“Destiny is what you're supposed to do in life,” wrote Henry Miller. “Fate is what kicks you in the ass and makes you do it.”
If that's the case, fate had a field day prodding Jesca Hoop to her destiny. The 32-year-old singer released her eclectic and compelling first album, Kismet, on Columbia earlier this year. In the three decades leading up to that debut, she was by turns a devout Mormon, a pot-smoking choirgirl, a survivalist homesteader and a music legend's nanny.
Growing up in a strict household in small-town Northern California, one of five children born to fifth-generation Mormons, Hoop says she didn't always embrace her inner free spirit.
“I think we're all cut from a different cloth but don't necessarily allow ourselves to show our true colors,” she explains. “It took [my parents'] divorce for me to have the balls to speak up for myself. I didn't know what I wanted until I was 14 or 15.”
When her parents split, Hoop announced that she wasn't going to church anymore. She decided to find her own flock.“All my friendships had been more or less circumstantial at that point,” she says. “People who either lived on my block or went to church. When I was in school, I started forming friendships of my own choosing. My first real friend—whose parents were atheists—exposed me to the one thing I always was taught not to trust: people outside my faith.
“This became quite infectious, and I couldn't stop,” Hoop adds. “I became addicted to getting to know different kinds of people and seeing them all as children of God.”
Like any rebellious teenager worth her pillar of salt, Hoop declared independence on the music front, as well. A cherished family activity was singing church hymns and murder ballads, sometimes in four-part harmony. Her parents listened to a lot of big band and old British folk and the occasional top-40 but treated The Beatles as if they didn't really exist after 1965.
Then Hoop bought a copy of Rubber Soul, the first record of her own choosing.
“Ohhhhh—that was pushing it for mom,” she recalls. “That was the curve for [The Beatles], when they were breaking away from pop into psychedelic rock 'n' roll. My mom wasn't happy. She really wasn't happy when I finally went to Sgt. Peppers and The White Album.”
Around this time, she also discovered stuff like Tom Waits, Bjork, Kate Bush and Diamanda Galas—the list of influences continued to grow. But although Hoop sang with the Santa Rosa Chamber Choir—usually totally stoned, she's admitted—performing was still little more than a hobby.
After high school, Hoop struck out on her own. She eked by with simple but interesting jobs, like assisting an 86-year-old surveyor in the snowy mountains of Wyoming and working with troubled kids in a wilderness rehabilitation program in the high mountains of Arizona.
Mountains are remote, which is where Hoop wanted to be—living close to the earth, growing her own food, going without plumbing and electricity.
“I think I gained a lot of pleasure from it,” she suggests. “And a rooted sense of self and maturity—knowing that you can take care of yourself with the most basic, raw materials. It was not without discomfort, however.”
Hoop honed her music on porches and around campfires, weaving unexpected bits of stray color—from blues to psychedelics—into songs rooted in traditional folk. And then, like the prodigal daughter, she returned to Northern California, where fate got involved in a seriously ass-kicking way.
A friend of a friend needed a nanny, and Hoop needed a job. Her new employer turned out to be Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen—also a musician.
“It was at the same point I'd decided to turn recording and performing into my livelihood,” Hoop says. “I had no idea how I was going to do it. I was really confused, even with their help. But music was always open for discussion. [The Waits] have probably made every mistake and also gained every bit of wisdom that a newcomer like me could use.”The Waits sent Hoop's demos to their producer, who passed them along to Nic Harcourt, the host of the band-breaking radio show Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW in Los Angeles. Harcourt played a song called “The Seed,” and it became one of the show's top-five requests for eight weeks running—purportedly a record.
Hoop moved to L.A. There was a small bidding war. She released her album. Critics raved. And the rest—well, the rest is destiny. Jesca Hoop opens for Matt Pond PA at The Casbah on Oct. 19. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. $10-$12. 619-232-HELL.