Jesca Hoop - A leap of faith from somewhere off the grid

Jesca Hoop rejected religion and mainstream living alike before she found her voice and confidence as a songwriter. Now, Tom Waits is among the many fans singing her praises. Chris Mugan meets the characterful Californian singer

Without the profile of U2 or The Beatles, Jesca Hoop is stopping traffic in Notting Hill. Admittedly, you don't need a massive crowd to cause disruption on the narrow street outside Rough Trade's west London outpost, yet the Californian singer-songwriter defeats the honking of irritated drivers with aplomb.

As she explains later in a nearby park, sitting on a stool with a tiny practice amp is not the best way to promote her music's quirky and sensuous charms. Instead, it is a chance to connect with music fans, so she borrows sunglasses from an observer to defeat the glare of a cloudless day and makes easy small talk.

Clearly, Hoop is a streetwise operator able to make the best out of any given situation, just as she has made the most of her musical connections to leave her home state and set up shop in the unlikely environs of Manchester, England. It was Tom Waits who set her on her way with a rare quote – "Her music is like going swimming in a lake at night" – before Elbow's Guy Garvey suggested she resettle in a milieu more conducive to solo artists who don't fit regular pigeon holes.

Not that Hoop is a ruthless wannabe. Instead, she is a late developer who only took music seriously when she turned 28. Turning against her family's Mormon faith, she honed her self-reliance in the West Coast counter- culture, living in "canvas structures" and getting by through dumpster-diving, surviving on food that supermarkets chuck out every day.

After her mid-afternoon set to mark Record Store Day, Hoop explains her circuitous route to Chorlton, south Manchester. Brought up in a religious household, there was no MTV, but plenty of singing with her parents and four siblings, which instilled in her a love of traditional music, reflected in the artist's own murder ballad "Tulip".

"I grew up on one murder ballad, 'Greenwood Sidie-O,' and I love them as a form, because people are singing about killing those they love the most," Hoop says. "Music was my family's primary connection, it was our strongest bond. We were very much a Von Trapp family, my mom was a classical singer and my dad was a folk singer, so mom taught us to sing in harmonies at an early age."

While enjoying the performances, Hoop had to turn against their religious strictures. "It was the years 14 to 16 when I was laying down my own laws. It's not an active rebellion, I've just settled into what I believe in and how I choose to live, but if you're raised as a Mormon you have to rebel against it."

Hoop fell in with a group of people devoted to sustainable living. "Nowadays I can't live so far away from electricity, but it still plays a part today. There was no money involved, there was freecycling and freeganism. I didn't drive a car or ride a bike, I lived without plumbing, with a group of people who had no interest in living on the grid."

It was just as much rebellion against popular culture as her parents. While she got into grunge and hip-hop, her folk roots remained constant. "I've looked after some beautiful kids but I get really grumpy when they watch music television, because it's just rubbish. I don't want them influenced by it."

While Hoop wrote during her period "off the grid", it took her a long time to consider taking her songs seriously. "I wasn't concentrating on sharing them with other people, just writing them as a pastime. I couldn't justify why I had to put myself into the centre of a room and demand everyone's attention."

Only with these experiences under her belt did she believe she had enough material to make her songs sufficiently compelling. "I really enjoyed everything I've done and it has so much to do with what I write about," she affirms.

By this time, Hoop was nanny to Tom Waits's three children and the veteran artist sent her off with his best wishes, some useful contacts in Los Angeles – and a glowing recommendation, which must be a tough calling card to live up to. "I don't think I'll ever live it down," she admits. "But he just gave it to me the day before I left. There was plenty of practical help that was all from the heart. We charted out my direction. I decided where I was going and he set me off with some fodder."

Set up in LA in 2007, Hoop released her debut album, Kismet, which eventually came to Garvey's attention. He interviewed her on his BBC 6 show, then invited her to support Elbow on a US tour. So impressed were the band, they brought her over for some European dates. While she was recording her second album, Garvey suggested that the solo performer move to the UK. Hoop completed the album, Hunting My Dress, the day before her flight.

Until Garvey suggested the move, it had never crossed her mind, though the idea did eventually make sense. "He planted the seed and then everything started pointing in that direction. I had no ties and there aren't many times in your life when you can make that move. It's always been rumoured that Europeans are more open-minded, there are more music lovers and it's easier to spread the word. People are more receptive to songwriting."

While Kismet was a compendium made up of 10 years of writing, Hunting is a darker work, informed in part by the death of her mother, most obviously in the tribute "Angel Mom". These moments are balanced by more upbeat tracks, though, especially the lively funk beat of "Four Dreams". "I'm real fond of contrast. I don't want to be a folk artist," Hoop explains. "I'd rather play characters and have more fun with the medium than stick to a genre."

Based in Manchester since last May, Hoop is still unsure how the change in scenery is affecting her writing, though the ex-pat is aware she has already moved on from the flora and fauna that has populated her work to date. "Right now it's all about battle gear, what men have been using over centuries to fight, in combination with what women don to seduce their men. I've showing more the wicked witch than my good side."

Jesca Hoop's latest single, "Whispering Light", is released on 3 May (Last Laugh Records). She plays Live At Leeds festival on 1 May, then tours

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