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Jesca Hoop: Seeds of Change

By Stephen Humphries on April 26, 2010

 

Jesca Hoop: Seeds of Change

Jesca Hoop was in the bathtub when she received a phone call that changed her life. “It was the first domino in a series of events,” recalls the singer-songwriter, her chin resting on raised knees. “My management told me that a man named Guy Garvey wanted to interview me. I had no idea who he was.”

As just about any British music listener could tell you, Garvey is the soulful voice of Elbow, the Mancunian band that nudged its way into England’s superstar league with its fourth album, 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid. Garvey, a raconteur with his own weekly show on BBC Radio 6 Music, was so enamored with Hoop’s avant-garde folk debut, 2007's Kismet, that he spontaneously called her for an on-air chat.   “I had a conversation with him while I was bathing,” says Hoop, whose last name is pronounced “hope.” “It was one of the first interviews I truly enjoyed. I love his mind and his love for language and music. We became friends on that phone call.” From there, the other dominoes toppled in serendipitous fashion. The Californian toured with Elbow and, in turn, invited Garvey to sing a duet that appears on her superb new album, Hunting My Dress. She also fell in love with someone in Elbow’s circle. The relationship inspired, quite literally, a career move. Last year, the boho-chic songwriter packed up her Los Angeles-based livelihood and relocated to the “smaller circuit” of the U.K.

“I was sitting between my boyfriend and Guy Garvey and Guy was saying, ‘Just move to Manchester, Jes. We’ll take care of you, we’ll look after you.’ Looking at it, with this incredible man on my right, and this other incredible man on my left, I just felt like I was in the best hands.”  For all the culture shocks—Hoop wrinkles her nose as she describes mushy peas, a pub-food staple, as “filled with food coloring”—the transatlantic migration has given her a commercial boost. Hunting My Dress has been heralded by several high-profile interviews and rave reviews in U.K. magazines and newspapers.

By turns adventurous and accessible, Hunting My Dress is infused with the derring-do spirit of musical forebears such as Kate Bush, Björk and PJ Harvey. As such, it’s an album of unpredictable topography. The terrain ranges from off-kilter pop to pastoral folk to raw-boned blues as Hoop sculpts bold contours with tectonic shifts of rhythm, tone and musical styles. On “Four Dreams,” for instance, the singer sounds as innocent as Doris Day as she playfully invites a companion to “come and bring a stereo/and lay down on my pillow/down into a dream we go.” Then, suddenly, it plunges into a sultry interlude with Hoop seductively growling, “I’m going to show you/how I love my jelly rolled.”

Elsewhere, Hoop’s voice ranges from earthy to ethereal. “Tulip,” a murder ballad, even has Celtic cadences.   "The tulip was used as a currency in 16th century Holland,” says Hoop, sipping tea at a Los Angeles homestead where, later, she’ll reveal a talent for horse whispering while posing with a finicky mare for a photo shoot. “This man falls in love with a woman and wants to buy her, so he buys her with a tulip. A particular bulb, as far as I’ve read, could go for the equivalent of $15,000. The woman doesn’t love him. She’s in love with a man who isn’t alive anymore. So he drowns her.

“I’m intrigued by the murder ballad,” Hoop coos in her feathery voice. “It seems to be something that comes from God’s country. Where religion is very thick, so are murder ballads.”  Hoop is familiar with such religious landscapes. The 33-year-old was born into a Mormon household in Northern California. Pop culture was strictly regulated, yet artistic expression was encouraged inside a theater that Hoop’s mother, a singer, constructed in the basement. But the future songwriter’s childhood was roiled by her parents’ divorce and her mother’s later love affair with a gay man. Jesca left home at 15.

Hoop’s estranged relationship with her mom figures prominently on Hunting My Dress. Opening track “Whispering Light” details how, in the final weeks of her mother’s battle with cancer, she called her daughter and asked for guidance on how to smoke medicinal marijuana. The singer got out her own stash and talked her mother through it. “She was as straight as an arrow,” says Hoop. “So I got stoned over the phone with my mom.”

It turned out to be their final, and most open, conversation. “We knew she was saying her goodbyes, but weren’t quite acknowledging it.”  Recalling the inspiration behind “Angel Mom,” a lyric about her mother’s later visitation in a dream, the artist’s head drops into a bowl of cupped hands and she begins to quietly sob. “I found it to be quite mysterious,” Hoop concludes, dabbing at stray tears from pupils as translucent as marbles.

The songwriter brightens when the conversation shifts to two parental figures in her life: Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. As nanny to their children for several years, Hoop waited a long time before sharing her melodies with the pair, who helped her make vital connections in the music business. Her fondest memory? Walking up to Waits’ parked car where the iconic poet was listening to one of Hoop’s guitar-and-voice demos. “He turned it up really loud and started rocking back and forth. He gave me this little look, like, ‘This is good.’ I just turned into a puppy dog! I’ve not relived the same feeling since.”
Maybe so, but Hoop has never been happier. Describing how she met Garvey and her boyfriend at a transitional time in her life, the musician becomes contemplative. “The petals of a flower fall off and you have the seeds there, ready. So, I just went to germinate a whole new territory.” F