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A life less ordinary

The Baltimore Sun

Louisville, Ky. -- After dinner, singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop picks up her full glass of pinot noir and offers you some. There is too much wine left for her to finish alone, and she needs some help.

As a joke, you wonder aloud whether she has mono.

"No, but I do have stereo," she answers.

Whimsical, playful and enigmatic in her life and music, Hoop is building a buzz among acoustic music fans and industry reps. She's on tour with the Polyphonic Spree and comes to the 9:30 Club on Saturday.

Hoop was born into a large Mormon family in northern California. On car trips, her family would sing old folk songs such as "Leather-Winged Bat," she said.

"We were like the von Trapp family," Hoop said. "It must have been so funny to see from the outside. Just like, 'tra la la, tra la la' - all singing."

When Hoop was growing up, her parents separated, and she began pursuing a less-traditional life. She became a wilderness instructor for a kids camp and would spend months at a time in the woods, living off the land with few supplies.

Hoop began writing music and worked as a nanny for the children of Grammy-award-winning singer/songwriter Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan.

"I was just asking for a mentorship in general," Hoop said, "but I got what I needed the most, which was for someone to set an example for me of what it is to have a dream and then to take the necessary steps to make that dream come real."

Hoop waited a year before she felt comfortable enough to give Waits and Brennan her demo album.

"I was really careful," Hoop said. "I felt like I needed to be respectful of their space."

Brennan heard Hoop's song "Seed of Wonder" and felt it was good enough to pass on to a music publisher. Hoop's musical career started rolling.

Hoop recorded her debut full-length album, Kismet, and is set to release it in September under 3 Records, a subsidiary of Columbia Records.

Though she admits she's no master of the acoustic guitar, Hoop can pick out tunes by ear well enough, she said.

"My process is really blind in a lot of ways," Hoop said. "I do have an intuitive eye, but I don't have a technical toolkit."

Ideas for songs come to Hoop in waves.

"Sometimes, they come like traffic," Hoop said. "Sometimes, you have to write three stupid songs to get to one that's good. Sometimes, it's melodies that you've had in your head since childhood."

Most of Hoop's songs are built around vocal melodies. She sings fast and seems to chant at times. There is a classic element to her music that recalls a much earlier time. It's not hard to picture her playing in a medieval court.

Hoop also heavily invests her emotions into the music she makes. During a Louisville performance last month of "Love is All We Have," a song inspired by Hurricane Katrina, Hoop choked up and had to pause to collect herself before continuing.

Live, Hoop picks notes from an acoustic guitar and sings with an airy, lilting voice. For one song, she sets down the guitar and leans over the mike with her arms extended - a consummate musical spell-caster.

Jesca Hoop opens for the Polyphonic Spree on Saturday at the 9:30 Club, 815 V. St. N.W. in Washington. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 202-393-0930 or go to

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