Frances Quinlan, the singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the Philadelphia band Hop Along, has never been big on doing interviews. Around the release of the band's 2015 album Painted Shut, she told Noisey, “I just don’t consider myself a particularly interesting person with a lot of stories,” and when Vulture declared that she had the best voice in rock music that same year, they made note of her aversion to doing press, too. Even with three years' time in between album cycles, when I ask her if she still feels that way, it still seems true, even if her reasoning has shifted. “I just think people aren’t as interested in talking about 30-year-olds making music,” says Quinlan. “What’s remarkable about that? What’s exciting about that?”
It’s reflexive how quick Quinlan is to remind me that she’s not particularly noteworthy. She’s preternaturally humble, to the point where it begins to border on self-deprecation. It fits perfectly in line with the person fans have come to know through her music, from declaring, “My love is average” in “Tibetan Pop Stars,” the breakout song from 2012’s Get Disowned, or describing her facial features as “a very common kind” on Painted Shut. When talking about the early days of Hop Along, after it evolved from her solo project Hop Along, Queen Ansleis into a full-on band when Quinlan was 24, she throws in a backhanded compliment to her present self: “I wasn’t very good then.”
It’s something that many fans would quibble with, given how feverishly adored her music is, even dating back to when she released Freshman Year just as she was entering college. When I bring that up, she says with genuine enthusiasm, “I love those people! They’re wonderful! Because no one was talking about us back then. When I put out Freshman Year I went on tour with my friend Dom [Angelella] and we were playing in a mall in Canada to 15 people and we were elated.” But by the time of Get Disowned, people would be talking about Hop Along, as the knotty, sprawling work revealed the truth: Quinlan was the songwriter an entire generation had been waiting for.
Quinlan has always had a penchant for shrinking herself, using her songs to show her flaws and, often, not allowing much praise to be worked in. It’s a struggle that most artists have, but since Painted Shut, she began exploring what was at the root of those tendencies. As she began writing for what would become the band’s third full-length album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, she saw that these things were implanted in her, not through her own self-doubt, but by a society that routinely keeps women from relishing their achievements, no matter how deserving they are.
“I was writing those songs for Painted Shut in 2013, 2014. At that time, it was kind of just dawning on me how I was, as a woman, immediately introduced to a feeling of owing something by virtue of my sex. And feeling a lack of power,” says Quinlan. She draws a line back to when she was growing up, reading male authors that rarely gave female characters anything more than the vaguest outline of a personality, much less anything resembling agency. “Women did not have that kind of dimension that men were given,” she says. “I might have even, for a long time, unconsciously denied my sex. I think we’re shedding a lot of preconceived ideas, and I was only just beginning to shed those ideas on some songs from Painted Shut.”
"[I]t was kind of just dawning on me how I was, as a woman, immediately introduced to a feeling of owing something by virtue of my sex. And feeling a lack of power."
That refutation was most notable on “Powerful Man,” a song from Painted Shut that saw the protagonist stunned as a father abused his child in front of her. But in the years that followed, Quinlan followed that thread, learning more about how her power had so often been challenged, if not invalidated, by cultural forces. “The further along I got, the more angry I got,” says Quinlan. “There was a lot of anger in this record, and I was nervous about putting it out, I was nervous about sounding bitter, but I think a lot of people are dealing with those feelings now, be it women, and the trans community, everybody that’s not a straight, white man.”
While she half-joked about no one caring what someone in their thirties has to say, on Bark Your Head Off, Dog, she uses all the knowledge and experiences she’s gained to empower herself through her music. “Going into my thirties, I realized that I had deferred to men for so long to tell me, as a woman, who I’m supposed to be,” says Quinlan. “I’ve always written in the most empowered way that I can, but I couldn’t find that empowerment as a woman. I just couldn’t. I’ve been theorizing a lot about why I just don’t tend to write romantic love songs. For the longest time, when I was writing, I didn’t look at myself that way. I would write from the perspective of a child, or I would make people up, but I just could not write from my own perspective in a concrete way. There would have to be distance.”
On Bark Your Head Off, Dog, that gap has all but closed. Quinlan’s vocals remain as moving and expressive as ever, but the stories she tells, and the ideas she evokes, are pointed in a way Hop Along had only hinted at before. The opening track, “How Simple,” is both a love song and a break-up song, as Quinlan, for once, embraces herself and her capacity for love—“How simple my heart can be / Frightens me”—while navigating her way out of a messy romantic relationship. And in “How You Got Your Limp,” instead of deferring to a loudmouthed, know-it-all man, she is quick to challenge him, addressing his misogyny outright when she deploys the line, “All your strength came from her humiliation.” Instead of demuring, she stands tall, seeing these peacocking gestures for what they are: The behaviors of emotionally stunted, doomed men.
While Quinlan’s lyrics are the clearest example of her declaring the power she wields, the songwriting on Bark Your Head Off, Dog is her most confident to date. As a band, they take more risks, as Quinlan guides them through compositions that, compared to Painted Shut, are at once more daring and outright fulfilling. “I just did not have that maturity or ability to express myself when we were working on songs for Painted Shut,” she says. “I was really overwhelmed and wanted to make a record that was better than our last record, but I didn’t have the tools to convey things the way that I was seeing them in my head. And I’m not even sure what I was seeing in my head.”
This time around, Quinlan had a concrete idea in mind, and she leaned on her bandmates to help express it. “I really did want the record to follow through from a beginning to an end,” she says, and it’s noticeable when taking in the album as a whole. Lyrical phrases are shared between songs, and the rising current of reclamation becomes more pronounced as the album continues on. By the time she sings, “I’m still soft / I’m still in my prime,” on “Prior Things,” it feels like a culmination of Hop Along up to this point, as the song’s character embraces her ability to love and be loved in a way no song in the band’s discography would have previously allowed.
It’s something that took nearly two years to complete, as Quinlan first began writing in 2016, before undergoing an intense editing process with her bandmates, which includes her brother Mark Quinlan on drums, bassist Tyler Long, and guitarist Joe Reinhart—who recorded the album with Kyle Pulley in the studio they own together—and made for songs that feel entirely divorced from the tradition of singer-songwriters. Allowing herself to be more malleable with her work elevated Bark Your Head Off, Dog into an album that feels intimate, as if you’re watching someone transform over the course of an album.
“I’ve always been threatened by another person telling me to edit what I’m doing, but I’ve learned to trust them, because they are so good at what they do, and they do know how I work,” she says. “But over the years I’ve just come to realize that my identity is so tied to this project, just with my lyrics and performance, but I’ve learned to feel empowered by that. And humbled by the fact that people that are far better musicians than I am choose to be in this project with me and believe in my vision. That humbles me.” Quinlan’s trust in her band is palpable, as a song like “Somewhere a Judge” sees each member playing adjacent to each other instead of in sync, with guitars refracting off one another and drums swirling in a motion that feels more like an endless looping pattern. The same is true for “Not Abel,” which builds up as an acoustic-based folk song before spinning off into a different dimension in its final third.
Taken in total, Bark Your Head Off, Dog offers something that no other Hop Along record has. Where Get Disowned drenched its meaning in obtuse symbolism, and Painted Shut featured vignettes of characters that only occasionally resembled Quinlan, Hop Along’s new album feels fully hers. Even if she still doesn’t love being interviewed, this time around, she’s no longer shy to say what’s on her mind. And if you listen to her record, you’ll hear it.
David Anthony is on Twitter.