Jesca Hoop – Interview – 2017

Some people are just natural born songwriters. Not just those of the straightforward classical pop variety, as much as we love them. I’m talking about songwriters who generally break the rules, do things you wouldn’t expect, and have developed a truly singular voice that can’t be replicated.

There are the obvious ones. David Bowie in his 70s heyday, Joni Mitchell of course, Kate Bush, and the likes of avant-garde rockers like Captain Beefheart. All of them produced at various times in their respective careers subtly sophisticated, unpredictable songs that still contained strong melodies and hooks, and enticing structures that just simply worked. That drew you in as the songs weaved and did their magic. This is the area that Jesca Hoop operates naturally in. One who treads diligently and inventively around pop’s unorthodoxies, in creating a highly distinct music.

Born into a family of Mormons, she eventually hit the road in search of adventure, and ended up nannying for Tom Waits’ children. He was so enamoured with her music, that he described it as, “Like swimming in a lake at night”.

Guy Garvey, too, fell in love with her voice, her mystical way with words, and her lyrical rhythmic qualities, before she was known at all in the UK. He interviewed her for his radio show. And then Elbow invited her to tour with them in the States, thereby cementing the beginnings of what is still a strong relationship, only enhanced by Hoop’s decision to move to Manchester some nine years ago. Since then she has released a stream of albums including 2009’s Hunting My Dress, and last year’s collaboration with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, Love Letter For Fire. Earlier this year she released the poetic, poignant, and sometimes incomprehensible Memories Are Now.

Can you tell me a little about how you approached Memories Are Now compared to previous albums?
Relative to the others, Memories Are Now was a very quick recording process, taking place over just eight days. Rather than bringing multiple players to guest throughout the album, this one is performed mainly by Blake Mills and I. The performances are pretty raw and the takes are all live passes, having taken the best performances from each song.

How and why did you hook up with Blake Mills, and what do you think he brought to the table?
I’ve been working with Blake since my first record back in 2007. We've toured together, and he co-produced my third studio album (The House That Jack Built). He's a great friend. He is a great arranger and player. I knew I needed to make a shift from working with Tony Berg at Zeitgeist in LA to try something new, and Blake to me made total sense. By that time he had produced a couple of records and I felt he had grown enough to take on the responsibility.

And who else played on the album?
We have some strings arranged and played by Rob Moose, a little but mighty harmonica playing by Fiona Apple and some peddle steel played by Greg Leisz.

Can you tell me about ‘Animal Kingdom’ and what it’s about? Was it built from the rhythm of a typewriter?
People think that is a typewriter, but typewriter never crossed my mind. I can tell you that the song came from an irritating exchange I had with a person at a checkout counter, who clearly had absolutely no say in anything he did at his job. A totally powerless person. The song can be whatever you wish and I will leave it there.

Can you tell me about ‘Simon Says’? You were apparently very active as a child/young adult, pre-internet.
Yes. I was a very active child and spent all of my free time outdoors. I am grateful to my parents for kicking me out of the house. Again, I don't like breaking down songs but one of the motivators of that song was recognising that kids these days (at least where I am living) don't play outdoors like I think they should. It’s good for kids to get lost in nature… to go get muddy and romp around. Kick your kids out, parents, let them go get lost, and hope they are harbouring a great secret from their adventure that day. The world is no less safe than it has ever been.

Where are you based these days? Still in England? Do you miss the warmer and brighter climes of California!?
I am based in Manchester. Nine years now. Yes, I miss all things Californian. I do get to go back there a few times a year, so that is a plus.

Getting some support from Guy Garvey was obviously big for you. Are you able to say what attracted him to your music in the first place?
I don't really know. I do know that it was a song called ‘Havoc in Heaven’ from my first record Kismet. It’s a very unusual sort of fairytale-type song and there isn't much to suggest that the author and performer is at all connected to popular culture. I think it sparked his curiosity possibly.

A question about your background if you don’t mind – you have previously said “Now I feel free of it: I have faith in people” in relation to your Mormon upbringing. Can you tell me a little about that background and what the sparks/moments were for this change?
Mormonism was too narrow for me and too restrictive. Also, I was not enjoying the communities and type of culture that were built up throughout the church. I met a girl in high school who became my best friend and her parents were atheist. It got me thinking. These old books are presented as truth. That’s a sad story. Perhaps if the Bible and the Book of Mormon were laid out as metaphors from which to draw inspiration I would have more time for it.

The song ’The Coming’ refers to your upbringing?
The coming refers to religion in general where imbalance is caused by dogmatic practices. I use my own experience of being raised Christian as the window into the broader world of patriarchy and the use of "God" to organise people.

With regards to writing your own songs, is this something that you just tried one day? What led up to it?
It was a very natural movement into songwriting for me. I would compose long songs on my walks to school. There was no thought that went into it, it was just to pass time and it served no other purpose other than a way to enjoy the walk.

I didn’t have any influences that I drew from consciously although I’m sure they are in there. It wasn't until a couple of years of writing songs a cappella, that I picked up a guitar and other instruments. All of my earliest songs are just voice and the sound of my footsteps.
Jeff Hemmings



Read out review of her album Memories Are Now here: