Jana Hunter finally decided to release the small anxieties so she may truly fill the stage.
Hunter, leader of Baltimore-based post-rock band Lower Dens, made a conscious effort to untangle her neck muscles and embrace a new definition of performer. This change is evident on the group’s third full-length, Escape From Evil, out on Ribbon Music. Her raw, bold candor investigates less savory human urges and insecurities through a thick fog of upbeat synth. Escape keeps a quicker pace than the past two records. It’s more warm, laid bare — and Hunter’s lyrics seep out glittering but neatly contained in a clear cadence.
“I feel a lot more comfortable with myself as a performer than I used to,” Hunter explains. “So I settled in to performing…That’s the ultimate test of your ability as a performer: being onstage and being able to connect with the music, but not be overly self-conscious or self-aware. To be uninhibited. I don’t think you’re really giving much to people if you’re just worried about how you look or you’re presenting.”
Despite being a self-described shy person, Hunter attributes much of this newfound comfort to the fairly simple concept of practice. After hundreds of shows with Lower Dens and dozens more solo, she says it seemed the next logical step. That didn’t mean it wasn’t difficult. “It just took me a really long time to be comfortable with it,” she says. “Also, a big part of music for me is figuring out how I relate to not just the people in my life, but how I relate to the world and humanity. It’s kind of like a somewhat pretentious, grander process.”
As a teen, Hunter says she clung to a pessimistic ethos. “Leaning towards apocalyptic, all of the time,” she says. “I don’t fault myself for this; it’s just who I was and what was important to me — a paranoia that justified living in the world we live in.” She carried this sort of jaded lens into adulthood, which spurred a grumbling dark purple cloud to grow and follow overhead. That cloud certainly inspired some excellent art, though. Lower Dens’ debut, Twin Hand Movement, shines — albeit self-consciously — like a cracked black calcite geode. Two years later, Nootropics saw a slight return to Hunter’s folksy roots, between bouts of snarl. Lower Dens have never been widely regarded as happy music, limiting their mental connection with palm trees to just the innuendo of their album titles and self-appointed, made-up genre categorization.
Escape From Evil is a game-changer. It proves Hunter and Co. can navigate more translucent, transcendent waters with their chests puffed. The single, “To Die in L.A.,” maintains the band’s surreality but brightens up the joint like a manic disco ball, the mirror tiles reflecting Hunter’s overflowing gratitude. Crisp snare cracks and layered gemstone vocals build an altar for her deliberate proclamation: “I’m just glad to be alive.” It’s less a provoked profession and more a compulsive, mandatory jubilee.
“It seems even more important to me now to cherish what I have and to cherish the people around me, cherish the opportunities I’m given — including being up in front of people, hopefully being able to bring people together and celebrate something,” she says. “Even something that simple is much more important to me than it used to be.”
Of course, the Dens didn’t exactly abandon any ounce of angst in favor of coating themselves in glossy, rose-colored spray paint. “Quo Vadis” piles on new-wave guitar riffs and begs, “It’s impossible what I want/I wanna be with you alone.” It hisses, “We don’t always always get what we want.” Then there’s “I Am the Earth,” which buckles deeply under bellowing thunder and Hunter, almost flippant: “You are a part of me/Just like so many other things/I’ll still be here spinning long after you’re gone.”
Hunter describes the songwriting process for Escape as a healing practice. Nobody is ever stoked to hold a mirror to themselves and take in the true image shining back, blemishes and all. But to her, funneling those feelings into musical form is one way to steady her trembling hand. “[Evil‘s songs] are honest,” she says. “They’re about not trusting people or being angry with your friends — friends who are being reckless — or letting somebody know that they can’t trust you in a relationship. As I got more into the [songwriting] process, they became more about just seeing those things in myself and trying to reconcile them, trying to remind myself not to judge myself for those things and not to judge other people for those things.”
She openly champions acceptance, a quest she continues to propel into media outside of music. In July, Hunter published a piece to the band’s Tumblr called “On Pride.” It unpacked a personal narrative about her sexual orientation and identity, specifically her rejection of binary genders. Her eloquent writing is brave and important, a fact that was not lost on the Tumblr community. The post blew up, and Hunter became more of a hero for those also annoyed by the limiting molds social norms perpetuate. Although this exact topic hasn’t really been covered in the Dens’ musical offerings, Hunter says the warm reception may pave the way for that to happen.
“I wanna be mindful of the fact that [with music] I do have a bit of a platform I wouldn’t have otherwise, no matter how small,” she says. “In the same way, the reason I wrote that — not because I care whether people know I identify as gender-fluid — I wanted to stand up as somebody who is getting mildly known, just in case there were kids out there who need that to look to. Not even just kids — whoever. Whoever’s out there that needs to be reminded that there are others like them going through the same thing. I would hope if I’m given other opportunities like that, if I have something that’s worth saying, I will say it.”
Lower Dens play March 31 at Baby’s All Right. The show is sold out but tickets are available on the secondary market.
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