Joni Mitchell once said, “I’m a painter first. I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy.” You’ve heard her songs, but you’ve also seen her portraits, on the covers of Clouds, Both Sides Now and Taming The Tiger, to name a few places.
Frances Quinlan, the frontwoman of esteemed Philadelphia punk outfit Hop Along, is a bit like Mitchell in that sense. She’s a lyricist, a writer, a singer (one of the most instantly recognizable in rock music, at that) and a talented painter. Her artwork appears on the three most recent Hop Along covers: 2018’s Bark Your Head Off, Dog, 2012’s Get Disowned and 2015’s Painted Shut, one of Paste’s favorite albums of the 2010s. Using someone else’s work for Hop Along visuals was always out of the question.
“I went to school for painting,” Quinlan tells me during a phone call on a particularly wet and cold day late last year—Dec. 18, the day of the House impeachment inquiry, to be exact. We’ve both just turned off the deposition stream. “That’s how I identify myself to a great extent, as a painter. So the idea of using someone else’s work or design for a Hop Along cover just never—I’m sure it’s got a lot to do with pride.”
Cut to now, and Quinlan is preparing to release her first solo album under her own name. It’s called Likewise (out Friday on Saddle Creek), and the cover art is another Quinlan original. This time, it’s a pastel self-portrait painted specifically for this release (“People prefer images of people,” she says). Quinlan gave herself gray, hollow eyes, her gaunt face framed by a messy bun and scattered brush strokes. She almost looks like a deer in headlights. That fear in her face is purposeful. “A lot of what I see for solo album covers is a person who looks very wise and calm, collected,” she says. “And I don’t feel like any of those things. I’m a nervous person, so I thought I better look a little scared.”
But Quinlan doesn’t feel scared about sharing Likewise with the world. She says she named her project Hop Along, titled after a nickname from high school, because she wanted “assumptions” about who was making the music “to be minimized.” “At the age I am now,” she says, “I don’t feel so much fear as far as how people will perceive me however they care to. So I think it’s a safe enough time to use my name, as I’m the songwriter. It just made sense.”
Hop Along began as Quinlan’s solo freak-folk project about 15 years ago. When LP1, freshman year, arrived in 2005, the summer after Quinlan’s senior year, the words “Hop Along” were synonymous with only Quinlan and her music. “Of course, [that] couldn’t be further from the truth now,” she says of the band featuring her brother and drummer Mark Quinlan, bassist Tyler Long and guitarist Joe Reinhart, with whom she co-produced Likewise (He also mixed and engineered the record—”He’s willing to entertain the most ridiculous ideas that would come to my mind,” Quinlan says). “So I would never imagine making an album without the guys and calling it Hop Along.”
So it’s her name—and face—on Likewise’s outer sleeve. Quinlan tells me she used to be “obsessed” with painting large “six-foot by seven-foot paintings on wood,” which now live in a stack at her parents’ house. In the video for her gorgeous single “Rare Thing,” where Quinlan muses on the unselfish love she feels for her infant niece, she paints frantically onto a similarly-sized, floor-to-ceiling canvas. She completes the abstract piece, singing “I have to stop myself and admit I am happy.” Another lyric in the song is even more telling: “I know there is love that doesn’t have to do with taking something from somebody.”
Those adolescent paintings contained “fantasy,” “false histories” and “parables.” “I definitely miss whoever that person was that believed those stories so much,” she says. Quinlan’s musical stories rarely touch on the fantastical, but don’t assume every lyric is literal. For Likewise, Quinlan took inspiration from her own life (and other places, too—books, podcasts, etc.) and sculpted those moments into tight-knit little parables themselves. She puts it like this: “They’re not incredibly far from reality. They do get abstract. I found my mind kind of wandering throughout.”
Perhaps more than anything, Likewise is a strong attempt at human connection.“The idea of this record for me, the connecting thread, is the idea of an attempted discourse,” she says. “Ironically, though, I am talking to myself. That person, whoever I’m speaking to, cannot respond unless I wanted to make this song a duet, and I did not wish to do that.”
Likewise is also an examination of the little intricacies of conversations and relationships, whether they’re as minute as placing a drink order with the barista or intimate friendships. It’s about the quirks. On “Detroit Lake,” Quinlan sings, “You were mid sentence when I had to interrupt you in order to relate.” Later, she divulges, “Most of this isn’t a secret,” on the miraculously steady “A Secret.” On the California folktale “Went to LA,” which would’ve fit right in on an old Joanna Newsom album, Quinlan sings quietly—then loudly, eventually returning the scratchy, desperate yelp she’s become famous for—of her desire to “observe beyond every open mouth.” She simmers down again on the tender strings ballad “Lean,” citing “email correspondence” as one method for conversation-making. On the dance-y “Now That I’m Back” (one of the most riveting songs in this collection), she drinks coffee with a friend at home. She repeats the chorus, “We should try to talk again.” It’s as simple as that. Likewise is a search for empathy and not so much community, but rather the desire to be heard by just one other human being; it routinely expresses our innate necessity to understand each other and be understood.
“I do believe that we are animals that need each other,” Quinlan suggests. “It’s not that we need to have meaningful conversations every day. So much of what conversation means to me is just a feeling of connectedness to another person. But what a funny thing, you meet somebody and they say ‘Nice to meet you’ and you say, ‘Likewise.’ You can’t possibly already be on the same wavelength. But I do like that it’s this commonality. The most basic understanding is introducing yourself, having your name heard and registered.”
Though she sheepishly downplays her talents and occasionally expresses what sounds like a lack of confidence in some areas, Quinlan does seem to have a specific vision for Likewise’s message. But, more often than not, she prefers the ideas that you, the listener, unearth from her songs. Looking at a Hop Along lyric sheet (or, now, a Frances Quinlan one) is a bit like examining stanzas of poetry—read between the lines and around the little curves and edges, and you may imagine a more vivid story than what the writer had in mind herself. I’ve always thought “The Fox in Motion” sounded like a retelling of Beth March’s arc in Little Women.
“It is almost always far more creative and fascinating,” Quinlan says. “So it’s humbling, honestly. People will come up to me and they’ll have this wild story about what the song meant to them or how they interpreted the narrative. And I’m almost embarrassed to tell them where I was really coming from.”
Likewise is probably folksier than much of Hop Along’s more recent material, but only in the sense that the instrumentation is more bare and the storytelling takes center stage. Mark Quinlan and Long played on a few tracks, as did Reinhart, so Frances wasn’t entirely on her own, but she hoped the music on Likewise would undergo less treatment than it would for a Hop Along record. “For this record, I mainly just wanted what I was writing to not go through such a thorough process, to be a bit more loose,” she says. Quinlan also spends less time here playing her instrument of choice, the guitar, and more time experimenting with keys (which are played beautifully and calmly throughout) and other sounds, like synth and electronic effects. “It’s so humbling to pick up an instrument that I’m so inept at,” she says.
Even on a cover of a certified indie classic, Built To Spill’s “Carry The Zero,” which closes the album, Quinlan leaves the acoustic guitar at home, breaking the song down to the molecular level before building it back up as a glimmering digital-folk tune. There are some fuzzy, aggressive electric guitar shreds, but they sound nothing like Doug Marstch’s original.
“Those beats that are on the song are [Reinhart’s],” Quinlan says. “He came up with those and I just was hooked immediately. I love that ’90s shuffle he came up with. Just felt right.”
Quinlan needed to stretch her wings on Likewise, but don’t think that releasing an album under her own name is the end of Hop Along. She has some intel on that, too.
“In the band, I think we are a bit more shaped by our role in the group,” she says. “And perhaps that can change, too. I mean maybe the next Hop Along record, we’ll all be switching it up. Who knows?”