every day? And then just the idea of something personal from your life attacking you while you’re having to do that as well—it seemed worth exploring.
You have worked in some service-industry positions in Philadelphia, yeah?
Yeah, I worked in a kitchen, started out dishwashing and then moved up to the cold line—appetizers and things like that, and then Get Disowned came out, so I had to quit that job in order to tour. And then when I came back, I guess in 2013 I was finally able to get a job again, and I started working at Johnny Brenda’s as a host—you know, bussing tables, seating people, helping the servers out—and that’s been a very rewarding job. I love that place. And actually, we’ve played there a number of times, including myself, solo. So, a very near and dear establishment.
And I’ve been a house painter—very, very on-and-off, but I’ve been a house painter since I was about 15, I want to say. So I have some skills in that department, I was walking dogs for two seasons—not very long. I’ve also worked in retail—retail is definitely my least favorite of the things I’ve done.
The pay sucks, too.
The pay really sucks. High school, college-age—that’s the common age bracket, and you can be more okay with earning that kind of pay when you’re 20 than when you’re nearing 30.
That’s the thing about choosing this—I had to be okay with working jobs that wouldn’t miss me when I left in order to be able to do this as seriously as I wanted to. Which I don’t regret.
It’s a tradeoff, definitely. In terms of your non-music jobs, which has been your favorite?
I do like house painting. I have a very complicated relationship with that work, because it really does wear you out and it is demanding and it’s something that I care enough about that I want to do a good job. It’s a job that requires speed, and that’s just something that I don’t seem to have in anything I do. I don’t really do anything very quickly. So, yeah, complicated relationship with that job. But I find myself able to think differently. It’s almost like, when you’re really getting into that kind of work, your mind is able to wander in a way that it doesn’t normally.
It’s meditative, almost.
Yeah, I’ll find that it’ll be easier to listen to the news or podcasts and absorb the information, because my body was busy doing something that it understood. The restlessness would go away, I guess. But I also really love working at Johnny Brenda’s, and I’ve sold merch there as well for bands. I like the odd jobs, shakes it up a bit.
I’ve had a 9 to 5 job for a while now, and I honestly miss the years in high school and college where I had a bunch of different odd jobs. Sometimes I really wish I could go back to that. I guess I could!