The last thing I want to ask Frances Quinlan is about her voice.
Everyone who talks about Hop Along’s music – a frequent enough topic in indie circles since their acclaimed 2015 album “Painted Shut” – seems to find inventive, borderline distressed ways to describe Quinlan’s vocal chords. She “sings in the wild voice of someone casting out demons,” Pitchfork writes. “From a breathy whisper to a full-throated bourbon howl,” Rolling Stone observes. “There’s simply nothing else like it in contemporary music,” The Denver Post proclaims. “THAT VOICE,” a YouTube commenter gasps.
We’re talking on the phone on a Sunday morning in early March. Hop Along is about to leave town for Austin to play South By Southwest. Bigger news: On April 6, the band will release its third and best-named studio album to date, “Bark Your Head Off, Dog.” Quinlan chats with nervous excitement – the kind that comes when you’re about to birth a three-years-in-the-making creation out into the world. “A necessary delusion,” Quinlan says, is what it takes to write an album these days.
Despite all the attention lavished on her voice, she has always spoken of Hop Along as a band’s band. Her brother and drummer Mark Quinlan, bassist Tyler Long, guitarist Joe Reinhart – they’re equal creative shareholders in the writing process. Frances brings lyrics and song ideas to the table; the others dissect, edit and rebuild the final hybrid sound. Quinlan’s vocals may be the anchor, but Hop Along is a give and take thing.
“I used to envy bands that just seemed to be mind readers, who knew exactly what was needed,” Quinlan says. “But there’s just no way to make something that you really care about without having some conflict.”
I’ve always been enthralled with how the band structures their songs, I say. Case and point are the first two singles off of the new album, “How Simple” and “Not Abel.” Like their older tunes, there’s a discursive movement that subtly resists standard pop conventions. Try to diagram one of their tracks – new or old – and you’ll have trouble coming up with names for the parts. And apparently the band does, too. In practice, one band member will say “let’s pick up with the chorus” and another will ask “which part is that?”
Since their breakout 2012 album “Get Disowned,” the four-piece act has helped nourish Philly’s reputation as a guitar band city. But there’s a case to be made that Quinlan and the guys stretch across the city’s music scene in a way that few of their strumming contemporaries do. They fit in the mix with folkier indie acts (Kurt Vile, Dr. Dog). They can play bills with pop-punk outfits (Cayetana) as well as post-hardcore balladeers (mewithoutYou). And, naturally, they jibe with the range of Philly’s female-centered rock musicians (Waxahatchee, Girlpool, et al infinitum).
“I’ve been rejected many times as a musician,” Quinlan says. “It can be lonely not being classifiable. But then you get classified and you go, ‘wait, we’re not like that – you’re wrong!’”
Another thing about them that’s never usually emphasized about Hop Along: their Philly roots.
Quinlan demurs when asked about it. Hop Along is still a young band. Quinlan launched a freak-folk solo act in 2004 called Hop Along, Queen Ansleis. (People had trouble pronouncing that last bit.) But lineup as it stands today has only been around for five years.
And Philadelphia is also a provincial, self-conscious city. Most transplants shy away from the stamp of ownership beyond what is pragmatically necessary. On Bandcamp, Hop Along describes themselves cautiously: They went to rural-suburban or suburban-suburban high schools. They moved to Philadelphia and started making music. The end. “Unfortunately it’s not all that interesting,” Quinlan says.
Native or not, however, Hop Along wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Philly. Frances and her brother Mark were born in Manhattan. They grew up in northern New Jersey, and relocated to the Quakertown area after their mother remarried. After college in Baltimore – where she studied painting and creative writing – Frances moved into Mark’s basement in West Philly. The rent was cheap. “I didn’t really intend to stay here,” she says. “I thought it was too close to my parents. I pictured myself moving to the west coast.”
But the brother-sister duo kept playing music together – and have helped grow the city’s indie music scene over the last decade. In 2012, they started working with guitarist Joe Reinhart of now-defunct emo outfit Algernon Cadwallader. Reinhart co-founded The Headroom recording studio, where Hop Along has tracked most of their work.
“This is the first time I’ve felt a growing sense of being in a community, and hopefully that’ll change to feeling a part of the community,” Quinlan says. “I’m not from Philly proper by any means, but I’ve lived here for…”
She counts with surprise. It’s her 10-year anniversary in Philly. Today, six degrees of Hop Along creates a wider web than ever across the city than it did a decade ago. And they’re at the collaborating stage now, too. The band recently invited Chrissy Tashjian – frontwoman singer-guitarist of The Thin Lips – to record vocals on the new album with her. Tashjian will also be touring with the band this spring.
I don’t know if growing up is the right word. Besides the off-kilter stories about childhood and the teenage angst that tinges some of their songs, there’s never been anything especially precocious about Hop Along’s music. But they’re growing up, Quinlan says, a selfless kind of growth that she hopes is evident on “Bark Your Head Off, Dog.”
“Everybody just really stepped forward in the ideas they brought to the table,” she says. “We were all present for the songs rather than for our own styles – we didn’t really think about that.”
Quinlan speaks plainly about her own expectations. She says she cried when she turned 20 and wasn’t a recognized artist yet. (At 31, she’s more comfortable in her trajectory.) She used to envy her friends who were more prolific songwriters for churning out gem after gem. (Now, she’s traded jealousy for appreciation.) “I would lose my mind” she says of working that fast. “I would absolutely lose my mind.”
Quinlan says the new album isn’t lyrically cohesive. Like Hop Along’s past records, the songs tell individual stories, many of which reflect back on personal issues and younger days. (“I don’t think I'll ever be able to get away from writing about family or childhood. [On this album] I tried to branch out and talk about the world a little bit, but by default I live in my head. I tend to dwell on things.”)
I end up asking about her voice, after all. She says she pushed herself to do something different with her vocals on this record – even if that meant abandoning her signature rasp-to-whisper wail. It’s fun, she says, to shock the listener “with the very sound of you” and then drop down to a soft hush.
“But I really didn’t want to scream on this record,” she says.
Sometimes, it’s just about growing for the sake of growing. On “How Simple,” the first released single from the new record, Quinlan loops a single melancholy line over and over: “Don’t worry,” she sings. “We will both find out, just not together.”
For Hop Along, it looks like they’re finding out together after all.