By Alexandra Jones
Comparing a female singer to a songbird is a clichéd, diminutive way to indicate that the musician in question has a pretty voice.
Singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop’s voice is not so one-dimensional – pleasing, ethereal, throaty, bold, full – and never “pretty.” A more apt comparison would be to say that Hoop’s voice is like a church organ, strong tones lilting from high one moment and low the next, and – with the aid of crafty production – able to create vocal soundscapes fit for cathedrals.
It seems she was – however unintentionally – born and bred to be a musician.
“I grew up in a musical family,” says Hoop. “[Singing] in the station wagon. Our family completely sang together. We still do…We’d sing old murder ballads and old folk tales.”
Hoop grew up Mormon in a small California town, but she broke with the church when she was 16 (“I think if I was participating as a Mormon, I would be limited in what I could express. And it’s a good thing I’m not,” she says). As a teenager, she’d flex her creativity dreaming up songs in moments of solitude that would otherwise be eaten up by boredom.
“[Songwriting] was a pastime, because I walked everywhere,” she explains. “So every time I had to go somewhere, I’d just keep myself company, keep myself entertained and quicken the walk by making up songs as I went along.”
Hoop’s background in traditional music is most apparent in her lyrics, dense tangles of images arranged to tell her versions of stories. But among these rich details flash clear moments of vulnerability, of boldly stated need – and this interplay between deliberate artist and urgent confessant adds emotional heft to already musically complex songs.
“I try to enjoy the song and the art of what it is, and [in] doing so, part of that is enjoying language,” Hoop explains. “And if it’s a simple story, like a relationship ending, there’s just a way to really enjoy and turn that story in on itself and to evoke what the bottom line of that experience is, rather than just making it about, like, ‘Boo hoo.'” The title track on her sophomore LP – Hunting My Dress, out on Vanguard – is a perfect example of this approach. Hoop uses sometimes unsettling imagery of a predator hunting prey to illustrate courtship rituals and the growth of intimacy in a relationship: “And I will give my flesh and my blood and my marrow/ And you will wear my bones and my skin/ Hunting my dress/ Love is ruthless.”
Kinda creepy, but for Hoop, that’s the point.
“I’m not that easily entertained when it comes to songs, or songwriting,” she says. “Although I do like pop music and all those things – but I’m not easily entertained by myself by a simple story. I think there is something to be learned about simplicity and when to use it. And then there’s times to get a little more intricate and evocative.”
It’s unclear how Hoop rose to prominence as an independent musician in California – she associated with Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan and lists the former as her musical mentor – but the revolving imagery of her lyrics and her Kate-Bush-meets-Lilith-Fair sound caught the attention of Los Angeles public radio DJ Nic Harcourt. Since then, she’s toured with such diverse acts as Mark Knopfler, Matt Pond PA, and Andrew Bird. A diverse handful of performers, sure, but Hoop – who’s as comfortable setting her songs with vocoder and drum machine as she is acoustic guitar – matter-of-factly proclaims of her music, “It’s genreless, really.”
After releasing her first LP, Kismet Acoustic, in 2008, Hoop toured Scotland and the UK – and found audiences to be a little different than in the US.
“[It’s] absolutely brilliant,” says Hoop, who has since relocated to Manchester in order to tour the Isles with alt-rockers Elbow. “I released my record independently in the UK. I put together a marketing team and I found that I can play anywhere in the UK and draw an audience. Which, for just getting started independently, was really exciting, and the response was wonderful. It’s just a lot easier to reach my audience [there].”
Hoop’s stage presence radiates a sort of reserved sense of purpose; her persona is down-to-earth but regal, with a touch of aloofness that enhances the enigmatic nature of her lyrics. She often plays live with a three-piece band, but her July 30 WXPN appearance in Philly consisted of Hoop, her guitar, and another vocalist with which to harmonize.
Her spare but sprightly renderings of tunes from Hunting My Dress – tales of relationships (introspective “Murder of Birds”), surrealism (the catchy, fun “Four Dreams”), and death (the somber yet celebratory “Angel Mom”) held the lunchtime audience rapt. Despite Philadelphia’s enthusiastic reception, Hoop is guarded about her post-sophomore-release steps.
“[What’s next] depends how things go here in the States,” she says. “And then I’m writing my next record, a whole new one.”
True to form, Hoop’s eager to keep developing her already uncanny sound.
“I think I want to get more idiosyncratic…In the writing,” she muses. “I just want it to be rad, that’s all. I want it to get in and kind of rearrange your insides.”