I’ve seen singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop twice in concert, and both times she’s brought me to tears. Some sorcerous combination of her lyricism and voice—a dusky alto—knocks a chink into the walls I’ve scaffolded around my heart, letting the light of a larger truth shine through.
The first time it happened, Hoop and Sam Beam were touring their collaborative 2016 album Love Letter for Fire. I caught them at New Orleans’ Civic Theater, where they traded between performing together and playing songs from their respective solo albums.
During one such moment, Hoop debuted a new song—something she hadn’t recorded yet. She plucked it, title then-unknown, on her electric guitar, setting a soft, slow rhythm against which she spun the myth of a relationship and the reality of its end.
The song worked heavily in metaphor, detailing a Pegasus and the rider who tames her—at first. “When we’re in love, we’re alive/ You’re the envy of the sky/ Every ember wants to ride the supernova,” Hoop sang that night, drawing out round, warm vowel sound leading off the syllable “ova.”
The beauty of that initial imagery, its sparkling ascendency, turned in the latter half of the chorus: “But I fear you’ll see the day/ When I’ve endured all I can take/ I won’t bend but I will break/ Under the weight.”
Try and control anything “built to soar” and watch what happens. Hoop’s song portrays love’s ecstatic start and the inevitable downfall that occurs when you ask anyone to change their very essence. I knew it well.
Writing is my version of soaring, and it requires a certain kind of time and commitment and effort and energy. I’ve yet to find a romantic partner who isn’t threatened in some way by those elements—and the fact of my giving each one to something other than them.
But so far the tradeoff hasn’t been worth it. As fulfilling as companionship can be, writing and the freedom to do it well has been the better choice. If I sound overly precious about the craft, it’s only because I’m so deeply in love with it. Peter Schjeldahl put it best when he wrote:
No wonder guys get jealous.
When Hoop released her fourth album Memories Are Now one year after that show in New Orleans, I found the track. On the studio version of “Pegasi,” she quickens the tempo and adds in gorgeous pedal steel that domes the night sky as though it were a shooting star tracing the arc of the heavens.
Able to hear the nuance of the verses, the relationship portrayed in the song grew clearer. It begins as one of care. “You’ve found a map to my heart/ It lead you to the well/ You combed at my mane/ I’ll wear your saddle and reigns,” Hoop sings. Those initial days are heady ones, and Pegasi feels the rush to “take to the sky like poetry” because her rider makes her better.
But ultimately their differences become their downfall. The rider wants control—a fact that might have seemed fair given the care that first attended it—but Pegasi wants to fly. It’s not a problem of compromise but restriction.
To this day, I feel the unbridled beauty of Pegasi’s choice. Of course you cast your rider aside when they threaten to cage you. Rare is the rider who can accept a wild nature without breaking it, warping it into something other than what attracted them in the first place.