Frances Quinlan and Dominic Angelella Talk Freshman Year, 15 Years Later

The longtime friends dive deep on the debut Hop Along Queen Ansleis album for its anniversary.

Frances Quinlan and I have known each other since May 2005, when a mutual friend organized a one-off show for four different singer-songwriters at the legendary (at least in some circles) punk venue The Hobo House in Long Island. There are certain memories that stick with you in a photo-realistic way years after the fact. One of mine is sitting on the cold basement floor watching Frances play “Bride and Groom Hot Air Balloon.” I could feel the mood shift in the room as she drew everyone into the world of the song. The audience hung on every word as we heard about a young couple stealing a hot air balloon on the day of their wedding, only to drown in the ocean later that night. Driving back to Baltimore after the show, I was struck with a feeling that I had seen a very special songwriter in the earliest stages of her artistic life, and I began plotting different ways we could collaborate.

That winter, we did just that. Trekking for two weeks up the East Coast, through Canada and down through the Midwest, Frances and I solidified our friendship by touring together for the first time.

A few months prior to our tour, Frances had released Freshman Year, her debut full-length as Hop Along Queen Ansleis. Everywhere we went, we met people passionate about the new music she had just released. 15 years later, the album holds up as a massive achievement, full of the lyrical depth and musicality that she would later gain notoriety for as a member of Hop Along and in her further solo work. As a collaborator and a close friend, there are so many questions I’ve always wanted to ask Frances about Freshman Year. Thankfully she agreed to sit down with me to talk about the writing, recording and reception of this excellent record.

— Dominic Angelella

Dom and Frances — from a holiday party at Frances’s and Mark’s former residence in South Philly, winter of 2009

Dominic Angelella: First things first: tell me about the opening track. What were you recording? What were you doing in that little moment?

Frances Quinlan: I was walking down some train tracks with someone very close to me.  One of the Elizabeths from “Elizabeth & Elizabeth” actually. [Laughs.] The crackling sound is the stones on the tracks. That’s when I was using a handheld recorder, definitely influenced by Bright Eyes. When I think of lo-fi, the first lo-fi work I ever heard was Bright Eyes’ Letting Off The Happiness. I was obsessed with the sound collages on that record.

Dominic: What made you want to make that the first sound that people heard on the record?

Frances: I had these rules made up in my head as to what was required in order to create an environment. I had heard so much for the first time around then. Maybe it was this way for you too. My freshman year of school I was just totally bombarded with music. Though some things didn’t stick with me, they all had an impact.

Those albums stuck me so immediately that I wanted…I wanted to feign experience. I wanted to feign this sense of time passing even though a lot hadn’t happened. When I recorded Freshman Year I was 19. I hadn’t been through much, so I was trying to create this sense of time passing and I think field recordings do tend to lift you up and place you… field recordings, I think, immediately trigger a sense of memory. 

Oh! Vollmar! That was a big one. I wish that was on Spotify! 13 Or So People Who Need Chances! That album had a lot of walking on it.

Dominic: Like the sound of people walking?

Frances: The sound of walking. There’s something about it. I don’t know if it’s like rain, it has this meditative thing.

Dominic: About you wanting to draw people into this world — when you were writing Freshman Year, were you planning on trying to make it feel like a story, an environment that people could inhabit? It’s always something I’ve thought about in relation to the record.

Frances: It makes me very happy to hear you say that, it was absolutely my intention. I love records you have to play from beginning to end. I haven’t done that in a while and I should, because it feels good, like reading a short book.

I love concept albums, and one of the most successful at the time to me was Aeroplane Over The Sea. For me you had to play that all the way. There were even a couple songs where I was at first like, eh, this isn’t great, but I would make myself listen from beginning to end because it was this important full passage. It’s almost as though you wouldn’t understand the full impact if you didn’t hear it from beginning to end. It’s like a play.

Dominic: There’s something so theatrical specifically about that record.

Frances: A mood has to really sink in. I was really into making mixes as well at that time, like mix CDs, and that was very much about… I’d have one song that I’d want to make an impact, but in order for that song to have an impact I felt like it needed to have 13 tracks before it that built up to it. So, Freshman Year, I would say, I remember someone giving it some constructive criticism and saying “it’s long.” [Laughs.] It’s a long album. No B-sides. I put everything I wrote that year on that album.

Dominic: Did you have a sequence in mind before recording?

Frances: Early on I knew “Sirens” should be first. Every album I make, I’m very obsessive about the track order, which is funny because later I completely forget what the track order even is. I’ll see it and think, I wonder why I did that. [Laughs.] It doesn’t stick. The intensity and the seriousness. I still take myself too seriously, but back then even more so. Everything was so important.

Dominic: Do you feel that the seriousness and intensity dissipates after the record is finished?

Frances: I remember driving back from Phil Douglas’s [of Latterman, Iron Chic] house when we finished mixing. He mixed and mastered the thing in two days. I was driving home from Long Island and listening, and the thing I heard first was how cranked I had that wooden frog [a percussion instrument you’d hit with a stick].

Dominic: What song was the wooden frog on?

Frances: All of them! Well not all of them, but so many. I loved that frog. It’s so funny because now I’m like, wow, that’s loud. I remember Phil being like, “does that need to be there?” and I was like “yeah,” and “how dare you.” I took criticism so badly.

Dominic: Going back to “Sirens.” Listening yesterday it really struck me how upbeat and happy that song is, but also how dark some of the lyrics are. I noticed that as a recurring theme on this record, the juxtaposition of joyous instrumentation with some very dark lyrics. It almost feels like children discovering heavy life experiences for the first time. Were you aware of how heavy some of these songs were as you were writing them?

Frances: In all honesty I’m sure I was trying to not seem as innocent as I was. I don’t want to belittle my former self [or] anybody that appreciates this album. It really is so humbling that this album has any impact on anyone, but I can’t help but think of the person who made it and how much I was trying to seem more worldly than I was, more experienced. These are songs of innocence. They can’t help but be that. That’s where I was. I was probably trying a bit hard to seem… I was really into Pedro The Lion, and Bazan’s songs were very dark, especially Winners Never Quit. Belle and Sebastian, they’ve got some depressing narrators, so I was really drawn to that. I wanted to speak to that.

What little experience I’ve had, being a child and dealing with discomfort, that never leaves you. I’ve always wanted to address childhood, and I think I’m finally, maybe coming out of that a bit, but I was really diving into it then. I wasn’t ready to speak about family yet, so I was speaking about experiences that I had no idea of. The narrative of a mattress? I don’t know. A virgin wrote that record! That’s funny to me. That kills me! I wanted to speak on this really intimate level about relationships but I hadn’t lived that… not that sex is what defines a serious relationship, but it’s funny how much I tried to seem like I knew more than I did. So I probably went too hard towards the dark. 

Dominic: I don’t necessarily think so. I remember when we went on our first tour together seeing everyone’s reaction being generally joyous. I think people still feel that way about that record. It seemed to make people happy even though the lyrics were dealing with very different issues. You can be judgmental of yourself on that level but I think it was a very interesting and fruitful way to discuss these things. I loved “The Big House”’s imagery. The whole first verse being about two kids in a bathtub joking about murder. [Laughs.] It’s such a great image and I think you really expressed that feeling of being a child and being innocent and starting to have to deal with real life situations. You may think that you went a little too hard but I think you did great. [Laughs.]

Dom and Frances — from a Hop Along set at a house show at Garageland/ Ava House, 2009.

Frances: I think also childhood is your first confrontation with shame. I remember saying or doing something and not knowing, not having the sensation that I should be embarrassed at all until someone told me that I was being inappropriate, that I was speaking too loudly, that I was hugging someone too much, at age 8. And then like, recoiling. That sticks with you. So I think I was maybe just processing.

To your point, one thing that’s really been flooring me is the reaction that the song “Bruno is Orange” has received throughout the years. The amount of theories. People have all sorts of ideas of what that song’s about, and the more I hear them the more I don’t want to tell anyone what it’s supposed to be about. Sometimes people have the most brilliant poetic interpretations. I’ve actually seen a few people comment saying that song in particular helped them come out or transition, like that song was an aid to people going through something I can’t fathom, a struggle that I really am ignorant of, of finding your identity in a way that still confounds and angers our society. It’s really sad, but it’s nice to have made something that is at all useful in that regard.

Dominic: Did you mean for any of the songs to be connected thematically?

Frances: A little. I meant for it to be a full concept I suppose. I wrote those songs over a year in school. I got my worst grades that year because I was really spending time learning Garageband and working on scattered songs. There are characters who only show up once. Like “Bride and Groom Hot Air Balloon” is a one time story, “Goose and The Wren” is a one time thing.

I think I was more obsessed with making the thing and with it leading to something else. I wanted to make the record that led me into the music world, the professional music world…I probably treated Freshman Year like a collection of short stories.

Dominic: Earlier we touched on what you were listening to. What were you reading when working on Freshman Year?

Frances: That year I was reading a lot of Steinbeck. I was reading East of Eden, was obsessed with him. I had just found out about Flannery O’Connor. I had to read her for a class assignment, we had to read A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Which is actually one of my lesser favorites of hers. Also, I hated analyzing literature. I hated taking apart and explaining it. Half the time I was wondering, was this really the author’s intent? Did the author ever explain this at any point?

Sometimes when people explain my songs to me, what they feel about it, I’m like, “your interpretation makes more sense than what I was trying to say.” I didn’t have any skills yet. None of what I wanted to say came out the way I imagined it. I just didn’t have the tools yet, to make a record that sounded like all the albums I loved.

There’s a book I read that was a big influence on this record, the title is rough. The title is When I was Five I Killed Myself. It’s supposed to be written from the perspective of an 8 year old boy. He doesn’t really feel shame and that’s one of his issues. If I read it now I wonder how I would feel about it, but as a senior in high school it had a huge impact. Also Edward Gorey, I love Edward Gorey.

Dominic: Talk to me about the process of recording the record.

Frances: So, I didn’t know anything about recording. I had just gotten Garageband. And it’s funny, some of the stuff on Garageband… I wish they hadn’t — they changed that internal mic or something. The way that internal mic used to be on the first Macbooks from 2004 was not bad!

Dominic: It sounded good. I have a theory that Apple did that on purpose because it sounded too good.

Frances: Yeah! It’s so fucked. [Laughs.] Using Garageband wasn’t legitimized yet, so I felt that I needed a more professional setup. I got Cubase and a Sennheizer microphone, and my dad got me an interface for my birthday. Basically, I got all of this at the Plymouth Meeting Guitar Center and then I went back and pestered these two guys at Plymouth Meeting. I’d continuously come back weekly and say “How do I do this? This isn’t working. Can you show me how to do group tracking?”

On top of that, a few songs were recorded with Chris Archibald who had his own studio setup. He did “Bride and Groom,” “Drummer’s Arm,” “Hi Too Loo Rye” and played some of the drums, banjo, and sang some backup vocals too. Aside from that, the majority was tracked in my parents basement on the laptop, using the interface. I don’t remember all of what we used when we did the group vocals at the end of “Goose and The Wren” though, it must have just been a field recorder thing. I don’t think I brought a laptop. Or did I?

Dominic: I think you did. I have a very clear memory of you… I guess I should explain. You played a show with my high school band…

Frances: Beyond the Grunt Call?

Dominic: We were called Beyond The Grunt Call, and we were doing a rare acoustic set in Roxboro, PA. At the end of the show you broke out the setup with the mic and I remember being very impressed.

Frances: It was so presumptuous!

Dominic: No it was cool! And if I’m correct you also did some vocals for “Laments of a Mattress” there too.

Frances: That sounds right.

Dominic: I think I just sung on “Goose and the Wren” but you recorded some extra backup vocals, and it was such an exciting thing for you to say “All right! You’re just a show-goer but now you’re gonna be on my record!” How often did you do things like that?

Frances: That summer I recorded three groups I think. One group was that show, and it’s really funny because I can hear your voice twice. I was like, “there are two guys in this that sound VERY similar.”

Dominic: Yeah, you know what, I thought it was another guy too and then I realized it was me twice. I knew your record was going to be good and I thought, I want to make sure somebody hears me at least once on this thing. Every time we’ve made a record together I feel like that’s been my approach. It’s funny listening to it now and hearing 19 year old me being like, I need to make sure someone knows this is me when this is all said and done. [Laughs.] 

Frances: Oh man, I love it. There was that. Also when I first moved to Baltimore I wanted to meet musicians through Myspace and that’s how I met Counterfeit Matt [Baltimore singer-songwriter who introduced Frances and I, otherwise known as Matt Kelly] and I also met Dan McCool, who went by the name Ukulele Dan. I don’t remember whether we played a show together or just hung out, but I was crushing on him and we ended up dating. We were at somebody’s house poolside, and it was him and three other people that are very much present on “Laments Of A Mattress,” and the last one was my family in the basement. The end of “Sirens” has my mom, and Mark [Quinlan, brother of Frances and drummer of Hop Along] on it.

Dominic: Did Mark play drums on the record?

Frances: No — the only appearance Mark makes on Freshman Year is vocals at the end of “Sirens.” That’s our first recording. He’s at the end, the “things with wings” part.

Dominic: In terms of your backup vocals, and in terms of the extraneous percussion stuff, and the kazoo/harmonica parts, which to me run the gamut from completely improvised to seeming very carefully thought out, what was your process for arranging all of that stuff? There seem to be a lot of backup vocals on this record.

Frances: Yeah. Another record I heard that had stacked vocals that I was obsessed with, that song [Joanna Newsom’s] “Peach Plum Pear.” It’s all Joanna’s, and it sounds crazy! It’s like a bunch of tiny birds or something. It’s almost inhuman to hear a person that many times, but as a crowd. It’s really entrancing to me. I was certainly trying to imitate that a bit. All the instrumentation, I just wanted to make it sound full and I didn’t have access to horn players. The instruments that Chris Archibald added elevated the songs, absolutely. He played banjo and played guitar far better than I did. It took another 10 years to find my footing as a guitar player. I just wanted to make something that sounded orchestrated but all I had were toys. Kazoos, that clarinet looking thing with piano keys?

Dominic: Melodica?

Frances: Yeah, I had a melodica. I used a lot of that.

Dominic: I remember when we played that show in Canada together you threw a suitcase down on the ground full of shakers and stuff. Seeing people pick up the instruments and have it really be a collaborative thing. Was it a plan to make your live shows collaborative in that sense?

I wanted the audiences to feel engaged. I remember playing open mics and it felt very sterile. I wasn’t singing these elaborate skilled works, they were very much about an expression of an emotion, primarily of joy. I wanted to create that mood. I can’t remember if I had heard Jason Anderson yet, but hearing Kimya Dawson, her albums had a lot of crowd recordings, or gang vocals, also Dame Darcy, there’s that song “Chicken Song” that sounds like it’s at a show.

Dominic: The thing about those records, speaking about “freak-folk” and the K-Records stuff and The Microphones/Kimya/etc is that it feels punk in the sense that it’s really collaborative and that the audience is almost a member of the band too.

Frances: I wanted to be in a band! I was so envious of the camaraderie that bands seemed to have on stage. Playing with bands like Latterman, I remember playing with Defiance Ohio…

Dominic: I identify with that feeling of wanting that camaraderie and that collaboration.

Frances: I really didn’t want to fall into that category of singer-songwriter woman being defined in that coffee house category. When I think of it now, it’s funny to me how against it I was and now I’m like “I love drinking coffee and sitting around!”

Dominic: Listening to someone play songs… you have to define yourself that early. It’s such a part of being a young person trying to figure out who they are.

Frances: And then you follow these categories, and then you react against those categories, and then you fall into a new category! You have to like age out to the point where you realize that people need categories and you just have to let them have them.

Dominic: Can you explain the decision to re-record “Laments” for Get Disowned? How did that come about?

Frances: The way that Hop Along started, there were only my songs, if you remember. “Cow Eyes” I wrote in college and “Bay Area Baby” I wrote in college. Those were sophomore year and beyond. “Tibetan pop stars” was one of the first songs written for Get Disowned and I have a feeling that Mark liked “Laments” and people were commenting on that song, so I thought it would be cool to hear it as a band. That album was recorded on and off over two years, we started in 2010 and we didn’t finish till early winter of 2012.

Dominic: It’s probably the same decision that made us recut “Bride and Groom” for Wretches because we had been playing it live, as a ripper.

Frances: That’s what was there.

Dominic: To me, the rerecording of “Laments” is such a great bridge between what you’d done as Hop Along Queen Ansleis and what you were going to do with Hop Along. it’s like somebody writing a story, going out and living a bunch of life, then coming back to update it.

Frances: It might even have been you or Mark that said, “let’s play that song again.” I was so surprised by how much Mark liked Freshman year, because he was so into heavier stuff.

Dominic: The heavy music community was an early adapter of Hop Along though.

Frances: I remember for whatever reason, those years around freshman year in school I would get approached often to play what were predominantly hardcore and punk shows. I remember meeting you and you talking about punk shows, house shows. Hobo House was one of the first houses I ever played at. Pirates Cove [Allentown, PA], a few towns over from my hometown, I had no idea it even existed. It was Latterman that really brought me into that scene, and I guess they just happened to be the most welcoming community, because the folk/indie communities felt like a cool school.

Dominic: Like cliquish… I remember the first time we played together at Hobo House. We did a round robin where everybody played two or three songs, such a folk punk thing, but then you closed with “Bride and Groom’ and I remember the energy in the room shifting and being like, oh shit, I need to make sure that I go on tour with this person. It was such a special thing to see everybody in the room start picking up on a special song.

Frances: Was that June or July? Do you remember?

Dominic: It was May, it was right after school ended.

Frances: I had just started recording. That’s fuckin’ sick. On the way to that show, by the way, that’s when Matt showed me Desaparecidos.

Dominic: Matt Kelly, legend, I know, Big shout out to Counterfeit Matt. So I saw you play and thought, this music is really special, we have to go on tour together. So we booked this two week tour together and went out, and the reception was so strong. How did it feel to go out into the world and see people reacting in such strong ways to the music you had made?

Frances: I’m so glad that that happened, and I’m so glad I have those memories because I remember… how many people were at that Canada show? 35?                 

Dominic: Who knows? Those memories as so vague to me. It seemed like it was like fuckin’ 250 people. I know it wasn’t but to me at that point it felt like we were playing this super important, sold out gig…

Frances: We were so far from home!

Dominic: We were playing in a mall in Canada to 40 people and it really did feel like I was a part of something important by playing with you because of the energy the crowd was giving. And you felt that it was special too?

Frances: Yeah absolutely! All the shows, even the rough ones on that tour. New York was one of the best ones, Albany was amazing, and the fact that a lot of those shows turned into parties after, turned into hangs! I miss feeling that kind of gratitude, that sense of magic. This is magic, that anyone cares, and it’s so funny that I went from sending demos off, and wanting to be famous, and then being so distracted by the warmth of strangers that I forgot that I wanted to be famous.

I didn’t realize… I remember being so disappointed that I wasn’t, I remember being like, my time is passing, at age 20! I cried at my table when I turned 20!

Dominic: [Laughing] I’m sorry that I’m laughing, it’s just so funny to be thinking about that at 34.

Frances: Oh yeah! If anyone had told me — I’ve said this a million times but I was in the car with my cousins saying “I want to be famous by the time I’m 22,” some stupid number, and my cousins were both like “nope.” One of them said 28 and I said, “how dare you!” I had no idea how generous she was being…

Dominic: OK one last question. How do you feel about Freshman Year now, 15 years after the fact? And what would you say, if anything, to young Frances consumed by the making of this record?

Frances: That album came out of what remains one of the most exulting years of my life. I was introduced to so much, and taken seriously as an artist in a way that both excited and frightened me. I was surrounded by immensely talented people, students and teachers. That first year in school I was housed with three brilliant and adventurous artists, all women. They all opened up doors to me to which I hadn’t known I had access. It’s incredible. I truly cannot believe I got to have an experience like that. I was given so many gifts, that first year especially. It feels good to access that gratitude now, I didn’t realize how badly I needed to remember those early and extraordinary years. 

What would I say… I don’t know that I had the wisdom to listen to even the most loving of constructive criticism back then — Enjoy this, right now. You have this freedom of getting to do and make things that feel true; working and feeling like you’re where you are supposed to be–not everyone gets that opportunity, and those moments can be harder to pin down as the years pass —

Perhaps I would have just tried to convince younger me to cool it a bit on the wooden frog.

Dom and Frances — from a holiday party at Frances’s and Mark’s former residence in South Philly, winter of 2009

(Photo Credit: Emily O’Donnell)

Dominic Angelella is a songwriter and musician born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. He currently plays bass for Lucy Dacus, has toured with Natalie Prass and MewithoutYou, and has played on records by Kendrick Lamar, Juicy J, Mac Miller, Hop Along, and more. In addition to his resumé as a touring and recording musician he releases records under his own name, most recently Poison River, out now on Lame-O Records.

(Photo Credit: Josh Pelta-Heller)