Jana Hunter’s career has already contained multitudes. She started playing lo-fi folk “either twelve or like, thirty” years ago, a by-gone time when being a Beck devotee was unimpeachably hip. Since 2010, Hunter’s been fronting Lower Dens, a band who can execute her songwriting on a grand psychedelic scale. On 2012’s Nootropics they were mid-transformation, becoming a sulking krautrock behemoth.
Next week Lower Dens release their third record, Escape From Evil, and begin a tour at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right. (They’ll come back in summer to play our own Northside Festival, too.) It’s another sharp turn in style, using clean synth-pop sounds to give her still-cerebral lyrics a weirdly uplifting effect. We caught up with Hunter to chat about her songwriting, the attempt to make accessible music that takes inspiration from academic texts on human evil, tantric sex (as a metaphor), and getting out of her own head.
Did you start writing songs in childhood?
I started playing classical music when I was a kid. I first started writing songs, sort of on a lark, when I was fourteen or fifteen. It wasn’t until other people became exasperated with me not taking it seriously that I started to take it seriously.
Was it starting Lower Dens that made you feel like you had a real career?
When I was younger I had this idea that if you were really talented, songs should just kind of come to you. Then you present them to people and they immediately fall in love with them, and then boom, that’s how a career happens! (laughs) I didn’t have any idea how much work goes into successful projects. There were a lot of things I was frustrated about when I was performing solo. As a teenager I was writing songs for personal reasons. I didn’t share them with people because it felt strange to. Touring was miserable for me.
So there were two things happening: One was I needed to change how I wrote music, so that it was meant to be shared with people, and the other thing was that I needed to put a lot more work into it than I was. I feel much more confident at that now than I was going into Lower Dens. It was a very conscious thing.
To what degree was the brighter sound of Escape From Evil an attempt to reach a wider audience?
When you’re having a conversation like this, you are kind of dancing around the word “accessible.” That has come to mean that you’re dumbing things down, or something, I definitely felt that way for a long time. There are smart ways to go about that and then there are condescending ways. What you have in mainstream pop music, it’s not even really written because it will appeal to what people want, it’s so that it’ll get people to spend money. It’s not stupid because people are stupid, it’s stupid because it’s formulaic.
Anyway, I think that it’s important to try to utilize music as a way to bring people together. To me it’s the closest thing to spirituality. There is something very powerful and quasi-magical about bringing people together and getting them to see other people as they see themselves. Pop music makes that possible! If I am writing really obscure, intellectual music I’m satisfying something in myself, but I’m definitely not inviting people in in the same way. I want to do that.
The meaning in the newest stuff isn’t always completely clear, though? I’ve read you say that a song like “To Die in LA” came out of a personal tragedy but without that context… it’s kinda upbeat.
If you are trying to figure out exactly what it means to me, it might be difficult. I’m trying to put something of myself in it and have it be honest emotionally. But I don’t want it to be a really narrow, strict narrative, because I feel like that’s another way of excluding people? It has to be open to interpretation.
What was it about Ernest Becker’s book Escape From Evil that resonated with you, to seem like a good title for this set of songs?
He’s talking about people’s motivations for doing the things that they do. It’s something that I’ve been given to thinking about for a while now. I was thinking about processing relationships that I’ve had and things that I’ve done. In trying to do the things I do really well, I’ve stepped on people, hurt people. I wanted to change that about myself or at least come to terms with it. People try to elongate their lives, and try to leave legacies. In doing those things they end up fucking people over. It’s possible to live your life in a way that benefits you, but doesn’t do that.
This album had a really long gestation process. Is doing heavy tinkering in the studio a drastic change to your usual writing process?
I’ve been writing continuously, working on [the album] continuously since the beginning of 2013. The time that we spent tracking with the entire band was less than 10 days. After that, so much time was spent overdubbing with myself and Chris Coady. If the original parts weren’t just right, we didn’t try to run them through a bunch of effects, we would rerecord them. That was a very different experience for me. I think it frustrated the fuck out of Chris (laughs). But I’m glad we did it.
Do the songs still feel really immediate to you after all that? Is it strange to you that people are just hearing them?
A metaphor came to mind, but it’s a very sexually explicit one, so I don’t know—I mean—yeah, fuck it. It’s like engaging in sex and suspending the moment of orgasm as long as possible. You’re either going to get this explosive ridiculous thing that makes you cry, or it’s going to be,”Oh, you’ve waited too long,” and it’s kind of disappointing. I don’t really know which one is happening yet.
But the tantra is over, you’ve put the lute down?
Do you think you’ve become a more natural performer over time?
For sure, and I think that just comes from performance. When I was really young I was taught ways to listen to music and keep a really tight focus on what I was doing even as I was playing it. There’s never a moment where I was playing music where I’m completely lost in it. All the time there’s a part of me paying really close attention to what my voice is doing or how I’m playing guitar.
Is getting more lost in the music something you want?
I go back and forth about that. It’s been really beneficial to me in some ways, but then I’m really also jealous of people who can listen to music and not be breaking it down as they listen to it. Automatically, I’m doing that without trying to. I remember feeling that way by the time I was twelve, listening to music and missing how it had sounded when I was six. •