Jesca Hoop: All Stripped Down

On Memories Are Now, Jesca Hoop navigates the spaces between the notes

The first thing you notice about singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop’s seventh full-length is how spare it sounds, each song assembled only from two or three instrumental elements and Hoop’s warm-yet-adaptive, shape-shifting voice. Then you stop hearing that sparseness, so rich does the album sound. Somewhere near a half-hour into its 40-minute running time, it hits you again, and you start wondering how the hell Memories Are Now can sound so expansive, considering its skeletal arrangements.

Part of the answer lies in the clear, unadorned production of Hoop’s own voice and guitar, which remain front and center. Produced by fellow songwriter/musician and sometime collaborator Blake Mills, Memories Are Now isn’t strictly Hoop’s most instrumentally austere disc; Undress and The Complete Kismet Acoustic offered voice-and-guitar renditions of previously released songs. But from the outset, Memories was planned as a raw representation of Hoop’s formidable songwriting talents.

“The first step we took was to think about where the loyalty begins between myself and the listener, where that relationship forms,” says Hoop from her adopted Manchester, U.K., home. “And Blake and I decided that it happens in a live setting, where I’m much less wrapped in sonic information. My studio albums can be quite dense. So we wanted to create more space and be more discerning about what sounds were used.”

With other material, in other hands, such a project might’ve ended up sounding airy or lightweight. It’s to Hoop and Mills’ credit that Memories Are Now sounds as full as is does—even at times heavy, as on “Cut Connection,” a stomping track that provides one of the album’s more unsettling moments, both musically and lyrically: “I’m living a dream/In the dream I’m buried alive,” Hoop sings coolly, and later, “I summon your hands/To bring me what is mine … I don’t waste my breath/Don’t waste my time.” (Much of the album, perhaps fittingly, mines this subject—the idea of stripping things down to the essence, leaving behind what’s no longer necessary.)

As on all of Hoop’s LPs, styles and genres abound. “I’ve never felt loyal to any one genre,” she says. “I think that can cause trouble. If you’re an artist who identifies with a genre, you’re setting yourself up for some relative ease, but if you don’t know exactly where you fit, if you’re just playing and enjoying whatever you find, it’s hard to know whether it’ll resonate with people. Or whether it will again, when you put out another album.”

But Memories’ humble arrangements allow Hoop’s voice to be displayed comfortably in multiple settings. Check the gamboling folk/country harmonies and fuzztone roll of “Simon Says,” the harplike ballad plucking of “Songs Of Old” or, in particular, the watery, tremolo-drenched “The Coming,” which deploys divine and satanic imagery to spin a tale of love gone tough, endurance gone exhausted.

“The Coming,” which closes the album on a strong, stately note, was the first song to arrive in the process. “When I began,” says Hoop, “I kept thinking ‘15.’ I needed 15 songs to make an album.” (Memories Are Now ultimately contained nine.) “I was a little overwhelmed. So I went for a long walk—about 10 miles—and hummed to myself the whole way. But I was still frustrated. Nothing came. So I made dinner, and went to my writing room, and the little gates of my mind opened up after a bit. I didn’t produce anything on that walk, but that walk seemed to clear the way to produce ‘The Coming.’ So I had to approach the rest of the songs with that same trust.”

It’s a trust that extended to the production of the album as well. “I know Blake very well,” says Hoop, “but I didn’t know how good he was as a producer. I was surprised at his level of knowledge and skill, what he was able to do in such a short period of time. Sometimes it’s a negotiation, but production always has to serve the song: How do we best convey the communication and emotional intention in this song and keep the integrity? That was Blake’s intent the whole time, particularly in terms of the voice, its unique ability to communicate. I’d want to do another take, and he’d say, ‘I don’t ever want you to sing that perfectly.’ He really encouraged me to come raw, to let the songs remain human and flawed. I think that’s what he wanted to protect all the way through.”

—Eric Waggoner

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