How Hop Along's Frances Quinlan Reinvented Herself

Fifteen years ago, Frances Quinlan was a first-year art student in Maryland who listened to a lot of strange, singular folk songwriters like Joanna Newsom, Jeff Mangum, and Kimya Dawson. Unlike most people her age with the same artists on the playlists in their heads, she was also writing memorable songs of her own. In time she moved to Philadelphia and formed a blazingly intense indie rock band, Hop Along, which worked its way up to national acclaim and a devoted live audience with 2015’s Painted Shut and 2018’s Bark Your Head Off, Dog. Still, Quinlan was restless.

“It’s crazy to think that in a couple years I’ll have been in Hop Along for half of my life,” says Quinlan, 33. “I just wanted to see where else I could go.”

So she made a solo album, her first since 2005’s Freshman Year (and her first ever under her own name). Likewise, released in January, features all four members of Hop Along in various studio roles, but it’s unmistakably the product of a different process: lighter, freer, one mind moving at its own rapid speed without needing to slow down for anything. The sound swings back toward the folky solitude of Quinlan’s earliest work, but also out toward pop and ambient moods. Likewise often feels like the kind of secretly great singer-songwriter album you might discover in a used record shop, someone else’s long-ago favorite turned over time into a cult classic.

The album began in the quiet months surrounding Hop Along’s 2018 tour for Bark Your Head Off, Dog. The band’s bassist, Tyler Long, was moving with his wife to Birmingham, Alabama; their drummer, Quinlan’s older brother Mark, was a new dad with responsibilities at home. That left Quinlan and Joe Reinhart, Hop Along’s lead guitarist and primary producer, at loose ends in Philly.

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Working at the Headroom — the local studio, co-owned by Reinhart, where they’ve made most of Hop Along’s catalog  — they started off by revisiting a pair of songs left over from the Bark sessions. Both of them, “Went to LA” and “A Secret,” are show-stopping acoustic centerpieces of the kind that typically appear once per Hop Along album. It might have been easy to surround them with more songs in that vein, but Quinlan wasn’t interested. “I knew I didn’t want to make an acoustic album,” she says. “Maybe there’s just part of me that thinks that means not enough effort’s being put in, if it’s not at least a little difficult.”

Instead, she and Reinhart built out her new songs in surprising directions. “Rare Thing,” a feverish dream-song about Quinlan’s young niece, blossomed with real and programmed drum rhythms. For “Piltdown Man,” they subtracted the guitars from an early demo and replaced them with cool Rhodes keys and found noise. At one point, she tried giving that song a harmonica riff that they quickly abandoned: “I was like, ‘Yeah, go get the harmonica, man. Wait ’til you hear this harmonica,’” Quinlan recalls, laughing. “I don’t know how to play harmonica! But what fun.”

Working in quick, spontaneous bursts — a shift from Hop Along’s time- and labor-intensive approach — they got down most of an album by the end of that year. “That’s the thing, not worrying about anything having to be organic or having to be playable by a band or whatever,” Quinlan says. “We just went for it.”

The album she ended up with has an easeful feeling that Quinlan links to touchstones like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Nick Drake’s “Hazey Jane II.” Even at its breeziest, though, it’s the result of intent creative focus. She mentions the bright piano notes that punctuate “Your Reply,” one of the album’s immediate highlights: “That part is so rudimentary, anybody could play it, but it took me so long to come up with. I loved that I had that room.”

Quinlan played a handful of solo performances around the album’s release, and she was planning a full tour for this May (those plans are now uncertain due to the coronavirus crisis). She’s also looking forward to getting back to work at some point with the band that’s defined her adult life, though she’s not sure when that will be.

“I don’t want to take Hop Along for granted,” she says. “I miss them, honestly … I’m hoping, knock on wood, to get into the studio as soon as possible.”

In the meantime, she has Likewise, another oblique lyrical treasure chest in a career full of them, dating back to those early solo experiments. “I mean, I was 19 when I recorded Freshman Year, and I’m turning 34 this year,” she says. “So I hope I’ve changed.”

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