The songs that Frances Quinlan writes for Hop Along unfold like stories, the characters often plagued by trouble, powerless in a world that seems built to pass them by.
It’s a theme that runs throughout Hop Along’s debut for venerable indie label Saddle Creek (Bright Eyes, Cursive, Rilo Kiley). Released on May 5, Painted Shut is at times a raw and loud rock record, ready to burst at the seams, while also delivering patient, vulnerable folk songs. But always at the core is Quinlan’s voice, emotive and powerful enough to carry the human struggle of her vignette-driven songs.
“I think there’s definitely a lot of discussion of unfairness within the system that’s existed for years and years,” Quinlan says about the inspiration for her lyrics. “The idea of how a lack of money can generate powerlessness. The disadvantage comes out in anger at the unfairness of how you come into this world.”
It’s a theme Quinlan attacks from multiple angles, sometimes in things she’s seen, sometimes in things made up, sometimes addressing real-life characters. Two of those who recur throughout the album are musicians, departed and now mostly forgotten, Quinlan became drawn to over the years, Buddy Bolden and Jackson C. Frank.
Bolden, a black cornet player from New Orleans who was one of the originators of jazz, and Frank, a folk singer whose only album was released in 1965 and found fans beyond other songwriters, were both troubled by mental illness and never found success to match their talent. “I learned about both of those musicians at very different times in my life,” Quinlan says. “I’d read a bit about Buddy Bolden years and years ago and he’d been in the back of my mind for a long time. I never knew how to address his story because it’s a complicated one. He’s an incredible cornet player and there’s just no record of his music, just stories.
“I’d heard Jackson C. Frank’s song ‘Tumble in the Wind’ maybe two or three years ago and it really hit me. I hadn’t been hit by a song like that in a long time.
“Both of those musicians should’ve done much, much better than they ended up doing.”
But mental illness (and race, in Bolden’s case) were disadvantages that both men were dealt and that society, even now, can’t accommodate.
While Bolden and Frank are reappearing figures on the album, Painted Shut wasn’t written as a concept album, but a collection of songs carefully shaped over time.
“There really wasn’t any particular song that led the way,” Quinlan says. “I think that’s good. We were really free to do whatever we wanted. Nobody was concerned with making it sound any particular way.”
The lineup for Hop Along solidified since the band’s first full-length release, 2012’s Get Disowned, which was recorded piece by piece over two years in the band’s home of Philadelphia. Painted Shut is the first record from the current lineup of Quinlan on vocals and guitar, her brother Mark Quinlan on drums, Tyler Long on bass and Joe Reinhart on guitar.
“This album is our first focused effort as a four-piece, but we’ve all been working together for quite a bit now so there was a familiarity. It took a long time for everybody to be able to fully commit to this project,” Quinlan says. “It’s really been so gradual. Ten years ago, I was playing solo and kind of dissatisfied with that.”
Quinlan began transitioning Hop Along from a solo project to a collaborative one around 2008, when Mark was leaving his prior band. The lineup switched over the years, but Long and Reinhart solidified in time to begin recording Painted Shut.
The band recruited producer John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth) to record and mix the album. The band worked quickly, starting usually about 10 a.m. and finishing around midnight, or after. “We recorded it pretty fast, but we took a long time with everything before that,” Quinlan says. “The songs came so piecemeal and there were some that changed dramatically when we came to the studio.” Agnello helped keep the band focused, Quinlan says, turning them away from the slow song-by-song tinkering of Get Disowned.
“He never appeared frustrated or bored or in no way was he ‘my way or the highway’ about anything,” Quinlan says. “He really respected our experience and instincts and he cared about the songs individually. He was a fan of the songs, so it was really easy to work with him. He was right there with us in terms of where things should be headed, conceptually and soundwise, and he was very good at keeping us on task and encouraging us.
“Some of us are really perfectionists in the studio. He didn’t fight that, but he was really good at saying ‘you should be happy.’ I really appreciate that in a producer. It should be a collaborative effort.” Quinlan says Hop Along found their perfect match in Saddle Creek, the Omaha, Nebraska-based label.
“We all know their story, how Saddle Creek came about and grew very organically over the years,” she says. “I’ve always had the impression they put out music they care about, so when they approached us, it felt like we were cut from the same cloth. The music, the art comes first. That felt right.”
The result is an album that’s drawn widespread praise, hailing not only Quinlan’s unique songwriting and vocals but the overall strength of the punk-folk-rock blend that Hop Along plays with enthusiasm. On recently wrapped tour opening for fellow Philly rockers The War on Drugs and on this newly launched headlining tour, Hop Along is turning the heads of plenty of new fans. And the ones who’ve been in-the-know for years have stuck around as well.
“We’re very fortunate that most of our old fans, even from a decade ago when I was playing solo, are still coming to the shows,” Quinlan says.