All music lovers have had that moment when their world breaks open to reveal an entirely new set of possibilities. For Hop Along frontwoman and one-time Celine Dion fan, Frances Quinlan, the game-changer was Cat Stevens.
"I don't want to say pop music doesn't have any artistry to it, but folk music was the first music I ever heard where I considered a song having any narrative or purpose other than making you dance or groove or something," recalls the Philadelphia-based artist.
While Stevens opened the door, it was her older brother Andrew who pushed her over the threshold. Not only did he play along on guitar to his 13-year-old sister's songs and poetry, he also introduced her to music by Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco and Lauryn Hill. A couple years later she learned to play guitar, and thought, "Why not me?"
"If you listen to [those artists] it sounds like you're in the room with them," Quinlan says. "I like the honesty of that and the fearlessness. And they were all songwriters. That was pretty pivotal."
In high school, Quinlan released two solo EPs and an album (2005's Freshman Year) under the name "Hop Along, Queen Ansleis." In 2009 she turned the project into a full band with older brother Mark on drums, shortened the name, and after an EP that year, followed with 2012's full-length band debut, Get Disowned.
Highlighted by the hypnotic indie-pop paean "Tibetan Pop Stars," it's a mixture of doubt and regret with lo-fi ache and prickly guitar. (Think Pixies meet Surfer Blood at an underground in-store.) The album turned out to be a slow-burn sensation.
"It had no PR. It was all strictly whatever blog would talk about it and word of mouth, absolutely a grower in that way," the 29-year-old singer says. "Nothing of ours has really died. People keep mentioning the demo on tour, which is crazy. I don't even know how they got a copy."
Part of the appeal is in the raw swagger of the sound and Quinlan's raspy vocal presence, which feels like there's an IV running directly from her vein to the phonographic needle. Even when her melodious vocals jingle like a cash register, there's a driving urgency and intimacy like best friends sharing dark secrets.
"That's what I respond to in a lot of the music I listen to, and there is definitely a presence we try to put forth when we're recording," she says. "I have no complacency with recording and that's why everything we do is the most torturous thing I've ever done."
Quinlan admits she was writing up until the last minute for last year's Painted Shut. As a result, it was a more collaborative process than on previous albums, with the whole band spending more time putting the songs together and taking them back apart.
"It's so hard to settle," she complains. "I was talking to a friend about recording and he said the thing you have to remember about recording is that it's a document in time. It's not you completely; you're going to change as soon as it's done."
The album finds Hop Along modulating the noise and sharpening their melodies. The centerpiece is "Horseshoe Crabs," a bittersweet ode to misbegotten and forgotten '60s folk singer Jackson Frank that suggests something from Throwing Muses' first few albums.
As for what happens next, your guess is as good as hers.
"It's becoming a career, I guess," she laughs. "After every record I think 'What kind of music do I want to make in my life,' because I have no idea."