Jana Hunter of Lower Dens on “Escape from Evil” and queer identity


Baltimore’s Lower Dens is already sweeping in praise for the two singles and video they’ve recently released that have been creating quite the buzz surrounding their third studio album Escape From Evil (out March 31st on Ribbon Music). I caught up with frontwoman Jana Hunter over the phone to talk a bit about this album, her experience in the band and how being a queer artist has shaped her music.

Jana HunterPhoto Credit: Frank Hamilton

AfterEllen.com: Can you give our readers a little background on the band?

Jana Hunter: I am originally from Texas and moved to Baltimore in 2008 as a solo performer. People would play in my band and a couple of them started a band with each other. But I was touring solo and writing music solo and I just didn’t enjoy playing it for people, but I really enjoyed the idea of making music that was written with other people and then to be shared with people so we started this band. It took us kind of a while to get going and to find our shared interests and common aesthetic, and then we toured a lot. We recorded our first record live at end of 2009 and put it out in 2010 called Twin Hand Movement. Followed by a couple member rotations before putting out our next record, which was kind of more synth based, called Nootropics, in 2012. Then toured a lot again. We were exhausted from touring, basically since we met each other we’d been touring almost non stop. So we took some time off to make this record. And I feel like the record has benefited a lot from taking a step back and taking our time and letting it process in a more organic way.


AE: That album, Escape From Evil, is being released at the end of this month. Can you tell me about the inception and process of that? And the experience of writing with other musicians?

JH: When we started this band I was still the primary songwriter and I didn’t really know how to collaborate on kind of a fundamental level writing a whole project from scratch with other people. I think it took until the end of spring for Nootropics to feel like we were really an ensemble that was ready to play, and it really needed to start by writing things together. So that’s what happened. We came to it collaboratively. In Baltimore, everybody’s living all over the place. So we met up in a really cold, dark warehouse space to write in February and April of 2013. Then somebody in the band quit. It was just a difficult time. So we separated back to our own little corners of the world and I ended up writing a lot more of the record than I thought I would, by myself, but I was still in communication with the people who ended up recording the album. One of the people in particular was Geoff Graham, who he and I have been in the band together from the beginning. We’re different people, very complementary people, and one thing that we both were certain of was that from that moment onward was to enjoy playing in this band and to get rid of as much drama as possible. The songs kind of necessarily ended up being about personal difficult issues, but written intentionally with the thought in mind of having the songs be a release for that. I feel like we ended up with a very complex satisfying thing that is really fun to play, and is really fun to share with people, but still means a lot. There’s a lot there for me there personally and I feel like I’m communicating a lot when I play and sing them for people. So I think the experience of writing with people, of collaborating with people, like truly on this record for the first time, well more than the others, certainly, made that possible. I feel like something about those kind of communications, really thorough ones and really expressive ones, are much more possible within a community than in isolation.


AE: Writers and fans alike are prone to throwing around a lot of hilarious combinations of musical genres to try to describe a band’s sound. If you had to do that for yourself, how would you describe the music that you’re putting out?

JH: Oh yeah, I’m terrible at this. I used to try to do it and now I just give up. If I have a friend with me I make them answer. So I don’t know. We are definitely interested in minimalist experimental music, also interested in pop, also highly influenced by many different sub-genres of rock music. So I don’t know. I’ve kind of given up on most genre names.


AE: From New York I’ve noticed a lot of musicians and artists are either migrating down to Baltimore or have established a firm line of creative import and export. How do you find the scene in Baltimore and how has it imprinted on you creatively?

JH: When I’m talking to people I do refer to Baltimore as having a scene, but what it really has is like many, many small scenes, some of which overlap some of which don’t. But the sense that you do get going out here as a fan is that people support local music and they find out about shows locally. They find out through friends and in that way it operates unlike any other city I’ve lived in in the past ten years at least. It’s a very local active town. Another thing about it is that when we play here, or when I DJ here people are actively listening. They are interacting with the music. Like if it’s a dance party, people really throw down here, and it’s awesome. It’s amazing. I’d kind of forgotten what that’s like. Like when I was a kid and living in other cities people were kind of terrified to enjoy themselves. When I come back here from being on tour it’s just that people are not afraid to let go of the idea of crippling self awareness and just enjoy themselves and interact with each other. That is I would say at least one defining characteristic of Baltimore as I see it.


AE: Where do you draw inspiration from generally?

JH: Lately more in the realm of books and artists and film. I do listen to a lot of music that I can’t translate into our music, that I’m just not capable of. You know like jazz and classical music. Lately a lot of like ’70s jazz is what I listen to most. I read a lot. Have been on a pretty strong kick of books recently. I feel the most powerfully influenced by that in my life, even just by the act of reading and having the advantage of access to good books and lots of them and of course the time to read when I can find it. I’m reading “Rings of Saturn” right now and also plowing my way through the book that we named our record after, it’s called “Escape From Evil” and it’s by a guy named Ernest Becker. It’s very heavy so I come back to it in between other things. I also think a lot about people, some of whom are musicians but others are more strictly performance artists and how their lives are their practice and their art and there’s not really any separation between making art and living. Those people are the people that I admire most and look to when I need to reign myself in and focus my being.


AE: How does your sexuality factor into your creative process?

JH: Umm in some ways. I have maybe even just unintentionally gone to pains to not reveal too much directly about myself, like my internal life, in my music in a way that can be easily interpreted. I’m not transcribing my love life or anything like that but I do feel like being queer has had a really strong influence on the shape of my life and the person I’ve become.


AE: What does queer visibility mean to you and what do you think it’s importance is in relation to the arts and the world at large?

JH: I mean, that’s a really big question. And it’s not one that I’ve ever really tried to put into words, but you know to me making art is a lot about personal expression and personal expression within the context of a community and growing up in the ’80s and ’90s in Texas there were other gay and trans people in my life who led me to art and led me to community in a way that I hadn’t experienced it before. Which definitely followed through into my life. I would say that a lot of my favorite artists seem to have had something of the same experience. It’s not something that I usually very consciously think of but it’s something to embrace who you are. I feel like that is a hallmark of being queer in our society. Especially putting yourself out there visibly. Being in Baltimore encourages me because people are so active here. Acknowledging myself as queer and being part of that community is something that encourages me and really makes me feel like or stops me from questioning myself on a fundamental level that’s not productive.

Recently I did a blog post on the Lower Dens Tumblr about identifying myself as living within the trans community and about how gender fluidity, and whether or not I’d always been able to embrace it, had always been important to me. And I did that not because I want to acknowledge that about me so much as I want to be someone who younger people can look to because I had that when I was younger and it really was so fundamentally important to me that I did. I can understand and respect people who aren’t ready to embrace that but I think that if there’s even a the remotest place within yourself it might be possible to embrace that then to let other people know that they have a community out there for them you just have to kind of take the leap.


AE: Are you currently working on any other projects?

JH: I am kind of talking to a couple of friends about a future project that might happen whenever. It gives me a little bit of breathing room. But for the time being, Lower Dens has been my sole focus for a long time and continues to be. I’m really fortunate to have people interested in it and right now I feel like I just want to give that as much as I can.


AE: What’s next for you?

JH: The band convenes soon to work out our live arrangements and to practice. There’s a lot stuff on the horizon. But that’s the thing I’m most excited about. There are a couple of video projects that me and some other people are working on. I’m really excited about that, too. But the thing kind of closest to my heart is getting back together with this band of people that I love and playing with them. I can’t wait to do it.


AE: Tell us one thing we wouldn’t be able to find out through a deep net lurk.

JH: I look a lot like my mom. I might have put a picture of her up on the Lower Dens Instagram, but I might also have not. And I like that I look like her. I’m her doppelgänger in some ways.

For more on Lower Dens check out their website, Tumblr and Facebook.

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