If you’ve heard the name Frances Quinlan, it’s most likely been with regard to her raspy voice at the front of the wildly intimate and beloved indie-alt band, Hop Along. Just like the range and capacity of her inimitable voice, she also offers endless, vulnerable beauty to the world through her different creative outlets. As well as releasing her very first solo album under her given name, entitled Likewise, she’s also decided to show yet another piece of herself through her visual art practice.
In her first solo exhibition, “Is This The Place?,” Quinlan showcased her drawings and paintings, many of which happened while mindlessly looking out a van window taking in the vast, beautiful, and sometimes mundane landscapes she passed through while on tour (places that tend to be overshadowed by the unlimited content on our phones). We are all guilty of looking at our phone for a numbing amount of time, only to feel judged by our screen time alerts. But, when you’re someone that seems to constantly crave more creatively, like Quinlan, seems like the natural thing to do is to use your hands for something more valuable than scrolling.
For the past decade and a half, Quinlan has been at the forefront of the Philly-based, Saddle Creek darling band, Hop Along. The group has never shied away from intense subjects and they’re known for embracing the uncomfortable topics people might avoid at the dinner table. “Is this the place?” incidentally chronicles Quinlan’s time on the road while looking at sprawling lands during grueling tours. The series examines the beauty of the outdoors that may have otherwise been casually passed by. While landscapes have been done, Quinlan does offer a fresh take on them — fluid yet bold strokes — often quickly working on pieces in a moving car and expanding later, or simply working from memory.
I had the opportunity to talk to Frances about her introduction to the art world, how her music may or may not inform her paintings, and the beauty of accidents in art.
Tell me about your intro to art, specifically painting. Were you inspired by anyone or anything growing up?
I’m really lucky in that my family was into art, printmaking actually. I think around the late sixties or seventies maybe, my grandfather acquired an etching press and he would do these etchings of decoys of wooden birds, and my mom, her and her two sisters would also do etchings. My mom would do a lot of watercolors. Actually, a lot of her birds are featured in Hop Along artwork; a couple of them are. They make little appearances. My aunt Laura would do a lot of carousel horses. She did a number of things, and my aunt Nancy was interested in flowers. So I was coming from that background and I remember my mom’s etching press in the basement. She would make these beautiful prints. As a lot of little kids do, I drew a lot, and she told me very young that I was an artist, and really encouraged me, even though my work wasn’t all that spectacular when I think about it. But I was extremely fortunate to be encouraged at a young age to continue. Our neighbor Marilyn taught oil painting, so my mom would take me across the street when I was eight years old to practice oil painting. I actually have my first oil painting hanging in my house, of my cat.
I had a really great art teacher in high school that encouraged me again. I continued with oil painting, with these fantasy-based oil paintings. I was really into oil painting when I was younger, and some Bosch paintings as well.
Seems like it was a natural progression for you then. So I imagine you couldn’t see yourself doing anything else really?
Yeah. I mean, I’ve been painting longer than I’ve been writing songs quite honestly. It’s nice. I’m kind of fortunate that I didn’t necessarily pursue it as a career because I found that in music. And things really change quite a lot once a passion becomes a career.
I was actually going to ask about that. You started Hop Along as a solo project while you were at MICA, right?
Yes, right before I started, I was just graduating high school and I had been making music with my oldest brother, not Mark, who’s in Hop Along, but my oldest step-brother, Andrew. He and I would record together. We would work together and then I realized I’d be going away to school in Baltimore. So I knew really, if I wanted to keep making music, I would have to go solo. That’s when I came up with the name Hop Along, Queen Ansleis. I pursued that for four years. I would tour during winter and spring breaks. It’s very, you know, I was very serious about being a painting major. I pursued that and was pretty dedicated to that. Then once I graduated, my brother, Mark, invited me to come live in Philly with him. So I figured, live in Philly for a little while and then I’ll decide where I really want to go, because I had already been to Philly growing up. We’d go to shows in Philly in high school and I really wanted to go to a brand new city that I’d never lived in before. I very quickly met all these incredible people in Philly, two of which ended up joining Hop Along, Tyler and Joe, with Mark and I, and then we just dropped “Queen Ansleis” and it became this different project.
When you were starting to play music, did the music and your visual practice ever inform each other, your paintings and the songwriting, or are they totally separate outlets?
I’m too close to the matter. I feel I’d give an unbiased assessment. I would say the two are pretty separate, especially once the band became a band. One, Hop Along became a collective of four. I mean, I love doing artwork for the band and I’m very attached to that part of the band, the aesthetic of the records. I certainly remain in charge of that. I feel very close to that, but certainly, the practices are very different from one another. I love to listen to music while I’m painting and that’s certainly not something I really do while I’m writing, it’s hard to. It’s the same person writing as well as painting, but I think I would say I access different parts of myself for those.
That makes sense. So “Is This The Place?” is your first art show, correct?
Yes, New York was my first solo show.
Congratulations by the way.
Thank you. That’s really kind of you to say. I cannot believe that happened. I can’t believe it.
Can you tell us how that happened and how you came about showing in Chelsea first?
Yes. I have an amazing manager and she had a contact with someone from the gallery, Selina Chelsea. They have a very cool goal — to make art a little more public, a little more accessible, because so many galleries in Chelsea are by appointment only. It does feel a bit exclusive. I’m on the other side this time. The whole experience was beautiful. It was really rad to just have that whole room to put my work up and they were very generous to let me do that, and to promote it. I feel very fortunate and I got to meet a number of great people. So ideal.
Living in LA, the art scene is a little less exclusive. We have a lot of museums and there are a lot of expensive tickets, but there are also a lot of free smaller venues and artist-run galleries. You also did a Q&A during the opening, how did that work?
I was nervous about doing it, but it was really a delight. There were just enough people. It wasn’t a crazy room. Jill Mapes who is a freelance writer — I think she’s on staff at Pitchfork actually — was an absolute delight to speak with. We kept it loose and talked about a few specific pieces. But at the same time, I wanted people to have a chance to have a look for themselves. I kind of went all over the place, talking about working on the road. A lot of the paintings were done on the road and a lot of them were pieces that I was revisiting memories from the road. What I would do is take a drawing from my journal, and I had a friend of mine, he put these screens together for me. We blew up the drawings and then screen printed them. And then for some of them, I actually went back in later and painted over them. So like, going back into a memory and altering it.
What was the idea behind having your first solo exhibit as well as having your first album under your own name, released within the same week?
I wouldn’t say that I went into making the album with all of this in mind. It really all just kind of happened gradually. Again, I’m very fortunate to work with such thoughtful people and said I wanted to do things differently because any jobs you have, you get to that decade mark and you wonder, “Okay, how can I make things a little more dynamic?” I’ve come to realize that so much of meaning for me, personally, and I don’t want to get into the right or wrong of it, a lot of meaning to me, comes from work. It comes from putting myself into these performances and tours and painting. I just wanted to find a way to include that a little bit more into my working life as a writer and musician, as well as doing Hop Along, just adding some other features.
I understand you lead most of the visual aesthetics for Hop Along, right?
I do album artwork. I used to do all of the merch. Mark has a very good eye as well. Him and his wife Courtney, who is a pediatrician, but also someone that has an eye for design, designed the backdrop that we took on tour with us. There’s been a couple of designs that Mark has spearheaded.
Is there a different type of vulnerability putting out music, doing live shows, and telling stories, versus putting your paintings out there? Or are you used to being in front of people and showing your art?
Well, with paintings it’s not as though people are standing behind me while I’m painting. I think that would be tough to execute. So there really is a greater level of privacy in the process that I certainly enjoy. Recently, I finally took that Myers-Briggs test and I didn’t realize all these years, I thought somehow, that I was an introvert, but I’m an extrovert. I was completely ignoring the fact that I love to perform in front of people. I still love that element of being able to take risks and sail off on my own. It kind of goes that way in the studio too, but I’m totally alone. One of those rare times where I’m just problem solving by myself. For me, music is always a collaboration, because I haven’t recorded myself in years, except short recordings for demos. So I generally depend on the talents of others to get things recorded the way they should be and have instrumentation that works, like Joe Reinhart. He’s a brilliant mind, he’s a producer on Likewise, and a fantastic engineer and performer.
Yeah, I’m thinking when you’re songwriting, at least you can cross out a word and change a word, but when you’re painting, if you mess up, do you scrap it, or do you keep going with it?
That’s the thing I really love about painting in the van. The marks, for the most part, are permanent, even if you can erase it, there’s still always this remnant left behind. You can certainly paint over and over, and I don’t mind that either. What I have realized with the van paintings is that they have to be fast. I wanted to paint in the van so that I would stop looking at my phone so much. You can get sucked into looking at your phone for so many hours and you just feel drained in this awful way. I still certainly do that. I still have issues with being on my phone, but it was nice to have something else to do in the van that felt self-engaging and invigorating. And even when I failed, it’s still this moment in time that carries meaning for me.
Even if you don’t like what you came up with, I guess it’s better than looking at your phone for two hours and being like, “Oh my God, what have I done?”
Yeah! You know, we’re so afraid! I mean, certainly failure has always been something to fear, I guess, that one can fear. There was a podcast on the other day and this speaker was talking and he said, humanity in general — maybe he was just speaking mostly of Americans — but we have two things that we want; we want to look good and be right. I think that certainly has to get in the way of evolution, because evolution greatly involves trial and error.
Everyone really does just want to look good and sound smart and achieve this small level of perfection they have created in their head.
And I think that goes with personal evolution too. I don’t want people to see all the errors, but that’s part of it. It’s a fine line. A messy line.
As a viewer, I like seeing mistakes and seeing the journey that led to the final product.
Yeah, I’m with you.
Well of course when you’re in the moment, you’re like, “Oh shit.” And it’s natural to want to fix a mistake. Sometimes when I’m writing, I’m like, “Oh my God, what will I say?” It’s a long process, but then I like looking back at the rough drafts to see how the piece evolved.
I know and you can override it, too. You look at a rush job and be like, “Oh, that feeling is gone.” It’s all over-thought. A lot of my favorite records you feel later, like, “Oh, that was a mistake.” And you think, well, “Hm, don’t get rid of it.” So many of the great lo-fi records have a little something, you know?
Yeah, like when people are coughing in the background or some shit like that.
Yeah! It’s got character.
So you said you mostly painted all of the pieces for “Is This The Place” while in the van. When you’re in the van, what strikes you about a certain subject and why do you want to pursue that subject and paint it?
I think a lot of what hits me first is the light, certain points in the day. Trees for me are just these beautiful and impossible things to capture, you know? Part of me feels like, “Who do I think I am doing landscapes? They’ve been done.” But there is something about it that I just think like, “I’m here experiencing this.” We were driving out of Canada, and had been in line forever. Customs can be so brutal, especially if you’re in a band and they want you to so badly have something that you can be in trouble for. I was sitting in the back and Tyler was driving us through Oregon, and it had been storming. It was one of those moments, a beautiful moment when the sun is peeking through but it’s still raining. I got three paintings out of that session, just trying to capture this moment, of that gradual change in light. It was late Spring, the days were getting a little longer and so I was able to paint it for a while. It’s just so exhilarating to, as we get older, it is harder to get caught up in moments, by a moment. We’re generally thinking of something else, or the future usually, maybe for some of us. For me, painting is a moment that is akin to meditation.
Almost like a stream of consciousness.
Yeah. I don’t know, just trying to be a conduit as much as you can be, between what you were experiencing and some kind of interpretation of it.
Do you have any favorite artists right now, that are influencing you?
I’ve really been getting into paintings by Joan Mitchell. Not Joni, but Joan. Although Joni Mitchell’s got some cool album covers as well that she painted. Yeah, Joan Mitchell is great and in the same vein, similar to Helen Frankenthaler. Richard Diebenkorn, he does these beautiful California landscapes. I also really like Anselm Kiefer. He’s this German painter and he used to do these massive, massive paintings of these desolate fields that look all burnt up. It’s really wild. And Chris Ware he’s a graphic novelist.
Do you have any favorite paintings of your own?
I really do enjoy working back into screen prints. That’s been something I’ve been into. I’ve also started working on these paintings that are on colored paper. There’s one that I posted a while back that’s on green paper, and is kind of an abstract landscape. I’ve been taking colors from memory, like thinking of particular memories and trying to just extract a few colors from that and work a painting out in that way. There was this one guy, I think Hans Hoffman who was this abstract expressionist. He was saying there’s always some reference in the background, even in the most abstract paintings, there’s always some reference to something real. Which, I’m sure people argue plenty about that, but I like that. I like having the reference of memory.
That goes back to you painting from memory. I think that sums up my interview questions.
It’s been really nice to get to talk about visual art and broach that subject again. It’s something I’ve missed. So thank you for wanting to talk with me about that, I really appreciate it.
Of course. I also love Hop Along by the way. I love the new solo album of course, but I’m sure it’s a nice break and a nice breather to talk about your visual arts rather than talk about music for the past decade?
Yeah. I’ve had so much trouble answering the question about how the music and art are related, but it’s not that I don’t think they are. If anything, I’m just so glad to be able to branch out and I don’t think it’s a complete non-sequitur at all. I do think there is some connection, I’m just still working it out myself.
It’s interesting because fans like me, I can kind of see, or maybe I’m just interpreting it that way, where I can kind of see a parallel between the two or they are kind of intertwined for me.
Well, that’s lovely to hear. I love that.
For more from Frances Quinlan, follow her on Instagram.
Photography by Julia Khoroshilov.