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Jana Hunter of Lower Dens.

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Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter on Nootropics, Technology, and Imitating David Bowie

There are some musicians who thrive exclusively on what they feel, writing songs by following “vibes” and other groovy nonsense. Jana Hunter is not one of them. Which could explain why the Lower Dens front woman calls her second album Nootropics — it's the name for “smart drugs,” a.k.a. memory enhancers. She's pragmatic, focused on the facts, and says things like, “I’m more interested in process than outcome.” We spoke with Hunter ahead of today's release about that process, how man’s struggle with technology inspired the album, and why she’ll never stop trying to sound like David Bowie.

You grew up in Texas, now live in Baltimore, and wrote much of the new record while on the road. Does location inform your music?
I’ve always thought of Texas as being very open territory, especially because I grew up in a smaller town that empties at night. There’s literally a lot of empty space. Coming to the Northeast in general, but particularly Baltimore, I felt for the first time a sense of urgency in making things. It’s changed not only the level of dedication or the amount of time I put into music, but the process and the outcome have become, overall, more intense.

What was your perception of what was happening musically in Texas growing up?
When I was young, I had this understanding that most of Texas was blues-rock, and wanted to get away from it as fast as possible. After living in Houston for a while, I think of Texas as a good place for particular strains of psychedelic music and experimental music, even free jazz. I don’t think it will necessarily become widely known for that, but Houston was a really great place for me to be as a 19- and 20-year-old.

You started out working alone, writing and recording lo-fi in your bedroom. Is it a struggle to now work with a band?
I find the more that I acquiesce to there being other people — people who have just as much to say and can say it just as well — that it gets easier and the music that I play becomes more interesting. I’ve heard my own voice, so to speak, for so many years now that it’s just interesting to me to work with a lot of other people’s ideas and try to incorporate them. A lot of times I’m more interested in process than outcome, and this process is a lot more interesting than sitting alone in a room and trying to drag out the most confessional music I can.

What do you think is the secret to being a good “front man”?
I’m still trying to figure that out. As far as I can tell, the secret is to give the audience as much of yourself as possible. It seems to involve making an exaggeration of yourself, to kind of see how much you can pull your own puppet strings. But I’m not naturally given to theatricality, so it’s something I’m trying to figure out from an intellectual perspective. It doesn’t really work very well that way. Any success I have with it, I sort of stumble into.

You have the sort of deep voice you don’t hear every day. Are there any singers you try to emulate in some way?
When I was very young, I taught myself to sing by singing along to Ella Fitzgerald a lot. I don’t know if I took any particular cues from her, but I think that listening to her was a way to listen to my own voice and develop my own tendencies. Still to this day, I try to sound a little bit like David Bowie and always will. The tone of my voice is so incredibly different from his, so it’ll hopefully never show. But I spend so much time thinking about the magic of his voice and how I can pull some of those tricks myself. There’s so much that’s great out there to imitate that it’s difficult to find your own way. I think that I'm kind of lucky in that I have a nontraditional voice, and I have to force it to do things, so I won’t ever sound like anyone else. But it’s not because I’m a genius — it’s just because my voice is weird.

I’ve heard a few comparisons of your voice to [Beach House's] Victoria LeGrand. Do you ever hear that?
I have. I’ve been listening to their music since they first started making music and loving it since then; we’ve played a few shows with them, too. I’m in love with her voice, but it’s hard for me to see the comparisons because I just think her voice is just so much better than mine and will continue to do so much more than mine. So I find the comparisons flattering, but they must be coming from people who aren’t too familiar with either of our voices. [Laughs.]

I won’t make you analyze your own voice anymore, but I will ask you to analyze your new album. Compared to the first Lower Dens album, Twin Hand Movement, where does this one go?
I think it accomplishes more in terms of arrangement, because it is less intuitive because it is more intentional, if that makes sense. One of the ideas we were trying to translate was patience in crafting songs that have sort of a pop structure but take their time in developing that structure and allow the instrumentation to reveal itself. It’s more of an ensemble record than the first one, but they both have overarching thematic elements, though I think Nootropics is more thematic and more methodical. We went more in the direction of having this album be about something, and having that something not just inform the lyrics but also the entire musical aesthetic.

So what is that theme that the record is so consciously focused on?
There are a few ideas that I latched onto and became obsessed with while touring and writing this record. We have such a complicated relationship with technology at this point, and one of the elements of that relationship is that our ability to develop new technology is much further ahead than our ability to incorporate it. As a result, we incorporate technology through this consumer, capitalist filter. Rather than incorporate new technology in ways that best suit us or will make us happier creatures, they tend to make us more profitable, efficient creatures. That may not be the best way, and certainly won’t end up doing the most good for us in the end. The nervousness around technology, for me, comes from being very excited about new technology but having an underlying uncertainty that we’re going to screw up our incorporation of these technologies, or basically bite ourselves in the ass in the end.

One last question: Has anyone ever told you that Lower Dens makes a good soundtrack for getting high?
Yeah, definitely. My friend recently told me that he listened to Nootropics and it turned his stoned little brain into a raygun, which is a good thing, apparently. I don’t smoke myself, but I’m glad people like it for that.

Photo: Courtesy Jana Hunter