Before Jana Hunter became the woman behind the Baltimore-based Lower Dens, she was a solo singer-songwriter from Houston, TX. After releasing her 2005 debut Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom and two follow-up albums through Devendra Banhart’s label, she started her current dreamy, psychedelic project. We talked to her about the band’s latest video, their upcoming album, and got some advice for shy musicians.
Escape From Evil, the band’s third release, comes out March 31.
AF: I read that you’ve coached at the Girls Rock camp in your hometown, Houston. Did teaching kids about music give you any creative insights?
JH: Definitely. That was one of the better experiences I’ve had as a musician, and as an adult. You want to teach them something about their instrument, but the most important thing to focus on is not being so afraid about impressing other people, or perfecting their craft, and to remember to have a good time. And kids, once they see that is a possibility, they’re quick to embrace it, and that is really refreshing to be around… kids can really throw themselves into something and lose their sense of self-awareness that prohibits them from enjoying and developing their creativity. That was really cool and I feel like I learned way more from them than they possibly could’ve learned from me.
AF: I think sometimes girls, especially, need that push of self-confidence from a mentor.
JH: Yeah, and they said as much. Throughout the week we were working with them on a little video documentary and they would say, ‘This environment helps me feel like it’s ok for me to do whatever I want.’ I imagine that had something to do with being around a lot of women, and people who were not… um… men (laughs). And not having to worry about impressing boys or anything like that.
AF: Did you take music lessons when you were young?
JH: Yeah, I started playing when I was eight or nine. My first instrument was the recorder, which I played in music class in elementary school. Then I switched to violin. I still play it, I just don’t take lessons or anything anymore. But yeah, I did a pretty rigorous study of music.
AF: The music video for “To Die In L.A.” was great, and the timing of its release- a week or so before the Oscars- seemed perfect. Was that intentional?
JH: No, I didn’t think about that at all, until I saw in our Twitter mentions a Spanish publication said something about that. That’s amazing, that we didn’t think about that at all. I wish we had. And obviously, everyone wants to know what Lower Dens thinks about the Oscars…(laughs) you know, here you go, burning social commentary.
AF: You make an appearance in that video. Is being on camera fun, or does it get tedious?
JH: I loved making that video, but there have been others that were decidedly more difficult, but this one was worth every minute of it. I think that crew was amazing, and
AF: Lower Dens is starting a tour in March, correct?
JH: Right, yeah. We start touring fairly soon, but we haven’t played any shows together in a long time.
AF: Are there any favorite cities you enjoy visiting on tour?
JH: Baltimore is a place that treats local performers really well. In some towns it’s hard to get people to shows if you’re from the town. But Baltimore, for whatever reason, playing for those people is like playing for your family. People are very enthusiastic when they come to your shows; they’re also not necessarily going to hide from you when they’re not enthusiastic about what you’re doing. You have to face that honesty… There are very few places that I don’t like. If there’s one person there that’s interested in hearing you, then it’s worth it to go play there and it can be a fun and exciting time.
AF: Are there any artists or records you’ve been stuck on lately?
JH: Yeah. I did a review of Future Brown. They’re producers. They all have their own individual projects, but they got together to make a record. I was psyched about them anyway and I got to review their record for Talkhouse. I’ve listened to it definitely more than any other new record and I love it. I think it’s brilliant on a lot of levels.
AF: Do you spend a lot of time writing?
JH: I was doing more last year. This is, like, my fourth review for Talkhouse. I haven’t had as much time and I’ve also been wanting to read a lot more lately.
AF: What are you reading right now?
JH: “Escape from Evil,” which is the book we titled our record after.
AF: Speaking of your new record, what was your approach to writing new material for Escape From Evil?
JH: It’s changed for me over the years. When I was really young, the only way I really liked to write music was to walk around, or ride around on my bike, and sing to myself, come up with things spur of the moment and then match them with arrangements later. When Lower Dens started I was writing guitar loops and making up words with them at the same time, so more or less spontaneous writing. But after being in Lower Dens for a few years, we settled into an ensemble approach to a lot of things we do. We decided to write this record collaboratively. The initial step was getting together with the band, and writing instrumental stuff. I hadn’t done that with a whole group of people, and it was difficult to navigate the process at the beginning, but I think the record is a lot better for it. It’s complex in a way I wouldn’t have been able to achieve myself.
AF: When Lower Dens isn’t recording or touring, do you guys hang out, or are you sick of each other after working so closely?
JH: I think at the end of a long tour, yeah. But it’s not so much we’re sick of each other, that we miss the other people in our lives. But we’re friends, we’re all very close. We don’t have a purely working relationship. It’s easier for me to understand now why bands break up, why they can’t make music anymore than when I was a kid, and I hated people for doing that.
AF: I was looking at your recent profile in Vogue, and they described you as shy. Do you have any advice for artists who are trying to get over their shyness?
JH: Just that it takes time. What takes time is developing methods that allow you to communicate with people in a way you can showcase your vulnerabilities in a way that becomes a strength, and you don’t judge yourself for the things you’ve revealed to people. You will inevitably feel as though you’re fucking up and revealing too much. But eventually it becomes easier. Nobody ever told me that, it’s just that I went on tour, and I was miserable until I figured that out. It was just the repeated conversations nightly with people I’d never met before that made me feel comfortable being- not necessarily more of myself, but learning to present a version of myself that I felt comfortable sharing with people. And learning that I can show shades of myself instead of my entire self.