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Interview with Jesca Hoop

Jesca Hoop

Images and Video by Jan-Willem Dikkers

“I was going to find a shack and fix it up and I was going to start a band.
I did. I found a shack underneath a blackberry bush.”
— Jesca Hoop

Jesca Hoop
Jessica “Jesca” Ada Hoop (b. 1975 in Santa Rosa, California) is an American singer-songwriter and guitarist, who writes and performs in diverse musical styles. By 2000, Hoop had moved to Los Angeles where she became a nanny to Tom Waits’ children. He and his wife Kathleen Brennan became instrumental in developing her career and brought her in contact with his music publisher Lionel Conway. Conway sent a demo of the song ‘Seed of Wonder’ to Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW. It became one of the most requested songs on the show. Hoop then signed to Columbia Records’ subsidiary 3 Records. Her debut album Kismet was released in September 2007 in the US.

John Parish (b. 1959) is an English musician, songwriter, composer and record producer.
He is best known for his work with singer-songwriter PJ Harvey. He has also worked with many other bands including Eels, Tracy Chapman, Giant Sand, and Sparklehorse. Parish was born in Yeovil, Somerset and lives in Bristol.

This Is the Kit is the alias of British musician Kate Stables, who is based in Paris, France. The band received increased notoriety in August 2015 when BBC iPlayer debuted an episode of the documentary series Music Box devoted to This Is The Kit’s music and influences. The show was hosted by Guy Garvey, who argued that their second album, Wriggle Out the Restless, deserved a Mercury Prize nomination. Before the BBC documentary, This Is The Kit were a long-time favorite among various BBC Radio 6 Music DJs.

California born, England-based musician Jesca Hoop initially emerged as a protege of Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits—Waits once described Hoop’s music as like ‘going swimming in a lake at night’. After releasing her debut record in 2007 she released a further five albums, including a collaborative record called Love Letter to Fire with Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) and her 2017 album Memories Are Now, which met with serious praise both here and in the UK.

Hoop is now touring the US in support of her latest record, Stonechild, which was produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey, Aldous Harding) and features collaborations with Rozi Plain, Lucius and Kate Stables (aka This is the Kit). Jesca talks with us about collaboration, when not to listen to music, and how working with kids in a survival program in the desert provided the impetus to follow her true calling.

Where are you from?
I’m originally from Northern California but I’ve come here by way of Manchester, England.

How long have you been living over there?
11 years.

How do you like it over there?
It’s a mix of loving England for England and missing California, but missing the United States more than just missing California. The weather is very different. California is very well-rounded. Manchester has got more contrast—it’s either kind of cold and then sometimes it’s warm.

What made you move to Manchester?
The only thing that could really make me move across the ocean, which was a partnership.

When did you start making music?
I started writing songs when I was 16 years old but I have always sung since I was a child, as a family thing. But then I guess I started recording. I put out my first record when I was 32. I think I started taking it seriously when I was 28, like I decided to go into this field at 28.

Who did you listen to growing up?
I listened to my dad’s record collection mostly. Aside from radio, which was all like Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News and all of these Top 40 artists, Michael Jackson. My dad’s record collection—Joni Mitchell was in there. Crosby, Stills & Nash. There was Neil Diamond that we listen to as a family. I guess I have a special spot in my heart for some of those songs. It’s a guilty pleasure I would say, but I walked out of his concerts as an old lady.

Old folks stuff. There’s a duo called Ian and Sylvia. They were kind of super wholesome folk duet-style type, American singing. I’m assuming they’re American but I used to think everything was American growing up. I didn’t think the Beatles were American.

“I was up there being very close to nature sleeping outside every night. As much as I love the high mountain deserts of Arizona I was thinking, ‘I am not making use of my strongest skill set, which is singing’. That is how I perceived myself at that time.”
– Jesca Hoop

How did you get started?
Writing songs was just a pastime. I had a knack for melody. I would concentrate on melody first, but my structures were all over the place. I would put three songs into one song but they were just for me.

I was working in this survival program looking after kids who were between ages 12 and 18. It’s kind of like a correctional type of experience. We go into the high mountain deserts and they have a wilderness purge. Two months of outdoor living. No shelters, very rugged. I was up there being very close to nature sleeping outside every night. As much as I love the high mountain deserts of Arizona I was thinking, I am not making use of my strongest skill set, which is singing I think. That is how I perceived myself at that time. I decided to move back to California. I was going to find a shack and fix it up and I was going to start a band. I did. I found a shack underneath this blackberry bush. I had to clear the blackberry bush. Turn it into something habitable. It was good. It had an outdoor kitchen. I had my first bandmate. That band lasted for a couple of years. Then I decided I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I stayed in Sonoma County. That is where all this transpired. I decided to move to LA. My partner, my bandmate, wasn’t up for moving to LA so I moved myself. It wasn’t like X-Factor decided to break up the band and make me a soloist. I was just like this isn’t the place to jump off from so I moved.

Tell me a little bit about your new album Stonechild.
It’s 11 songs long. It’s about 43 minutes of music. It’s folkier. It’s more focused in terms of the mood throughout. I tend to throw in something that is whimsical or a bit of comic relief because I tend to focus on heavier subjects. I just find it more engaging, the complicated stuff. I’ve always tended in the past to throw in something light. I moved away from that, this time. The whole thing has kind of a dark, brooding feel. I don’t mean that it’s aggressive. I just mean that it’s made in a storm cloud in a way, but with that said, it’s got that electrical storm brewing inside of it.

What are some things that are important to you that you like to address through your music?
I’m dealing with things that I think we’re all struggling with, even though it may not be on the forefront of your own complicated life, but things that I think keep us from feeling balanced. Some of them are very big and broad and some of them are more intricate and little. There’s a song about misogyny as it’s perpetuated by women because it can’t happen in a vacuum. It has to happen with co-operation or some sort or defeat or whatever. That is one thing that I find there’s meat on the bone there. There is a song about racism, for the lack of a better word. The song supports diversity and it wants to send white supremacy to the bottom of the river. It’s doing that very directly. Not just white supremacists or white supremacy, but settled white supremacy, this culture that we live in, basically. I always angle it towards change but I call it a compassion project because at the root of all of the address is compassion.

“I was going to find a shack and fix it up and I was going to start a band. I did. I found a shack underneath a blackberry bush.”
– Jesca Hoop

You’ve been actively collaborating with other artists. Which ones really stood out to you and what do you like most about collaborations?
Surprise is the thing that I like the most about collaboration, and being taken aside from your own self. As much as we like to think we can grow, we have limitations as far as what we’re physically able to do. Everyone that I worked with on this record I really got a lot out of from in terms of insight and experience. John Parish was was a very gentle and fluid collaborator. He gave me a lot of—and I don’t always experience this—room to experiment with my ideas. That isn’t something always a producer affords you. Strangely, you kind of sometimes have to fight for your voice to be heard on the arrangement side of things. It’s natural to have a little bit of a wrestling match sometimes. John and I weren’t totally without wrestling matches here and there if we had a disagreement or a difference in hearing, but overall I wanted to hear the record through his ears, so his sensibility is drawing out in me what the result of record is.

And Lucius. They have a kind of body to their voices. Holly and Jess have a singing style that I don’t think I have, like a resonance, this ability to create a big sound. That is one of the reasons that I called them to help me get the church celebration-type boisterous sound out of female voices. Then the other singers on the record, Kate Staples and Rozi Plain, are English girls who helped me bring that kind of baroque, field-music type of moody atmosphere and some British accents in there as well, which I have given myself permission to use because I’ve been there for 11 years. They’re always using American accents. I’m going to use a little bit here. There’s not much. It’s not pronounced but anywhere it’s natural.

What are your interests and passions outside of music?
I’m a keen walker. I love being far out in majestic landscapes, and wherever in the world I can find one you’ll find me walking. Whenever we’re touring we’ll always build in time if there is a national park nearby. My favorite recent one was Banff in Canada.

I also love to cook. I love primarily to cook for people, not just for myself. Just for me I’m eating a baguette but I love to cook for people and I really love—and this is going to sound ridiculous because there is not a better word—but I love fashion. I love clothing and dressing for all occasions but the funny thing is, I wear the same thing every day. I have a passion for textiles, the tangible world, designing rooms, putting together spaces. I like dancing. I like talking shit with my friends. What else? I don’t know.

“If you get that there are people sitting down, making these rules that kept progression from certain groups of people then you understand your privilege. Then you also get to feel for the people that are struggling more than you.”
– Jesca Hoop

What is your favorite book, film and music right now?
My favorite book right now, the one I’m working at slowly, is The Color of Law [by Richard Rothstein]. It clarifies and makes very plain the systematic segregation that we still experience today—why all of the money is in white neighborhoods and why that has been capped off for people of color. It makes it very clear how that happened, when it happened and helps you see, it helps you recognize what is going on as you travel through a city. It started in Richmond. The books starts in Richmond. It helps explain it during wartime: houses were given to white people. Houses were not allowed to be given to black people. For me it really helps you, knowledge is understanding. Understanding leads to empathy. If you get that there are people sitting down, making these rules that kept progression from certain groups of people then you understand your privilege. You understand that that was a privilege that was given to you. Then you also get to feel for the people that are struggling more than you. That is my favorite book right now.

Beautiful Boy is a 2030 American biographical drama film directed by Felix van Groeningen, in his English-language feature debut. The screenplay, written by Luke Davies and van Groeningen, is based on the memoirs Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff. The film stars Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, and Amy Ryan, and deals with a father-son relationship increasingly strained by the latter’s drug addiction.

I watched Beautiful Boy recently. It’s set in my home town. It’s in Old North Bay. It’s my home landscape and I don’t know the young actor’s name but I think they did a magnificent job. I watched that one a few times. First time you watch it it’s jarring, incredibly jarring. If you’ve ever taken any of those drugs it brings back not a comfortable feeling. For me, I smoked meth once and it was really a bad feeling and watching him display or just act that out brought that feeling back for me. It’s not a comfortable watch but in the way they just did an incredibly effective job. I like to keep it easy, light and easy.

I tend to watch heavy films too. It’s more interesting.
I like a good comedy. If I have a choice between a comedy and a heavy drama I’ll choose the heavy drama.

And what about music?
I can’t say that I’m listening to anything right now. I’m kind of steering clear of everything. The reason why: I’m going old—and I’m sorry that I am doing that but if I pay attention to what is current when I’m putting out a record I start to feel like I’m in a competition. I’d rather just take everything at face value and not weigh it up against my own self. Right now I’m being judged, I’m being weighed up and my work is being judged which is exciting. It’s also felt very good, but at the same time I just want that to be just what it is, and not weighed up against something else because it’s real easy to do and I fall prey to that easily. I’m not listening to music right now.

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