Thursday, June 28, 2012
Jesca Hoop Takes Us Into "The House That Jack Built"
I first heard of Jesca Hoop when I was interviewing songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz last year. She called out Hoop's "Hunting My Dress" as one of her favorite albums at the time. History repeated itself when I was speaking with banjo-master Noam Pikelny (of Punch Brothers) about which recordings he was enjoying, and he mentioned Jesca Hoop while discussing such influential artists such as Tom Waits, Bill Frisell, and Tim O'Brien. Most recently, Hoop's name came up again, this time as the touring act with Punch Brothers!
It was then I decided I could no longer deny my curiosity and that it was time for me to learn more about this much praised songstress. Having been compared to such singular and genre-defying artists as Bjork and Kate Bush, as well as luring the affinity of some of my favorite string players, I knew I needed to hear Jesca Hoop's work for myself. I can only describe my impressions of her work as inspired, curious, mysterious, and alluring. I now count myself as one of the devoted.
This week, Jesca Hoop has released her latest album, The House That Jack Built. In anticipation of Jack's arrival, the songwriter was generous enough to take the time out of her busy schedule earlier this month to discuss her work with me. As someone who has heard the rumors and has been changed after listening to Jesca's work, I am truly thrilled to share this interview with both longtime fans of her work, as well as newcomers who have heard the rumors and are eager to learn more.
When did you begin learning and playing music?
Jesca: Being raised in a religious family, singing was a part of life. Hymns. But my family is a keen bunch of singers. Singing together was a form of daily fun. I know that sounds geeky but I do believe that we were really good at it. I was taking the high harmony at the age of 5 with my brothers and sister, mom and dad taking the second and third and fourth parts. The patina time casts on a memory recalls singing with my family as a charmed one.
When did you begin writing your own material?
Jesca: I started writing music with just the voice and the road I walked to school when I was 14. From there I learned guitar, although my guitar playing has always been strange and challenging for me. I taught myself to play and I actually don't know the name of any of the chords I am playing so I can not communicate in technical terms. I am an idiot guitar player. I tend to speak in metaphor to get across an idea or rely on my voice to sound things out.
I have dabbled in other instruments and find myself with a knack for all things sound. My writing back then was very very idiosyncratic and a song tended to contain three in one. It has taken me sometime to learn how to simplify and render a clear, well structured song.
As you began writing your own music and lyrics, who were some of your biggest influences and how would you say their inspiration fueled your own development and evolution early on?
Jesca: I would say that in the very beginning my walks and free time were my biggest influence. I can honestly say that in the beginning I can not think of a point of reference from which my songs were derived. Thinking back on them they they sound nothing like the artists I was listening to. I was just entertaining myself with my self.
With that said, over time artists that I have learned from and with great respect include Paul Simon, Kate Bush, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, and Joni Mitchell. You know, the greats. If you're going to look up to anyone they might as well be the very best.
Your music seems to draw from a variety of styles and sensibilities. Can you discuss the evolution of your development and/ or your philosophical pursuit to find your own voice regarding writing & performing?
Jesca: I think this is a process of discovery for me and trying out what may best suit me. I realize that the voice, as an instrument, has enormous range and potential. It can be sculpted in any direction if tended with care. It is a real balancing act for me and I am continually working to find the voices that illustrate the range within in me authentically and doing my best to stay within what is natural for me.
For readers who may be new to your work, I'd like to ask you if you could briefly discuss your previous recordings?
Jesca: Kismet was my first record and a narrowing of ten years of writing. It is like a mix tape in a way, as the styles shift quite a bit. I recorded it in LA in the same studio that I have made the following two full length records. Kismet Acoustic is a stripping down of the arrangements and and capturing of live performances and pulls focus to the song, and the production is all about the voice and song.
Silverscreen Demos was my second release of recordings after Sketchwork Songs. Silverscreen was my first experience producing players and working in a studio. Snowglobe was my first work here in Manchester and employs the help of all sorts of Manchester talent. It has one of my favorite tunes on it.
How did your previous work on Hunting My Dress prepare you for beginning to work on material that would become the new record?
Jesca: I am always collecting ideas for songs whether it be song concepts, lyric ideas that may spring up, song titles, and melodies. All of the little seeds of the songs. Eventually I will need to germinate these seeds and oft times this comes with some real hard work and much head scratching. Its a hefty fork sometimes to get the cogs turning in the clockwork of an album.
Can you talk about how and when you began working on The House That Jack Built?
Jesca: The start of this work was much like the above description. The beginning of the work really started with putting up a fresh whiteboard and filling it with all the little ideas that I had collected in all my little note books. Then came the pacing, coffee, wine, pacing, wine, coffee, and pacing. Then a chord a melody a lyric and eventually a song. Some songs were easier than others
"DNR" for instance came like a proclamation of love in a real moment of clarity rolling off my tongue. "Peacemaker" was a real discovery that took place over months. "Born To" as well. "Ode to Banksy" was a real pleasure as it was just enjoying the work of one my favorite street artists and deriving a song from his work. "Deeper Devastation" and "The House That Jack Built" reflect the solitary time I spent in the writing of this record.
Did you have a set plan or any preconceived idea of the record?
Jesca: There are themes running in my writing in general but the only plan was to write the best material I could at the time, as usual.
How does each process (musically/ lyrically) inform and/ or influence each other while your writing?
Jesca: They often times come simultaneously. The lyric can influence the melody as lyrical phrases are melodic by nature and the same in the reverse and then there is the cadence and rhythm to a phrase. There a endless ways to turn these elements.
Can you discuss your process of composing lyrics?
Jesca: Writing lyrics for me is a very satisfying process and also a terrifying one. It's like excavation... I go digging... I spend loads and loads of time and I have no idea if what I am going to find will be of any worth. I tend to ditch ideas if they are boring but I also do my best not to judge my work prematurely. Some of my favorites works are those that I dismissed at first
Which artists, writers, experiences are most inspiring to you lyrically?
Jesca: Paul Simon & Tom Waits. They write from the heart. They write from a real place of humanity.
Was there a tune(s) that set the direction for the album?
Jesca: No, they are calibrated to set a balance, meaning one toward another and all toward all. However, I have looked at this record as an album of twins like each song has a buddy... The buddy system.
What were you listening to and reading during the writing and recording of The House That Jack Built that you found significantly inspiring?
Jesca: I don't listen to music while I am writing. I watch movies and read. I enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife and Atonement during the writing of Jack.
What would you say are your biggest sources of non-musical inspiration and influences?
Jesca: Nature, the elements, science, physics, magic, chemistry, food, love, biology, conversation, this crazy fucking universe, and the universes beyond. My god, we are not short on inspiration here.
Now that The House That Jack Built is completed and living in the world, what would you say connects it most to your previous work?
Jesca: Similar themes progress and hopefully strengthen. It's a deeper reach into the heart and this is the record's intended destination.
What element(s) would you say distinguishes The House That Jack Built most from your previous recordings?
Jesca: A darker them and fuller disclosure. An writer embodied and emboldened.
You have toured with a number of impressive and influential artists. Which artists have inspired you most?
Jesca: Well, I have been fortunate to have toured with many artists I respect. Recently I toured with the Punch Brothers based out of NYC. They practice a lot. They are each of them virtuosic musicians and they are very proactive in keeping their chops up. They inspired me to keep better practice and to tiptoe into the pristine realm of musicianship (in which I cannot claim to have a place).
What are your plans for the rest of 2012?
Jesca: Touring, touring, writing , touring, writing, touring writing. Oh and I will be renovating a set of barns out in the countryside as well! Great stuff.
What recordings have you been listening to lately and have found particularly inspiring?
Jesca: Well, I am about to do a radio show sitting in for Mike Joyce on Beatwolf Radio so I am compiling a list of tunes that I think are just great listens. I've got Randy Newman on the list, the Kinks, Bill Withers, Mississippi John Hurt, Linda Ronstadt, The Mamas and The Papas, The Police, Genesis, The Clash, Nirvana, Kate Bush, and on and on and on...