Jesca Hoop calls her stunning sophomore album “the first time I’ve ever really invested in myself.” And she means that literally: After recording the nine-track disc in Los Angeles with veteran producer Tony Berg (Michael Penn, Aimee Mann, Nickel Creek), the northern California native packed her bags and decamped for England, where last year she released Hunting My Dress independently to an avalanche of acclaim from both the U.K. press and fellow artists such as Guy Garvey of Elbow. “That was the first time I really took control of my own life,” Hoop says, “and had enough faith to put not just my talent but my money toward running a campaign.”

Fans of Hoop’s 2007 debut, Kismet, already knew about the singer’s talent. A favorite of former KCRW tastemaker Nic Harcourt (who regularly featured Hoop on the public-radio station’s influential “Morning Becomes Eclectic”), Kismet announced the arrival of a unique new voice, one with a flair (as the Los Angeles Times put it) for “darkly seductive, genre-bending songs that dabble in everything from folk and pop to dub and cabaret.” Three years later, Hoop calls Hunting My Dress “a more clarified distillation of what I do as an artist. I’m closer to home in my expression on this record,” she continues. “I used less to express more.”

Expression is key for Hoop, whose adventurous songwriting and idiosyncratic vocals have earned favorable comparisons to such cutting-edge forbears as Björk, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell. “Those women inspired a generation, and I’m of that generation,” Hoop acknowledges. “I’m trying to get to what’s innately mine. My heroes set this example for me. My only aim is to be just like myself.”

With a back-story as varied and colorful as Hoop’s—highlights include a childhood spent singing traditional folk songs in a close-knit Mormon family, several years of cross-country travel with a group of Grateful Dead fans and an early endorsement by none other than Tom Waits—she certainly faces no shortage of material to draw from in that quest. Indeed, Hunting My Dress presents a series of indelible tales from a life less ordinary.

“Whispering Light,” the album’s haunting opener, serves as Hoop’s response to her mother’s decision to forgo chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer. “She decided on alternative therapies,” says Hoop, “and the song is my show of support.”

Another cut, the dark, beat-laced “Tulip,” is Hoop’s version of a murder ballad, the age-old musical tradition that’s long intrigued the singer. “I grew up on murder ballads, so I decided to write one, and what got me started was learning that the tulip actually became a form of currency in Holland in the 1600s. I imagined a man becoming enthralled by a particular woman and bartering for her hand by giving her father an incredibly valuable batch of tulips. But she’s not in love with him, and—well, the story goes from there.”

Elsewhere, “Feast of the Heart” has “a little alt-rock punk edge to it,” “Murder of Birds” features a lovely backing-vocal turn by Garvey and “Four Dreams” is “kind of like a hoedown”—all of which contributes to a record that Hoop says reflects something of a “schizophrenic nature,” with “a shape shifting role-play thing going on song to song.”

“Contrast and contradiction” are what captivate this young observer, and that’s further illustrated by the way Hoop mingles time periods, making the old-fashioned feel newfangled. “I don’t live in 1810, but sometimes the music that comes through me seems to come from that time,” she says. “The question becomes: How do I incorporate those sounds when I’m singing in 2010? How do I combine those eras in order to communicate with my audience?”

To be perfectly honest, we don’t know how she does it. But somehow she does, and Hunting My Dress is the unforgettable result.