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Jesca Hoop: Tom Waits’ nanny is on a musical odyssey from California to Chorlton

She's rejected Mormonism and looked after Tom Waits' children. Now, on her best album yet, Jesca Hoop opens up about her turbulent past. Fiona Sturges meets her
  • @FionaSturges

Several years ago Jesca Hoop was sitting in the bath in Los Angeles when the phone rang. At the other end was Elbow's Guy Garvey. He had heard her debut album, Kismet, and wanted to know more about its author. It turned out to be a pivotal moment. As well as interviewing her on his radio show on BBC6 Music, thereby introducing her to a British audience, Garvey invited Hoop to support Elbow on tour. Through that she met her current partner, the band's manager, Tom Piper, prompting her move from sunny LA to the earthier environs of Chorlton in Manchester.

Hoop's life has been littered with such fork-in-the-road moments, from the time, aged 16, that she finally rejected her Mormon upbringing, ultimately prompting her to leave home and start writing songs, to the moment in her twenties when she met Tom Waits, who would provide her with a job as a nanny to his children and guide her in the early stages of her career.

"It's like I'm in the ocean and treading water, kicking away but not getting anywhere," Hoop reflects. "But then I'll find a rock and be lifted onto it. Tom was the first rock; the second was Guy. If they hadn't lifted me up at those points my life would be very different."

Now Hoop, 35, is set to release her third LP, The House That Jack Built, her most bewitching work so far. A prodigious musical talent and natural writer with a darkly poetic style, Hoop has always been tantalisingly opaque in her songs. This time there's a new directness, tackling such personal issues as the turbulent relationship with her father and his eventual death in 2010, three years after her mother died from cancer.

"There was," Hoop says of the song-writing process, "a conscious effort to communicate clearly. This time I thought: 'I want for people to follow my story.' I wanted to give less room for interpretation and strike universal chords. I felt it was time to tell stories more plainly."

Thus, "DNR" chronicles her father's battle with depression, rendering vivid some of his ugliest moments ("When the mail order brides and the phone sex and his negligence became real/ The wall covered in spit/ How's it to make your teenage daughters feel"), while the title track sees her and her siblings clearing out his house after his death. Singing these songs live, Hoop says, can be extremely painful: "I have to keep the tears behind the wax. It's very... exposing. But at the same time it feels good to tell people how it was."

While there was a certain trepidation involved in recording her experiences so bluntly, Hoop also found it helpful. "It allows you to quantify your life. It helps you weigh it up. The experiences that have the most effect on your life can be the most beautiful, even though they really suck. It also", she adds wryly, "gives me something to sing about."

There has been no shortage of life experience on which to draw musical inspiration. The third of five children, Hoop was raised as a Mormon in northern California. Her parents brought her up on a diet of folk, choral music and Von Trapp-style family sing-alongs underpinned by a rigorous spiritual schedule.

It was Hoop who first "broke the Mormon chain". While her older siblings remained "true blue" the younger ones followed her in rejecting their family's faith. The act of breaking away from the church was, she recalls, "horrifying, actually horrifying. You have to go through a period of withdrawal and a cleansing of the mind, because you've been intoxicated by this belief that you, as a Mormon, are right and everyone else is wrong and going to hell."

It didn't help that Hoop was smoking a lot of marijuana and was having strange visions in which "friends were turning into evil clowns". At the same time her parents' marriage was collapsing, prompting Hoop to briefly move in with her father until his erratic behaviour, caused by depression, made life with him impossible. Eventually she moved in with a friend from high school, and from there entered into what she fondly calls her "rambling period".

For six years Hoop moved frequently, living in yurts, cob dwellings, even a converted chicken coop. She met a group of deadheads who "helped me unhook from everything. I never was a deadhead myself, but I had an aptitude for being out in the elements and being close to nature." To make ends meet she took a series of jobs, all outdoors, including farming, landscaping and surveying. For a period she worked on a survival programme in the mountains , helping problem kids and teaching them "hardcore elemental living". She never stopped writing songs, and eventually came to the realisation that she wanted to sing for a living rather than to herself. First, though, she needed a steady income.

It was that this point that she "crossed paths" with Tom Waits and his partner Kathleen Brennan, who hired her to help look after their three children. She knew of Waits but "didn't know the giant he was until I saw him on stage after six months." Hoop is keen to play down the connection, lest it take the focus off her own story, though she does say "they mentored me. It took me a year and a half to play them anything as I didn't want to impose. I wanted to respect their privacy." Hoop worked on her songs for a further three years, at which point she decided she was ready to devote herself to music full-time. Waits waved off his employee-turned-protégé with a rare public endorsement. "Jesca Hoop's music is like a four-sided coin," he stated. "She is an old soul, like a black pearl, a good witch or a red moon. Her music is like going swimming in the lake at night."

By then the Los Angeles radio station KCRW was already playing her demo of "Seed of Wonder", which subsequently broke the station's record for most requested track.

Now enjoying commercial success and with a new life in Britain, Hoop's life is very different from that of her free-spirited twenties. She believes she is here to stay. "If I didn't travel so much, I would mourn for the sun," she reflects. "And juice bars. And salad! But these are just home comforts. I love what I do and where I am. And I've got so many people who have been so good to me that I need to see it all through, for them as much as for me."

'The House That Jack Built' is out on Monday; Jesca Hoop tours the UK until 1 July