Unlocked: Finding strength in life and art with Philadelphia's Hop Along - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Hop Along in the studio | photo by Jonathan Minto

Frances Quinlan first heard the ravaged voice of Jackson C. Frank a few years while working a house painting job. She had a Nick Drake Spotify channel keeping her company during the long hours, and one day while working at her friend Mike’s house, the song “Tumble In The Wind” came on.

“I heard it and immediately was like ‘who is this?’” she recalls. “So I looked him up. And I read one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.”

The legend goes that the New England musician got into music and guitar playing while recovering from a school fire which left him with burns on 50% of his body. When Frank received settlement money at age 21, he moved to England, met Paul Simon – who was living in the UK at the time – and the two worked together to record his self-titled album, his only commercial release during his lifetime.

However, while his music influenced the emerging 60s folk scene and his song “Blues Run The Game” was covered by Simon & Garfunkel and Nick Drake, Frank himself remained mired in obscurity. Returning to the United States, a series of tragedies struck – he developed paranoid schizophrenia, was homeless for a period of time, lost one eye when a group of kids sitting in a park accidentally shot him in the face with a pellet gun. Eventually a fan named Jim Abbott tracked him down in the 90s and helped him make his final recordings, including “Tumble.”

“He could barely play,” Quinlan says. “But it is such a great song. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.”

Frank’s story inspired “Horseshoe Crabs,” a track on her band Hop Along’s new album Painted Shut, which we’re featuring all week long on Unlocked. Vignettes of his life come across in fleeting details – “Woke from the dream and I was old, staring at the asscrack of dawn. / Walk these streets up and down, looking for Paul Simon.” – but together they paint a picture of loss and powerlessness.

These themes are echoed in the story of another musician Quinlan sings about on Painted Shut – a cornet player named Buddy Bolden who was active in the early 20th century jazz scene, but is not nearly as recognized today as, say, Scott Joplin or Rodgers and Hart. He too developed schizophrenia, died poor, and when his family couldn’t keep up payments on his grave, he was dug up and moved from plot to plot in New Orleans’ Holt Cemetery. His story is told in “Buddy In the Parade” and “Texas Funeral.”

“These songs really talk about the mental illness more than the greatness of the two musicians,” Quinlan admits when I got together with her and the band this winter to talk about the new album. “I felt bad about that after we finished, because it doesn’t speak of his talents.”

But for her, the tragedy was compelling, and an important story to tell. And it’s not a new subject for her: “Sally II” from Hop Along’s 2012 record Get Disowned and “Sally” from 2009’s Wretches EP are both based on a family friend with paranoid schizophrenia. I ask Quinlan what brings her back to such a hard-hitting theme, and she sighs.

“I think we’re all very afraid of it,” she says. “I think it’s something to be very afraid of. I’m terrified of when my mind will deteriorate at some point. It will happen, if my body doesn’t go first. So there’s the powerlessness and then on top of that, if you’re poor, the odds are next to impossible. The way our system handles mental illness is there is no system for handling mental illness.”

The idea of power versus powerlessness is conveyed very literally in “Powerful Man,” where a father punches his young son in the schoolyard, and a teenage Quinlan couldn’t summon the strength to take a stand. So, “I just ran.”

“So many songs, I’m ashamed of [the actions] I wrote about,” she says. “Especially the ones that involve me. On Get Disowned, the lyrics were pleasantly kind of vague. It was like ‘I’m ashamed, but that’s all you need to know.’”

Her bandmates laugh, partly out of the coyness of her quip, partly because it’s another reflection of how unnecessarily hard Quinlan can be on herself. When the conversation turns to the making of the record, she said “When we finished, I thought I was the worst thing about the band.” I kind of stammered in disbelief at that for a moment.

“I talked to [producer] John Agnello for a while, and he told me ‘you have to learn how to enjoy this,’” Quinlan says. “But recording albums has always been a painful part of the process for me. I hate practicing, I just like to write. Recording is always brutal.”

Quinlan’s brother Mark, who drums in Hop Along, concurs that making an album is not easy, fraught with a lot of self-doubt and frustration. “The most difficult thing, for me, was writing the best possible thing I could have written that I was super proud [and then realizing] the song wasn’t working as a whole,” he says. “And scrapping that part and starting over. There were a few instances of minor heartbreak, but ultimately leading to the wonderful triumph of the whole album.”

Songs went through various incarnations, mostly before getting into Headroom with Agnello, some after. “The chorus to ‘The Knock’ changed,” bassist Tyler Long recalls. “That was one of the first days. None of us were super stoked on the chorus, so we decided to rewrite it and nailed it.”

“I think we all learned a lot,” says guitarist Joe Reinhart. “Our strengths and weaknesses, getting into the studio and realizing we weren’t quite as prepared as we should be.” His bandmates shoot glances over at him and he laughs smirks, adding “I can only speak for myself.”

“I think that’s inevitable,” Quinlan says. “Getting in the studio, I don’t think anything I do is going to be the same by the time it comes out. I’m just not like that. We had songs we’ve been playing live for nearly two years and it was the most difficult to record them.”

And once Quinlan started tracking vocals, she admittedly needed the rest of the time booked with Agnello to get them the way she wanted.

“My voice is something I have to work against at times because of the way I write,” she says. “When I think about all the vocalists I love, Bill Callahan and Nina Simone, it’s not how I sing. There’s subtlety. They’re very mellow. I love mellow voices, and my voice is not mellow in any way.”

It can be mellow, I offer, pointing to the breathtaking “Trouble Found Me” on Get Disowned, or “Happy To See Me” on the new album. But she’s right, it wouldn’t be Hop Along the snarl of her delivery. And where her writing can center around weakness, inequity, insecurity and fear, when she summons the strength to sing about these topics in the band’s uplifting art-rock anthems, the situation has become transformative.

This is, in essence, what makes Hop Along great. Their music harnesses strength, cultivates power and transcends whatever situation it finds itself in: from the band in the studio making it to the listener who is projecting their own interpretation onto it, to the very real stories it holds within.

Of Painted Shut, “I really didn’t want to sound angst-ridden. To me, everything before this album, I feel like I sound young and frustrated. This album, the songs are a lot more grounded lyrically. There’s very direct imagery in there. I didn’t want my voice to be a distraction from that.”

Painted Shut is the featured album in this week’s installment of Unlocked. Listen to “Happy to See Me” in Monday’s post, read Tuesday’s album review, watch the video for “Powerful Man” in yesterday’s post and check back tomorrow to hear Hop Along’s Philly peers share their thoughts about them.

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