The Hunger & The Fight: Jesca Hoop Interviewed

Jesca Hoop's new album The House That Jack Built was informed by the recent death of her father, but still finds room to be playful with both sound and lyrical concerns. She tells John Freeman about how it came together, touring with Peter Gabriel and the compulsion to keep creating

It’s a glorious late spring evening and I’m sat with Jesca Hoop outside a pub next to a village green, a mere three miles from Manchester’s city centre. As fellow drinkers gorge themselves on sunshine and bonhomie, Jesca is nursing a whisky on the rocks and talking through gentle tears about the recent death of her father – an event which inspired a number of tracks on her remarkable new album, The House That Jack Built. Although I’ve interviewed Jesca before, and she does want to talk about her dad, it’s still an incredibly difficult and slightly surreal conversation.

Raised in a Mormon household, Hoop ‘escaped’ in her mid-teens to live as a homesteader in Wyoming, before becoming a nanny to Tom Waits’ kids. The overlord of tall tales nudged the fledgling songwriter into a musical career and by way of a 2007 debut album, Kismet, she connected with Elbow’s Guy Garvey. The Lancastrian was so enthralled by Hoop’s bleak folk songs he suggested she relocate from Los Angeles to Manchester. A second album, 2009’s Hunting My Dress, showcased a more expansive sound, but it is Hoop’s new record that fully realises her vision and balances elegant balladry with lean, snaking rock tracks.

I first met Jesca about 15 months ago on the eve of the release of her Snowglobe EP. We drank Mexican beer in a Brazilian bar on Manchester’s Deansgate and she talked to me about the EP’s title track – a gorgeous, multi-dimensional song about the death of her mother. She’s great company, and the possessor of a fizzing intellect. Her thought processes often appear non-linear – she speaks in technicolour and at times all I can do is cling onto the coattails of her high-octane logic. But it is when she outlines the songs inspired by her father that Hoop’s bravery truly illuminates the central beauty of The House That Jack Built.

I believe a number of songs on your new album are about your father. I’m assuming he is the Jack in The House That Jack Built?

Jesca Hoop: Yes, he is Jack and both ‘DNR’ and the title track are dedicated to my father. I’ve been quite transparent with my songwriting. My dad was just a guy who struggled and we watched him struggle. He was a beautiful man, very heartfelt and a good listener but struggled to live his own life. We witnessed his life as a parent might witness their child’s life. Do you know what I mean? He couldn’t help us much in life; the ways he could assist were apt, which were in matters of the heart.

I’m so sorry to hear about him, how long has it been since he died?

JH: It was a little over a year ago. He’d been in declining health for five years and we’d been expecting him to die for five years. ‘DNR’ stands for ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ and, eventually, that’s what it came to. We are at that stage where everyone’s parents are passing on. But that makes it easier, because it isn’t personal, it’s just biology.

Were the songs about him difficult to write?

JH: Actually, they were especially easy to write but especially hard to sing. It will become easier, once the songs become more practical and for the listeners instead of for me. I’m learning how to guard my tears with a wax.

These particular songs are incredibly personal. Was it a difficult decision to make them public?

JH: Well, the things I chose to speak about and the reason they are justified in calling attention to, is that they are universal. While the circumstances are specific and the details are idiosyncratic to my own experience, the foundations of the songs are universal. ‘DNR’ is not my experience alone – it is an experience shared by millions of people who watch their parents live through the end of their lives. I decided that was worthy of asking people to listen.

Away from these hugely emotive songs, your new record draws from a variety of inspirations. For example, I think the track ‘Peacemaker is a particularly fascinating concept.

JH: Thank you. ‘Peacemaker’ is inspired by a play by Aristophanes. It’s a dark comedy about the women of ancient Greece who decide to withhold sex from the men until they stop invading, pillaging and warring. I’m not endorsing the idea; I’m putting out a magnifying glass on a concept which I think is radical. Actually, I was having a conversation with someone in LA and they said there were women of gang members there who used the same idea against gangs.

The House That Jack Built was written at your home in Manchester – what is the writing process like for you?

JH: Well, I wrote them all in my little writing room. I collect ideas everywhere that I travel and then I compile the ideas and form them into songs at home. I go for three or four weeks without talking to anyone. I walk around the house moving from writing room to toilet to teapot to wine glass and get very insular and internal. When I start writing there is a brooding storm and I get under a thick canopy of cloud and then, eventually, the storm clouds break and I am able to write.

When we last met you spoke about wanting to improve your communication skills. Have you succeeded on this album?

JH: I think so. I have to say that within Kismet when I wrote an intimate track, it was all in code. I don’t write in code on this record at all. I just told it like it is. Also, I tried to leave some areas to breathe in the songs. There is nowhere to breathe on Kismet – the actual physical breathing – because there are too many words. I’m able to breathe in these songs so that’s an indicator that I am getting more direct in my communication. So, I think my writing has matured and I feel more closely connected to the writing process as a whole.

The album was recorded in Los Angeles [at Tony Berg’s Zeitgeist studios with long time collaborators Blake Mills, Shawn Everett and Berg himself]. Why did you choose to work there with your friends again?

JH: I felt I had one more body of work I needed to complete with these fellows. They are three very close friends and I wanted to experience what would happen when we all got further invested.

How much impact did they have on how the album ended up sounding?

JH: They stretched and developed it quite a bit. Initially, I sent the songs as raw material with my own performance and vocals, so they could stretch me in whatever direction. The track ‘The House That Jack Built’ was amended by Blake, the guitarist, and it’s actually a co-write – as is ‘Pack Animal’. A lot of times we did what they said, unless I didn’t like it. If I liked it, it was a harmonious convergence. If I didn’t like it, I just made sure that they knew.

You recently toured South America as a backing singer for Peter Gabriel. How was the experience?

JH: It was an absolute blast and I learned that incredibly successful, highly creative people can be gentle, down-to-earth and communicative. Fame doesn’t necessarily bring with it a tyrant. Peter would disappear on most of the nights but my favourite moments were flying directly after one show to another, together, in a very small plane.

You mean a private jet, don’t you?

JH: [Laughs] I’m not going to say that. It was a small plane and we just really got to chew the fat. That was a real pleasure – to chew the fat with a man I have respected for so long.

You appear to search into some very dark places to create your songs. Would a happy Jesca Hoop struggle to make music?

JH: Happiness is a mood. It is a feeling that comes and goes. I think I am working to find the balance. Maybe for a songwriter there is a certain amount of friction that really helps. It doesn’t mean you have to write depressing material, you just have to write to regain balance and to get a grip. The hunger and the fight is what fuel you and I’m not sure that they are necessarily necessary but that’s how I function.

Isn’t that tiring?

JH: Yes! It’s extremely tiring [laughs]. You are the subject of your own work. You are the centre of your work and you are always in attendance when you work is being discussed – it is a very self-centred world. It is hard to separate yourself from your work and you don’t know where you end and the work begins. But, it’s very nice when the family get together and I have a completely easy time and the work is done and I don’t talk about it.

Last time we met you described your previous albums as akin to stages of labour and suggested that your next record would be like the crowning. I’d imagine that’s a rather painful part of the birthing process. Was The House That Jack Built your ‘crowning’ album?

JH: I honestly feel that it was. It was a very painful album to write – very painful and very relieving. I cried my whole way through the signature tunes and I either laughed or cried through the others. The next album should have a halo of love.

The House That Jack Built is out via Republic Of Music on June 25th

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