Jana Hunter has lived many lives when it comes to music - and life in general. After starting out as a solo musician, Hunter has now been working with her band, Lower Dens (on the label Ribbon Music), for eight years. Lower Dens' music has gone through changes, always subtly interrogating the binaries that govern our modern world. Formerly characterized by brooding, corner-lurker tones, Lower Dens' most recent release, Escape from Evil, is a slight shift towards the candy-like synth riffs of the 80s.
Hunter has been a voice for non-hetero-white-dudes in the music industry. She's spoken out about her relationship to gender. (Hunter is genderfluid and uses the pronouns "she" and "her.") In the course of her career, she's felt the music industry's misogyny, and openly discussed it.
I'm a total sucker for good politics combined with great music, and I was lucky enough to sit down with Hunter before the Lower Dens show at the House of Vans to discuss her musical evolution, the role of artists and activists, and patriarchy in music.
How did you guys decide to make music together?
I used to play as a solo musician, and eventually I decided I wasn’t suited for touring. I was going to keep recording, stop putting out records, stop touring, and pursue some other kind of career. Before I stopped that entirely, I wanted to do a last tour around the U.S. to see friends that I probably wouldn’t see for a while. I hired a few people from Baltimore to play with me, including Geoff, who plays bass in Lower Dens. He and I didn’t know each other but we had a lot of mutual friends. There was also another guy named Abe, who ended up being Lower Dens' drummer, and then another guy who didn’t end up being in Lower Dens.
Anyway, I discovered on that tour - it was the first tour I’d done with a band - that what I had really despised about touring was trying to present music by myself that was written with very intimate purposes in mind in community spaces. It just didn’t work for me at all. It made me miserable. But when I was playing music with other people for other people, it made more sense to me. So, we started to write songs together that were written with the intention of being shared with other people. Now, looking back on it, it seems like a very theoretical way to start a rock band. But that’s just how I approach things.
I was listening to the other music you put out and a lot of the previous albums seem more conceptually driven. The newest one seems more immediately poppy. Was that intentional?
Yeah, definitely. The last record was very concept driven, very much about the human relationship to technology and the disconnect between humans lives and their sense of themselves as animals and like their faith in and catering to their instincts, that sort of thing, or their understanding of their instincts. And I liked the record and really enjoyed working on it, but it turned out feeling very distant and very cold. I think some of that had to do with production, which I didn’t have as much of a hand in as I could have, but conceptually it’s just distant. You know, it’s like making a frame of how to see the world and looking at it like that and not having any connection to it. So the new record, maybe it was mostly a reaction to that one but I wanted to try making a more direct conduit between our band and our music and the people listening to it.
Would you say that the lyrics in this album are more personal?
Yeah, that’s true. All of the songs are based personal in one way or another. They’ll be like about a friend or about my own experience, but then in order to make them more accessible to people they're slightly re-written as something a little more narrative. But yeah, I wanted the lyrics to be…the songs, how they’re written they’re about this idea as encountering the world as a chaotic difficult place and trying to bristle simplicity out of it, trying to counter all the pressures of the modern world by focusing on your close relationships and focusing on yourself and tuning others out. Its about the process of doing that too it’s not about just emerging as being fully centered. It’s about transitioning to being a centered person.
It seems like process is important too and that could be the act of centering? Do you think that there’s a way to scale out and in of society/culture completely?
Yeah, there's proof of that in Buddhist monks, it’s just like they started a thing and they are still doing a thing and they’re doing work that we can’t see and those kinds of people in the world that are doing work we can’t see…like, we’re seeing the effects of it, but maybe not the work itself. They are always working towards a target that maybe none of us will ever see, or see in exactly the same way. Those are the people that I admire most in the world. Whether they’re activists or artists or religious people.
Totally. Do you see a connection between artwork and activism?
Definitely. When you’re able to follow your instincts towards some kind of path that can simultaneously be your art practice and your spiritual practice, and you know, the thing that compels you to tell the truth. I feel like there’s really only in our society a semantic difference between artists, activists, and spiritual leaders, but they’re all pursuing the same thing or rather they are in the process of pursuit and it’s the pursuit that’s important and not the goal and that’s the difference between doing that and people who are just 100 percent about their material ambitions.
I read your essay in Cosmo and I was wondering if you could talk about your experiences with misogyny in the music scene/industry?
It's really difficult to talk about. It's something that a lot of people who are female or identify as female, or who are identified as female end up talking about. Mostly in greenrooms. Because don’t know how else to express those things because it’s frustrating and its confusing and it’s completely mystifying. You know, and it can be a lot of very little things…like people looking right through you to talk to a specific male band member, or people like, asking if you play in the band. That doesn’t happen to me as much anymore but it used to happen to me all the time, people would assume that I didn’t know what I was talking about, I still get looks of surprise when I start to give people technical specifications of our sound, for instance. But you know, you just develop a very steely face about it because you have to and you have to get peoples attention you have to like (snaps) you have to present as if people will have no question that you are going to listen to me right now, and if there’s going to be a problem with that then I’m not going to talk to you. But it feels ridiculous to be like that day in and day out but it’s just what you have to do to get shit done.
Do you think it got easier as time went on?
I wouldn’t’ say it got easier I’m just really impatient. I cannot, as well as other people do, overlook those failings in other people.
Do you ever call people out for that?
No, because I feel like a lot of times that would be a waste of my time. In the midst of trying to put a show up and sometimes you, maybe unfairly, read in people’s attitudes that they aren’t going to listen to anything you have to say about how they could improve as people.
What’s your relationship to other people in the Baltimore scene like?
A few good ones, a few sour ones, and then tons of people I don’t know because I’ve been on tour for so long and theres a lot of youngin's that I don’t know at all. And there’s a few that I’ve made a point of getting to know because I admire them a lot and I wanna do more of that I wanna spend more time being out and watching people perform their music and their art. I love being there. I feel really lucky to be there. It’s a really very special place.
You’re pretty busy. Do you get tired? It sounds like you’re pretty used to it by this point.
I’m in a band that I really like being in. I love it as much as I love anything else and I like them as much as anyone else and we try to treat it like a little family because we’re together for months on end. We share hotel rooms, we sleep on floors together, we are very close, in very close contact all the time, so if we didn’t like each other I don’t think we’d be willing to tolerate it. I know bands that hate each other. I guess they make more money than we do, that keeps them going. But they hate each other! I couldn’t imagine that. I think it embitters them and robs them of time in their lives I don’t know why you would do that to yourself I don’t think money is that cool.
Is it tough juggling being a real person, touring, and then recording? That’s a lot. Or have you figured out your rhythm and how to organize yourself?
It’s difficult for me if I’ve been on tour for a few months to go back on tour, it feels like a real interruption of routine and the home life I’ve built with my family and friends. But once I’m out here I find it almost as difficult as it is to go back. Because I do feel like I have purpose because this is the closest I’ll be to being of service to the world and that’s a really important thing to me.
Photo courtesy House of Vans
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