In an age when algorithms often dictate our tastes, a genuine recommendation can be hard to come by. But, so unlike everything else is Frances Quinlan's music, connections form in the most unlikely of places. A story heard on the radio, a book she read, a podcast, an album—all are fair game for Quinlan. Listeners are inspired to seek out the hidden gems within each lyric, put forth like a good friend giving suggestions over coffee.
Best known as the frontwoman of Philadelphia’s Hop Along, Quinlan’s first album under her own name, Likewise, arrives Jan. 31, 2020. But she began her music career solo as well, when she released her first album back in 2005 as Hop Along, Queen Ansleis. She dropped the latter half of the name when her brother Mark joined in on the project to make it a duo. Later, bassist Tyler Long and guitarist Joe Reinhart rounded out the quartet.
Quinlan’s freak–folk beginnings and distinctive voice, along with her brother’s upbringing in thrasher metal and Reinhart’s emo–rock influences as the guitarist for Algernon Cadwallader, created Hop Along’s unique style. However, she recently found that she wanted to explore her sound on her own again.
“I want to be in a collaborative band, but I also want to have songs that I just hear and have a little more freedom to explore as my own,” she tells me over the phone this past November. “I wanted room to see how far I could stretch my identity, as a songwriter and as a composer.”
On the album, Quinlan finds a new setting far from the punk and indie rock ideologies of Hop Along’s repertoire. Instead of electric guitars, Likewise bursts with synths and strings, and Quinlan’s voice is less rugged—restrained to reveal the fragility and tenderness of her words. You can hear her train of thought embedded in each line, such as in the opening track “Piltdown Man,” which begins, “Dawson’s Piltdown man, teeth assembled from that of an orangutan / Why would he do such a thing? Of course, what a stupid question.”
She then abandons that notion, a reference to a case of archaeological fraud, to focus on a scene of innocent childhood filled with visions of wheelbarrows and sick dogs. Many of her ideas come through as evocative scenes pulled from various sources—whether autobiographical or fictional. “There’s certainly pieces of myself in everything,” she says, “I mean, it’s got to feel true, but I don’t want the songs to feel closed, either.”
This type of mixed storytelling is a trademark of hers. Two songs from Hop Along's 2015 album Painted Shut draw from the lives of 20th century musicians Buddy Bolden and Jackson C. Frank, both burdened with mental illness throughout their careers ("Buddy in the Parade" and "Horseshoe Crabs," respectively). Similarly, their 2018 album Bark Your Head Off, Dog explored grand atrocities through the retelling of other works, such as a podcast on World War II ("One That Suits Me") and a story of an incident in Arkansas, where seven convicts were rushed to execution to preempt a lethal injection expiration date ("Somewhere A Judge").
“It’s so easy for me to get lost in my own head,” she says, “so in a lot of songs, I do try to bring in a glimpse of something happening on the outside that’s bigger than me or from another time other than my own.”
“Now That I’m Back,” a moody, contemplative track near the end of the new record, recounts a story she heard on the radio of a woman finding a cockroach lodged in her ear—“Imagine when the doc took out the roach / how much she must have changed,” she sings, then shifting the perspective to imagine a character haunted by this notion, “I heard noise from every corner and one night / ate Raid-seasoned spaghetti.”
“I’ve lived alone for a few years now,” she says of the song, “and I think there can be an accompanying paranoia with loneliness at times. I mean for me, any time I hear a noise in the night, there’s a little part of me that wonders...” The song was one of the first she recorded for the project, and it reminded her how much freedom working as a solo act can have, although Reinhart helped, producing the record at Philadelphia’s Headroom Studios.
“We recorded my guitar and then layered all this stuff on top of it: Rhodes, synthesizers, I play drums on that song. And then at the end, Joe said, ‘Check this out,’ and he just took out the first guitar we laid down, and it was a completely different song.”
Throughout this process, she realized she could worry less about her identity and focus more on being a better collaborator. Quinlan is aware of the irony—despite it being a solo album, members of Hop Along make several appearances. “I don’t know that I could have done this [album] at an earlier time,” she says, “because I don’t know if I’d be able to communicate all my ideas as openly and understandably. It’s such a difficult thing when you’re younger trying to make something, having some feeling I wanted to create, but just not having the wherewithal or the ability to do it.”
On Likewise, Quinlan places her own sound in conjunction with that of Hop Along, existing alongside the project instead of apart, similar to Adrianne Lenker’s work outside of Big Thief. Quinlan uses the album as an opportunity to explore instruments besides guitar, bringing in a Rhodes or Wurlitzer piano for most of the songs. They often playfully accompany her voice or imbue it with a dark distortion.
In tone, the album maneuvers from lively, upbeat tracks like “Your Reply” to more cynical ones like “Went to L.A.” On the latter, Quinlan sings, "Heaven is a second chance," a line that lands like she is grappling with it just as she is speaking it, digging her teeth into each word.
Immediately following is the track “Lean,” which, like many songs on the album, is filled with lush string arrangements provided by Molly Germer, known for her work with (Sandy) Alex G and Quartet121. Germer’s violin seems to breathe and sigh into each beat, complementing Quinlan’s acoustic guitar, which churns along with a warm tone reminiscent of the Old West. Quinlan came up with the guitar part, she tells me, while trying to learn a Joni Mitchell song in an open tuning, but drew the meaning of "Lean" from a story a friend told her. “I know it isn’t fair,” she sings, “Stories struggle for air.”
“I think there’s kind of a beauty in misinterpretation,” she responds when asked about the line, “I guess I was thinking a lot about, you know, as a songwriter, stories that people tell me do stick with me, and they sometimes find themselves in songs.”
The more time spent with Likewise, the more it reveals. Many songs began as ideas for Hop Along’s last album, set aside for one reason or another. However, you can still hear thoughts and themes trickling from one song to another. An early performance of “A Secret” includes the line, “Go on, bark your head off, dog,” which later found its way into “Look Of Love.”
But, despite how much of the album was built on her past decade of songwriting, Quinlan finds herself a much different artist than when she began.
“I remember that time very well, that was my first year living away from home, I met a bunch of gifted artists that year,” she says of the period during which she wrote her first album, “But the person who wrote those songs, I hope I’m a better person than who she was. I think everybody hopes for that."
"I remember how much magic there was in those first few years. I mean there still is, you know, you just have to search a little more.”
In that sense, Likewise is Quinlan’s attempt to retrace her path and place herself in a new mindset all over again. She describes how she and her band worked together in new ways on this project, and how she taught herself some piano and drums to get outside of her comfort zone. She expresses her enthusiasm in learning how to bring that to a live audience on her upcoming leg of shows in support of the album. Coming back around to solo work after more than a decade, it would be a lie to say that Quinlan didn’t sound apprehensive, but her resolve outweighs her doubt.
“I’ve been in Hop Along since I was 18, it’s the only serious music project I’ve ever been in. It’s such a huge part of my identity, which I’m grateful for, but I just recently realized how much of a life in music I still want to have.”
'Likewise' by Frances Quinlan is available everywhere on Saddle Creek Records starting Jan. 31, 2020.