Interview: Jesca Hoop

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 07.02.12 in Interviews

“There’s nothing like a broken arm to win your love,” coos Jesca Hoop in one of the countless astonishing images from her latest, third album, The House That Jack Built. The Californian singer-songwriter majors in forward-looking, supremely-crafted pop, always with a sublime melody and lyrical twist, which leaves you either hanging off a cliff or just scratching your head. And so you keep coming back for more.

Hoop comes well recommended, too. After escaping from her Mormon parents in her early teens, she fled to the countryside, where she eventually wound up working as a nanny to Tom Waits’s three children. After guiding her creatively and career-wise, he rubber-stamped her songcraft as “like a four-sided coin…like going swimming in a lake at night.”

Her first record, Kismet, soon found its way to Elbow’s Guy Garvey, who invited her out on tour. She duly fell in love with Elbow’s manager, moved toManchester to be with him, and now finds herself touted as the new Kate Bush, a songstress of unfathomable wonder…

“Powder horn pepperbox boom,” you sing on “Peacemaker.” Your music’s still in pursuit of the inexplicable, then!

I’ve been calling it avant-pop lately. It’s strange pop music, but no more strange than — and I’m not comparing myself with him, but! — the likes of David Bowie, who used to make just strange pop music. It’s just that pop has gone in a direction where it’s more like easy listening, so I’m relatively strange for this day and age. But humans are strange. Humans are innately very weird creatures.

That whole idea in “Hospital (Win Your Love),” that a person might injure themselves in order to woo their object of desire, suggests that people can be pretty crackers…

Yeah, whether you go that far or not, I think there are elements within human nature that either thrive on drama, or feed off of pain or seek attention through affliction. I always knew I wanted to write a song about this. I was reaching the end of my writing cycle, and then I was reminded by one of my younger friends, who’s 12 years old and came home with a big gash on his knee. Of course, he was uncomfortable to some degree, but he was also relishing the rewards of being injured, so I was like, “Ding! Go write your song!”

There are also some more stripped-down and harrowing songs, like the title track and “DNR,” which are about your difficult relationship with your father, and your conflicted emotions when he passed away. Were they different and difficult to write?

You’ve gotta write from what you know and have. I found that when I was writing songs for my father, I was oddly enough sort of writing in the alt-country or folk vein, in terms of them just being simple plain stories sung over a guitar. My dad loved country music, folk music. My dad’s very last words to me were, “Remember Bonnie Raitt!” He listened to a lot of Bonnie Raitt when we were growing up, and wanted to encourage me, because she wasn’t getting her breaks until she was in her 30s, so it was a way of him telling me to be patient.

Still, “DNR” isn’t the usual navel-contemplating, woe-is-me type affair one normally expects from a singer-songwriter…

It’s not a confessional; it’s not like a diary. It does draw from experience, but there’s nothing to confess. It is a very clear communication, about what life can be like, and what life was like for me. In a couple of the stories, it’s just telling it how it was, in a very plain or explicit fashion. But it isn’t like Hoop tells all. It’s more like, “This is an account of something that happened, and I feel personally inclined to be honest and open about things.” We need spokesmen, I think.

We like to hear songwriters telling us stories about their lives, or others’ lives…

Yeah, we wanna know what’s going on on Planet Earth, and that’s really all that it is — life as it is lived by so many, me included.

Your life has been pretty remarkable. You were brought up in the Mormon faith, and you and younger siblings quit the faith.

Yeah, I broke the Mormon chain, and my younger sister and brother followed.

Did you reach your early teens, and suddenly find it repressive?

Yeah, it’s under Christ, which would suggest that it is. It’s also a patriarchal religion. They are all, to some degree. My elder brothers and sisters seem to do okay, and I wouldn’t try to talk them out of living the way they’re living. I just don’t care to join that club. I don’t need a club…not like that one, anyway.

Was it difficult to disentangle yourself?

Yeah. It took a good while to feel secure enough in my own life choices that I wouldn’t return to it, that I wouldn’t do what they said, which was to go down a spiraling road to eternal damnation. [Laughing] Which I could very well be on, I don’t know.

From there, you went to enjoy your freedom in rural Northern California, doing odd jobs in the great outdoors. Was it a matter of letting the light into a dark, dusty room?

I tried my hand at a lot of different things — building, farming, all sorts. Any way I could make a little bit of cash, but then also just anything that could increase my level of independent stability, as a young woman in the world. I tried all sorts of earthen skills.

It’s said that you lived under a tree for several years. Would you recommend alfresco living?

Yeah! It was a very free period of time. I wasn’t career-driven; I was focused on sustainable living — you live on a plot of land, and work toward owning it. Very, very simple. All that matters is you have a small plot of land that you can grow food on, and you have a community through which you can work and live and thrive, and that was as basic as I needed life, for a good 10 years after I left.

But at a certain point, at about 24, I made the shift of deciding that I was going to approach music for a living, which is a more complicated life, in a real lighthearted way at first, but it’s been a serious level of work for a good decade now.

How did you end up working for Tom Waits? Through a “nanny wanted” ad?

The only thing I can say about that is, the process of sharing my music with Tom, over a course of time, was incredibly valuable to me, and to be given a quote to help turn people onto my music was incredibly valuable. The feedback on my music was incredibly useful.

Tom Waits famously called your music a “four-sided coin.” How can music be like a four-sided coin?

I don’t know! I think his music is like a four-sided coin.

So you think it’s a compliment!

It is! The way I take it, it’s like you can see it in many different ways. You can turn it on its head, or on its tail, or on its side, and look at it in many different ways.

Then, in another felicitous break, Guy Garvey heard your first CD, and you ended up living in a bohemian suburb of Manchester. Was it a massive culture shock moving here?

Certainly, yes, but really it was just wanting to live a more broad existence, and try something totally different.

How much stuff had you released before you came here?

I’d made my first full-length, Kismet, and the Kismet Acoustic EP. I was touring with Elbow with that little EP, but when I actually moved here, I came with Hunting My Dress ready, which was my second record — I decided that I was gonna have to come with a finished record, so I made it in three months, and just finished it the night before I got on the plane.

So this new one is your first foray into Great British Music!

Yeah, ha! It was written here, but I actually recorded it inLos Angeles.

Do you notice a difference from your previous stuff? Does environment change things?

It’s really hard to weigh what exactly is affecting my writing. It’s like when you’re taking all sorts of vitamins, you can’t tell what’s working on what. I know that environment plays a part, and overall health and wellbeing, and the conversations you’ve been having, and the daily experiences you’re going through.

“Ode To Banksy” suggests that British art’s rubbed off on you…

I’ve been digging Banksy from 10 or 12 years. He’s international, with graffiti lovers, and in the hip-hop world, that’s how I came to know him, through friends in Northern California. I pulled a couple of lines from one of his books. He said this thing, “Suicide bombers just need a hug,” which I think is witty and cute — and true! But the song’s about how I never want to see his face. I want him to remain a delightful mystery. I don’t care to reveal him, I love his whole gig.

Earlier this year, you stood in for Guy on his BBC radio show. Did what you played illuminate in any way what you try and do with your own music?

It maybe gave a sense of the standards that I’m after. And that I don’t listen to many female singer-songwriters. And that most of what I own is quite old, and there’s not much new in there, but there’s a really broad range of stuff — humor, irreverence, provocative music, beautiful stuff. There was Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, this Bulgarian women’s choir — I do draw some influence from their style of singing, although really I just dabble. There was the song “The Seed” by The Roots — funky and cool. I got to play some Elbow on there because Guy has chosen not to treat his listeners to his music [on his show]. I played Ennio Morricone’s The Good The Bad & The Ugly, and Sergio Mendez, some more hip-hop, and some straight-up rock — PJ Harvey, Peter Gabriel.

Any songs on your album you’d like to flag up?

“Deeper Devastation” is my personal favorite — a slower number, a deeper cut — and “When I’m Asleep.” Both have these vocal bursts which just take you over for a minute. And also the discovery process of those tunes was really enjoyable. With “Deeper Devastation,” the producer said, “Yell out these parts.” He tipped me into doing something quite tribal, which I’d never anticipated doing.

So anyone thinking of making some avant-pop should be prepared to be challenged, to depart from their musical comfort zone?

Yeah. For me personally, I want to be, like, jerked, by the song. I want it to take me by the jacket and shake me. I would say every tune has been like that. Some of them are really gentle, so they don’t all shake you, but they’ll, like, dig their way through you. Then, “DNR,” certainly, was like an ice pick in the chest. For every one of the songs, it was a very emotional experience. In the studio, it was kind of solemn at times. I call it a sacred space.