Jesca Hoop – Interview

As an early mentor of Jesca Hoop, Tom Waits described her music as, “like a four-sided coin. She is an old soul, like a black pearl, a good witch or a red moon. Her music is like going swimming in a lake at night”.

Stonechild, her sixth studio album, is another masterly statement of musical intrigue, sophistication, subtlety and beauty. Although commercially she has never gained the rewards the critics and fans demand, she continues to make some of the best music on the planet. And now she is with the Memphis Industries label, a label known for their simply fantastic alternative pop music via the likes of Go! Team, Field Music and many others.

Stonechild is a departure for Jesca. For the first time she did not go back to her native America to make a record, and for the first time she employed the services of fellow vocalists to help embellish her songs, and natural inclination towards self-harmonising layering. “I spent a few weeks down in Bristol with John Parish (Aldous Harding, PJ Harvey, This Is The Kit), which was fun,” says Hoop. “All of my other records were with the same group, based out in Los Angeles.”

Parish “was a gentle collaborator until he killed one of my darlings,” Hoop laughs. “I’ve never been so brutally edited, and I wasn’t shy about expressing my discomfort at the sight of my work on the cutting room floor. He said, ‘you will forgive me’, and in some way I think I actually enjoyed that treatment, being stripped back to the bare basics.”

Parish’s singular approach helped to clarify her ideas, which had previously been subject to more densely arranged productions, as well as just her voice. “I brought in different singers this time. Usually I do my own backing vocals. I brought in Lucius, from the United States. Jess Wolfe And Holly Laessig are the front of that, and they’re just spectacular singers. They can offer something that I can’t necessarily on my own, in the way that everyone is different in their voice. I wanted some voices that could get big. I referred to them for some, what I call, soulful, churchy singing. And I also got in Kate Stables (This Is The Kit) and Rozi Plain, and they were helping me with the more rustic, folky aesthetic. I can do that on my own, but I just think when I back my own self up, it’s not giving the contrast that I am looking for. I think it’s important, and something that I am going to continue to do, bring in other singers.”

Additionally, and aligned with so many other artists of this time, her music has also become a little more social-political. Such as on ‘Red White and Black’, which has more than a hint of the Aldous Harding about it. “These are not new issues, they are as old as time. But I think it started to be more concerning in me. As a white person, or as a person who grew up the way I did it was very easy to just carry on with my life and not look outside my myopic little circumference, that I roll around in. It started to take affect when people were voting on that measure, when race was used as a card to get people’s votes, or given a platform to basically re-erect the Confederacy. But, it was also an insight from watching the film 13th, a documentary about the 13th Amendment, and the emancipation of slavery, and how it’s connected to mass incarceration. The insight from that documentary was like a new history had been provided for me, and one that was withheld from me in my education. My sense was that it was withheld in general, a suppressed history. And, it’s important knowledge, and can help break down people’s prejudices. So, from that point on I became more concerned, and recognising part of the problem is wilful ignorance. I’ve always known racism is a deep sickness that doesn’t just run through my country, but every country. It seems to me that was is happening in the United Sates is being mirrored in France and other places. There is a lot of talk of white nationalism especially. This is our corner of the world, it’s what we can see. It’s the same thing, it seems to be the same issue. To me it echoes a people who are grasping for what they think is theirs, and they are afraid someone else is going to take it away from them. I don’t necessarily understand it but the pendulum is swinging. So, I decided to write about it.”

Meanwhile, ‘Outside of Eden’ is mainly concerned with those young ones whose development is now guided by technology. “It’s hard to say what my songs are about. They are often about multiple things. I started writing that song when I started learning about sex robots, and then also thinking about sex workers. In the first line there is something called ‘the girlfriend experience’, which was explained by a sex worker, who said she won’t get work unless she kisses. I found that insight heartbreaking, that she can’t preserve that one element of her own autonomy. And then looking at where that is coming from, why men are turning to prostitution for emotional connections. And that brought me to pornography, and to smartphones, and children, and watching the culture change, and being concerned. It’s like a frontier. Children are at that frontier, they understand technology intrinsically, they pick it up so easily. The content is being provided by us, and we’re not protecting them in the process, and we’re not talking about that either. In sex education, pornography has to be talked about because it is at their fingertips, and it’s affecting their lives, their relationships, and the way boys view girls, and the way girls view themselves, and it needs to be put in perspective. I guess what I am talking about is lifting a taboo on pornography, and kids getting a chance to see it for what it actually is, rather than what it is projected to be.”

I tell Jesca that I have 12 year old son, and that I’m always concerned about how easy it is for people of that age to find stuff like pornography. “Couples don’t even talk about pornography, so how are you going to talk about it with your kid?” She asks. “I don’t know how we deal with it, but it has to be addressed. We girls are getting the short end of the stick, and so are the boys: that pornography doesn’t paint the actual picture, does it. I just want to give them the best shot at having proper, intimate relationships.”

Hoop’s relationship with her personal history, the burdens she has carried, and her place in the world, is further explored via the title of the album itself, Stonechild, itself taken from the song ‘Passages End’. She has said: “When I look at the history of my life, I realise I have the breakdown of not only my parents’ marriage, but also the breakdown of their parenting to thank for the wild and unexpected course that my life would take. I went looking for a raw and rugged world. the opposite of what I was raised in.

“I feel quite odd and misfitted in the realm of music, if I look around me. It’s hard to find the slot that I fit in; the unexpected turns my music takes, which is related to the unexpected turns that my life takes. I wasn’t conventionally educated in any sense of education. My education comes from experience, from whatever information I have mined, and that’s the same for music. I don’t have the conventional do’s and dont’s. And, I’m also quite willing to take a whimsical turn. I don’t use whimsy in the meaning of ‘to be thrown away’. I mean it’s a spontaneous action. A lot of my music is intuitively drawn out, in the same way that a lot of the moves in my life have been spontaneous. Moving to England was a spontaneous action. Music happens to me like a lot of events in my life, where things pop up, and suddenly the song is turned. With Stonechild, I think I entered the songwriting process with that same sort of curiosity, and open mindedness, and hopefully find myself on a path that I hadn’t entered at the beginning.”

With little in the formal education behind her, as a self-taught musician Hoop has perhaps developed a freer take on the world, and what music can be. Certainly, it is not about orthodoxies that continue to ensnare less adventurous musicians. “There was no formal training. In any realm of education I’ve been all self-taught, since 14 really. I’ve come to a certain understanding of structure, and how important it is, and I also want to join in the group of voices that are willing to push the boundary of what is structurally possible. I’m interested in playing with the standard song structure, just fuck with that a little bit. There’s a bunch of that happening throughout the album. The song ‘Passages End’ doesn’t really have verses and choruses. It’s kind of like a trance, it has a thing that keeps repeating, with a wake up call in the middle of it. It’s not verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus.”

As an 11 year resident of Manachester, how did this Californian born and raised artist end up here, in England? It was one of those chance meetings that can completely turn a life on its head. A meeting with Elbow’s tour manager (and with whom she has partnered to this day) led to a meeting with that band’s frontman, Guy Garvey, who not only championed her music via his radio show, but also contributed vocals to ‘Murder of Birds’ off Hunting the Dress. They have remained firm friends ever since: “Yeah, I’ve just spent some creative time with him recently, and his family, which was really beautiful. You might hear a little bit about that in the future.

“It’s grey here, I gotta say, but I like it for the most part,” she says, lest we forget dropped the wide open spaces, the ocean edge, and tree-heavy environment of California, for the rather starker North West of England. “I actually prefer England when it’s cloud covered. I had to get used to the fact the sun went down at 3.30pm in the winter time. I felt that should have been part of the information that was given to me, before I decided to move,” she laughs. “In some ways I feel at home and some I don’t. Can a California girl ever get used to this rain? And the drinking culture. I find that people do everything with alcohol – they don’t tend to do much without it. I wasn’t used to that, but I am now!”

It is her unique combination of voice and self-trained acoustic finger picking that has entranced this last decade or so., with a series of stunning albums that defy easy categorisation.“I came along just at that turning point and it was a really difficult place to enter. Everybody just lost their spines, everybody became chicken shit. Even still today, it’s like people are still afraid to just fucking back something. How many times have I been dropped, you know what I mean? It’s really hard for people to champion stuff these days without that fear of losing their job. Anyhow, we just keep going, that’s what we do. And I’m looking forward to hearing from those people who feel aligned with me aesthetically. More than any record in the past, this feels complete.”

Jeff Hemmings