‘Can You Lie In a Song?’ A Conversation with Jesca Hoop and Kate Stables (This Is the Kit)
The friends and collaborators discuss how important truth is to songwriting, demo-itis, and Jesca’s new album.
By Jesca Hoop
Jesca Hoop is a CA-born, Manchester, England-based musician who’s collaborated with the likes of Tom Waits and Iron & Wine; Kate Stables is a Winchester, England-born, Paris, France-based musician who performs as This Is the Kit. In light of the release of Jesca’s new album Stonechild (out now via Memphis Industries), the friends and collaborators sat down to talk about it, along with rejecting prettiness and the importance of (or lack thereof) telling the truth in your songwriting.
—Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor
Jesca Hoop: How do you feel about being paraphrased?
Kate Stables: I really resent it when I get paraphrased. I get angry.
Jesca: Me too. Because isn’t there a certain amount of pause that you take when you construct a response? It may be imperfect, but your words, you’re choosing, and your words represent you. So when when a journalist decides that they’re gonna put it in a different way, they’re gonna frame it in a different way, doesn’t that just make you irritated?
Kate: Yeah, enraged. It feels patronizing, and it feels disrespectful. It feels like they decided what they wanted me to say before I said it and they just make my words being whatever matches up to their idea.
Jesca: You’re like, “You should have interviewed yourself.” [Laughs.] I thought we just might start with that so that everyone’s aware that we want to be quoted accurately, even if we’re clumsy in our responses.
Kate: Yeah, exactly. We’re on the right page now.
Jesca: It’s really nice to hear you, though. I’ve never interviewed anyone. Have you?
Kate: I don’t know if is counts as an interview or just a conversation — I feel like I’ve had a couple of chats with people, but it was a mutual thing. It wasn’t one person in charge.
Jesca: Well, I’m definitely not in charge.
Kate: [Laughs.] OK, me too.
Jesca: So this is gonna count for a chat. Where are you?
Kate: I’m at my parents’ house in Winchester. Are you in Manchester at the moment?
Jesca: I’m in Manchester.
Kate: Whenever I tell foreign people I’m from Winchester, they always say, “Ah, Manchester!” So it’s nice that there’s this sort of strange link.
Jesca: Hearing you over the phone and meeting you in person — if I had to link the two later in real life, like, “You heard this voice and you met this person, which voice [matches] the person?” I wouldn’t necessarily link the two together.
Kate: Well, I do have a very posh voice, and I’m not very well-turned-out visually. [Laughs.]
Jesca: I would say that you come in the raw — you know, you present yourself in physical form in the raw — but your voice is not going to suggest that.
Kate: Yeah. Also, when I’m speaking over devices, I can feel myself talking louder and trying to be clearer, and that sort of brings out my Hampshire accent even stronger. It’s absolutely atrocious.
Jesca: Well, I wouldn’t say that. I’m very fond of a well-put-together British accent. But that brings us to one of our first little things that I think we have in common, which is: I believe I, personally, am in the pursuit of contrast. Highlighting contrast, or low-lighting contrast, whichever way you want to look at it. So in a song, I feel like the point at which a song is available is where there is the kind of bite of contrast. Beauty exists, life exists, where contrast is formed.
Kate: I think you’re right. There’s the sonic contrast, an aesthetic contrast, but there’s also this sort of meaning and interpretation contrast. I agree; I’m a big believer in the duality of everything, and that both things are always true, whatever those things are.
Jesca: I think that if there isn’t that kind of relationship highlight or lowlight, there is no point. There’s nothing happening.
Kate: Yeah, there’s nothing to work with. It’s out of balance and sort of… well, “dead” sounds like an extreme word, but I feel like in order for something to be alive, it has to have…
Kate: —The two things, whatever those two things might be.
Jesca: There’s the potential for some kind of death. But for that matter, I don’t tend to write anything that is in sheer happiness, because I don’t find much engagement in something that doesn’t… If it’s a story about something pretty, there has to be something terribly ugly involved.
Kate: And one person’s ugly is the other person’s pretty, anyway, so it’s important to have everything covered. [Laughs.]
Jesca: Maybe if we’re going to cast the net far and wide, somebody’s pretty is somebody’s ugly. But I think that there’s also — and probably why I feel like I sit on the fringe of what’s popular — I think that there is a great a consensus of what is pretty. And I think we also share this in common: Why we might sit on the fringe of what’s popular is because we think that beauty is really where that contrast is confronted. We like to confront that line where beauty is really taking its full bloom by introducing the depth of what is dark and what is painful and what is ugly and what is blemished and what is not presented in a pretty, happy picture.
Kate: I feel like for me, it’s also — it feels tied in somehow, and I’m not sure how, but it just made me think of how people choose to see you, and the way they will try and make you into some kind of pretty folk girl. I don’t know how it’s linked, but I feel like there’s some sort of link to do with the way people will force an artist into this kind of flower land. I feel like it’s the wrong thing to do, because there’s always both of everything in someone’s work.
Jesca: There isn’t always, but I would like it if there was.
Kate: Yeah, I mean, I feel like often it’s there to be found, even if it’s not on the surface, but you’re right. It is true that sometimes people do just one thing.
Jesca: If you’re going to speak to me about flowers and not about putrification of flowers, I’m probably not going to listen to you. I think that’s what twee is. But when I saw your images for the first time, I thought, This is a person who is isn’t going to kowtow to pretty. Like, she’s not going to be cast in the pretty zone. The first thing that you are confronted by within our [line of work] is oftentimes a photograph, so it struck me how raw your photographs are. How kind of, like, rolled-out-of-bed you are.
Kate: [Laughs.] Currently in bed.
Jesca: [Laughs.] Caught in transit, caught in between. The photo is the thing that is catching you — you’re not showing up for it, it’s catching you, which to me is a rebellion against prettiness. And for someone who got caught in prettiness at a very, very, very, very early age in my conditioning, and had to work away from prettiness and recognize the kind of trap that it is — the thing that in my in my late 30s and 40s, [I] wanted to very much help girls move away from — I think I saw you as very naturally speaking against it. Even though your prettiness is just built in, you didn’t have to kowtow to it.
Kate: Certain artists that use certain instruments and use their voice in a certain way, [people] will just assume a load of stuff about what they want them to look like. I’ve fallen into the trap enough times that now I’m actually a bit over-paranoid about when people say, “Oh, why don’t you stand over here next to this tree or next to this vase of flowers?” And I’m like, “No, I’m not actually gonna do that.” [Laughs.] Too many times, people will be like, “We’ll just put a bit of makeup on you, just for the lights,” and then it’s an absolute disaster and I just look like I’m in drag and it’s not of true representation of what I am. I mean, whatever that is, anyway, because no one ever sees us how we see us. No one has the right perception. I feel like often, you’ll see posters of artists that aren’t necessarily female on there and it’s a fun, interesting, great, witty… I mean, there’s many different things that the poster could be, but when you look at the other posters on the same wall in the same venue of female artists, they’re just sort of floaty hair, flowers, and pretty dresses. And I just think, “Nah.”
Jesca: That’s exactly right. The reason why I made the cover from my last record the way it was is because the last thing I wanted to do was put out, 1. Another image of myself, but 2. Another pretty image of myself, because why are women expected to continually do this?
Kate: I mean, fair enough if they want to, but: Do they want to?
Jesca: Why do they want to? I mean, it’s fun to be beautiful, or to be to see yourself as beautiful.
Kate: But I think that happens when you’re sort of grounded and awakened in the world, and have compassion and empathy.
Jesca: Absolutely. I think that when someone puts their self out in a way where they’re embracing of the world, they’re the life that is exuded through them — if it comes through kindness — your interpretation of them becomes beautiful.
Kate: It reminds me of that bit of The Twits by Roald Dahl. I can’t exactly remember what he says, but he talks about how if you’re a good person inside, it shines out of your face and you always look beautiful; if you’re sort of a gnarly, bitter person on the inside, then you’re gonna not look too hot. [Laughs.]
Jesca: Even if you started out looking like a Barbie doll. So I do appreciate that about you, about your breaking the norm. That was the first thing that struck me about you — the first image I saw of you was in the dark on that street. You know, that image of you at night?
Kate: Which I actually don’t like, because I feel like it looks too pretty. [Laughs.]
Jesca: Oh, my goodness, no — the first time I saw it was like, Oh, your nose is cold.
Kate: [Laughs.] I need some lip balm.
Jesca: What a raw image of yourself, and how bold and courageous that was of you.
Kate: Well, I like that there could be that interpretation of it, because for me, it just looks like a posed night shot of someone looking serious, and I just think, Bah, rubbish. Somehow I wasn’t firm enough with my dislike with expressing my dislike for the photo, so it got used everywhere.
Jesca: Well, the nice thing about life — and you tipped on this earlier — and a very freeing thing about the creation of art, is that life is like a Rorschach blot. There’s no one way to see it. You put something in front of someone to listen to or to view, and we all have our interpretation. So you can loosen up so much, can’t you?
Kate: And we all do need to loosen up, in some respects. Then tying up our standards in others, because we don’t need to get walked over.
Jesca: I have a sense that you are quite easy to work with in terms of production. Am I correct in thinking that?
Kate: I hope so. I wonder if I’m not the right person to ask.
Jesca: Should I ask, John? My guess is that John Parish would say that you are easy to work with.
Kate: But I think that comes out of him being quite easy to work with.
Jesca: Do you think he’s easy to work with?
Kate: So far, I have found him a pleasure and easy to work with. But did you have some challenges?
Jesca: I would say he was very, very fluid. We have the same experience in his kindness, in his greatness as a person, and the relaxed kind of atmosphere and fluid collaboration he can create.
Kate: Yeah, and knowing his craft very well, and calm and confidence that comes with that is really great.
Jesca: Yeah. Where I found the challenge was when he became a staunch editor. And he will say that he will say that he is a staunch editor. I mean, used another word to describe it, but I think that it wouldn’t be right for a public forum. So I’m paraphrasing.
Kate: Oh no, we’re doing it. We’re becoming the paraphrasers.
I feel like maybe it would be appropriate to talk about your album if you’re up for it.
Jesca: I’d love to.
Kate: Very briefly and quickly: Earlier on, you were talking about the choice of the artwork for it. I think you’ve probably been asked this every single time since the release of the album that you get interviewed, but I would like to know a little about the mask.
Jesca: Well, the mask was kind of an accident, in the way that I was taking a mask off of the wall every day.
Kate: In J & J Studios [in Bristol]?
Jesca: In J & J Studios, there’s a whole wall full of masks.
Kate: That’s the first thing I thought of when I saw it. I was like, Oh, wow, just like the masks on the wall that I first met Jesca in front of!
Jesca: Right. Every day, I would go in and take a different picture of a mask that was on the wall. When I was scrolling through the different pictures of the masks, this one — well, first it felt like it could fit my face, like my face could become this shape. It also looked like the shape of a lithopedion, which is the kind of fossilized fetus that a woman can carry if she’s unaware of the ectopic pregnancy — a pregnancy outside of her womb. When I turned the image into black and white, there’s just so much contrast. I find it to be a a striking image, a beautiful image, but it’s also a hideous image of the same time.
Kate: Yeah, if you’re saying it’s by accident, then it’s a really wonderful accident, because it just feels very eloquent and very fitting.
Jesca: Yeah, I think that also, I look at the image in the thing that strikes me most is, when I look at it, I think of an exhale. Like, there’s a death that’s happening. I know there’s a meaning behind the mask, but I’m forgetting what the meaning is because I wasn’t aiming for the meaning of the mask.
Kate: It makes me think of — I mean, I don’t think I have ever seen one of the Greek theater masks they used, I’ve only heard descriptions of it, but the mouths were so open in a way that would kind of amplify the sound as they spoke.
Jesca: It’s almost like the character in the mask is vomiting something. Or I see it as exhaling something, which is like the point of Nirvana.
Kate: I’ve really enjoyed my journey in relationship with your new album, because obviously the first exposure had to it was the demos you sent to practice with before coming in to do some recording with you.
Jesca: That’s right. We did three songs together.
Kate: Yeah, and I became so attached to the quality of those recordings and your delivery of the songs.
Jesca: You got demo-itis.
Kate: I got demo-itis. I loved them, and then obviously I also love the recording we did of it, so then it was exciting to hear the album versions.
Jesca: Did your heart break a little?
Kate: No, they’re beautiful! The album versions are brilliant. But you know, you always have a bit of a sentimental first love relationship with with certain demos sometimes.
But what I’m mainly getting at, I think, is that the three songs that I remember experiencing before the album came out felt like quite a sort of personal and solo journey. For me, there’s sort of moving, travel, and growth in those songs, but it felt quite individual and personal. Then hearing them in the in the context of the whole album, all of the sudden they unfolded for the album to make this kind of collective journey and collective experience. I wondered about your thoughts on that, the sort of personal journey and the collective journey.
Jesca: Well, I think this is something that you and I share in common. I think that, reading through your lyrics, you and I are both aware that in the minutia, there’s a universality. Life you can fractal down, and what you find on the minute scale, you find from a very far away perspective as well.
If you zoom into something, you’ll find clarity. If you zoom in further, you’ll find a tangle, and then when you zoom in further into the tangle, you’ll find clarity and patterns. Then you zoom in further into that pattern and you’ll find a tangle. I’m eternally just confounded by and intrigued by this tangle. The thing about the tangle is that every thing and every person you come across is in the same tangle, so if you were to self-indulge into your own myopic view, the more specific you could be about how you feel, and the mundanity of how you feel, the higher chance you have at someone relating to it.
One thing that I’ve noticed about your songs is that you’re gonna bring it in really simple elements, like socks and the floor and spoons, but there’s a sense that you’re not talking about socks and you’re using these really simple little things to draw a listener into what might have a a deeper layer or… not deeper, because I don’t necessarily think of things is deep. I think of them as complex.
Kate: Yeah, there’s usually many stories surrounding one thing, whatever it is, whether it’s an object or a word or a situation. There’s many stories that go with it, so all you can do is kind of offer that up, I guess.
Jesca: But I also think of your songs as being very gentle. They’re not going to necessarily show you that there’s a shark in the water. I like to create dangerous territory — I don’t necessarily want the listener to feel safe. [Laughs.]
Kate: I think that’s a good thing.
Jesca: I think that’s where the song is, actually. And I know this isn’t an original thought — the song is at that point where it could be upsetting, potentially, or repulsive.
Kate: Yeah, I think that is an important point.
Jesca: That brings me to a question for you: I read a quote of you saying something about how truth changes over time, depending on who’s writing it and who is listening to it.
Kate: Yeah, I do believe that.
Jesca: So my question is: Is truth something that you employ when you write? Do you feel the need to be truthful in writing, and how much of your own truth do you tell in a song?
Kate: This is a good one. Loads of different explosions keep going off in my brain when anyone starts approaching this subject, so I have to really try and gather my thoughts and put them in the right order.
I feel like I do have a responsibility to my own truth, if only for myself and the fact that I’m a fairly pedantic person and I have trouble with the idea of lying. But it’s also interesting as a kind of storyteller of sorts.
Jesca: Can you lie in a song? Is it possible?
Kate: I can tell a story from a point of view where I’m slightly diluted, or it’s someone’s point of view that is a bit twisted and not seeing the whole picture. But again, because there are so many truths, I feel like it’s always true to an extent, but it might be a sort of narrow vision and missing out on some key points.
Jesca: If you were to say that someone you knew in real life did something in a song that he didn’t actually do, that might actually constitute a lie, because it could form a fiction, or it could spread a rumor about a person.
Kate: Which I wouldn’t want to do, out of respect for people and their right to their own life and story. But I do enjoy keeping people guessing, so sometimes I feel like there’s a line. To be honest, I don’t think I would ever think of it as a lie; it would just be a kind of a storytelling device or a symbol or a sort of metaphor or something. So I don’t know if it’s even possible to lie in a song, other than if you’re lying to yourself about a situation. Even so, you could still make a listenable story out of a lie that you tell yourself.
Jesca: I think a lie is a great thing to listen to.
Kate: What I wish I had with me now is the preface Ursula Le Guin wrote — I think it was in the The Left Hand of Darkness. I’ve got an edition where she writes about being a science fiction writer and being a liar. It’s so truthful, and it’s so obvious that the what she writes, even though it’s fictional stories, is the truth.
Jesca: Even though she’s lying the whole the whole way.
Kate: Even though she’s telling a story that doesn’t exist, because it’s happening on a planet that doesn’t exist with people that don’t exist. I just think that is just 100% the truth, and I feel like everything she writes is happening now in our world, on some level, to some extent.
I feel like that also applies to songwriting. I don’t know if you can lie, because I feel like everything is true and everything is untrue. So unless you’re being deluded about something and just in denial about your own personal journey and experience, then I think if you’re telling a story for people to interpret however they want, it’s gonna happen.
Jesca: I have definitely lied in the process of songwriting, in the way that I’ll write about something else if I can’t speak about something. And I have not spoken about things in my life to protect others. I have struggled with my responsibility to tell, because I think people who write can speak, and those who can speak must speak, so the fact that I can speak makes me feel like I have a responsibility to tell the unfettered truth about my experience.
Kate: I completely know what you mean. Do you feel like that’s the case with your songwriting? Or do you feel like it’s the case that, because you have this platform where you are often speaking about things, that it should be when you’re discussing them as well?
Jesca: Well, both, because one leads to the other. Through the medium of a song, which is very powerful, [or] through the platform of a conversation like this one, those who can speak must speak, because that’s where stigmas are broken down. So I struggled with that one, because through the course of telling my own story, I tell the story of others in my life. So I struggled with the selfishness of that. Like, how much of my story do I disclose? What my own human struggle and what of my own pariah am I going to destigmatize for the sake of sharing this world together? Because maybe the people in my life don’t want that. What I tell of my life tells of the people surrounding me, so I always wonder about other writers and how selfish they’re willing to be in that regard.
Kate: It’s difficult, because we do have a certain amount of responsibility not to just publicly blurt out sensitive stuff, but we also have this responsibility to speak up and to share experiences. Part of our songwriting, as individuals and as human beings, is kind of communicating with the people who are influencing the songs, so there’s a lot of layers. It’s just whatever balance you’re happy with, I guess — naming and shaming or just in-joke referencing and winking.
Jesca: Like, who is Carly Simon talking about? But don’t you also really like it when an artist is transparent? Like, they talk about their transgressions no matter who it affected. There’s a part of me that goes, Ah, I like that they are that bold about their transgressions, but at the same time, I think, Ouch for the people around them, you know?
Kate: Some people are perfectly equipped to deal with that kind of boldness and the repercussions of it, but on other people, it would mean a world of pain. It makes me think of Beyonce and Jay Z, for example. I mean, they’ve had a lot of people rumor-monger about them, and they’ve had a lot of writing albums about the stuff they’ve been through, and who are we to know how on the nose it is, or how theatrical it is, or how much artistic license there is? But it feels like there’s been a lot of honesty and clearing things up. But again, maybe that’s just a tool. So in that respect, if the same thing is true for any artist, even a less high profile artist, there’s always gonna be people that take every word of your song literally and there’s always gonna be people that know that it’s part of a work of interpretive art.
Jesca: I think the most important thing is to be respectful.
Kate: Yeah, I think you’re right.
Jesca: Sometimes there are just times that you have to tell your your truth, but if you’re going to do that, just be respectful, you know?
You can catch Jesca on tour throughout the US next month:
11/7: Portland, OR — Old Church
11/8 Seattle, WA — St Mark’s Cathedral
11/10: Sebastopol, CA — Hopmonk Tavern
11/11: Modesto, CA — Moon & Sixpence Music And Art House
11/12: Oakland, CA — Starline Social Club
11/13: Los Angeles, CA — Highland Parl Ebell
11/15: Minneapolis, MI — The Cedar Cultural Center
11/16: Chicago, IL — Beat Kitchen
11/19: Vienna, VA — Jammin Java
11/20: Philadelphia, PA — Boot & Saddle
11/21: New York, NY — Mercury Lounge
11/23: Boston, MA — City Winery
(Photo Credit: left, Aga Mortlock; right, Lucy Sudgen Smith)