“I Never Want to Get Away from Talking About Death”: Q&A with Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan

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Frances Quinlan readily admits that she struggles to write love songs. “There are so many love songs out there, and I think it’s hard to write a good love song,” she says. “Love is such a personal experience. It’s the most vulnerable experience you can have. When I do write that, I want it to be right.” While we’re inundated with songs about such a universal topic, Quinlan is too busy tackling things that the rest of the world is constantly overlooking, ignoring, or pretending doesn’t exist. Throughout Hop Along’s new album Painted Shut, she speaks about the unspoken with a clear-eyed consciousness. Quinlan’s songwriting inspiration is often rooted in tragedies in the lives of others, but some of her most gripping work has come from firsthand experience. (For example, her position as a grief-stricken narrator on Shut’s arguably hookiest track, “Powerful Man.”)

We talked to Quinlan about her approach to such delicate subject matter, but not without discussing the joys and regrets of dining at Waffle House.

Paste: You mention a lot of states on Painted Shut. Did you write a lot of those songs while traveling?
Frances Quinlan: Some of them. I almost feel like it was sort of a cheap move I pulled because I think when you think of a state, it becomes a lot more visual. I really wanted some of these songs grounded in a place, any place. Some had to do with current events going on in West Virginia. I had heard about water being poisoned in a town in West Virginia, there was chemical runoff in this river from some factory. They stopped allowing people to use the water for drinking. People had to get bottled water for everything. I’m not sure where that’s at now but it was pretty bad. That’s where that idea of “West Virginia this is how it’s done/ You take the money and you just run.” Louisiana has such a rich history. I’ve never lived in Louisiana so I don’t know how people feel about me using their name but [Buddy in the Parade] is about Buddy Bolden, who was a New Orleans jazz musician so I felt it needed mentioning. He comes up in a couple songs.

Paste: What intrigued you about him?
Quinlan: I read about him years ago for a paper I was working on about Holt Cemetery. It was one of the only below ground cemeteries. I was writing about that cemetery because it was considered lower income. If you ever look at pictures of Holt Cemetery there’s a lot of personally fashioned gravestones and shrines and monuments to people but I think it’s mostly considered a cemetery for poor folks. Buddy Bolden died in an asylum and I’m pretty sure he was poverty-stricken by the end of his life by spending the other half of it in an asylum. His sister couldn’t keep up with the payments for his grave so basically when Holt cemetery filled up, they just dug him up and dug the hole deeper, put him in and then buried somebody on top of him. And they did it so many times that they actually lost track of where he is. There’s a plaque in the cemetery that basically says, “Buddy Bolden lies somewhere in this cemetery,” because they’re not positive which grave it is.

Paste: That’s so insane.
Quinlan: Yeah it is. I mean, when you don’t have money…

Paste: I feel like that’s a recurring theme on your new album.
Quinlan: I just feel like you can’t get away from it. I don’t see how you can’t talk about that. Money affects everybody. Whether you’re poor or not. And if you aren’t poor, you’re affecting somebody whether you know it or not. If you’re poor you’re at the mercy of everyone who has money. So many of the albums I love I definitely think talk about poverty and abuse of power.

Paste: Which ones are you thinking of?
Quinlan: Most folk music definitely talks about poverty. Even Bob Dylan, even though he tried to stay away from topical songwriting, as people called it. One of my favorite records is Highway 61 Revisited and I think that talks about everything. It definitely talks about homelessness, power, the Bible, and people who have nothing. You know, “Like a Rolling Stone” is about somebody on the streets. Also Nina Simone…and any blues.

Paste: I feel like it also comes up in a lot of country music.
Quinlan: Yeah. Then there’s all the love stuff, right? That’s the one thing I have such a hard time writing about. Love, relationships. Country music talks about people being wronged. It’s very to the point and pretty succinct. I find it hard to write like that. There’s so many love songs out there, and I think it’s hard to write a good love song.

Paste: What is that you feel like you struggle with when it comes to writing a love song?
Quinlan: That’s a song of direct experience, you know? You’ve either got to be really good at channeling your own experiences or be really good at making them up. I don’t know if I’m great at either of those things. I channel the experiences of others better than I do myself. Maybe it’s my age. I don’t know how much experience I have to relate just yet. Maybe when I have some divorces under my belt. [Laughs] Love is such a personal experience. It’s the most vulnerable experience you can have. When I do write that I want it to be right. There are some songs of ours you can argue are love songs but I think it’s pretty loose. I think Angel Olsen’s good at it. She writes love songs that have a timeless sound to them.

Paste: Could you talk about what it was like to write “Powerful Man”?
Quinlan: That song took me 10 years to put down. I didn’t know if I was ever going to say anything about that experience because I didn’t really know what my place was. I almost felt like it wasn’t my place to talk about that because I watched something terrible happen to somebody. I basically witnessed a little kid being beaten up by presumably his dad. I have no idea if he’s okay. I just saw it. I think a lot of parents hit their kids and I don’t know what to say. I think it’s a really bad idea. Especially because he was punching him, it was awful. The thing I feel worst about is that when you’re a little kid, anybody that’s bigger than you is an adult. It’s somebody with some power. I think maybe that little kid saw us and thought, “Adults. Other adults.” I have no idea what he was thinking but the fact that I froze up and felt like I couldn’t do anything for him. Because this man scared me. It’s hard…

Paste: That’s such a difficult position to be in.
Quinlan: A lot of people I brought it up to said, “I would’ve yelled this,” “I would’ve done this.” Not many women, mostly men. I don’t know if the experience would have been different if I was a 19-year-old guy. It’s different when you’re just out of high school, and I’d never been in a fight in my life. But the kid doesn’t see that, they just see an adult turning their back. It’s such a horrible situation.

Paste: It’s a hard subject to approach but I’m glad that you wrote that song.
Quinlan: I was definitely scared of that song. I wasn’t sure if writing it was a good thing or a bad thing.

Paste: What’s the response been like?
Quinlan: It’s been positive. I think people are sort of disturbed by how upbeat it sounds. They were like, “I didn’t realize what it was about until I actually listened to the lyrics.” But we tried to write that song heavy and it just wasn’t coming out right. It wasn’t coming out heartfelt. I think it’s better the way that it is.

Paste: Get Disowned dealt with a lot of death and this album does too. Do you feel like Painted Shut deals with moving past it? How do you think you approached death this time?
Quinlan: I don’t think anybody ever gets past death. We just constantly have to come to face it. I don’t ever want to get away from talking about death. I don’t want to be a drag either but I think the only way you can speak honestly is to have it in your mind. You don’t have to say it in a song, I guess. But that’s how I found out about all of these artists was when I was taking a class called “Memento Mori,” which deals with artists who portray humankind’s ongoing relationship with death. If you look at old still lives from Spanish painters, there’s [often] a skull in the image. There’s a bountiful feast but then there’s a skull right there. And people were always talking about the apocalypse. People thought the world was going to end in the year 1400 and they made books about it. I think we’re weirder than we ever were in some ways now. I’m grateful to be a woman now, I wouldn’t want to be a woman in any other time. However, we’re still trying to get away from death. More than ever. I mean people want to use stem cells to slow aging down and stop it. I think now it’s just as important if not more so to come to terms with that.

Paste: A lot of songs on Get Disowned were written from the perspective of a kid. Is there something about childhood that’s a source of inspiration for you?
Quinlan: I guess I’m closer to those experiences…I feel like I’m barely an adult at this point. I’m gonna be 29 in a little less than a month so I don’t know how good that is. Some of those memories are still pretty fresh. I’m hoping when I’m older I’ll have richer experiences in my later years but the past 10 years have mostly been touring and working. I don’t know how many things have really sunk in from that time for me just yet. I just try to write about what comes strongest to me and your childhood affects you forever. You can’t really get away from that.

Paste: I know you were reading by The Tin Drum by Günter Grass while writing Painted Shut. What else were you reading?
Quinlan: The Tin Drum was a big one. A lot of poetry like Robert Bly and T.S. Eliot. I read Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. I don’t know if that really made it in there but I was reading it. It was a really quiet book.

Paste: I love McCarthy. What’s your favorite novel of his?
Quinlan: The Road destroyed me. It’s so funny because there are people who have called that book really depressing but I felt so uplifted at the end of that book. I thought it was really hopeful. It dealt with the apocalypse in the most hopeful way.

Paste: You reference The Grapes of Wrath with “No Good Al Joad” on Get Disowned. I love that book.
Quinlan: Me too. I picked it up recently at a friend’s house and I was reading it. And I was like, “Man I forgot how sexist this is.” I mean, of course it is, right? Look at when it was written. But the craziest thing about The Grapes of Wrath…that book affected me a lot, but then I watched this documentary about the Dust Bowl. One of those Ken Burns documentaries, it’s great. And they talk about this journalist who had lived with people in Oklahoma I think, she lived with this family during the Dust Bowl. And she just stayed with them and wrote about their experiences, she wrote a book called Whose Names Are Unknown, which I still need to read. Her editor called John Steinbeck and said you should check this place out. You should stay with her. Apparently he stayed for about a day and then was like, “I can’t handle this, it’s too upsetting.” He left, and she stayed. And she finished her book, she gave it to her editor and he said, “Well The Grapes of Wrath just came out and it’s a bestseller so don’t even bother.” So the book wasn’t even put out until the 2000s, I think right before or after she died. It’s so upsetting when I watched it because I thought The Grapes of Wrath was this amazing portrayal of humanity and then I heard that he couldn’t even stomach it.

Paste: I actually bought that book for my dad! It’s by Sanora Babb. Moving on, “I Saw My Twin” mentions Waffle House. Are you a big fan?
Quinlan: No, I just do have this thing in the back of my head that tells me I have to go to one Waffle House on tour. And then I go and I’m just like, “What’s wrong with me? Why do I do this?” It’s a diner and I love diners but it’s a fast food chain. Last time I was there I enjoyed myself. We played this show in Athens, Georgia that was right next to a Waffle House. So when we were all loaded out I went over there and got the diced, scattered hashbrowns.

Paste: Was that song based on something you personally experienced?
Quinlan: Yeah. That song is scattered because it talks about West Virginia too. But I did stop in a Waffle House once and I guess this rap artist was coming through and they had this huge bus. The entourage was eating in the Waffle House, everyone else was either sleeping or hanging out in the bus. And the waitress, I saw her jump over the railing wall thing between the kitchen and the table. She just jumped it to take a picture of them. I just wanted to include that image somewhere. I took a lot of liberties with that one for the sake of that image.

Paste: My dad’s a truck driver so he got me into Waffle House. And my mom actually worked at one for a day.
Quinlan: That’s gotta be the most thankless server position. I’m sure the tips are awful. I definitely feel for them. Especially when they’re nice and they’re just these nice people trying to do their jobs at three in the morning. When I was younger I really wanted to try a third shift waitressing job because I thought I’d get so much material out of it. My mom was like, “Are you insane? That’s the worst thing you could do.”

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