A story like Jesca Hoop’s is guaranteed to grab attention—particularly the parts about her growing up in a singing Mormon family, ala the von Trapps, living in a commune of sorts that had no use for money and nannying for Tom Waits’ brood. But after a few million tellings, the novelty of even such striking details might wear off. Good for Hoop, then, that she matches them with a voice, a songwriting touch and an avant-garde, hip-hop-shaded Anglo-Celtic folk sensibility that are as unmistakable in a crowd as Kate Bush or Bjork doing their things. Hoop released her full-length debut, Kismet, in 2007, and the follow-up, Hunting My Dress, just landed stateside this year, while she, on the other hand, has moved across the pond to Manchester, England.
If I didn’t know better I could hear the Scottish lilt to your singing during “Whispering Light” and think you were a native of the UK.
I was in a session with someone the other day and he said, “It sounds Indian.” And then he keeps on going: “It sounds like northern England.” And then we continue on and he’s like, “It sounds Scandinavian.” Every time I work with someone new they come up with a different country that it’s not from. I’m just pronouncing the words. And people ask me this question a lot, actually. When you take a word outside of the language that it’s from and put it into music it becomes a different thing. You can approach it in so many different ways. If you apply the word “banana” to a melody it’s going to change the way you pronounce the word. So that’s really what affects my pronunciation is melody in combination with words.
You’re a remarkably nimble singer and you write complex lyrics and melodies that your average singer probably wouldn’t be able to sing. What do you think the relationship is between the way you sing and the way you write? Did one come first and shape the other, or did it all evolve simultaneously?
It evolved simultaneously, but I think some of it comes from loving choral music and being raised by a woman who was an excellent singer. She had, like you said, a nimble voice and has great control. I think I learned appreciation for the potential of the voice through her, and I learned that through so many other singers since then. Just not wanting to be bored with what comes out of my mouth. But also to search what my own instrument can do.
There are traditional ways of telling a story that have been present in folksong for generations and there are commonly accepted ways of conveying emotion in contemporary popular music. It seems like you do some of that but you also pass back and forth between reality and fantasy. How do you look at what you’re doing in relation to what’s been done before?
Well that’s a hard question because it’s never easy to see where you fit necessarily, or for me it’s not. I don’t tend to tell a plain story. Every once in a while I can speak plainly, but it’s not easy for me to do that. I really respect a songwriter who can do that; like Paul Simon speaks very plainly but in such an interesting way. You want to pay attention to what he’s saying. He’s such an eloquent writer, but everything is plain, nothing is confusing. You always know what he’s talking about, whereas I don’t always know what I’m talking about. I’m sometimes more bringing words that are like shapes together and putting [together] something that draws a picture but there’s a lot of different ways you could look at it. If you cross your eyes and let your vision blur you’ll get what I’m trying to get at.
I know from having read interviews you’ve done that some of the songs on the album were inspired by very personal things, related to your mom. But the end result can feel more surreal than personal and direct. You wouldn’t necessarily know that that was the root of it.
I think it’s useful for the listener to not know necessarily. I mean some of these experiences are ones that we all share or they’re something we all have in common. And if they’re something we all have in common there’s not really much point in saying “I sat on the couch today and my mom died.” You know what I mean? There’s more to it. There’s more ways to evoke what that experience is than saying “Trauma la boo hoo.” You might as well draw some pictures and stir up what it was to have that experience.
You’re recognized for combining a wide range of styles from song to song and album to album. But even within songs you sometimes do some shape-shifting. How do you get there in your writing process? Are those moments the combination of several different ideas?
Usually it’s following the natural course of the song to where the going is going. It just generally leads me. I try not to write three songs in one, but I oftentimes do. I oftentimes come with too many songs in one and the people that I trust help me know if I’ve written too many songs in one song. Sometimes I try to resist them, but they’re oftentimes right. I try to remember that I don’t need so much, even if the song took me there it doesn’t mean that it needs to stay there.
The way your pre-music career story is told it sounds like you led a very unfettered existence, outside of popular culture in your family upbringing, then living in a commune-type situation. Do you feel like your experiences led you to an unfettered type of songwriting, not beholden to rules?
I just want anything but boredom in music, something to keep me interested in what I’m doing myself. It’s all very selfish: How do I get the most out of this song? And sometimes it works to my advantage and sometimes it works to my disadvantage to be so complicated. But I don’t think by nature I’m uncomplicated. I think I’ve got real complicated areas. I think that’s where it comes from. In a way it helps me kind of untangle.
You’ve said songwriting was once something you did only for your own enjoyment with no particular professional aspirations. What made you get serious about it?
I don’t really know, actually. I’d been up in the mountains for quite a while and spending the majority of my time outdoors, sleeping outdoors, just living outdoors and really far away from being on the stage, which I grew up on the stage with my family, just in a small way, but it was a part of my life. It was all very amateur and all that. It was just part of my life and part of my family, music and theater. It was how I identified myself. And as much as I identified with all of the off-the-grid living I did and miss it now, I felt like there was this tool in my skill set rusting pretty seriously. It was one of the most important tools that I had and it was not getting put to use. So I felt like if I was gonna make the most of my life and what I’ve been given to use, I should write songs and perform them. That was really about working towards living a satisfactory life. But I do miss that simple life.
Another part of your story that people have paid a lot of attention is Tom Waits helping open doors for you. Part of that interest is due to the fact that he’s a larger-than-life figure. But do you think that that really was an important step for you, that without that your career might look different?
Yeah, of course, I think naturally it would. There’s no telling what would’ve been or what could’ve been. But I know that some of the most supportive people in my life in terms of my career came through him. And you have to have these cornerstone people as you go through these different stages of working in this field. My publisher is one of the most supportive people that I have on board. That came through him helping me open up that door. So in very practical ways, in terms of him giving me an example of what a musical career looks like. I hadn’t had examples of that before.