With the upcoming release of a brazen third album (out March 31 via Ribbon Music), Jana Hunter of Lower Dens talks about finding her voice, having some fun, and fighting the winter blues. The band will be playing at the Strathmore in Bethesda on March 12 and at Floristree on April 1.
I read in an interview that this album came out of this moment where you and the band were tired of making music about "being miserable while being miserable."
[Laughs.] That is true but there was a little bit of context missing. Throughout our history as a band, we've had a number of run-of-the-mill difficulties, but specifically with this record, we were working in a very cold, dark space.
Literally or figuratively?
Well, we had been touring for a couple of years for our last two records, Nootropics and Twin-Hand Movements, and we were playing so much better than we ever had together. We had become a real ensemble. We were able to communicate musically and understand each other in a new way, so we really wanted to write collaboratively.
Our last record is almost strictly intellectual and very challenging to play, so we were excited to start something else. We started writing the new album in this industrial space and we went to great pains to make it something we could work in. We draped cloth around and set up lamps and tried to create this good environment.
At first, it was fine, but this was February 2013. It was cold. It was dark. We could never heat the space up. And then, it was really strange—we'd been playing together for such a long time, but one of our members [guitarist Will Adams] just quit one day and never came back and never spoke to us again.
That's a really rough winter.
It was early in the writing session and it kind of deflated us. It was a very challenging situation, because we were trying to create music and improvise, which requires a certain environment of liberation and inspiration, but it's hard to summon those things in that kind of space.
Did making the album help you get out of that?
Writing, for me, is a form of self-care. Especially when I was younger. As a teenager, I hated traditional therapy so I wouldn't let my parents take me to see a therapist, but writing really helped. Music really helped. It's something I know how to do and I recognized we needed that. We talked it over and decided to take the music in a direction that was as emotional and personal and fun as possible, as a way to be really honest about the subject matter but also to induce healing, I guess.
And isn't honesty, in a way, one of the record's themes?
A lot of the songs are about really personal, specific things for me. I was thinking a lot about our overcomplicated modern lives, our inability to recognize what we need, our distractions—specifically from consumer-based society and our innate need to survive and prosper—and how to deal with it all.
How do you tap into those personal, specific experiences? What's your process?
I'm very bad at setting my sights on something in my personal life and then trying to write a song about it. I can do that with heavier, more intellectual topics, but when it's personal, I really have to feel compelled—an insistent compulsion to work out feelings and thoughts about a subject, like, you know, guilt about a way I've treated someone. The ways to deal with that are not always available, either because you can't make your way through it, or, say, the person you need to reconcile with is no longer alive. For me, music is the remaining option, or if I'm just not strong enough at that time, music is the first step.
How did you start tackling it?
The way I tend to do it, and the way I did with this record, is to isolate myself. I moved out of Baltimore and was living in the suburbs with a friend who was letting me use a shack behind his house. I would go there everyday all by myself and spend the night there and just spend time with the guitars and computers.
You delved so deep. Was it a long process or did it flow?
It's weird. Sometimes I'm really lucky and the song will happen all at once. It's very rare, but when it does, it comes very quickly and you have to catch it while it's happening. You'll have been thinking about something for a long time and then, all of a sudden, it crystallizes as a thought or a feeling or both at the same time. When I've gotten myself really exhausted or distracted from what's bothering me, it finally just rushes to the surface. It comes up all at once and the essence of a song—a little eight-bar melody or the lyric that reveals the rest of them—will happen suddenly.
Besides the personal subject matter, was there anything else you can point to as inspiration? I was thinking about the '80s and this particular sound from that era: This very bright, radio-ready, kind of delusional music. Not to say anything bad about it—I love it—but like, early U2 records: they're more guitar-based. It's very clean and warm and huge-sounding, and I wanted to be able to do that. It's fun to think about music in a certain way and try to write it that way. It's like an exercise or a game for me.
You definitely hear that: It feels brighter, even poppy, which is interesting, because with such personal, emotional writing, you'd expect a heavier sound. It was never a conscious decision amongst the band or myself for the album to be cathartic. The only conscious decision was—because we were in a difficult place individually and as a group—that the album should be fun. We needed that. I associate pop music with a kind of freedom and carefreeness, you know?
The band released "To Die in L.A." first. Is that the song that best embodies the album for you?
It makes a good mascot for the record. It's not the star player, but I really liked it. I'm still kind of surprised by it—it's so different for us—but it was just such a release to write something fun like that. If I had to pick songs that were more indicative of the record as a whole, there are two that come to mind. First, "Your Heart Still Beating," which is not fun and bright and poppy and dancey like "To Die In L.A.," but it's a very fast-flying beat that I can get into all day long.
Exactly. Musically, I can't wait to play it with the band, and emotionally, it couldn't be more crystal to me. It's the most blatant in its subject matter: about dealing with someone passing away and how difficult that is.
Then the other song is the first on the record: "Sucker's Shangri-La." God, it feels so good. Strong. Everybody works hard together. I think it might be my favorite. I f*cking love that song.
It was a great call to open with that one. It charges right in and hooks you instantly, especially the new emphasis on vocals. Your voice is clearer and louder than ever before.
I wanted to take some risk with where I situate myself in a song. It's a lot easier for me to be a guitarist than a singer, so I wanted it to be more forward. But of course, I always do this: I go through the entire process and I'm chain-smoking and barely sleeping and, by the time we get to recording vocals, I'm basically whispering them into a microphone because I'm so tired and my voice is in terrible shape. That happened here, too, but right before we started mixing, one of my band members was like, 'Um, you can really do better than that…' So I rested, relaxed, went on a short tour where I sang those songs every night, and then rerecorded all of them. I'm so grateful to him for pushing that.
Speaking of touring, you recorded this in multiple cities: Dallas, Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles. They're all such different places. Do you feel like each seeped into the album in its own, little way?
Everything seeps into the work. Everything you're talking about, and reading about, and listening to, and being around at the time. But in Baltimore, we were back at the same recording studio, Beat Babies, where we did our first record, with the same engineer, Chris Freeland, in the same basement with the same cat wandering around.
Besides writing in Baltimore, what do you do for fun?
I like to go out and see performances and be with various communities here. Art communities. Music communities. Baltimore is such a community-oriented town and that has always been its strongest point to me. People get together and do things and influence each other. I just went to a community discussion called Art-Part'heid [at 2640 Space in Charles Village]. It was really, really cool. And there are a lot of places that I want to check out but haven't yet, like this group show at the Visionary Museum that a friend of mine is in. He goes by the name Astral Eyes and does these pretty incredible collage pieces.
What's your favorite spot to see shows?
I go to The Crown a lot, and tonight, there's one at a DIY house. Other times, I'll just go meet people and have quasi-business meetings at Canteen. I also really like to run. I'm terrible at it in the cold. Just seriously kind of hilariously terrified of it. But I'm looking forward to it warming up a bit so I can run along Falls Road. Also once it gets a warmer, Dominion Ice Cream has a lot of influence on me.