Anyone who has struggled with anxiety understands what it feels like to agonize over the future. It’s a phenomenon earth-folk mainstay Jesca Hoop considers on her fifth studio album, Memories Are Now. “I won’t be there / I was only here… I can clear this weight / I can stand up tall / I can look you in the eye,” she chants on the album’s title track. But it’s herself she’s addressing. “The song is about meeting obstacles with a balanced view,” she says over the phone from her home in the U.K. “So all I have to do right now is get over this stepping stone. I don’t have to get over that whole mountain now. I just have to get over this one here. And when you’re able to just look at it like that, everything is more manageable.”
At this moment, though, the California-born singer/songwriter, who now resides overseas, is mainly focused on getting her Sub Pop debut LP out the door (arriving on Feb. 10). And rightfully so; this project has an air of rebirth to it. In addition to shifting record labels (not counting her joint release, Love Letter for Fire, with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam), Hoop and her producer, Blake Mills, have worked to minimize her trademark lush arrangements to make Memories more reminiscent of a live setting. The spare “Animal Kingdom Chaotic” is built around fingerpicked string-work and typewriter clicks. Its Americana-leaning follow-up, “Simon Says,” relies only on a lightly distorted six-string, an upright bass and Hoop’s layered harmonies.
Below, Hoop expands on her fresh approach to both recording, making a conscious effort to live in the now and why monotheism can be “the root of all evil.”
: This is your first solo record on Sub Pop—not counting your release with Sam Beam. What prompted the decision to stay on?
Jesca Hoop: Well, actually it’s a bit of a coincidence. I started speaking with Jonathan Poneman, the head of Sub Pop, a couple years ago, and had my eye on Sub Pop in terms of where I might place this record Memories Are Now, and that was before I met Sam Beam. And so, while I had this in my mind to possibly release Memories Are Now through Sub Pop, how Love Letter for Fire was going to come out was still yet to be determined, and it just was a coincidence that Sam Beam’s management put it through Sub Pop. So though my conversations with Jonathan were all kind of preliminary, and kind of feeling each other out and things like that, the Love Letter for Fire process cemented the relationship.
You hope to build a relationship with those people that put out your records, and when you move from record to record sometimes you don’t get that chance, you know, when you move from label to label you don’t necessarily get the chance to build the relationship. So I’m very happy to continue.
: Why the title Memories Are Now?**
Hoop: The song is an anthem for casting your thoughts on what’s good about life now, rather than living in the agitation of what’s not present, or what’s haunting you from your past, or what you’re afraid of for the future. And when you think about what it is you have to carry, all you actually have to carry is what you have at this moment. So right now, all I have to do is speak with you. I don’t have to do the radio show that I’m doing next week right now, all I have to do is that radio show when I’m doing it, you know what I mean? This song for me was like a little bit of medicine that helped me kind of bear down on—just relieve the overwhelming-ment of life. And remind me to live in the present, because what I’m doing right now is what makes my memories.
: I’d love to kind of get an impression of the timeline of the creation of this record. When did you start working on it?
Hoop: You know what, I’m going to leave the timeline out of it, but I will say that it took about seven or eight months to write, and then it took eight days to record, and that’s about it. I completed the recording of it just before the release of Love Letter for Fire.
: This record in particular sounds much more stripped-down and minimalist than your previous work. How did you arrive at these arrangements?
Hoop: Yeah, [producer] Blake [Mills] and I wanted to—I think it was through Blake’s perspective knowing me in the live realm. I think he knows me almost better than any other musician does, in terms of having gone through the intimate process of making records, and then also playing on the stage. And so, him witnessing the effect of the live realm—and where, from his perspective, he feels the deal is made between me and the listener, where that hand is shook, and he thinks that—and I agree—is in the live room. There’s less sonic information, and there’s more risk involved because it’s a live pass. So what he wanted to do was strip it down and do live performances, which is what Memories Are Now is. It’s like whole, full takes, and then very, very, very little added, if anything added at all. And there’s also no comping, so it’s like a—it is a live performance, just in studio.
: To touch on the songs themselves—“Pegasi” appears to explore a darker side of religion. And is that steeped in any kind of personal experience for you? I did read that you were raised in the Mormon faith and then chose not to carry on in your adult years.
Hoop: I mean, I’m obsessed with the dark side of religion. And I’m never far away from that theme. But “Pegasi” doesn’t fall into that category. There are two songs on the record that do, “Song of Old” and “The Coming.” Both relate to the destructive side of religion.
The song on the record that is the most direct in its communication is “The Coming,” and it was the first song I wrote for Memories Are Now. It’s about a person who decides to leave their faith, or decides to not go to church anymore, not to be involved in the community element and the subscription of what it means to join a religion. And for me, I used Christianity because Christianity is what I’m familiar with, though I think that it could apply to any of the major faiths where dogma is present and where rule is omnipresent. In the song there’s a moment where we talk about Jesus resigning. And he resigns because he’s no longer happy for people to make use of his name the way that they are. And I am done with people making of use of his name the way they are, and they way they have from the very beginning, where they put themselves over people, separate themselves from nature, and they separate themselves from their neighbor, and they cross out life and they close down. There’s just so many blind spots available when you’re doing your best to get into heaven. You don’t even realize that actually, heaven is here.
: Absolutely, it’s amazing how many people use the teachings of Christianity (and many other religions) for selfish agendas.
Hoop: I’m coming to it from a place of confrontation. I’m confronting people who are not willing to admit that the “one God” idea is at the root of all evil. [Laughs.] It’s at the fucking root. I mean, it gave people the confidence to go and build empires in other people’s—you know. It’s capitalism right there, the “one God” notion. And to deny all the other gods, or to identify yourself as a group, separate yourself from the others, is at the very root of everything we experience as crisis in this day and age. These myths are meant to help us, and when they were taken to organize into these institutions, the minute that thought happened, these lessons and these teachings and these histories, the minute that they were organized into institutions, they were just capitalistic machines. And people have just been used ever since.
: This conversation feels relevant to what’s been going on in the United States right now. With your living overseas, what’s it like watching Trump—who does not necessarily use overtly religious rhetoric in his speech—take advantage of the American Christian community’s conservative, sometimes-nationalist values?
Hoop: It’s a strange—here or there, I think there’s similar things going on in terms of, you know, the United Kingdom has just isolated itself from Europe. And… it’s hard to say. I feel that if I had been in the United—I’ve been living in the United Kingdom for eight years, now, and so I’m not holding myself to a double standard when I say, “If I lived in the United States, I wouldn’t be leaving it right now.” I wouldn’t think, “I can go live somewhere else.” I would think, “Oh boy, we’ve really created ourselves a situation here. And I’ve gotta see what I can do to try and help the situation, however I can help make the situation better.” I’m not surprised, but heartbroken.
As heartbreaking as all of the action is right now—the things that have come to a boil in the United States—I’m just hoping that it causes enough of the right kind of reaction to bring people back into a more balanced way of living. I haven’t been at all pleased to see the white supremacy—I mean, that was a real hard one to swallow, cause it just makes you feel like we haven’t come any distance, and it makes me want to—and it’s also false. But, there it is. It’s there. So, what do we do? We have to communicate about it. I’m happy to bring [“The Coming”] out at this time. I feel like it does address all of these things, and it addresses it more directly than a song commonly does, at least from what I’m hearing in this day and age.
: I was also struck by the song “The Lost Sky.” I read that it was born of you exploring your relationship with abandonment. Do you feel you’ve made progress here?
Hoop: I don’t know. Maybe. I think that—it’s possible. [Laughs.]
: Maybe we’re never done.
Hoop: We’ll have to see. Next time I take out my photo journal and I flip through to a particular person, I want to, like, give him the finger, you know. I don’t know. It’s possible. I think that I’ll know—I think it all relates to how much resentment we carry. I think because people have to do what people have to do. Who are we to hold any kind of expectation out to any other person? And that includes every person in your life. And I certainly understand and believe in supreme selfishness. I think supreme selfish action is good for everyone around, you have to do exactly what’s right for you, and that helps put people on their path, or helps them find their path. But when somebody’s supreme selfish action doesn’t include you, that’s the hard pill to swallow. And so, I might’ve come some distance—I’m able to say that. [Laughs.]