IT’S NOT every musician who can say she has a friend and mentor in Tom Waits, or that she baby-sat for his children, but the American born, Manchester based singer, guitarist, and songwriter Jesca Hoop certainly can.
Jesca grew up in a Mormon family in northern California, a region dominated geographically by mountain ranges, the sequoia trees, and fertile farm lands, and politically by environmentalism and a liberal attitude to life and politics. It is the latter quality which has left its mark most strongly on Jesca.
“I think in the northern part of where I’m from, there is a feminist population, so there is a lot of women power and a tradition of women being radical,” Jesca tells me during our Tuesday morning conversation. “There are a lot of ‘Rad’ women here and that’s been a big influence.”
The most significant female role model in Jesca’s life was her late mother Jeanette. Singing was the favourite activity in the Hoop household and Jeanette’s children were all raised to consider themselves musicians.
“She instilled in us that identity to see ourselves as musicians,” says Jesca. “We would sing together, five kids and two parents, and our favourite pastime was to sing together as a choir. There was a great quality to her voice and she gave us the gift of singing and taught us how to harmonise.”
Jeanette’s presence would also be felt on her daughter’s debut album Kismet, the cover of which features Jesca sitting on the bottom of a staircase, beside a framed photograph of her mother. Sadly Jeanette would not live too see it.
“It was on the day I found out she had a terminal illness that I was to do this photoshoot,” recalls Jesca. “I was in the middle of it and had to follow through with it. The photographer asked me if I had any props I wanted to use and I said yes and took out the photo of my mother.”
Jeanette also became the inspiration behind one of her daughter’s most startling songs, ‘Angel Mom’, from her stunning new album Hunting My Dress, which chronicled Jesca experiencing the presence of her mother in a dream.
“We tend to believe in our family that you can be visited by your loved ones and friends who have died through dreams,” she says, “and so I was looking forward to seeing my mom. It had been a month since she died and I hadn’t seen her yet and I was getting worried.
“Then on the morning of my birthday I had this dream about my mom. I was singing ‘Enemy’ from my album Kismet. The song is about me screaming and being physically rebellious and Mom was concerned for me and was addressing the subject matter in the song. I woke up later and had to go out so I got in the car and the song that was playing on the radio when I turned it on was ‘Enemy’.”
Sonically ‘Angel Mom’ hints that another key female inspiration for Jesca is Kate Bush.
“Absolutely,” she declares. “I am one of the women that is carrying the torch for the kind of creativity that she inspires. I’m not into doing a mock up of Kate Bush but I want to call up the same energies within and to search for a voice that is distinctly mine.”
While the influence of blues, folk, Jane’s Addiction, and particularly Kate Bush can be heard, Jesca is using them to find her way towards a sound uniquely hers and hers alone, and on Hunting My Dress she is within touching distance of it.
The album bounds across genres taking in frenzied alternative rock (‘Four Dreams’ ), melodic acoustic ballads (‘Murder Of Birds’ ), and electro driven folk (‘Tulip’ ), all shot through with a definite (and very attractive ) left-field, eccentric, sensibility.
“I don’t feel truly normal,” says Jesca. “I come from the tendency to veer away from the school of music of specific genres. When writing songs it’s fun to try on alter-egos and use performance to try on difference characters. I like to give myself permission to act or at least superimpose an element of my personality, that may only be a small element that is rarely seen, into a song and go from there.”
Despite having been raised to see herself as a musician, Jesca spent a number of years “living on the fringes, not earning money, farming and practising yoga and survival skills, and being environmentally conscious” in California.
One of the jobs she held in that time was at the Anasazi Foundation rehabilitation centre for troubled children in Arizona.
“It’s a place young adults go to voluntarily, are made go to by their parents, or are sent there by the courts, not in happy circumstances,” she says. “Once there they are stripped of everything they relate to. The kids are in the mountains with nothing really for two months except a sleeping bag, some string, a cup, and a crappy knife. They have no flashlight and no way to make fire, so that’s the first thing they learn, how to make fire from friction. It was quite an experience to be with those kids and I think about it all the time.”
It was not until Jesca had the good fortune to cross paths with Tom Waits that she finally embraced the identity her mother instilled in her years before, and devoted her life to making music. It began in 2005 when Jesca moved to Los Angeles and landed a job baby-sitting for Wait’s children.
“It was around that time I wanted to pursue a musical career,” she says. “I lived day to day with the Waits but it took me some time to bring it up as I was careful not to cross boundaries, but when it felt right, and it felt like they knew me well enough, I could talk with them about it.
“I told Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen about my songs and I showed them the four I had. Tom said ‘It would be better if you had five or six’ and he asked ‘When can you have them done?’ I told him six months, and he said ‘No you have to have them done before that’.”
Once the songs were completed Waits took them around local radio stations and encouraged DJs to give the young singer-songwriter airplay. Soon her songs were on California radio and Jesca has never looked back.
“Tom and Kathleen have really helped me, protected me, and supported me,” she says, “and I have been very fortunate to have that.”
Jesca Hoop plays upstairs in the Róisín Dubh on Saturday February 13 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.