A Graceful Scream

Charting the path to Hop Along’s Painted Shut.

By Cynthia Schemmer

It was 2005 on Long Island, most likely summer, and we were home from college or home all the time. We were looking for something beyond what what was handed to us, and so we created our own music scene, our own feminist collective, our own place. On this particular day, we gathered at Freespace, a radical venue that hosted shows, workshops, and panels. Frances Quinlan sat before us, a bandana in her hair and acoustic guitar in her hands, and played us Hop Along, Queen Ansleis songs. We had known of women like her, the ones who actually went out and did those kinds of things, but they were beyond our reach and they weren’t yet us. We sang the songs along with her like a prayer—“Did you hear about that mother? Broke her daughter’s legs in two and said, ‘It’s too dangerous out there to walk, so I had to save you.’”

All photos by Amy June Breesman.

In that moment, we had someone tangible, someone touring with just her guitar that we spiritedly welcomed into our scene, someone that offered us a chance. To see her come through was monumental. It was so within reach, and I believe she changed the mental landscape for women playing music on Long Island. She became part of our scene and our friend. We booked her shows, drove her on tour, encouraged her to drive all the way from Baltimore just to come to a house party. Even as we all graduated from college, when the scene dissolved and we trickled into Brooklyn in 2006 to make our own music, she would come play shows in the city, and often.

But that was then, and now I sit with Frances in a coffee shop in Philadelphia—where we both currently live. It’s an early spring day, the kind that is cool and limitlessly bright. We’ve known each other for ten years now, coming in and out of each other’s lives in the wayward waves of growing up. We begin by reminiscing, and we are both surprised at the things that have been forgotten. She remembers thinking that my friends and I lived like we were in the movies: packed house shows on Long Island that bloomed into parties, staying up all night at SUNY Purchase, and intimate house shows in Brooklyn. If we feel older now, in this moment, it’s because we very much are.

Growing up in North Jersey and then in the rural suburbs of Philadelphia, Frances didn’t have a scene to grasp onto, and so when she began playing Long Island it was the first time she experienced a thriving DIY punk community. “It’s crazy that right when I started, I was embraced,” says Frances. “I didn’t realize how special that was until recently, until I started playing bigger shows. I realized how that was not the norm at all.” She says this, and I realize I feel the same way. How fortunate I was to grow up with scene that offered me more than the usual high school 7-11 parking lot gatherings. It was a community of musicians, feminists, and left-of-center scoundrels that created something out of nothing.

Before those days on Long Island, Frances had her brother Andrew to encourage her to play music, which she began to do with a purple Austin acoustic guitar she bought at a fleamarket. She incorporated the scary stories she would write and the singing lessons she took as a child to craft her earliest songs. Frances attests to Andrew being pivotal in her musical development, as he would give her cassette tapes of women musicians—Ani Difranco, Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill, Patty Griffin—and eventually the two began playing and recording together. When Frances left home to attend MICA for art, she kept recording, using only Cubase and Garageband, and eventually recorded the EP Songs of The Sea.  “I would just hit cardboard boxes and run them through distortion and I thought it sounded amazing.” This EP carried up to Long Island, and thus the spark. “She gives credit to that scene for building up her confidence and making her feel like she had a place in music,” says Mark Quinlan, France’s brother and bandmate. “When you’re young, the scene is important. That feeling of camaraderie is such a big deal.”

Phil Douglas—of Latterman and Iron Chic—offered to engineer Hop Along, Queen Ansleis’ debut full-length Freshman Year. Recorded over the summer of 2005 in Douglas’s home on Long Island, well-known for basement shows and parties, the two messed around with unconventional sounds, including a percussive wooden frog. Frances then took this new album on tour alongside Dominic Angelella, who then performed as Dragonzord and today performs with Philadelphia bands DRGN KING and Lithuania. The two loaded up Frances’s father’s Acura Legend, using only printed Mapquest directions, and toured the cold winter months into Canada.

Shortly after, Frances took a short break from music so she could focus on school. She graduated in 2008, which was when her and her brother Mark began playing music together. It took a long time for this to happen—the two disagreed over music for most of their teenage years, but began to connect in their early twenties. Mark’s band had broken up, and having already toured the country, he knew he needed to continue this lifestyle and express himself creatively.The siblings soon started playing songs together from Freshmen Year.  Despite their earlier differences, Mark admits that when he saw Frances play solo, he would have a hard time containing his emotions. “I would embarrass myself when I went to see her play,” he says. “I would bawl my eyes out. I loved Freshmen Year. I still love that record. It’s so honest and weird; I could see she had unlocked something in herself.”

To see her come through was monumental. It was so within reach, and I believe she changed the mental landscape for women playing music on Long Island. She became part of our scene and our friend.

With Mark on drums, Angelella on second guitar, and Jacki Sullivan on bass, the first Hop Along full-band line-up had formed. They went on a full US tour in 2009 with P.S. Eliot, Katie [of Waxahatchee] and Allison [of Swearin’] Crutchfield’s old band. She knew the twins from playing solo in their home-city of Birmingham, and Katie was the first musician Frances had met that she watched develop alongside her. This marked the first time Frances toured the entire country—she remembers amazingly long drives, eating the best tomatoes she’s ever tasted in Chino, CA, and putting out a drastic van fire with gatorade.

Hop Along went on to release the Wretches EP with Salinas Records in 2009, and the full-length Get Disowned with Hot Green Records in 2012. The band played with Eric Slick on bass for a time, who eventually left  to become a full-time member of Dr. Dog. Tyler Long, an old friend of Mark’s, joined permanently and the three recorded Get Disowned at Headroom Studio in Philadelphia with Joe Reinhart [of Algernon Cadwallader]. When Angelella left the band to pursue his own music, Reinhart joined Hop Along on guitar to form the most final and current incarnation of the band.

In late 2014, Hop Along signed to Saddle Creek. The decision to sign to the Omaha label—known for Brights Eyes and Rilo Kiley—dates back to 2004 when Frances sent a demo to their offices. “They were the first label I had found that had a story, and so I was super drawn to that, and to the idea that the whole thing can be a loving community of artists.” She remembers reading the FAQs about Saddle Creek; they stated that they almost never sign from demos. They were the only label, of many, to send anything back to Frances in reply—a postcard. Ten years later, Robb Nansel, President of Saddle Creek, saw Hop Along play and inquired about them to their agent Merrick Jarmulowicz. “I fell in love with the music straightaway,” Nansel says. “It sounds like nothing else that is happening. We finally got back to her, ten years later.” Saddle Creek was one of the only labels who reached out to Hop Along that worked with plenty of women. “That meant a lot to me,” she says. “I feel like there’s a lot of respect for women as writers on Saddle Creek. They’re not just portrayed as ‘chicks that rock’ or whatever.”

Painted Shut, released this past May, was engineered and produced by John Agnello. He has over 25 years of experience, most well- known for his work with Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. Agnello went to see Hop Along play at Bowery Ballroom, and afterward spent an hour at the bar with the band telling them he had to make their next record. “I love her voice and everything about her,” Agnello tells me on the phone. “Watching her play, I was just enthralled with her ability. She hits notes that make me think of Joni Mitchell.”

Agnello went down to Philadelphia for two and a half weeks—he stayed with Frances, spending many nights sitting in the kitchen drinking hot toddies and talking, and recorded the band at Headroom Studio. He brought an entire car filled with gear, including an electric sitar that they used on the song “Waitress”. Reinhart hadn’t had someone record his music in over 10 years, let alone in his own studio—the reason he started recording was so any mistake on the record was his own. When Agnello entered the picture, Reinhart felt that trusting him was easy given his experience.

The band, having mostly recorded with Reinhart, may have felt weary of producers at first. Long admits this, explaining that it stems from his background in punk, but it was immediately obvious that Agnello was open-minded and wouldn’t stamp any particular sound onto Hop Along. His main role, aside from helping to create a sonically engaging record, was to keep things open and to diffuse the Quinlan’s fastidious nature. “Frank and I have a very weird and unique anxiety,” says Mark. “Small decisions have this gravity. John is a big picture guy, because that’s what matters. We had to let go, and to trust him.” When the record was finished being recorded and Frances had some doubts, John assured her of its completeness by sending her a video of his nine-year-old daughter Bella doing interpretive dances to the mixes. “I was like, ‘Listen, you’ve got a good thing on your hands. Don’t over think it.’”

I would embarrass myself when I went to see her play. I would bawl my eyes out. I loved Freshmen Year. I still love that record. It’s so honest and weird; I could see she had unlocked something in herself.

Now, Frances believes Painted Shut is way more clear than their previous full-length. She felt Get Disowned seemed vague because she wasn’t ready to be honest—with Painted Shut, she was. Everybody had an equal investment and it was the first time Hop Along had written a record together as a full band, but Frances was on her own for lyrics. She likes having that world to herself, to create thoroughly honest stories that are not always her own. “I don’t want to get in the way,” she says. “I don’t want these songs to be my opinion about anything.”

Instead of herself, she writes about the lives of others: the struggles of music legends Buddy Bolden and Jackson C. Frank (“Buddy in the Parade”, “Horseshoe Crabs”) , a  couple having a discussion about Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to the door (“The Knock”), being the bystander of an incident of child abuse (“Powerful Man”). Frances looks to short stories for inspiration, including the satirically dark writing of Flannery O’Connor. “The hard thing about writing a song is you don’t have much time with the characters,” she says, imagining her characters like those of a comic strip. These stories of others bloom universal truths, such as how mental illness is often viewed in society. “People can’t deal with the fact that the brain is just another part of your body,” Frances says regarding the songs about Buddy Bolden and Jackson C. Frank, who both dealt with mental illness. “We attach it to your identity. Your thoughts and how you express yourself. But the fact is that your brain can be plagued with something.”

Musically, Painted Shut contains less of the animal noises, samples, and wooden frogs used in Freshmen Year to fill the gaps. The four bandmates took their time writing together, calculating exactly what each song needed, and yet this was the fastest Hop Along has ever turned out a record. “We have such an interesting chemistry,” Frances says of the band. “It’s not totally harmonious—I mean, we are all good friends—but we have such divergent tastes it makes it a really interesting structure.” Frances likes to take time to live with the songs, to get to know them and develop their identity. Her voice, like her songs, sprouts new growth with every recording, blooming inconceivably stronger than the previous record.

In one of the few personal songs on the album, an acoustic reflection of how Frances will be remembered, she sings, “On the train home I am hoping that I get to be very old, and when I’m old I’ll only see people from my past, and they all will be happy to see me. We all will remember things the same.” She sings delicately, until that last line, in which she borderline screams in a way only she can execute so gracefully. This song drifts me back to when I first met Frances, 10 years ago, when she overpowered the work of her guitar with the layers of her voice. When I think about her then, I remember her empowering impact. Today, with a new generation of women in music, her impact is just as potent.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Freshman Year. Frances is making plans, hoping to celebrate this decade-old release rightfully. I think about how that album, for me, has roots in a certain time and place. It brings me back to a time that swells up in a strange, almost unwanted, wave of desire in my gut. All of the people have spread out, moved on, or remained, but Frances and I agree that just hearing a certain song can bring you back to another time. “I remember albums being connected with conversations and spaces, but you just can’t experience them the same way forever,” she says. We both agree; we don’t feel this anymore. We are older, digesting music and our lives differently. We are no longer trying to create a scene—because we’ve found that—but rather a life. “We’re getting to this space in our lives where we’ve known people for so long and it’s rich, and you know all the unglamorous things about your friends,” she goes on. “I feel like we are building our families in way, and that includes friends. We’re trying to build something for ourselves now.”

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