I never put the Beatles on when I’m struggling, Frances Quinlan used to say. It wasn’t true, though.
“I was actually just saying that the other day on our way back from practice, and then I realized I’m full of shit,” says the 31-year-old force behind the genre-resistant Philadelphia outfit Hop Along. “I listen to the Beatles all the time late at night when I’m really upset.”
We’re talking about coping music—those songs and artists we turn to when the world is too much—ahead of her band’s stop at Club Dada on Monday. Bound by Quinlan’s uncontainable voice, Hop Along traffics in mid-tempo guitar jams, tender acoustic confessionals and buoyant, hook-driven indie pop that sweetens the bitterness of loss that has animated her songs since the band’s 2012 breakthrough, Get Disowned.
Quinlan often explores the subject of death with a steely focus on what it means to continue living in its wake. On “Look of Love,” from which the band’s latest LP Bark Your Head Off, Dog takes its title, a child reckons with her “awful relief” that a scary neighborhood Labrador has been hit and killed by a car.
“Now what are you gonna do to me?” she wonders in terror. “The first symptom of guilt then became a permanent shame.”
I don’t tell Quinlan that I hit a dog who darted out from the darkness on a panicked drive to the hospital as her band’s sophomore album, Painted Shut, rattled my car speakers. Instead, moving toward a question about the dogs who die in her songs—another is killed in the triumphant “Sister Cities”—I tell her that Eddie from Frasier is buried in rural northeastern Oklahoma, a fact she seems genuinely glad to know.
“One of the first things I was ever afraid of was a dog,” Quinlan tells me. “There was a family around the corner from us with a big black lab they had tied up outside. He would run off all the time, but a few times he would come into our yard. Once he chased my mom and me on top of a car—that’s where the line [from “Look of Love”] comes from: “Mom carried me down from off the car / neighbors scolded, I’d upset him.’”
“They tried to get me to pet the dog afterward,” she remembers with a laugh. “Adults have weird ways of trying to fix problems.”
Quinlan focuses on the very things we try to keep out of the sunlight. This uncovering of what lies buried in the lives of her characters feels like a kind of one-way talk therapy, an inspiration for anyone needing to drag their own shame and regret into the open for a better view.
“What if the details there were suddenly shared?” she sings on “Not Abel,” riffing on the story of Cain and Abel in what is perhaps the finest song in the band’s catalogue. Those details are the “tender moments siblings keep secret,” a smart throughline between her sympathetic telling of Cain’s bloody plight and a parting image of two present-day siblings with a photo of their late father:
“A death so small and sentimental
Daddy giving the middle finger to the Kodak lens
When I saw her face, she smiled
‘I don’t know why I saved it all this time.'”
I got to know Hop Along’s 2015 watershed Painted Shut on a desperate three-hour loop in my car stereo as I barreled through the Oklahoma dark to my mom’s first emergency surgery in Texas. I only had two other CD-Rs in my 2001 Kia Spectra, both too intense for the white-knuckled drive. So I let Frances Quinlan’s songs play, over and over, hearing myself in the pleas of her worried and wounded narrators.
“None of this is going to happen to me,” one pitifully insists on the breezy and bruising “Texas Funeral,” but I couldn’t afford myself the same delusion as I drove in the sober pre-dawn of the wrecking loss to come.
My mom died unexpectedly last February, days after her 55th birthday and weeks before my 30th. It seems like an odd thing to tell a stranger over the phone, but Quinlan’s music is so fused with the experience of that loss and the messy, inscrutable process of healing that it felt like the most natural thing I could possibly share with her.
“It means a great deal to me when someone tells me their story like that,” she says. “The songs themselves are stories, and I do try to be as true as I can— so I think that’s why some of them tend to feel more personal, because even stories that are about other people do carry elements of myself in them, otherwise I don’t think I would be able to write them and have them feel true. It’s encouraging when someone senses that and gets something out of it.”
Quinlan told Paste in 2015 that she “never want[s] to get away from writing about death.” Her lyrical universe is one where “death, indiscriminate, drags off a newborn buck with a broken leg,” so it’s perhaps no surprise that someone trying to cope with that cruel reality would find themselves at home there.
“The more I think about it, the more I think I’m writing about fear than death,” Quinlan says. “Because I know nothing about it, truthfully. The people I’ve lost in my life are people who are a little more distant from me, or much older relatives. I’m in constant fear of losing people, because I have so little understanding of what that’s going to be like. I’ve focused on that fear for a long time and I think it’s important to confront it rather than get away from it. The fact that I’ll never understand makes me want to try all the more, in that weird human way. But death has always been a part of art. It’s like all the skulls in old paintings—we’ve always been in contact with it.”
“Memento mori,” I say. Remember death.