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Frances Quinlan Wants Witnesses

On January 29, 2020

Praising Hop Along’s 2015 album Painted Shut, Jillian Mapes wrote, “Listening to Frances Quinlan fray her vocals is like watching someone rip a gnarly run in their black tights.” If Hop Along reflects that torn brutality, then Quinlan’s solo effort Likewise is the gradual unraveling of the tights’ threads, a tear slowly widening into a gash. Likewise is tough and tender: ethereal in its imagery, but absolute in its craving for connection.

“As human beings, we have an innate desire to make contact — we have an innate desire to connect with each other — and so it makes perfect sense that when we meet people we don’t know, we try to immediately familiarize ourselves to the extent where we are comfortable,” Quinlan says. In part, she named the album for this attempt at mutual understanding: “‘It’s nice to meet you.” “Likewise.”

Quinlan layers folktale-invoking images over a song’s most potent pain points, which are strengthened by that strangeness. Likewise’s first track, “Piltdown Man,” is a perfect example: It begins with a falsified evolutionary discovery and morphs into a rumination on childhood innocence. Within the song, Quinlan calls that memory a template for one’s true, unfiltered self.

“Innocence — I don’t think it dies. Experience just tends to drum it off somewhere,” Quinlan says. “A lot of adulthood seeps into all of [the songs], I would say, even the childhood parts. There’s still an adult who’s looking back.”

She treats this childhood innocence tenderly, as in “Rare Thing,” which centers on her young niece: “Through the chaos I can see / all afternoon you inhale / every bouquet you meet / I have to stop myself and admit / I am happy.” The simple joy in so many of Likewise’s songs provides a soft counter to the nightmares and violence explicit in Quinlan’s more vocally fried, vulnerable moments.

While the album leans far more toward folk than Hop Along’s rock-heavy work, Quinlan’s bandmates do all contribute to certain aspects of the record. In this recording process, she realized that unlike singing and songwriting, she doesn’t have much passion for guitar: she’s always treated it as the vehicle necessary to drive a song. On Likewise, she explored how else she could make a track move.

"As I get older, there are few things I feel I can say with finality, and so maybe I’m more comfortable with abstractions."
Francis Quinlan

“There are so many vehicles that can help drive a song — synthesizers and something like Ableton or a very rudimentary pattern on the piano can really drive a song forward,” Quinlan says. She cites Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender as inspirations for her own lyrics’ abstract visuals and painterly ideals. “As I get older, there are few things I feel I can say with finality, and so maybe I’m more comfortable with abstractions,” Quinlan says. All the same, she knows masking intentions can be self-serving too. On “Went to LA,” she sings, “Out of self-preservation did I / begin with tenderness?”

After all, as much as the tracks on Likewise attempt connection through tenderness, they can’t always achieve it — after all, a song is a one-sided story. “Even if there is a response in the song, that response is frozen and can’t be dug into any more than a particular phrase,” Quinlan says. “The song is doomed, it can’t be a dialogue — it’s one person singing.”

From “A Secret” to “Detroit Lake,” many of the songs on Likewise are deeply tied to witnesses, the act of witnessing, and the act of being witnessed: How these factors affect what happens, how others remember what happens, and how they then react to what happens.

“For a lot of people, there is this desire that existence is not just limited to their body or mind and that’s all: that there is this force or existence, this outer witness [like God],” Quinlan says. “And some of us just want it to be other people [who witness us], that can prove we were here, the memories of others and the love of others as proof of our having been here. Being loved is such tremendous proof.”

Photo by Julia Khorosilov

Profile Picture of Caitlin Wolper
Caitlin Wolper

Caitlin Wolper is a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vulture, Slate, MTV News, Teen Vogue, and more. Her first poetry chapbook, Ordering Coffee in Tel Aviv, was published in October by Finishing Line Press. She shares her music and poetry thoughts (with a bevy of exclamation points, and mostly lowercase) at @CaitlinWolper.

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